Magazine article National Defense

Government, Industry Countering Islamic State's Social Media Campaign

Magazine article National Defense

Government, Industry Countering Islamic State's Social Media Campaign

Article excerpt

The U.S. government, along with industry partners, is working to stymie the Islamic State's burgeoning social media campaign, which experts say is widespread and highly advanced for a terror organization.

ISIL--which currently controls large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq--has documented its brutal tactics, such as beheadings, on various social media accounts ranging from Facebook and Ins-tagram to Twitter.

Experts and national security leaders have said that the terrorist organization, which started as an offshoot of al-Qaida, has an advanced understanding of social media, using it to disseminate information and connect with potential jihadists across the globe.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said during a speech in October that ISIL's social media strategy is highly sophisticated.

A "new phenomena we see among terrorist organizations is the very adept use of social media, literature and propaganda that is very westernized in its language and tone. We look at some of it, it's about as slick as I've ever seen in terms of advertising and promotion," Johnson said during the Association of the United States Army annual meeting and exposition in Washington, D.C.

Through social media, ISIL is inspiring adherents who have never set foot in a terrorist compound to commit acts of violence, Johnson said.

ISIL has a ground force of more than 30,000 individuals in Iraq and Syria. It is extremely wealthy and takes in over $1 million per day in revenue, Johnson noted.

ISIL's social media campaign is livery aggressive," said Peter Bergen, a national security analyst at CNN, during a September panel discussion on jihadist terrorism at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Bergen also co-authored the "Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment" report released by the center in September.

The report examined trends and threats within jihadist terrorist groups, including al-Qaida affiliates.

The advanced use of media platforms, such as Twitter, while executing an attack is a new occurrence, the report said. "The use of social media during terrorist attacks to incite and engage with Followers and report to the media ... is a new phenomenon, changing traditional notions of how terrorist groups communicate and organize," the report said.

It pointed to the deadly 2014 Westgate mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya, as one of the first examples of social media being employed during an attack.

"The attack on Westgate was the first time that a major terrorist attack was live-tweeted and also the first time that information released by a terrorist organization on Twitter and other social media sites was at times more reliable and timely than information released by the Kenyan government," the report said.

One tweet from the group said, "All Muslims inside #Westgate were escorted out by the Mujahideen before beginning the attack," the report said.

Dozens of people were killed during the incident, which was coordinated by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida affiliate.

Foreign fighters in Syria are also avid social media users, the report said. "If Vietnam was the first war to be covered by television, and the Gulf War was the first war carried live by cable news, in many ways Syria is the first social media war--where the conflict is largely documented on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter," the report said.

The State Department has taken note of ISIL and other jihadist groups' embrace of social media and is countering it with its own strategy. Using ISIL's own propaganda, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which operates under the State Department, has produced a number of videos and images showing the brutality of ISIL and other terrorist organizations.

The strategy is part of the CSCC's "Think Again Turn Away" program, which uses social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube "to expose the facts about terrorists and their propaganda," according to its mission statement. …

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