Islamic State could never have achieved its territorial ambitions, nor could it have recruited such a large army in so short a time, without its mastery of the internet. Al Qaeda was the first major jehadist network to sense the potential of the worldwide web, using its darker recesses in a covert manner to share ideology, information, plans and correspondence. Its younger operatives also launched early cyber attacks on ‘enemy’ websites, presaging the emergence of the ‘cyber jehad’ that is raging today.
Today, Islamic State and its supporters use the internet and social networking platforms in a brazen, overt way, marketing their ‘brand’ and disseminating their material via mainstream networks such as Twitter. For those already in the territories of Islamic State, as much as for potential recruits on their laptops in a thousand bedrooms across the globe, concealing identity and location remains a priority. But there are a myriad ways in which this can be done. Advice on the wide range of ‘anonymity products’ online is freely available for those who seek it—much of this advice is produced by Islamic State recruiters for the would-be jehadist. Those who fail to ensure their online anonymity are those we see detained and prosecuted. Sadly, this is only a tiny minority.
Most Islamic State commanders and recruits are tech-savvy; coding (writing software programs, inputting information in html) is as familiar to them as their mother tongue. Most of the digital caliphate’s business is conducted online, from recruitment and propaganda to battlefield strategy and instruction. What the jehadists lack in the way of sophisticated weaponry, they more than make up for with their online expertise.
The range, quality and availability of today’s digital equipment, such as HD cameras, editing software, special effects libraries and so on, enable Islamic State’s professional media teams to produce the slick and gruesome high-definition videos and ‘glossy’ online magazines for which they have become infamous.
The digital generation
Most people who participate in, or are attracted to, Islamic State are in their late teens and early 20s. Researchers have shown that, among this age range in the developed world, 89 per cent are active online, 70 per cent use social networks daily and each spends an average 19.2 hours a week on the internet. The jehadists are no exception and may spend even more time on their laptops, tablets and smartphones, since their output across social media platforms is vital to maintaining the digital health of their project.
The paradoxical clash between advanced 21st-century technology and the Salafist-jehadist interpretation of Islam, which espouses the values of life in the 7th century, ceased to be a topic for heated debate among extremist ideologues and clerics when the potential of the internet was fully realised. The Taliban smashed televisions in the 1990s, but Al Qaeda led the way online with e-mail lists being used to disseminate information as early as 1995. Encrypted communications were used to orchestrate all Al Qaeda’s major attacks from the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam on, and Osama bin Laden’s organisation had its first website up and running by 2000. The Taliban followed suit soon after. By 2003, ‘cyber jehad’ was cited as one of Al Qaeda’s widely circulated ‘Thirty-Nine Principles of Jehad’.
Al Qaeda attempted to free itself from its dependence on mainstream media exposure by starting its own online news service, ‘The Voice of the Caliphate’, in 2005. At that time, however, there was no obvious way to disseminate its content, apart from among a small pool of subscribers. It continued to rely on television channels such as Al Jazeera for the wide exposure it sought for videos featuring Bin Laden’s increasingly empty threats, and for the ultra-violent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would become Al Qaeda’s emir in Iraq. Zarqawi pioneered the tactic of recording every successful attack on coalition targets in Iraq on digital video, complete with cries of “Allahu Akbar (God is Great)” and a soundtrack of the rather beautiful, stirring nasheeds. (These Islamic hymns are specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and are typically addressed to a deity or to a prominent figure.) YouTube, launched in 2005, provided the perfect forum for these videos, as well as for the filmed posthumous ‘wills and testaments’ of suicide bombers, which could be uploaded anonymously.
The problem of dissemination remained, however. Even on YouTube, the potential viewer would need either to have been informed about a video’s existence, or to have conducted an almost intuitive search. Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born, youthful cleric prominent in Al Qaeda offshoot AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), was the first to suggest exploiting social networking platforms to spread jehadist material more widely and reach new recruitment pools. The so-called ‘Bin Laden of the Internet’ created his own blog, Facebook page and YouTube channel, and used them to distribute the online magazine Inspire, which included recipes for bomb-making and increasingly sophisticated films. Awlaki’s overconfident use of social media platforms almost certainly led to his death from a US drone attack in Yemen in September 2011. Facebook use in particular was very easy to track at that time, as it did not accommodate anonymous operating systems such as TOR.
Islamic State’s internet strategy has taken Awlaki’s innovations one step further. In the past, the leadership would produce and release material; now, every jehadist is his or her own media outlet, reporting live from the frontline in tweets, offering enticing visions of domestic bliss via short films and images posted to JustPaste.it and Instagram, entering into friendly conversations via Skype, messaging on anonymous Android platforms, and posting links to the group’s propaganda material and its infamous catalogue of videos. All of this output is systematically retweeted and, by clever use of hashtags, generates a huge audience.
Islamic State has made a point of recruiting IT specialists and those with online marketing experience. As a result, its social media activists are well versed in the most effective ‘brand sharing’ strategies—except its brand is death. One very effective method is to hijack ‘Twitter storms’: the activists include high-trending hashtags in their own tweets, which then include a link to Islamic State material hosted on an anonymous, unpoliced platform such as JustPaste.it. In August 2014, for example, ISIS activists included Scottish independence hashtags, such as #VoteNo and #VoteYes, in their tweets during the run-up to the referendum. Trending celebrity stories are also exploited in this manner. People searching for #LewisHamiltonGrandPrix in November ’14 received, instead, a link to an IS video showing child soldiers training with Kalashnikovs. Activists realise that material has to be widely distributed in as short a time as possible, and uploaded to ‘safe’ archiving platforms, before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter administrators are alerted and remove both material and their accounts.
Islamic State’s recruitment machine is largely online. In the course of researching this book, we communicated in a variety of ways with young men and women who had either joined, or were considering joining, Islamic State. In Islamic countries, initial approaches were more often made via an intermediary or recruiter but, in the West, most said they had either direct messaged someone via Twitter or Facebook, or had been contacted by a friend, relative or acquaintance already inside Islamic State to initiate their own ‘migration’ and to receive practical advice and logistical instructions. After the initial contact has been made, anonymous smartphone instant messaging platforms such as Kik and WhatsApp are used to deepen the contact. These are completely unpoliced and unregulated. The former, with 14 million users, appears to be largely used for pornography and drug-dealing; it is easy for jehadists to hide here. Skype, the internet telephone system, is another favourite means of communication, allowing ‘real-time’ reporting by jehadists, and dialogue between recruiters and potential recruits. It is encrypted and can be used in conjunction with so-called ‘dark internet’ service providers and anonymous operating systems. Secret discussions, via messaging or telephone applications, conducted via a laptop or smartphone in a teenager’s bedroom, are extremely difficult for parents and the authorities to police, which makes these digital devices perfect recruiting instruments in a real sense.
Twitter and FB profiles are also used to ‘cyber-stalk’ and to identify and locate ‘enemies’. Military personnel, politicians and journalists are particularly at risk; many have not taken even the most basic security precautions to conceal their work and home addresses, their daily schedule, where their children go to school and so on.
The jehadists have their own community of web developers who pool their knowledge and developments, producing online resources such as ‘Technical Mujahid Magazine’, a training manual for jehadists released every two months. Extremists have developed their own, closely guarded version of Facebook—Muslimbook—and Islamic State recently launched a mobile phone app: ‘Dawn of Glad Tidings’ updates users on ISIS news and uses their Twitter accounts to automatically disseminate information and reach potential funders.
Islamic State has also produced its own video game, hijacking and modifying the extremely popular Grand Theft Auto, which it has renamed ‘Salil al-Sawarem’ (Clashing of Swords). The game takes place in terrain resembling that of northern Iraq; players can ambush and kill US soldiers, or plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which blow up military vehicles transporting groups of western soldiers to shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’.
ISIS realises that it has to keep pace with the internet generation in order to remain relevant. Thousands of Twitter accounts, RSS feeds (a form of automatic digital distribution) and messaging networks provide a constant stream of battle reports and news about life in Islamic State. Thus they keep potential recruits and supporters engaged, and counteract the propaganda efforts of the enemy and ‘bad news’ such as the loss of the city of Kobani in early February ’15. Though most online material is still in Arabic, English is fast catching up and a lot of Arabic material that is considered important is subtitled in English. Much material is also available in many other languages, including Russian, Urdu and Chinese. After all, the jehadist network is now more or less global.
The relentless stream of information from the extremists is also used to build up the image of Islamic State as an emotionally attractive place where people ‘belong’, where everyone is a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. A kind of slang, melding adaptations or shortenings of Islamic terms with street language, is evolving among the English language fraternity on social media platforms in an attempt to create a ‘jehadi cool’. A jolly home life is portrayed via Instagram images where fighters play with fluffy kittens and jehadist ‘poster-girls’ proudly display the dishes they have created. These ‘Muslimas’ also tweet about domestic concerns or the absence of decent clothing: “Honestly we need some professional dressmakers for sister in Islamic State,” tweeted one young woman, @UmmMariAndaluciya.
The jehadists’ social media output also works hard to maintain a consistency of message, reminding the network that the enemy is the apostate and kafir (denier) who must convert or die. The menace is often embellished with a quote from the Quran. A recurrent thread upholds a mindset where the desire for martyrdom is normalised and death is sought and celebrated. This is the jehadists’ most potent weapon. A soldier who does not fear death is an invincible enemy, and close-up photos of dead fighters’ smiling faces are frequently posted across all platforms. The Islamic State ‘salute’—the index finger of the right hand pointing heavenward—reflects this ideology. The female jehadist holder of one Twitter account I investigated had posted a shocking photograph as wallpaper: two little boys, presumably her own, aged around four and six are dressed in black and masked; they are dwarfed by the Kalashnikov rifles supported by their left hands while their right hand index fingers point to the sky. On February 3, 2015, one female resident of ISIS Al-Britaniya (British) shared ‘glad tidings’ via Twitter: “My husband Rahimuh Allah has done the best transaction you can make his soul [sic] and in return Jenna (heaven) may Allah accept you yaa shaheed (martyr).” Five hours earlier, she had posted a picture of a bowl of cream dessert with bits of Toblerone stuck on top.
The head of the Islamic State’s media department is Ahmed Abousamra, a Syrian who was born in 1981 in France and then brought up in Massachusetts where his father is a well-known endocrinologist. He obtained a degree in IT and worked in telecommunications before becoming self-radicalised; he encountered no obstacles in relocating to Aleppo in 2011 thanks to his dual Syrian-American nationality. Under Abousamra’s direction are several media organisations with full-time staff, the main ones being Al-Hayat, Al-Furqan and Al-Itisam. These are solely for the purposes of propaganda. Al-Hayat was formed in May 2104 and its operations offices are based in Syria. Iraqi Al-Furqan, originally the media mouthpiece of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has been going since 2006. Al-Itisam is a film production unit, based in Syria and responsible for most of the slick, high-production-value videos Al-Hayat disseminates.
It employs professional journalists, filmmakers, photographers and editors (who must swear allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim as part of their contract) and has brought in cutting-edge technology and qualified operators. As a result, its film output is of a quality more usually associated with national broadcasters or even Hollywood. A slick recruitment video titled ‘What are you waiting for?’ features attractive youths with dramatic long black hair, including a Frenchman with blue eyes. Al-Hayat releases regular short, snappy films called ‘MujaTweets’ which show scenes of daily life among the mujahideen. One, shot during Ramzan in a large canteen where a cook ladles stew into bowls, shows fighters breaking their fast with local children, laughing and joking; another shows fighters helping an old Kurdish lady, abandoned by her family, on to the back of a moped to be taken to other relatives; a 70-year-old white-haired fighter is interviewed in another, ‘Why Did You Come to Jihad, Uncle?’, which has become a great hit on YouTube.
Al-Furqan has produced whole television series glorifying Islamic State’s achievements and deeds, including ‘Messages from the Land of Epic Battles’ and ‘Flames of War’. They feature ISIS fighters, many of them foreign, in the midst of fierce battles. Its most infamous productions show increasingly barbaric executions designed to terrify enemies and the world at large with horrifying, unforgettable images: a small young boy personally executes adult hostages; a fighter holds up two severed heads; a woman is stoned to death; an old man alleged to be a paedophile is tipped off a white plastic chair from the top of a high building; and in February 2015 came the repellent, high production-value video of a captured Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive in a cage.
The latter was disseminated within seconds of being released, enabling me to trace the method by which it reached hundreds of thousands of people and all the media outlets. First, operatives tweeted that something was going to happen and recommended followers set up several duplicate accounts in case of suspension. Next came links to copies of the film on JustPaste.it (this anonymous message board, run by a twenty-six-year-old Pole, has become an integral part of Islamic State’s media machine) and its Arabic equivalents Nasher.me and Manbar.me, among many other anonymous platforms. These were tweeted with messages urging followers to retweet widely and for “people with hi-speed connections” to download and ‘archive’ the film either on anonymous ‘clouds’ or ‘mirrored’ websites (whereby the content of a known jehadist website is reproduced, or mirrored, on hundreds of others under different names and identities). However fast the authorities removed Twitter accounts and sites that were hosting the film, it remained, and remains, available. The same is true of the files the group ‘Cyber Caliphate’ managed to download when it hacked the US army’s central command accounts in January 2015.
The murder of al-Kasasbeh immediately divided the followers of Twitter accounts I was monitoring. Some expressed horror and sadness and said this had nothing to do with Islam; others revelled in the cruelty, with one account-holder, Faris al-Britani, chillingly tweeting ‘Burn baby Burn!!! starring ‘best scream’ award winner Moaz al-Kasasbeh’.
Islamic State also runs its own radio station, Al-Bayan, which is based in Mosul, and a satellite TV station, Tawheed, based in Libya. In January 2015, a trailer announced the imminent arrival of a 24-hour internet television channel, The Islamic Caliphate Broadcast, to be hosted on one of the group’s websites, KalifaLive.info. The channel will host a series of videos by John Cantlie, the British photojournalist kidnapped by ISIS in November ’12, along with James Foley who was subsequently executed. Cantlie has appeared in eight Islamic State propaganda videos to date, a cause of much debate and speculation. The group’s websites also contain or link to a huge archive of ideological treatises, monthly reports, sermons, Quranic interpretations, fatwas, magazines, training manuals, and guidance on issues such as how to treat ‘slaves’ or life for women in the Islamic State.
(Abdel Bari Atwan, a Palestinian writer and journalist, is the former editor-in-chief of London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabia. He has interviewed Osama bin Laden twice and has developed a network of well-placed sources within Al Qaeda and various other jehadi outfits, including the Islamic State.)
Related story in The Atlantic What ISIS Really Wants