Wed, Aug 27, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Fighting jihad on social media

The YouTube video of James Foley’s murder by an Islamic State fighter appalled the world. The use of film, tweets and blogs to further extremist aims is now a major security issue

By Mark Townsend and Toby Helm  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

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.

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.

This story has been viewed 2009 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top