INSTAGRAMMING THE CALIPHATE
Many social-media accounts exist to highlight the lighter side of life in ISIS, trying to build its online image. The most bizarre might be “Cats of Jihad,” which gave ISIS fighters a chance to pose their cats with their guns.
Rather than a centralized master plan or single person in charge, the Islamic State’s social media campaign is networked, reflecting the networked nature of the space. The core of ISIS is seasoned veterans of the Iraqi insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion. Well versed in the power of the media, they have been joined by a new generation of Millennial recruits. The average age of foreign fighters who traveled to join ISIS is 24, meaning tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are what they’ve grown up with. In the context of global jihad, this is a dangerous combination.
Early on, ISIS became known for its slickly produced videos of foreign-hostage executions. Unlike other jihadist videos, thesetypically include a script, multiple high-definition camera angles, and even a graphical introduction to set the stage.
ISIS regularly records the executions of large groups of local prisoners in order to intimidate and demoralize the opposing units on the battlefield. The videos are also engineered to go viral: with unusual killings such as immolation, drowning, and even explosive collars, all set to a thundering male chorus.
Using careful planning and an army of Twitter bots, ISIS militants hijack unrelated hashtags to amplify their message and reach wider audiences. The group shouldered into online celebrations of the 2014 World Cup with an image of a decapitated head. The caption? “This is our football, it’s made of skin #WorldCup.”
CIVIC FORUM BOARDS
Writing on encrypted forum boards, ISIS militants discuss and plan many aspects of civic administration and operations.
In ISIS-controlled territory, day-to-day conversation hasmoved to services like Skype, Silent Circle, Telegram, and WhatsApp. Secure battlefield communications are sometimes carried out over encrypted messaging platforms like Kik.
ISIS fighters have flown small Web-linked drones above the battlefield, gathering real-time footage for valuable reconnaissance, as well as video for social-media propaganda.
Using a captured Western television journalist, ISIS staged a series of “investigative” reports. Geared toward potential Western recruits, the videos were in English and have tried to portray the attractiveness of life in the Islamic State.
Like any business or government, the Islamic State churns out a feed of regular announcements via social media that gives appearance of normality: In one, it announced the grand opening of a children’s hospital.
Dabiq is a monthly English-language online publication that has higher production values than many Western magazines. It discusses issues of politics, faith, jihad, and bomb-making. The mastermind of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks was even featured in an earlier softball interview, asking how he could sneak through Europe as a known jihadist.
ISIS militants cultivate vulnerable recruits with sympathetic messages, and engage them via secure messaging services.Recruiters will occasionally ship gifts to the targets—and sometimes, even an airline ticket. If the recruit cannot travel, they are encouraged to launch terror attacks at home.
Holding sessions for potential applicants on Last.fm and other such question-and-answer discussion boards, ISIS fighters frankly discuss the ups and downs of their jobs.