Jund al-Khilafah, or “Soldiers of the Caliphate”, an Algerian terrorist group connected to larger Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) network, released a video to Twitter on Tuesday depicting the murder of 55-year-old French tourist and mountaineer Herve Gourdel. Gourdel was killed on September 24th after being abducted two days before in the Algerian Djura Djura Mountains, a region which is currently serving as a hideout for Islamic extremist, by the same organization.
Jund al-Khilafah threated to kill the Frenchman on September 22nd, giving the French Government 24-hours to cease their airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Upon France’s failure to end the airstrikes, Jund al-Khilafah released a video titled “A Message with Blood to the French Government” which warned against continuing military action in Iraq and accused France of persecution against Muslims followed by the beheading of Gourdel. The release of this video also coincided with the United Nations General Assembly, at which President Obama urged the nations assembled to join the fight against ISIS. Additionally, it follows the group’s release of an audio statement urging Muslims to kill citizens of any nations that have joined the effort against extremists in Iraq. Both the Algerian and French Governments have condemned the group’s actions and have sent troops to search for the responsible party and for Gourdel’s remains. French President Francois Hollande has also suggested that despite ISIS’ threats and targeted violence, France will continue to launch airstrikes against the group, confident in their actions, especially in light of Gourdel’s death.
This video is only the latest in a series of recent installments ISIS has released on various popular social media outlets. The group has now released 4 videos depicting the violent executions of civilians, previously 3 journalists, 2 from the United States and 1 from the United Kingdom. Each video includes a warning for any groups working to oppose ISIS followed by the decapitation of a hostage. These videos have been widely circulated especially on Twitter and YouTube while simultaneously being picked up by global media outlets, which as a result worldwide publicity at almost no cost to ISIS.
ISIS has utilized social media with a level of sophistication comparable to the one of specialized companies in the United States, which up until recently have been considered both the pioneers and the masters of social media advertising. Social media is ideal for a group like ISIS, because despite being mostly in hiding and highly fragmented across mainly the Middle East, with a computer or phone and an Internet connection, the group can reach millions cheaply, effectively, and with mobility. Through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram accounts, ISIS has been able to send out messages to the global Islamic community, especially targeted to young Muslims, urging them to join forces.
These messages come in many forms, namely tweets, photographs, newsletters and informational packets in various languages, and videos portraying violence, personal testimony and advertisements to join ISIS. Not only are the modes of communication varied in terms of the social media sphere, but the tweets, for example, also vary in content to include a variety of messages. ISIS has been tweeting pictures of brutality and violence directed at those who oppose them, but also signs of their kindness and generosity to those who support them, the group has also posted photos of conquered villages to show their success and of lavish mansions and other signs of a luxurious lifestyle. The group engineers popular ‘hashtags’, and uses trending events such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup to gain visibility. Displaying even more sophistication, most media released by ISIS is unnecessarily complex, a 5 minute video, for example, may be close to a gigabyte to download, but pictures, sound bytes, even memes are layered with extra data and possess the same complexity. Experts have suggested this is an attempt by ISIS to siphon off the lazier and less dedicated of potential supporters. Those who are not willing to fully commit or could attempt to flee after they commit are a liability for the group. If a potential supporter isn’t willing to wait for a video to download, they probably aren’t going to be an asset to ISIS.
In addition to posting these messages, social media allows ISIS to become more accessible and able to engage in direct personal contact. For example, if a young Muslim is considering leaving their home community to join ISIS but is experiencing some doubts or questions, they can very easily find a member of ISIS on Facebook or ask.fm and chat with them about the group. After making contact, the young Muslims is much more likely to be reassumed and likewise to join ISIS. Especially in countries in which Islam is marginalized or Muslims could face prejudice, such as the United States and much of the Western world, ISIS is finding increasing success in reaching out to young people through social media. In a society in which young Muslims feel excluded from, ISIS can easily provide a glimpse of seemingly better life that can offer acceptance and power. ISIS has recognized the potential of young people both to feel slighted and to become fervently dedicated to a cause. This, in addition to their ability to aptly and effectively navigate social media, makes young people the prime audience for ISIS’ social media blitzes. Once convinced, they are more likely to make dramatic changes and sacrifices as young people generally have less responsibility and have the latitude to be more transient.
The United States, which has thus far been leading the global attack on ISIS, has been widely criticized for their inability to successfully compete with the group in the social media arena. While there have been efforts to censor posts by ISIS, they have mostly failed as the group has created a “media mujahedeen” or network posters worldwide using proxy servers and aliases on multiple accounts across multiple platforms in order to ensure that their message is widely circulated. The sheer volume of posts matched with platform’s uncertainty about what media they have the right to censor has made it more difficult to control ISIS’ presence. The United States Department of State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, just created in 2010 to combat al-Qaeda, has created YouTube and Twitter accounts on which the Department posts their own anti-ISIS propaganda in campaign called “Think Again, Turn Away” but it has been slow to gain support and visibility.
It seems clear that as use of and access to technology and globalization increase daily, social media is gaining quickly a level of importance more similar to that of physical armies. Especially as ISIS seems to be positioning itself to launch a global attack of terror, the United States and any allies the nation enlists to fight the group will have to create a highly effective social media strategy. The success of this strategy will be vitally important if they have any hope of deterring the steady flow to recruits to the Middle East and thereby slowing the stream of personal and funding to ISIS. However, because ISIS posts content, from proof of their military mite to videos of hostages to messages of hate and violence, that is meant to be sensationalized and shocking, it will be a challenge for the Government of any nation to duplicate their strategy, meaning the social media arena will need to be revolutionized and reimagined yet again.