Taking the ‘War on Terror’ to social media

By Garrett Speers, MSc Geopolitics and Security student and National Security and Resilience research intern, RUSI. 

In recent months the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) splinter group; Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have emerged as one of the most prominent and powerful terrorist organisations in the Middle-East declaring a caliphate under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIL currently operate across vast territories in Iraq and Syria with CIA estimates of 20,000 – 31,500 fighters, tripling its numbers since June due successful recruitment campaigns.

ISIS Map SEPT 10.14

Map showing ISIS/ISIL ‘Sanctuaries’

ISIL have not only been successful in conquering, or at least operating, across a territory the size of Britain, but have successfully been undertaking operations online via social media. ISIL have used social media in a multifaceted way to complement their ground offensive – creating a mobile phone app; high-resolution videos of battles, executions and speeches; Facebook and Twitter accounts in multiple languages to target global audiences. Whilst the use of social media by terrorist organisations is not unprecedented – remember the 2013 Westgate Mall attack by al-Shabaab – what is unprecedented is the level of coordination and adeptness of which ISIL possess. The successful use of social media has benefited their targeting of young digital savvy audiences across the world, bolstering the number of foreign fighters recruited into ISIL to account for up to 2,000 of their rank-and-file.

In what has been frequently termed the ‘first social media war’ the postings of inciteful messages  and videos by ISIL and its sympathisers have been aggressively targeted and removed by the US social media corporations which have been the medium of choice for ISIL to promote and distribute their messages to a global audience.


A snapshot from an ISIS recruitment film

The U.S. State Department have attempted to riposte the increase in the operations of ISIL in the cyber domain through a recent counter-factual video ‘Welcome to the “Islamic State” land ISIS/ISIL’ [Video does contain graphic scenes], launched to combat the success of the ISIL recruitment campaigns, especially amongst foreign nationals. The video has sought to turn ISIL’s own propaganda videos against itself, through depicting the barbaric acts of mosques being blown up; crucifying and executing muslims; and the throwing of a body off a cliff, as acts which are to be seen as “useful skills” to be learnt. This is part of the latest movement by the US State Department, via a project entitled ‘ThinkAgain TurnAway’, which has currently released eight such videos accruing 872, 642 views (albeit less graphic than ‘Welcome to the “Islamic State” land’ video),

The U.S. State department have been recently forced to counter its endeavours of ISIL on social media, despite the War on Terror having being waged for thirteen years. This has been due to ISIL operating highly distinctively from al-Qaeda, and embracing a more modern and visually appealing approach to their [social] media outputs. The Al-Qaeda core has traditionally favoured rather dour, long broadcasts by their leadership, rather than embracing conventional social media methodologies – with Amyan al-Zawahari, the head of al-Qaeda, announcing the spread of al-Qaeda into Indian sub-continent in a 55 minute video on September 3rd.

The power of social media has proved to be hugely successful in the work of disseminating radical propaganda to a global audience in order to circumvent the coordinated counter-terrorist operations, and to engage its potential members with events communicated in near real-time. However, as shown here, the U.S. State Dept, amongst others, have been working hard to develop official state counter-narratives, to battle the propaganda claims of ISIL, and its ability to influence and radicalise individuals remotely.


Garrett Speers


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