Is­lamic State’s vaunted so­cial me­dia cam­paign left in tat­ters

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

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.”

Cy­berspace bat­tle

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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