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IS online strategy and its unprecedented challenges

By Nadia Nasanovsky

BuenosAiresHerald.com staff

The horrid images of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning by a masked Islamic State (IS) militant was the latest episode in a gruesome propaganda series that went viral, catching the attention of even the most apathetic western citizens and proving the effectiveness of IS’ use of 21st century technology for medieval practices.

But IS online presence does not stop at YouTube and LiveLeak video-upload sites. Beyond its rapid advance on the ground -where it has gained control over large swathes of Syria and Iraq-, the IS has also conquered the digital world, spreading its influence on a global scale through social media and posing an unprecedented challenge to Western powers determined to crush it. Unlike in conventional warfare, experts point out that governments are not the best suited to fight online jihadism and they stress the importance of community leaders and individuals taking to Twitter and Facebook to counter the spread of IS extremism online.

Although Internet is not new to Jihadist groups, the surge of digital natives who post content and interact online in a decentralized way poses a major threat to traditional counterjihad strategies. “IS’ online strategy is much more digitally literate compared with other terrorist organisation. They are very skilled at coding, creating their own apps and developing high quality videos and online magazines (like Dabiq). It is also game-changing that they are releasing materials in a myriad of different languages all at once in native fluency,” Erin Marie Saltman, leader of IS reasearch at the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam Foundation, told BuenosAiresHerald.com

William Braniff, executive director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland in his turn described it as a “democratization of propaganda creation” that “amplifies the online presence of the Islamic State and the variety of content appeals to a broader audience.”

However, propaganda is hardly the only purpose of the cyber-jihadists. As people in western countries became horrified by the viralised images of the brutal murders -of US journalist James Foley, his countryman Steven Sotloff, and of British aid worker David Haines- up to 1,900 young men and women from Western Europe and 60 US citizens were being recruited, through social media, to fight for the IS in Syria and Iraq, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).

Numerous Twitter accounts directed at different audiences seek not only to show what IS militants are capable of and to inspire fear among its enemies but to engage those who show sympathy or support (with a “like” or by leaving a comment) in direct conversations that can lead them to join the fight.

“IS uses recruiters the way other militant organizations have done, but in addition, the ability for individuals in far off places to communicate directly with an individual fighter in Iraq or Syria (about how to get there, or what to bring) has empowered a greater number of individuals to attempt to travel to the region without an in-person facilitator than we have seen in previous conflicts,” Braniff explained.

As the US-led coalition advances hitting IS’ targets in Syria and Iraq, on the digital ground the islamic militants seem to be maintaining their advantage. About 60,000 Twitter accounts have been created by IS sympathisers between May and September, according to a report by Recorded Future intelligence company and Sky News.

Social media platforms have repeatedly closed down many of these accounts, but only to see its content reappear in a game of whack-a-mole. “Censorship simply is not the solution for ridding online and offline spaces of extremism. We see that censored material easily reappears, within an instant, and it also is a tactic which targets a symptom rather than a cause,” Saltman explained.

“Despite Twitter’s efforts to shut down accounts, the number of users that talk favorably about IS since August 20, 2014 (post-release of the James Foley video) is still quite large at over 27,000 accounts,” the Recorded Future/Sky News report reads.

In contrast to measures that aim at taking down extremist online content, the US Department of State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has launched the experimental “Think Again Turn Away” initiative, an official social media offensive against the IS and Al-Qaeda that seeks to discourage potential jihadists from joining the terrorist organisation by mocking islamist militants.

"The whole ethos of CSCC is to contest the space," the head of CSCC Alberto Fernández said to reporters last May. "There was space the extremists were in and no one was pushing back on them."

But soon after the launching of “Think Again Turn Away” last month, critics flocked to social media to question the use of controversial material -often the very morbid content islamist militants had previously posted- and to cast doubt on whether the initiative is actually reaching the intended audience.

Meanwhile, experts mostly agree on describing the State’s Department campaign as “initially a good idea” but they highlight the importance of a implementing a “decentralized strategy” that involves community, religious leaders and individuals to effectively counter extremism online.

The #NotInOurName social media campaign, launched by the Active Change Foundation, a British community group whose goal is to prevent violence and all forms of extremism is an example of this type of initiatives. It encourages young muslims to add their voices against the IS. “Go on social media, use the hashtag and tell the world that ISIS are the real enemies of Islam. It’s nothing to do with us,” the project’s website reads.

“We need more voices online to mirror the moderate majority which exists offline,” Saltman said. “The best way to counter online content is to develop the counter narrative, to argue against the ideology and explain clearly, from as many angles as possible, why IS does not represent Muslims as a community and why violent jihad is not Islamic. The voices need to come from theologians, young activists, community leaders and a range of other actors working both offline and online,” she added.

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Tags:  IS  Internet  Jihadist  US  online  





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