The internet has provided an extremely effective platform for the warring parties in Iraq and Syria to wage a proxy war. The Islamic State group (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL), has launched a global campaign on social media, which has wrong-footed the international community. Compelled by the success of this propaganda, government officials in Iraq and Syria have also bolstered their cyber warfare efforts.
The Islamic State group’s social media strategies have mirrored its territorial gains in Iraq. It is very active on Twitter, for example, posting statements, photographs and videos for propaganda and presenting its territorial gains as glorious victories.
The group’s “electronic army” includes seasoned hacktivists. In its Twitter feed it provides details of its operations, including the number of bombings, assassinations and suicide missions it has conducted.
Part of the group’s Twitter campaign was the creation, in April 2014, of an Arabic-language Twitter Android app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, known simply as Dawn. It automatically posts tweets to users’ personal accounts. The app has allowed the organisation to hijack accounts and periodically use them to post tweets. There were almost 40,000 tweets from the app on the day the Islamic State captured Mosul, according to The Atlantic. The app, which was available for download on Google, has now been removed from the Google Play store.
Twitter deleted a number of Islamic State accounts that had posted horrific images and even eliminated accounts related to the group, including news accounts and those that tracked its activities.
However, Islamic State activists are overcoming these obstacles through the rapid proliferation of accounts. For each account that is shut down, another pops up.
The Islamic State’s web strategy has also expanded to YouTube. This was particularly evident when the Syrian uprising escalated and a YouTube war was waged between the Syrian regime and extremist rebels. Both sides uploaded terrifying videos showing inhumane atrocities. As Time magazine described it: “If the Arab Spring gave the world its first Facebook revolution, Syria is in the throes of the first YouTube war.”
YouTube also provides fertile ground for recruitment. For example, a slickly produced English-language video featured Islamic State militants from western countries who traced their origins to Yemen, Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Another shocking Islamic State video was an hour-long English subtitled video that showed executions and more. This video appeared to take its inspiration from slick Hollywood productions to great effect.
Showcasing its victories in Iraq through polished videos has become a key Islamic State strategy to demoralise its adversaries. But these videos also serve as a propaganda tool for fund-raising and recruitment.
Another front has been opened on Facebook, which is also being used extensively by the warring factions.
Activists backing the Iraqi state have set up pages supporting the security forces, while the Islamic State and tribal fighters have their own parallel pages. The Iraqi Electronic Army, a pro-government Facebook page, has sought to close down rival pages, by informing Facebook administrators of abuse aimed at Iraqi national figures.
However, despite Facebook having shut down a number of Islamic State pages, they are still proliferating.
For example, when the notorious Australian social media activist Musa Cerantonio called upon Muslims to join the caliphate, his Twitter and Facebook accounts were closed. However, another Facebook page emerged under his name and has already gained around 3,000 likes.
Other platforms such as JustPaste are used to upload book-length tirades, while SoundCloud is used to spread jihadi music worldwide. According to a SITE Intelligence Group study: “The Islamic State needs to share materials with the jihadists to promote jihad, communicate, recruit and intimidate.”
On the other hand, while the suppression of Islamic State online activists continues, some analysts argue that the internet is a useful tool for recording crimes and documenting what is happening on the ground, as well as a window for free speech.
As a countermeasure against the Islamic State, Iraq’s ministry of communications has asked its internet service providers to shut down the web in five governorates. Meanwhile, access to social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has been blocked. This has led the Islamic State to seek alternative service providers.
The Syrian Electronic Army, set up by pro-Assad political hack-activists, surfaced in 2011 and launched a cyberwar on Facebook and Twitter, organising spamming and attacking emails. It has hacked a number of prominent media Twitter accounts to tweet pro-Assad propaganda. One of its goals is to attack opposition activists as well as the Islamic State’s supporters.
This raging cyber war has raised serious worries in the international community, which realises that the damage groups such as the Islamic State can wreak is not going to be merely symbolic – it can have far more serious consequences.
Zana Gulmohamad is a researcher at the University of Sheffield politics department in the UK