Tweets and online videos are emerging as weapons of war in the Islamic State’s campaign to seize a swath of Iraq, with the al-Qaeda offshoot’s use of social media dwarfing efforts by other militant groups.
Over the weekend, websites previously used by the Islamic State featured a video purporting to show its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon in the captured city of Mosul. Two weeks ago, an audio recording posted online proclaimed a caliphate across the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria.
While such official pronouncements remain rare, supporters and sympathizers of the Islamic State have opened an online offensive making use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. To intimidate their enemies in Iraq and beyond, the group’s backers have posted videos including the beheading of a man identified as a Sunni police officer.
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“This is our ball,” said a tweet accompanying a photo of the decapitated head. “It’s made of skin #WorldCup.” The World Cup hashtag ensured it would pop up on news feeds of the tournament’s followers until Twitter Inc. (TWTR:US) could take down the posting.
The volume and timeliness of pro-Islamic State postings far exceeds those of other terrorists, such as the core al-Qaeda organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Shadi Hamid, author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”
“For a terrorist group, you do hear a lot about them on Twitter,” Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview. “They document their attacks, their military victories on the ground, going into considerable detail.”
While al-Qaeda produced an English-language magazine called “Inspire” and occasionally delivers audio messages from its leader, “there’s definitely a gap in effectiveness,” Hamid said. “I don’t think that al-Qaeda Central can really claim that level of success.”
The online audience for the Islamic State and its boosters is difficult to measure, partly because social-media companies such as Twitter, Google Inc. (GOOG:US)’s YouTube and Facebook Inc. (FB:US) regularly delete communications by terrorist groups under their rules of service that prohibit threats of violence. Nor is it possible to confirm any particular posting originated with the Islamic State itself.
Even so, “it’s an impressive operation all around,” said Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College in Stockholm.
“They are keeping records, making slick video productions,” he said. “And it’s all open. Anyone can get in touch, communicate.”
Islamic State supporters showed their online sophistication by developing an Arabic-language Twitter application for Android phones that could be downloaded through the Google Play store. Those with the app received tweets posted to their Twitter accounts, including links, hashtags and images, according to a report by J.M. Berger, an independent researcher on extremists’ use of social media who edits a website called Intelwire.
The militants also depict a softer side as they seek to recruit new members and woo the Muslims they aspire to govern in Iraq and Syria.
One site that expresses sympathy for the militants counts on the “awww” appeal of kittens, a ubiquitous user magnet on the Internet. It has photos of the animals being petted, fed and posed next to machine guns.
“Most important thing to put in your ammunition vest and bring to battle is a kitten,” someone using the name Abu Hamza tweeted with a kitten photo posted on the Twitter feed, called Islamic State of Cat.
It also has postings of smiling children, pet birds and German pancakes. A photo posted elsewhere online purports to show a militant in Syria posing in a grocery store with a jar of Nutella, the hazelnut-chocolate spread popular in Europe.
“Part of it is a charm offensive, people trying to normalize” the Islamic State “and make it acceptable to the audience in the West,” said Joseph Carter, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, based at Kingâs College London. “The cat stuff has been going on for a long time, since some of the early tweeters, and part of it is because the Prophet really liked cats.”
The online journal “War On the Rocks” tracked what it called a “Twitter storm” last month over a feed labeled #AllEyesOnISIS, an English counterpart to an Arabic feed that it said was created to demonstrate global grassroots support for the militant group.
The analysis showed 31,500 tweets in the 24 hours studied, with the top 50 tweeters accounting for almost 20 percent of the volume, averaging 126 postings per person.
“This shows that a small number of enthusiastic and deeply invested activists shouldered the burden for one-fifth of the campaign’s overall output,” the report found.
One video purportedly showing the capture of the city of Fallujah by the Islamic State has been viewed more than 100,000 times, according to YouTube. Another video, in which a militant gives a tour of land the group seized that supposedly erased the border between Syria and Iraq, has more than 77,000 views.
The online material has served as a valuable intelligence tool for the U.S., which mines social media for insight into the Islamic State’s ground operations and motivations, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
Even so, many of the online postings can be difficult to verify and are sometimes manipulated to deceive.
In a Twitter post that went viral last month, the militants or their supporters mocked the White House’s hashtag diplomacy waged on behalf of Nigeria’s abducted school girls. They posted a doctored picture of first lady Michelle Obama holding a sign that originally said “#Bring Back Our Girls” that was altered to say “#BringBack Our Humvee,” a reference to American-made vehicles the militants claimed they’d seized.
“When it comes to assessing authenticity, it can be really difficult,” Carter said in an interview. “We have thought someone was a foreign fighter and it turns out they weren’t, and vice versa.” He added that “quite a lot is authentic.”
Islamic State was previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and is also referred to sometimes as ISIS.
Hamid, the Brookings analyst, said the increasing reliance on social media has put a new face on terrorism.
“This is what Islamist extremism looks like today, and it’s different from what we were seeing in the mid-2000’s,” he said.
“Certainly their ideology is primitive in some respects, but they’ve also been successful,” Hamid said. “In that sense, they’re a very modern kind of group. They’re adaptable.”
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