“The ISIS death cult threatens the people of Iraq, the region, and the wider world,”
-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Social media has managed to pervade all aspects of our life. It is not surprising then, that radical extremists from all corners of the world have begun to make use of it. It offers interactivity and reach unlike any other medium, besides being cheap and easy to use. While Al-Qaeda, set the precedent for using social media to propagate its violent messages, it is ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] that has emerged as the pioneer in the field of harnessing social media to make its presence known and felt. So much so that governments and intelligence agencies across the world today are realizing the need to ‘win the internet’ in order to succeed in their fight against terrorism.
It is ISIS’s unique use of social media as a recruitment strategy that makes it a particularly terrifying enemy. Its mastery of online communication and its skilful use of social media has managed to gain itself an audience with not only people from the Middle East (who would be more likely sympathizers) but also Muslims in the Western world. ISIS has thus realized the need to go virtual in order to make itself relevant and its presence felt. Its media initiatives are tailor-made to the propaganda it seeks to spread. Primary among them being its recruitment of young Islamists into the ‘Caliphate’. Its foray into ‘Western’ social media like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as well as its proven capability of developing complex coding [as seen in ISIS created Twitter app called the ‘Dawn of Glad Tidings’] have ushered in a new unique form of Electronic Jihad.
Their sleek social media strategy thus appeals to the disillusioned Western youth. Whether it is plain curiosity or a need for validation, ISIS seems to have something for everyone. They understand the power of information and the compelling use of powerful imagery in social media; and they aren’t averse to using it to inspire their recruits as well as instil fear in their opponents. Images of gore, beheadings and violence have appeared side by side with images showing foot soldiers eating Snickers bars and nurturing kittens. ISIS has thus managed to construct and control its narrative on social media, and is perhaps why it has been more successful in recruiting foreigners into its fold as compared to other extremist groups. Their recruitment strategy is not limited to males alone. The small but disturbingly rising network of female supporters have left governments across the world worried. Despite the reality that they will be subjected to the harsh Sharia law and be delegated to traditional gender biased roles of mother and wife, young Western women are risking life and limb to travel to ISIS-controlled lands in addition to using social media themselves to promote support for ISIS.
ISIS realizes that in order to be viable in the long term, there is a need to establish a state. And to do so would require the establishment of basic services for the population and the creation of a revenue system, which would not be possible without an educated workforce. Their social media recruitment strategy now seeks to engage successful professionals that include doctors, engineers, and teachers, in addition to fighters. The internet is not the only tool for radicalisation, their monthly magazine Dabiq [that serves as glossy guide to terrorism how-to] in its August 2014 issue appealed to this audience to come and aid in the formation of this nascent Islamic state. Furthermore in an attempt to control their narrative, besides using social media ISIS is now looking to recruit professional media personnel. In a way, ISIS seems to be redefining Global Jihad. As opposed to Al-Qaeda, that used social media to proliferate affiliate groups and regarded America in particular as the enemy, ISIS uses social media as the key to developing a Muslim state while branding the entire West as the enemy.
We can therefore conclude that ISIS has not invented any new strategies of violence but has merely redefined and enhanced it to create a modern brand of terrorism. Its sophisticated use and understanding of social media, executed with sleek, Hollywood style action has made it a threat that at all costs must not be taken lightly. Governments will need to unite if they intend to win against ISIS. Efforts will need to be focused on dismantling this group in order to eliminate its presence. Unfortunately, to do so, it would be necessary to fight fire with fire in order to win the war against terrorism. However it would be imperative that we calibrate the narratives, themes, and messages accordingly in order to prevent disastrous after effects.