Twit­ter, YouTube anal­y­sis pin­points IS strat­egy


Tweets and YouTube videos by fight­ers from the Is­lamic State group have al­lowed an­a­lysts to pin­point their move­ments in Iraq and Syria, high­light­ing the group’s in­creas­ing push to­wards gov­ern­ment strongholds.

The data com­piled by UK-based an­a­lysts from IHS Con­flict Mon­i­tor, and shared ex­clu­sively with AFP, shows how the Is­lamic State (IS) group is prob­ing be­yond the ter­ri­tory it cur­rently holds and push­ing the bulk of its forces to­wards Damascus and Bagh­dad.

IHS ranks the most re­li­able Twit­ter and YouTube ac­counts from known IS mil­i­tants, as well as op­po­si­tion ac­tivists and gov­ern­ment sources, us­ing the geo-lo­ca­tion data from around 4,000 en­tries a month to map at­tacks rang­ing from as­sas­si­na­tions to largescale bomb at­tacks.

“The Is­lamic State is shift­ing its at­ten­tion to the weak­ened Syr­ian gov­ern­ment at the ex­pense of los­ing ter­ri­tory to the Kurds in north­ern Syria,” said Fi­ras Abi-Ali, head of Mid­dle East anal­y­sis for IHS.

“We see the group’s op­er­a­tional reach goes far be­yond the ter­ri­tory it con­trols,” he added. “This is a con­tin­u­ally ex­pand­ing pro­ject, there is no limit to where they would stop.”

The IHS data from March to May showed IS was mak­ing a tac­ti­cal de­ci­sion not to launch of­fen­sives against Kur­dish forces on the north­ern front, which could leave its forces vul­ner­a­ble to air strikes.

“Nei­ther the Kurds nor the Is­lamic State ap­pear in­ter­ested in chang­ing that front line,” said Richard Jack­son, deputy head of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence fore­cast­ing at IHS.

“That frees up IS fight­ers to push to­wards the cap­i­tals.”

The ex­cep­tion has been a key bor­der cross­ing into Tur­key, Tal Abyad, which the Kurds re­cap­tured from IS this week.

Tal Abyad was the main en­try point for IS to bring in for­eign fight­ers, weapons and sup­plies — forc­ing the group to throw men and re­sources at try­ing to de­fend it.

But Jack­son said that would be an ex­cep­tion, with IS forces con­tin­u­ing to press to­wards Syr­ian and Iraqi gov­ern­ment strongholds.

“They’re not strong enough to take Damascus be­cause the strong Sunni threat in that re­gion is (al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate) Jab­hat Al-Nusra and Jaish AlIs­lam, but they will push to­wards the Damascus-Homs road,” cut­ting off the Syr­ian regime of Bashar al-As­sad from his Alaw­ite com­mu­nity’s coastal strong­hold of Latakia.

“Damascus is im­por­tant, but Latakia is their home,” said Jack­son. “That fright­ens As­sad sup­port­ers.”

‘Di­vide and con­quer’

Abi-Ali said the team be­gan the map­ping pro­ject and rank­ing the re­li­a­bil­ity of sources in Jan­uary 2014 to try to sift through the lies from all sides in the war.

“What we’ve seen in the Syr­ian con­flict is groups over-re­port­ing their ac­tiv­ity to gain cred­i­bil­ity. There were a lot of un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims that one side or another was win­ning,” he said.

Given the speed of their move­ment, IS fight­ers have made lit­tle ef­fort to dis­guise their lo­ca­tions on so­cial media.

“They rely heav­ily on their mo­bil­ity, they move be­tween bat­tle fronts quite quickly and ef­fec­tively, so they are less wor­ried about giv­ing away their lo­ca­tion,” said Abi-Ali.

In Iraq, weak se­cu­rity forces and an in­ef­fec­tual gov­ern­ment mean IS is still able to make of­fen­sive gains de­spite a mas­sive in­ter­na­tional ef­fort in­volv­ing thou­sands of air strikes, de­liv­er­ies of weapons and other equip­ment and train­ing for Iraqi forces.

The IHS data shows IS push­ing into the cap­i­tal, with 70 im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice (IED) at­tacks in Bagh­dad be­tween Fe­bru­ary and April, as well as three sui­cide bomb­ings.

“This is about un­der­min­ing the en­emy’s will to fight,” said Abi-Ali. “In their grander as­pi­ra­tions, it’s about in­flict­ing enough ca­su­al­ties that you bring down the gov­ern­ment or spark an ex­o­dus of the en­emy pop­u­la­tion.”

Some IS op­er­a­tives were mem­bers of the feared in­tel­li­gence ser­vices un­der the regime of for­mer Iraqi leader Sad­dam Hus­sein, and the group has been able to in­fil­trate towns, vil­lages and tribes to lay the ground for takeovers.

“They have re­ally well-struc­tured sleeper cells,” said Jack­son. “The beards come off. They speak against the Is­lamic State to see who dis­agrees. It’s di­vide and con­quer.”

In the long-term, IS bru­tal­ity and its to­tal­i­tar­ian ap­proach could pro­vide an open­ing for other mil­i­tant groups, in­clud­ing al-Qaida, which has been dis­placed by IS as the most ac­tive and feared ji­hadist or­gan­i­sa­tion.

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