ISIS has spent the last year seeking to regenerate. In this four-part special, The National investigates how the extremist group has gained a foothold in Africa, analyses its strategy for global growth, and reveals its profiteering from elephant poaching and the gems trade. Here, Thomas Harding explores its use of obscure social media platforms.
Marketing drives with clearly established structures and targeted audiences are being introduced by ISIS as it seeks recruits to answer its call, The National can reveal.
ISIS has developed its own terminology for the strategy, launching "Raids of Attrition" for periods when its propaganda command has issued a global edict to intensify terrorist activity and messaging of any incidents over defined 10-day periods.
The last "hyper-targeting campaign" was orchestrated at the end of July and into August when terrorist cells in Iraq, Syria, Mozambique, Nigeria and the Sahel stepped up their violence and ISIS-run channels on social platforms had huge surges in message volumes.
Forced to rely more on propaganda to keep its network together as its foot soldiers were dispersed, ISIS has entered a new phase in communicating its messages and drawing supporters.
The strategy is relies on message channels and campaign launches, intelligence sources say.
“It’s there to tie together their affiliates and therefore, in that new phase, they need to cohere to a compelling narrative to unite them,” a security official said.
“Propaganda is central to their efforts to increase support, recruit and incite attacks.”
ISIS turn to 'obscure' social media platform
With mainstream social media such as Twitter and Facebook denying ISIS direct access, the extremists have moved to a platform called Rocket Chat, where they use their own servers.
This allows them to administer their own social-media network.
Rocket Chat is insulated from outside attack, “which means that it's a place where conversations and content can be really interesting", said Charlie Winter, of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.
“Rocket Chat is an obscure platform but it is privacy maximising and security maximising, although it hasn't had the same level of capital going into it, which means that it just doesn't work as well in terms of download speeds and other functionalities.”
Propaganda, communications and social media are as important to ISIS as guns and bullets.
“Communications is vital to any global insurgency,” the security official said. “The physical threat and the propaganda threat go hand in hand.”
West seeks to 'degrade' ISIS communications network
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson alluded to the covert work to degrade ISIS online propaganda and communications in an interview with The National last week.
“In the virtual battlefield, the UK, US and the UAE are collaborating closely in the ongoing fight against the group’s terrible propaganda,” Mr Johnson said.
For the past year since its defeat in Syria, ISIS communications have, like its gunmen, been under pressure.
It produced on average six videos a month, compared to 90 in the group's heyday.
But it has survived and evolved using specialist social media platforms to communicate safely around the globe.
“There's clearly strategic oversight from ISIS as a hierarchical organisation, person or network of individuals who are able to exercise some level of international direction in order to ramp up attacks or turn down the intensity a few notches,” Mr Winter said.
It incites extreme violence such as last week’s message from ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al Qurashi, who called on youths to “target the citizens of the Crusade who are among you and have filled your land".
"Kill them, run them over, burn them and suffocate them," Al Qurashi said.
This Raids of Attrition language is released on average twice a year, and can spark periods of terror.
“It’s a pretty unambiguous indication, telling their affiliates everywhere to intensify their operations by a factor of up to three or four,” Mr Winter said.
ISIS network able to operate autonomously
The effectiveness of ISIS cells is that they can function independently without orders, said Dr Francesco Milan of King's College London.
That makes the signals from propaganda potentially potent.
“Importantly, ISIS is well versed in operating with little direct control from the top, so each local group can survive and operate autonomously without much guidance from leadership,” Dr Milan said.
While the extremists group’s mainstream propaganda platforms have been curtailed, Lizz Pearson said “nimbleness” allowed ISIS to continually migrate to less regulated outlets.
“The thing about terrorists' designated organisations is that they are much better at evolving and adapting than the responses can be, because they're agile,” said Ms Pearson, a lecturer at the Cyber Threats Research Centre, Swansea University.
“They're adapting organically and exploiting new media platforms as they come out. This makes their agenda quite difficult to counter.”
Mr Winter said: “The platform that ISIS will be using in six months’ time might not yet exist."
Ms Pearson also highlighted ISIS’s online efforts of being “highly gendered,” using women “to shame men into joining by accusing them of being either fighters or being cowards”.
ISIS goes local
The internet messages are only part of the story.
“In Nigeria, in Mali and Mozambique there'll be a whole range of other more in-person based outreach activities," Ms Pearson said.
"Online platforms are only one facet of the overarching communication activity of ISIS."
Mr Winter said ISIS was focusing on local propaganda rather than the global effort that enrolled thousands of extremists from the West.
“ISIS now wants to communicate with populations in countries that it can actually actively recruit from, rather than with potential migrants in western states who are closely monitored,” he said.
The loss of manpower, territory and subject matter means ISIS propaganda, which was its lifeblood, is not the force it once was.
But Mr Winter warns against complacency: “There will be further evolution and innovation in the next six months to a year as it tries to figure out a new more sustainable model.”
Rocket Chat was asked for comment by The National but is yet to respond.