Islamic State’s vaunted social media campaign left in tatters
At its peak, the Islamic State’s online propaganda machine was one of the group’s most potent weapons, a calling card that distinguished it from any other terrorist organization that the world had ever seen.
But U.S. military officials and extremism analysts say that once-vaunted media empire largely has crumbled as a result of the group’s rapid loss of most of its physical base in Iraq and Syria and an aggressive counterstrategy in cyberspace led by the U.S. and its allies. Its slick, signature online magazine, long cited as proof of Islamic State’s media sophistication, hasn’t put out an edition in more than a year.
Analysts are quick to stress that online terrorist recruiting efforts remain a problem and that popular platforms such as Facebook and YouTube need to do more to combat the messages, but the days of the Islamic State’s state-of-the-art propaganda and recruiting mission online seem to have ended.
Across the board, analysts say the organization, also known as ISIS, has lost much of its online presence, largely because its battlefield defeats at the hands of a U.S.-led coalition have crushed its ability to mount a coordinated Web-based strategy.
“We like to imagine [terrorist groups] are somehow ghostlike entities existing in cyberspace, but in fact they need a physical presence somewhere,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and chair in military history at Ohio State University who studies online extremism.
“They need electricity, food, water, a connection to the internet, and they need the ability to get guidance from their senior leaders, to collaborate with one another to create media campaigns,” Mr. Mansoor said. “This cannot all be done online from dispersed locations.”
The result: “Primarily, we’re looking at social media presence and web presence” having been noticeably diminished, he said.
Military officials say the Islamic State’s total media footprint has decreased by as much as 83 percent since its peak in 2014 and 2015 — the time of its first major battlefield successes. Its professional-quality monthly online magazine, Rumiyah, hasn’t been published in 14 months.
The publication and its earlier incarnations were released each month since the summer of 2014 and had become one of the organization’s most effective recruitment and marketing weapons.
Anecdotally, military officials and analysts say the number of tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos and other social media posts also have dropped, though the exact numbers remain murky.
The Pentagon remains highly secretive about its cybercampaign against the Islamic State, but officials say it has had a major impact.
“Their magazine, which was at one time monthly, hasn’t been out in a year. So we’ve had some success in the media space,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford said this month. “So, [as] much as we have worked over the last few years to deny them sanctuary in the physical space, we’ve done the same thing to deny them freedom of movement in cyberspace. … We’re not complacent. But we do believe that the trends are all in the right direction.”
Private analysts agree with Gen. Dunford’s assessment. They say that while much of the cyberstrategy remains under wraps, it is clear that the U.S. and its allies have effectively targeted accounts related to the Islamic State through hacking and promoting content that runs counter to the group’s violent message.
“It isn’t necessarily broadcast, but there’s a battle going on in cyberspace between ISIS and other terrorist organizations and the U.S. government and its allies,” Mr. Mansoor said. “It’s a holistic strategy that attacks the media apparatus at every node.”
But some analysts caution that the figures Gen. Dunford cited are relative and that the Islamic State’s online presence still must be taken seriously. In addition to the magazine, propaganda videos and the group’s periodic Amaq News Agency videos have decreased in number, though new content still regularly appears.
“ISIS’s official propaganda videos, which frequently contain executions, recruitment efforts and calls for the viewer to commit attacks, have declined in number since this time last year; however, ISIS still released 12 videos in September 2018,” said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a project research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project.
“Two official ISIS propaganda videos were just released” this week, he said.
Mr. Fisher-Birch said much of the terrorist group’s old content also remains available online. Multiple high-profile terrorist strikes around the globe have been carried out by those who were at least partly radicalized by online content.
“There is still a significant amount of ISIS propaganda out there, as well as ISIS online supporters who are sharing unofficial propaganda, urging violence and sharing ‘how to’ manuals on topics such as bomb-making information, poisons, and advice and tips on truck and knife attacks,” Mr. Fisher-Birch said. “ISIS and their unofficial support groups are still creating new material as well.”
Although the flagship magazine has disappeared, the Islamic State still releases a weekly online newspaper called Al Naba, the analyst said.
He stressed that leading social media companies still can do more to combat Islamic State propaganda, including more aggressive banning of IP addresses associated with extremist content and flagging and removing posts more quickly.
Bloomberg News reported this year that at least a dozen designated terrorist groups — including Hamas, Hezbollah and Boko Haram — still have a presence on Facebook. Some pages have thousands of followers.
Silicon Valley executives say they are making strides in removing extremist content by hiring more monitors to review posts and pages and perfecting artificial intelligence programs that flag terroristrelated posts before they can be seen.
“There is no place for terrorists or content that promotes terrorism on Facebook, and we remove it as soon as we become aware of it,” Facebook said in a statement to Bloomberg in May. “We know we can do more, and we’ve been making major investments.”
In just the first quarter of this year, Facebook said it removed or placed warning labels on nearly 2 million posts related to Islamic State, al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, Reuters reported.
YouTube also said it has taken aggressive steps to flag and remove extremist content, as have other leading social media platforms.
“These companies still have a long way to go,” Mr. Fisher-Birch said. “Social media like Facebook is still used by ISIS supporters to spread propaganda and connect, and many video streaming platforms are still important ISIS propaganda upload sites.”
The Islamic State used this media center in Raqqa, Syria, to screen propaganda videos. It was destroyed last summer when U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters drove the terrorist group out of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” capital in Syria.