Islamic State’s 52-second trailer “Flames of War” opens with a black-clad extremist blasting a U.S.-made tank into smoke and shrapnel, a Hollywood-style message to the U.S. and its allies about what they can expect for intervening in the Middle East again.
The nation that has produced Microsoft, Apple and Google now finds itself playing catch-up on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter with an extremist group rooted in 7th Century Arabia.
Islamic State’s use of social media has extended its reach beyond Syria and Iraq to Western and Asian homes, where it tries to convert resentment into radicalism. Countering those messages has become a pillar of the U.S. strategy to defeat the group.
The State Department has set up a Twitter account urging extremists to “Think Again, Turn Away,” which posts descriptions of Muslim communities ravaged by extremists. It’s also running a YouTube channel featuring videos that mock Islamic State for teaching young Muslims to “blow up mosques!”
“Social media is the most effective weapon” of Islamic State, said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Governments have to catch up,” he said. “It will require building totally a new capability.”
Even with their technological head start, the U.S. and its allies are coming late to this battle for hearts and minds. Social media’s volume, velocity and verisimilitude have left the U.S. struggling to counter it and mine the communication for reliable information.
By the end of this year, the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union projects that 55 percent of the world’s 2.3 billion mobile broadband subscriptions will be in developing countries, where unemployed youth can use them to access messages from Islamic State and other extremists.
So far, 12,000 foreigners have gone to Syria to fight, officials estimate, many lured by social media. U.S. officials say mastering the communication method is crucial because the war against militants can’t be won on the battlefield.
“It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology,” President Barack Obama said this week at the United Nations. “That means contesting the space that terrorists occupy, including the Internet and social media.”
Iraq’s new premier warned of the danger of social media in the hands of Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“The propaganda machine of ISIS is more dangerous than nuclear power,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in an interview at the UN. “They have this hatred propaganda, they send fear in the hearts of the people when they show chopping off of heads and killing people in cold blood.”
If social media is one of Islamic State’s most potent weapons, it’s also a potential vulnerability, providing a deep vein of information about them.
The intelligence community is grappling with how to filter the tsunami of information available through social media sites such as San Francisco-based Twitter Inc.; Menlo Park, California-based Facebook Inc.; or Mountain View, California-based Google Inc.’s YouTube.
“We are neophytes from the intelligence community world in the social media world,” Catherine Johnston, director for analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a conference on Sept. 18. “The intelligence community today is becoming drowned in data.”
The agencies are facing new and nontraditional data sources that “require us to quickly absorb huge quantities of data in ways that we’re really not comfortable with, data sources that we’re not familiar with,” Johnston said.
One of the biggest challenges is one the agencies share with consumers: how to tell fact from fiction. U.S. airstrikes in Syria this week left intelligence analysts seeking for days to confirm or debunk Internet postings on extremist websites and Twitter accounts that Muhsin al-Fadhli, the purported leader of an al-Qaeda group called Khorasan, had been killed.
The Obama administration recognizes that countering Islamic State’s messages is critical to having any chance of long-term success against the extremist group, according to an official who wasn’t authorized to speak by name.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 16 that the extremists “will ultimately be defeated when their cloak of religious legitimacy is stripped away and the populations on which they have imposed themselves reject them. Our actions are intended to move in that direction.”
The State Department’s @ThinkAgain_DOS Twitter account, with about 10,800 followers, seeks to undermine the radicals by showing how they are killing Muslims. A recent post displayed photos purportedly of dead Islamic State fighters. The Defense Department this week has been releasing video and PowerPoint presentations on U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
The YouTube channel that’s also run by the State Department’s Counterterrorism Communications division features videos, pulled from the extremists’ own postings, that include graphic footage of Muslims crucified, electrocuted and executed by the militants.
Islamic State is pushing back, releasing two videos featuring British hostage John Cantlie that are meant to delegitimize U.S. and European governments and media and appeal to a public wary of war.
Unlike the grainy hand-held footage of Islamic State beheadings, these videos, released Sept. 18 and Sept. 21 and shot from different camera angles, resemble a serious news report.
Cantlie appears against a black background, gaunt, and in measured tones promises to lay out in a series of videos the lies Western governments and media tell about Islamic State and expose their rush to enter another Middle East war.
The administration official acknowledged that Islamic State is agile in its use of social media. The U.S. isn’t yet structured to counterattack effectively, the official said, but that effort is under way.
Alberto Fernandez, the coordinator for State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, told National Public Radio he hopes “potential recruits will be repulsed by the brutality, especially that committed against Muslims,” highlighted by the State Department’s social media campaign.
The center has done Arabic-language messaging since 2011, and began its English-language efforts in July. The militants have had “a long lead time, there are more of them, they have been doing this longer,” Fernandez said. “We are way behind, and we are outmanned.” Now, at least, the U.S. is working in the same social media space, he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry has sent Richard Stengel, undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, to the Middle East to express concern to major media outlets such as Al Jazeera about their coverage of the group and of the U.S., according to a State Department official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
The official said the U.S. is considering pressing social media companies to deny militants access to their platforms and whether to ask allied countries to make the same request of their private sector.
Government alone won’t be able to counter Islamic State’s powerful messaging effectively, said Gunaratna. “Creativity is at the heart of effective response,” he said, “and most governments are bureaucratic.”
The administration will have to marshal art directors, filmmakers and the private sector to fight back, he said.
Some of the most powerful campaigns to date don’t carry a government stamp. Young Muslims worldwide have taken to Twitter and YouTube with a slogan used against the Iraq War -- “Not in My Name” -- to protest Islamic State actions.
The emotional campaign mirrors one of Islamic State’s great social media strengths, Gunaratna said. The group understands that its messages don’t have to be logical because “it’s the message that radicalizes, not the logic. It’s their capacity to convince; it’s just like a Hollywood movie.”