The Islamic State of Cyberspace: ISIS’s online recruiting efforts hurting the West

BY ADAM LUCENTE

Terror leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Terror leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Syria and Iraq are not the only territories in which ISIS is wreaking havoc: their presence on social media is now infamous as well.

Naturally, the terror army’s online media organs are constantly being shutdown, perhaps at the behest of western authorities. Utilizing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online magazines, file sharing sites, forums and even songs, their online activity keeps sprouting back up, grabbing new recruits in the process.

Perhaps the most infamous of their online projects is Al-Hayat Media Center, launched in April of this year. This produces the English language Islamic State Report, which details the group’s battles in the Middle East, in addition to accounts of their social work, theological discussions and interviews with members. Furthermore, the center releases videos such as “The End of Syckes-Picot,” which has since gone viral. In this video, an English speaking Chilean member of the group takes the audience through a recently captured area. Like a gangster threatening rival thugs, he vows the group will redraw the map of the Middle East via the establishment of a caliphate.

The group’s presence on YouTube is similarly noteworthy. The aforementioned video can be found on a plethora of channels, and is hardly the only one. The group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s first known appearance on camera exists as well, complete with an English transcript of his speech. A simple search reveals dozens of videos in a variety of languages.

The strategy has been effective thus far in luring some Muslims into the country to fight for the group.

ISIS is alone in their use of songs, known as nasheeds, as recruiting devices. While many Al-Qaeda and ISIS-type Islamic “scholars” [ulamas] consider music with man-made instruments to be forbidden, they do not extend this thinking to the human voice. One of the terror group’s most viewed nasheeds has thousands of views on their Youtube site. It is on various other YouTube channels as well.

Twitter discussions between ISIS members over Robin Williams’ legacy this past summer amused many, but ISIS’s Twitter activities go far deeper. Islamic State Times, whose handle is @ISTimes2, for example, has nearly 4,000 followers to date; and uses its account to post videos from Al Hayat, pictures of daily life from within the group’s territory, and breaking news from the scenes of their crimes, often with the now trending hashtag #IS.

And like their predecessors in Al Qaeda, ISIS makes use of jihadist forums. This enables them to put out material that is longer in length, such as this Islamic State Report found on alplatformmedia.com.

Of course, due to their violent nature and the threat they pose, the aforementioned sites frequently terminate ISIS members’ accounts. However, members simply create new accounts, often times quickly, hindering the West’s efforts to curtail the group’s influence. A look at who Islamic State Times follows demonstrates this phenomenon. Here, one sees a plethora of possible ISIS members. In their descriptions, they often say that their account is simply their most current in a long list, at times listing their previous Twitter handles. This leads one to believe that the past accounts were suspended.

YouTube handles such users similarly. An article in The Guardian dated September 17 of this year includes a link to a then recent ISIS video threatening the United States. However, when one clicks the article’s hyperlink to the video, the page simply reads “This video has been removed because its content violated YouTube’s Terms of Services.”

Clearly then, there is an effort to remove the group’s content from the Internet, but the nature of social media makes it nearly impossible to stop ISIS from using it. When someone goes to create an account on Facebook, they are met with the words “It’s free and always will be.” Twitter is similarly free, and requires little information to join, allowing ISIS to create account after account, no matter how many times past ones get terminated. Moreover, while no centralized website appears to exist for Al Hayat Media Center, ISIS makes use of file sharing sites like JustPaste.it to distribute their materials. For example, Issue 19 from their weekly report can be downloaded on this site.

ISIS may want to destroy the West, but while doing so, is committed to using its social media outlets against it. The glutton of Twitter followers, YouTube hits and easily downloadable material in the face of the web’s efforts to counter the group show that ISIS is doing better in this conflict than many would hope.

Adam Lucente is a freelance journalist who was recently based in Tunisia