We have come a long way from rotary phones, the radio, newspapers and television. These forms of media are rapidly going the way of the typewriter, printing press, and stone tablets. All of these tools and more are now available on a device that fits in the palm of your hand; the smartphone. No more large paper maps, asking for directions, switching channels on the TV or thumbing through a telephone book thicker than a bible. Being a part of generation X, I remember those days and I haven’t used a television in over 5 years. I no longer own one. I find it boring to listen to traditional radio and impractical to read newspapers. Instead I get all of my news, music and other entertainment instantly from a far larger pool of sources. I download my novels and read them on my smart phone. I can pin point my location on earth within a meter and view my surroundings on up-to-date satellite imagery. People now communicate instantly on a global scale using video and camera technology in a hand held device via social networks online. You can access the internet via a handheld device from the most developed and modern of cities, to undeveloped country sides, Mexican ghettos, and even in the mountainous tribal areas of Afghanistan. The Millennial generation (those born from the early 1980s through the early 2000s) and subsequent generations have been raised in a world from birth with this technology growing at an exponential rate. Over the past five years this younger generation has learned to harness this new communication medium to alter the forces of politics, dissolve geopolitical boundaries, and even organize and wage war in an unprecedented fashion. The Islamic State or ISIS is a perfect example. As the best funded terrorist organization in history, ISIS has mastered the use of New Media to spread its message and conquer territory at an unprecedented rate.
The Arab Spring
Prior to the formation of the Islamic State or ISIS, the Arab Spring made an unprecedented impact on the world with their use of social media networking. The spring of 2011 paved the way for ISIS to utilize the quickest most efficient way of spreading a message. Amid the ever widening gap between the worlds rich and poor, disenfranchised youth tired of oppressive ruling elites used social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to organize a series of protests and civil disobedience that rocked the Arab world. This movement is now referred to as the Arab Spring. “By December 2013, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Libya, and Yemen; civil uprisings had erupted in Bahrain and Syria; major protests had broken out in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Israel, and Sudan, and minor protests had occurred in Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Western Sahara, and Palestine. Weapons and Tuareg fighters returning from the Libyan Civil War stoked a simmering conflict in Mali which has been described as “fallout” from the Arab Spring in North Africa.” (Wikipedia) A violent civil war resulting from the Arab Spring still rages in Syria. ISIS took advantage of this power vacuum to grow into the organization that it is today.
Groups of Sunnis, once the ruling class of Iraq and now largely marginalized after the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation, formed various rebel groups. One, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, was an offshoot of the global terrorist network Al Qaeda. After splitting from Al Qaeda due to ideological differences in early 2014, the group renamed itself ISIS and poured into Syria taking advantage of the anarchy in the ongoing civil war. ISIS battled both the Syrian regime as well as other Syrian rebel factions that do not share their extremist fundamental view of Islam. ISIS rapidly became the most formidable rebel faction in the Syrian civil war. One of their most successful tools has been the adept use of social media.
Creating a Muslim Caliphate or state governed by strict Sharia law that encompasses the entire Muslim world as well as death to all “infidels” are ISIS’s main objectives. With its ranks full of adept smartphone wielding millennial’s ISIS has been able to create sophisticated and effective media arm. ISIS uses the internet and social media to spread its message, sow terror among the enemy, garner financial support, and global recruitment of young sympathetic Muslims. ISIS specifically targets the younger generations, those who are often searching for meaning during the formative early adult years. Their media campaign entices these young adults through stories of conflict, glorification, the spoils of war, and the promise of an Islamic Utopian homeland that they will build together.
ISIS is infamous for horrific brutality in the Syrian civil war. They use mass executions, be-headings, sexual slavery, and crucifixions to subdue conquered communities. The young jihadists openly boast on Facebook and post photos and videos of these exploits on Twitter and YouTube for the world to see. After seizing a huge swath of eastern Syria and setting up a home base in the city of Raqqah, ISIS moved into Iraq Blitzkrieg style in June 2014. The upper echelons of a most likely less tech savvy Iraqi government had adequate warning of the threat posed by ISIS yet remained skeptical. However, as village after village fell under the rapid advance, heralded with gruesome internet photos, videos and tweets of mass executions and ethnic cleansing, substantial resistance seemed to melt away as did much of the Iraqi Army. By the end of July 2014 ISIS pillaged millions of dollars of U.S. military hardware left to the Iraqi Army and controlled an area that encompassed a good portion of Syria and western Iraq. It was at this time that ISIS declared themselves an Islamic state.
ISLAMIC STATE CONTROLLED TERRITORY AS OF OCTOBER 2014.
“One of ISIS’s more successful media ventures is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn.“ “The app first went into wide use in April 2014, but its posting activity ramped up during the group’s June 2014 offensive, reaching an all-time high of almost 40,000 tweets in one day as ISIS marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.” (Berger) The app was developed as a way to amplify pro ISIS tweets on twitter while simultaneously avoiding Twitters anti-spam algorithms. Twitter has tried unsuccessfully to shut down ISIS accounts but as one goes down another is immediately created. Similar to the tactics of Genghis Kahn, ISIS has been able to use its tales of ferocity to march on many towns and provinces with little resistance. Unlike the word of mouth news in the Genghis Kahn era, people were able to actually see these horrific acts almost as they happened on YouTube and Twitter giving them fair warning of what would happen if ISIS’s rule is defied.
Not only has ISIS used social and internet media to intimidate its opposition but also to spread its extremist view of Islam and attract young recruits. In 2014 ISIS established the al-Hayat Media Center which publishes material in German, French, Russian and English. It created an online magazine called Dabiq which focuses on legitimizing its world view and encouraging Muslims to move to the Islamic state. It is estimated that approximately 100 Americans and over 2000 Europeans fill the ranks of fighters with thousands more from Turkey, Chechnya, and Tunisia. In November 2014 it was estimated that ISIS may have up to 200,000 soldiers. This rate of recruitment would not have been possible in the pre-internet world and it indicates that some young media savvy males are taking ISIS’s message to heart.
Young ISIS Jihadis often turn to Facebook and other social media platforms to encourage young Muslim females to join their ranks as wives. Instructional videos haven been found enticing and giving instructions to young women on how to make their way to Syria. This has been met with some success as recently publicized stories can attest. In the summer of 2014 three American teenage girls that ran away from Colorado were intercepted in Germany in route to Syria to join up with ISIS. This is just one of many recent examples of teen girls running away to join ISIS. The Islamic State has reportedly opened a “marriage bureau” in the northern Syrian town of Al Bab for women who want to wed jihadist fighters in territory they control.” (Dettmer) In Raqqah there is an all-female police force made up mostly of foreigners whose job it is to enforce strict sharia principals such as dress code on the local female populace.
ISIS successful media campaign has taken the world and governments by surprise and ISIS was able to commit genocide, engaging in ethnic cleansing, and conquer a large amount of territory in a short time in part due to its media strategy. As with much subject matter in the digital age it takes a bit for governments to play catch up. By August 2014 the U.S. had put together a coalition of countries and started an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS aimed at slowing them down and protecting “American interests”. In this instance the widespread use of social media has come back to bite ISIS a bit. In the fall of 2014 a new online behavior manual was passed down from ISIS leadership. It eludes to the fact that ISIS militant postings have aided intelligence agencies in a way that enhances the aerial campaign against the group. The following is an excerpt from the manual: “A number of security gaps have appeared that have benefited the enemy and have helped expose the identities of some brothers or identify some sites used by the mujahideen with ease,” the manual begins. The information revealed in digital communication, it explains, is the kind of “data that could turn your hair gray.” (Dale)
ISIS is reported to generate around three million dollars a day in revenue from illegal oil sales, kidnappings, taxes, extortions and donations. They are estimated to have more than 2 billion dollars in assets. Even the U.S. President Obama has stated that they are the best funded terrorist group in history. ISIS owes a large part of this success to its strong media campaign. The opposing powers are figuring out how to use social media as intelligence to target the group militarily. Due to our new technologies the world is truly getting smaller. The dividing lines between traditional communities, nationalities, and cultures are blurring into obscurity. It would be a far more utopian planet if the people of the earth or the citizens of Facebook said “enough!” and formed a social media campaign that encouraged freedom, equality, and love that would bring an end to the violence, hatred, and oppression that seems to have always flowed from strict religious fundamentalism.
Sources and Links
“Arab Spring.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation. Inc. 26, Nov. 2014.
Perez, Brown, and Ellis, “Officials: U.S. wants to know how ISIS recruited 3 Denver teens.” CNN.
Web. 13, Nov. 2014.
Kumar, Kalyan. “Kobani ISIS Fighter Sends Out Desperate Message For Prayers And Support: Euphoria Turns Into Desperation As Kurds Advance.” International Business times. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Dettmer, Jamie. “The ISIS Online Campaign Luring Western Girls to jihad.” The Daily Beast. Web. 6, Aug. 2014.
Sends Out Desperate Message For Prayers And Support: Euphoria Turns Into Desperation As Kurds Advance.” International Business times. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Mosendz, Polly. “ISIS Shifts Its Social-Media Patterns.” The Atlantic. Web. 27, Oct. 2014.
Berger, J.M. “How ISIS Games Twitter” The Atlantic. Web. 16, June 2014.
Scott,Simon. Interview with Clint Watts. “ISIS Runs a Dark Media Campaign on Social Media.” NPR. 6, sept. 2014. Audio.
Melchoir, Jillian. “ISIS Tactics Illustrate Social Media’s New Place In Modern War.” Techrunch. Web. 15, Oct. 2014.
Dale, Helle. “Social Media Prove Double-Edged Sword for ISIS.” The Daily Signal. Web. 23, Oct. 2014.
Speri, Alice. “ISIS Fighters and Their Friends are Total Social Media Hogs.” VICE. Web. 15, June 2014.
Roussinos, Aris. “Jihad Selfies: These British Extremists in Syria Love Social Media.” VICE. Web. 12, Dec. 2013.
Cowell, Alan and Scott, Mark. “Top British Spy Wars of Terrorists’ Use of social Media.” The NewYork Times. Web. 4, Nov. 2014.
Chastain, Mary. “Egyptian Feminist Poops, Menstruates on Islamic State Flag.” Breitbart. Web. 25, Aug. 2014.