At first it reads like just another tweet extolling the power of social media. At 9am on Thursday last week, as news broke of the latest US air strikes in northern Iraq, its author likened the might of social networking to that of the “gun or sword.”
However, the mention of weaponry was not just a fancy bit of metaphor. Hundreds of jihadists currently fighting in the Middle East are believed to follow the Twitter account of Nasser Balochi, a Sunni Muslim and one of a proliferating army of tweeters doubling as online recruiting sergeants for the intensifying conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
The confrontation between the West and Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), will, like all military campaigns, be influenced by who wins the propaganda war for hearts and minds, and Islamic State’s online army — dubbed “the new disseminators” by radicalization experts — are providing crucial backup to the brutal IS operatives in the field.
Illustration: Mountain People
On Tuesday last week, the group used YouTube to launch its video depicting the murder of US journalist James Foley — perhaps the most devastating social media salvo yet in a conflict punctuated by footage and images of torture, corpses, murder and visceral combat sequences. Never before has a conflict been played out in real time to a global audience.
It is a phenomenon that last week’s macabre viewing has placed at the forefront of the minds of the West’s security services. The video’s deft editing and high production values cemented the credentials of the Islamic State as a slick but shocking social media outfit, mixing barbaric content with a “jihadi cool” aesthetic.
Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at think tank Demos, identified a counter-culture, antiestablishment sentiment that manifested itself in “jihadi cool” posturing five years ago. The recent development, he said, is how Islamic State sympathizers have harnessed the immediacy and reach of social media to ensure its image is instantly and globally recognizable.
“These are young men in their 20s who have grown up with all this stuff,” he said.
“They all know it’s not that hard to build an app, they know how important Twitter is, they know how to upload a really nasty YouTube video, and it’ll go viral quickly. It’s second nature to a lot of these young men, plus the lowering price of producing reasonably good-looking propaganda and sending it around the world is a lot easier now than it was 10 years ago,” he said.
Balochi — whose Twitter profile has pictures of grenades and AK-47s — is one of these technologically literate young fighters. In April, as IS was beginning to flex its muscles in northern Syria, but remained unknown to many, an in-depth study named Balochi as a primary influence for Syria’s foreign fighter networks.
Academics at the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) tracked the extent to which the Syrian conflict was luring so many foreign fighters. They then examined the recruitment process, uncovering a stunningly straightforward process that often originated with a simple exchange of tweets.
For 12 months the researchers analyzed the social media profiles of 190 Western and European foreign fighters. The majority came from the UK; many were fighters for IS. They also examined who was advising and instructing them. In total, 18,223 unique users — those who followed foreign fighters and in turn were followed — were analyzed, along with nearly 15,000 tweets, 1,186 hashtags and 1,969 Web links.
Tweeters such as Balochi were classified as “disseminators” — individuals who, although not officially affiliated to an organization, were profoundly influential in spreading support for foreign fighters alongside recruiting them. An estimated 2,800 European or Western foreign fighters are thought to have traveled to northern Syria and Iraq, of whom 500 are believed to be British.
Balochi, for instance, regaled his 2,690 Twitter followers this month with his thoughts, dispatched from Pakistan and written in English, on what he terms the US genocide of Muslims and also referenced the messages of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The disseminators, the report said, are crucial to the foreign fighters of IS who rely on their Twitter feeds for an overview of the jihad — what is going on elsewhere, the mood back home, the distribution of realtime snapshots of firefights, the celebration of fellow “martyrs.”
“The thing about the disseminators is they are not necessarily people in Iraq or Syria, they might be based in London or the north of England and have appointed themselves as an official spokesman of ISIS,” ICSR director Peter Neumann said.
The two most popular sites used by militants, he said, were Twitter and the Latvian-based Web site Ask.FM, where users, often anonymously, fire questions at one another.
“Periodically, a foreign fighter based in Syria will appear on the site. Wannabe foreign fighters can go to them and ask questions: ‘What should I pack? What’s the weather like out there?’” said Neumann, who added that, although they initially examined the impact of social media on Syrian foreign fighters, the same characters were enticing and influencing jihadists to go to Iraq.
The most influential tweeter for foreign fighters was named as Shami Witness, whose popularity has swollen in tandem with the expansion of Islamic State, from 4,700 to 11,900 followers since April. It is an increase that some experts say chimes with his apparent evolution from an activist against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to supporter of Islamic State, but his political evolution has, Neumann says, implications for Western security.
“You might have a wannabe foreign fighter sitting at home in Portsmouth and he can simply reach out to Shami Witness. He plays a role linking wannabes with foreign fighters,” Neumann said.
The apparent ease of recruitment presents the British authorities with a dilemma: Aside from shutting down social networks, how do they prevent them acting as a conduit to jihad?
The fundamental virtue of social media, its ability to disseminate information quickly, meant that, within moments of the Foley video being uploaded last week, it was too late. Islamic State would have known attempts would be made to take it down, but also that such attempts would be futile. More than 100 hours of material is uploaded to YouTube every minute. From the moment it was uploaded, the genie was out of the bottle.
Scotland Yard’s response was prompt, but blunt, warning that individuals who posted links to the video could be breaking the law by spreading extremist material. It is still not clear how many, if any, were found guilty of a criminal offense.
In an average week, the London Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, which assesses terrorist and violent extremist material online, removes about 1,100 pieces of content that breach terror legislation, by contacting the relevant Internet hosting company. Of these, about 800 are Syria or Iraq related.
Twitter has so far blocked dozens of IS-related accounts in the wake of the Foley video, although security experts liken the attempts as often arbitrary and a game of “cat and mouse.” Individuals whose accounts are suspended often reappear elsewhere. Alternatively, new accounts are opened on smaller social networks posting material that quickly ends up on Twitter.
Of the top 10 disseminators in ICSR’s report, so far only one account appears to have been suspended. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard refuses to reveal how many social media accounts it has targeted since the Foley video.
However, Met sources have expressed frustration that “not enough” IS Twitter feeds are being blocked, a frustration that might suggest ongoing tensions between the intelligence agencies and police on how best to address potential British foreign fighters.
Even a cursory sweep across Twitter can expose a multilayered network of foreign fighters, friends and wannabes.
“The police want to close these things down and arrest them, while the intelligence services always want to keep them up, follow their followers, understand their network. They enable security services to track a lot of people,” Neumann said.
A report published by Thomas Kean, the former chairman of the US’ 9/11 Commission, argued against removing or censoring material on the Internet so agencies can follow the flow of information between violent extremists.
How Westminster sets about controlling the role of social media remains unclear beyond those measures already announced.
“You can do lots of things, but you can’t eliminate it. The technology is so diffuse and it can be so anonymized that you can plug one hole and it will just pop elsewhere,” former British minister of foreign affaris Malcolm Rifkind said.
While conceding that social media can be of use to the intelligence services, Rifkind believes its virtues as a source of information are outweighed by its effectiveness to extremists.
“I think there is no doubt that we would want to close down all this material if it was technically possible,” he said.
A report by the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which Rifkind chairs, into the death of British soldier Lee Rigby is expected to address issues relating to the role of social media when it is published in the autumn.
In addition, MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee also want to conduct an inquiry into the Internet’s role in cultivating the spread of radicalization.
“With what is happening in Iraq and Syria, this is an area that we should focus on,” Labour MP Paul Farrelly said.
Underpinning the problem is the failure of the British Department for Communities and Local Government to publish its long-awaited strategy on nonviolent extremism.
Haras Rafiq, of the Quilliam Foundation, said such inertia had encouraged radicalization by allowing extremist ideology to be disseminated widely on social media.
“The department has been tasked to come up with a strategy for preventing extremism through nonviolent ideologues. We are still waiting,” Rafiq said.
One downside of attempting to drive extremists from social media is that it will drive them further into the deep Web. Last week’s Twitter crackdown has already witnessed extremists gravitate toward Diaspora, a decentralized network with data stored on private servers that cannot be controlled by a single administrator.
The migration means that even Diaspora’s creators cannot remove extremist content because they do not control all the independent servers that constitute its network.
Bartlett envisages a future where Islamic State continues to use social media for propaganda while ensuring the individual’s identity is obscured by proxy servers and anonymous browsers.
Alongside this will be a continuation of the shift to sites like Diaspora in tandem with encryption systems. More immediately, those like Balochi will continue to attract followers, another 32 on Friday and Saturday.
The most recent, at the time of writing, is a user whose avatar features a revolver with golden bullets and a Twitter profile that reassures the foreign fighters of Islamic State that “those killed in the way of Allah” will live forever.
If the West hopes to comprehensively defeat IS’ savage extremism, it will have to take on the power of the new disseminators as well.
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