Who is behind Isis’s terrifying online propaganda operation?
The Dawn app was built by members of Isis’s Palestinian affiliate, in consultation with leaders in Iraq and Syria, says al-Janabi. And the wider group also harbours trained designers. “There are a lot of people in Isis who are good at Adobe applications – InDesign, Photoshop, you name it. There are people who have had a professional career in graphic design, and [others] who are self-learnt.”
Swords IV was made by professional film-makers, al-Janabi also claims – and independent observers think he might be right. “The official Isis operation released photos of them filming – and it’s all on equipment that we use at Vice,” says Vice journalist Aris Roussinos, who reports extensively on both jihadists and their online activity (warning: contains graphic images). “It’s high-quality equipment that they’re actually very technically skilled at using, in a way that the other rebels aren’t. They’re also really good at Photoshop.”
But while parts of Isis’s messaging are centralised and run by professionals, its online strength is also derived from the participation of a large swath of independent actors. First, there is Isis’s online fanclub: thousands of Isis supporters with no official role within the group who boost its brand by retweeting its hashtags, and translating its Arabic members’ messages for potential sympathisers in the west. Many of them make Photoshopped slogans to promote the group – in fact, many of Isis’s slick viral adverts come about this way, claims al-Janabi. “The graphic design is mostly independent and done by individuals. For example, that picture that said ‘Baghdad, we are coming’ – nobody asked [its creators] to do it, but they did it anyway.”
And then there are the Isis militants themselves. They tweet about their experiences in the field, and publish their own private pictures – sometimes gory images of severed heads, sometimes mundane snaps of food and cats – often to appreciative audiences.
“My first time!” writes one British jihadi underneath a Facebook photograph of his bloodied hand – apparently after killing an opponent. “First of many,” responds one friend. “Mabrook,” says another: congratulations.
Others use their Instagram accounts to post well-polished pro-jihad slogans that are aimed at, and seemingly appreciated by, a western viewership. “You only die once,” reads one image that attracted 72 likes on Instagram. “Why not make it martyrdom?”
It is this kind of social media usage that points to the third goal of Isis’s propaganda war. While Isis’s Twitter presence first and foremost serves to frighten its enemies in Iraq and Syria, and to inform its members there, it may also help Isis expand its brand among jihadis outside of the Middle East. Nominally an offshoot of al-Qaida, Isis has been disowned by its parent organisation. As a result, it is now in active competition with al-Qaida’s approved affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as al-Qaida franchises across the world.
Part of the purpose of Isis’s social media activity “is definitely to scare people,” says Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, a US think-tank. “But also it’s to give Isis greater prominence in wider media coverage. It becomes a kind of recruitment tool in the competition with al-Qaida in terms of leading the global jihad brand, and of winning the support of jihadis worldwide. In some ways they’ve won the battle: most of the foreign fighters who go to Syria join Isis. But around the world, it hasn’t been definitively won one way or the other. Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Libya tend to be pro-Isis. But then you have the al-Qaida affiliates in Somalia which are clearly siding with al-Qaida.”
Isis is by no means the only jihadist group that uses the internet to its advantage. Jabhat al-Nusra also has a network of provincial tweeters, apparently inspired by Isis. An al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen recently released a video of their actions that they edited to seem like a first-person shooting game. In Egypt, the dominant terrorist threat – the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) – regularly release videos explaining how they carried out certain attacks, and their output is occasionally tinged with a sense of humour. When Egypt’s police claimed to have killed an ABM leader this year, the group quickly released a photograph of the allegedly dead man reading a report about his assassination.
But analysts reckon no other group has as sophisticated a grasp of social media as Isis. Members of one of Isis’s main Sunni rivals in Iraq – the Ba’ath party-linked Naqshbandi – are more likely to upload their leaders’ speeches to YouTube, “and I don’t think anybody pays any attention to that stuff”, says Zaid al-Ali, the author. Over the border in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra has a more nuanced approach, and may even have similar numbers of online supporters. But when JM Berger analysed their respective performances in February, he discovered that Isis-linked hashtags received up to four times as many mentions as those promoting Jabhat al-Nusra.
“Jabhat al-Nusra have been outclassed and outcompeted by Isis on every level – on the battlefield, and in the battle of media operations,” concludes Vice’s Aris Roussinos. “Either they’ve got fewer resources – or they’re less in tune with the modern world in a way that Isis doesn’t seem to be.”