The migration from Internet chat forums to social media platforms came late to jihadists, but they’ve adapted skillfully. A strategy developed over years has evolved into a sophisticated campaign and now, at the center of the world’s attention, ISIS is using its skill to communicate directly to an American audience.
The filmed execution of James Foley was the first time most Americans saw ISIS address them but the group has been targeting Westerners for months.
“The first big turning point was Mosul,” said Emerson Brooking, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to ISIS’s capture of the city in early June. “ISIS put a lot of pre-planning into the social media arm of this offensive, and the effort paid off.” After Mosul, Brooking said, “You see a significant spike in English-language videos and images.”
If it could take Mosul, ISIS knew it would have the world’s attention and had planned what it wanted to say. The rehearsal for the global audience came earlier, in Syria’s civil war, where ISIS refined its approach to messaging online.
Starting in Iraq and later spreading to Syria after entering the war there in 2013, ISIS used social media to publicize its campaign of slaughter and threaten its enemies. The group’s military prowess was enhanced by its reputation for brutality, spread by its own media efforts, which weakened its enemies resistance and led some to flee from battle. On Twitter and in Facebook pages ISIS was making appeals as well as threats, attracting recruits and soliciting funding online.
This was actually an old tactic adopted to new technology. During the U.S. war in Iraq, when ISIS, in an earlier incarnation, was known as as al Qaeda in Iraq, the group learned “how to engage a U.S. audience and get at them,” according to Clint Watts a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The difference now is that ISIS no longer depends on intermediaries to broadcast its barbarism. In this new environment, the group’s media arm can upload its propaganda and see it spread globally in a matter of minutes or hours.
Another tactic ISIS developed was tweeting pictures of administrative services in the areas under its control that were meant to show its ability to govern. The images of ISIS in Syria that circulated in the West documented the group’s brutality. But to a local audience it was showing both piles of corpses and its fighters passing out candy – saying effectively, that, while it turned the rest of the world into a graveyard, for the faithful life would be sweet.
Then, on June 10, after ISIS captured Mosul, its messages pivoted towards the West. The majority of the group’s posts were still in Arabic but English tweets and translated videos surged as ISIS targeted a Western audience. One meme clearly aimed to recruit young Westerners was the image of two ISIS fighters posing over a caption comparing jihad to the video game Call of Duty.
“The big difference now is that [ISIS] has its own English speakers,” said Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London. “And they have their own media now where they can put this right out on Twitter and everybody can immediately see it and spread it online.”
That has meant relying on a combination of sophisticated marketing and "social-media strategies that inflate and control its message.” Those stratgegies having increasingly been aimed squarely at a Western audience. During the World Cup ISIS used a hashtag, #WorldCup2014, exploiting the massive soccer audience’s attention to flood the Internet with its propaganda.
On Aug. 7, after President Obama authorized airstrikes in Iraq, ISIS responded with a hashtag campaign. The hashtag, #AMessageFromISIStoUS, threatening Americans with retribution for the airstrikes, was one sign that “ISIS has moved to a policy of direct and aggressive engagement via social media,” said Brooking of the Council on Foreign Relations.
More “aggressive engagement” followed. Some of it was meant to invoke the specter of ISIS as an omnipresent force, like the tweet of an ISIS flag in front of the White House. Another ISIS meme showing fighters posing with Nutella, the chocolate spread popular in Europe, was a different sort of engagement, meant to lure Westerners to the fight in Syria and Iraq.