From glorified lifestyle posts to in-house crisis comms teams, ISIS has run its social media strategy like the slickest of corporate multinationals.
By Elliot Wilson,
When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) first exploded onto the world stage, it took the West utterly by surprise.
Terror movements come in all shapes and sizes – the US State Department counts 64 active groups – but most are local outfits with defined grievances. Few become household names that trip off the tongues of fretful political and military chiefs.
ISIS is one of the powerful few. Although its roots stretch back 20 years, it wasn’t until 2014 that its modern iteration emerged. Proclaiming itself a “worldwide caliphate”, it expanded with unnerving speed.
Within 12 months, its followers controlled vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. If Western leaders were unnerved by the self-sufficiency of a group that swiftly annexed dams and oilfields, they were thoroughly rattled by ISIS’s wider appeal. The terror group’s narrative seemed to arrive fully formed and tailored to the digital age. From the outset, ISIS exploited a dizzying range of online platforms, from the usual suspects, such as Twitter and Facebook, to peer-to-peer messaging apps, like Telegram and Surespot, to content-sharing services such as JustPaste.it.
ISIS has treated social media as a tool to target and connect with its ‘customers’, relaying a carefully honed message, much as, say, Coca-Cola, Samsung or Mercedes-Benz might do.
“Islamic State’s public relations model was and is the same one you would find at any big and successful multinational company,” notes Ella Minty, a CIPR board member with 20 years’ experience of handling crisis and risk-management projects.
True, ISIS’s underlying message differs from those broadcast by corporates listed in the likes of London and New York. Unlike your standard blue-chip behemoth, which typically seeks to present a single, consistent image to consumers, investors and regulators, ISIS has had a split online identity from the start.
Two voices have emanated from one ideology, aimed at distinct audiences. “ISIS has one tone for its followers and sympathisers, and a second that speaks to Western citizens and governments,” says Minty. “The first is moderate and amenable, even amusing”, acting as a clear come-on to would-be travellers, beseeching them to come and live in a truly ‘Islamic’ state, free from local dictators and Western laws and norms. This part of the message was, in its way, a stroke of genius on the part of the group’s leader and totem, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The second voice, Minty adds, usually “constitutes dark one-liners that focus on Westerners being wiped off the face of the Earth”. This is the Islamic State that the West knows and fears, the one that encourages those disillusioned by life in the suburbs of London and Paris to take up arms against the country in which they were born, yet to which they feel no sense of devotion or belonging.
Both messages worked, at least at first. Around 30,000 Muslim men and women had streamed into Iraq and Syria by 2015, many from western European cities, ostensibly to fight for the cause.
And about 1,500 people were killed in 2016 and 2017 in attacks carried out by individuals radicalised by ISIS in countries as far apart as Canada, Sweden, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
That it took Western leaders and intelligence agencies so long to catch on to ISIS’s strategy, and to formulate a coherent response, shows how unprepared they were. At first, most broadcasters and newspapers focused, quite understandably, on the group’s ghastly psychopaths – a case in point being UK-born ‘Jihadi John’, who achieved global infamy after being filmed beheading a number of captives.
That was a mistake. “While the media focused on guys in black ninja suits and beheadings, it was ISIS’s other videos that were proving more effective at radicalisation,” says Jonathan Birdwell, head of policy and research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London thinktank that specialises in pioneering responses to violent extremism.
“These talked of the caliphate’s sense of brotherhood, its physical location and its strong historical links to a glorified past. Those messages resonated.”
In 2016 alone, ISIS tweeted, streamed and posted 360,000 times on social media, according to data provided by the UN Security Council. Only a fraction of its online output depicted sadistic events or encouraged others to kill on its behalf. It was far more common that year to read about descriptions of public projects carried out by foot soldiers or solid examples of economic development, all of which bled into a core narrative: that ISIS was, first, growing and, second, here to stay.
ISIS was also clear-minded enough to plan ahead. From its earliest days, it posted messages on social media in English, Arabic and Bengali. In 2015, it opened a Russian-language agency, Furat Media, which connected to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr accounts.
That move underlined the importance of Central Asian states to the ISIS cause (many of the group’s hardcore Uzbek and Chechen mercenaries cut their teeth in the 1980s fighting with Afghani mujahideen against Soviet soldiers) but also served to highlight the origins of ISIS’s social media team.
Every expert consulted for this story, including members of Britain’s intelligence services, pointed to the presence within ISIS of one or more individuals who cut their teeth at leading London PR agencies, and others who worked in Paris and Moscow.
“They hired some pretty savvy communications people from the West,” says one senior UK intelligence officer. Actual names are hard to pin down, he says, but these are “people who really ‘get’ social media”.
ISIS’s striking ability to use online tools to hone and finesse its brand and narrative beg the question: could it exist without Twitter and Facebook? Would it be half the terror group it was at its zenith (from mid-2015 to early 2017) without the ability to disseminate its message far and wide, at the mere tap of a touchscreen?
“There’s no doubt that ISIS’s rise coincided with the explosion of social media,” notes Birdwell. In this sense, he adds, it was in the “right place at the right time”.
But it’s a mistake, notes Simon Haselock, co-founder and director of London-based Albany Associates, which claims to provide comms advice to “parts of the world others simply cannot reach”, to assume that ISIS was a trailblazer in this field. “They are an evolution of jihadist terror,” he says. “The realisation that the media was a critical and powerful tool in disseminating a message to the world – that was understood way back by Al-Qaeda when it was fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” One thinks here of a landmark 1997 interview conducted by CNN journalist Peter Arnett with Osama bin Laden, one of Al-Qaeda’s founders – the first time the terror group was properly introduced to a Western audience.
But it is clear that ISIS was more than willing to heed the lessons of others, and to learn from their successes and mistakes. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a deceased Jordanian national who could be deemed the founder of ISIS, saw in the mid-2000s the power of uploading grainy videos of his atrocities to the internet.
As ISIS’s coffers and ranks swelled after 2014, notes Birdwell, it further honed its ability to target and radicalise disillusioned people. “They would put out content – say, a post on Facebook that talked about an ISIS-inspired attack – and see who responded. They would pull that person into a private messaging app where they could do the grooming required to convince them to carry out an attack on foreign soil.”
Communications experts point to the group’s ability to think flexibly and to work around problems, acting as its own crisis-management team. (In this sense, it probably has the edge over the average multinational, which usually hires in know-how.) Perhaps the best example of this was its decision to decentralise its media operations, keeping feeds and posts updated from autonomous units based across the world, from the Caucasus to western Africa.
However, strategic mistakes have been made. Mohammad Amin Mudaqiq was a director at Islamabad-based Radio Mashaal. He says that, while ISIS is active in small enclaves of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is “weaker on social media than almost every terror group in both countries, and that includes tiny secessionist movements in [the Pakistani province of] Balochistan”.
The reason is very simple. “Islamic State doesn’t use the local language as a tool,” says Mudaqiq. “Instead of posting videos and messages in Pashto, they use English or Arabic. That is always going to limit their appeal in tribal areas.” This is a myopic failure for an organisation in a corner of the world that teems with financially deprived young people, whom ISIS is usually so keen to bring into the fold.
SOCIAL MEDIA CENSORSHIP
There is little doubt that the group described by Chatham House as recently as July 2016 as “unstoppable” is now on the ropes. A once “professional, capable, well-oiled machine” has been reduced to “three guys in a truck”, says Charlie Winter, an expert in terrorist propaganda at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.
So, with ISIS on the way out, what will the West and its allies do to prevent a phoenix arising from the ashes? And what, if anything, should be done to get technology firms to ban extremist content from their platforms? After all, in recent years, notes Albany Associates’ Haselock, there has been “growing recognition that some sort of regulation is needed”.
And this is where it gets tricky.
Excising all extremist content posted on social media platforms is all but impossible. Besides, notes Birdwell, if you kick everyone inclined to radicalise, or be radicalised, off mainstream social media, “they will go underground to niche platforms where you cannot find them, and where their views will harden”.
For their part, the technology giants are painfully aware of the pressure they are under to clamp down on extremist content. In December 2016, the UN Security Council called on leading social media firms to do more to hinder terrorists’ ability to operate online.
Some firms were already thinking ahead. Google’s internal think tank, Jigsaw, is tasked with mitigating the unsavoury consequences of technological progress, and has fast become a vital analysis tool for Western counterterrorism agencies. Facebook reckons artificial intelligence helps it to identify and expunge 99% of the material posted on its platform by ISIS and its followers.
In an industry dominated by the profit motive, none of the big players wants to wind up on the wrong side of public or legal opinion. But, in terms of the latter, the horse may already have bolted.
This February, an American survivor of the 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, filed a federal lawsuit in the US that accused Twitter, Google and Facebook of knowingly providing “support and resources” to ISIS.
The lawsuit includes comments by James Comey, in which the former FBI director described Twitter as “a way to crowdsource terrorism – to sell murder”. Keith Altman, lead counsel at Michigan-based Excolo Law, which is leading the suit, told Influence: “I don’t expect these companies to take down every posting. I’m not a zealot. But, without social media, Islamic State would be 50 guys in a desert jumping up and down and shouting. Social media has allowed them to become what they are today.”
TALKING: THE ANSWER
But perhaps a far more effective way of combating extremism and terrorism is a form of communication as old as the human race: talking. After every noteworthy terror event – an example being the 2012 Taliban attack on then 15-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai – Mudaqiq at Radio Mashaal invited a moderate mullah onto the air to discuss the softer, moderate side of Islam and the Koran. Clips were then streamed on Facebook.
At the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Birdwell is finalising an exhaustive research project that pinpoints a small number of Western citizens on both sides of the ideological divide (would-be terrorists on one side, and far-right anti-immigration activists on the other) and finds ways to reason with them. “These are real attempts to reach out and shift views on both sides of the spectrum. A surprising number of people are willing to engage,” he says.
For Haselock, the challenge for the West is to relay its own message of hope and change. He should know: Haselock spent 23 years in the Royal Marines and was at the Dayton Accords in 1995, which brought the four-year Bosnian War to an end.
“We need coherence in our core narrative,” he says. “People talk about ‘counter-narratives’ when combating terror groups, and that is a mistake. The Islamic State sees social media as vital to winning hearts and minds, and there has to be a broad rethink on our part as to how we create and use content too. We don’t come across as legitimate in the eyes of antagonists in the region when we speak about values, and we need to regain that high ground. The West needs to be able to stand up again and talk clearly about what it represents. That is the way forward.”
Elliot Wilson is an investigative journalist and business editor
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A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2018.