Fighting the Digital Caliphate: The war against the keyboard jihadis

By Shahzeb Ahmed

The video starts with two hands raised in prayer. Soon, the hands are preparing a bomb. The man appears to don the prepared bomb inside a suicide vest. The next frame features scenes from New York City.

This is an Islamic State message shared on multiple social media platforms and further transmitted by mainstream media outlets.
It is what, experts say, makes ISIS most fearsome – and effective.

Formed three years ago, the Islamic State seems to be the largest terror organization in the world, infamous as much for its voracious appetite for gory violence as well as for its slick publicity of horrific crimes.

What has propelled ISIS’  threat so quickly worldwide, when other terror organizations such as Al Qaeda have been around for longer and have roots across the globe?

The answer, experts explain, lies in the ISIS’s mastery of modern digital tools.

Over the last few years, it has proved fluent in a variety of platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media, turning the west’s own inventions against it. In fact, ISIS has a dedicated media wing, with personnel monitoring and updating its social media presence while transmitting propaganda videos and text messages across the world.

These are then further disseminated by ordinary users as well as the mainstream media, eager to showcase images of a conflict to which they have little to no access.

It was exactly these tactics that transformed the ISIS into a worldwide phenomenon – something Al Qaeda’s dull videos of Osama bin Laden’s lectures largely failed to achieve.

Through these platforms, ISIS has managed to cultivate an image of grandiosity – deriving power from its ability to inspire fear that is well out of proportion to the threat it actually poses.

“What many people fail to realize is that around 80 percent to 85 percent of all the content they [ISIS] create is in Arabic,” said Richard Stengel, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the U.S. State Department, adding that the second most popular language is Russian with English only in the third place.

“They’re not focused on us or the American homeland, but they have been successful in frightening us and making us believe that we are the focus,” he said at a recent session exploring the digital reaches of ISIS.

Stengel speaks from experience, having been at the forefront of the digital war as the U.S. tries to dissuade ISIS recruits on social media, while attempting to project a positive image of the U.S.  in foreign lands. The longest-serving Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, he describes his role as the “chief marketing officer for Brand U.S.A”.

He spoke of his experience at a session titled “Terrorism and Propaganda in the Digital Age,” hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently. James Warren, the chief media writer at the Poynter Institute, joined him as the duo conversed about the State Department’s endeavors in combating terror on the digital landscape.

“The other kind of misnomer is that they [ISIS] are just doing beheadings and graphic violence,” said Stengel. “The lion’s share of their content is positive: come to the caliphate. They had pictures of children on Ferris wheels and fruits and that is what 70 percent of their messaging was: it was this altruistic call, which is why it was so effective,” he explained.

The U.S. has now grasped that countering this type of messaging through rebuttals and social media posts was not only ineffective, it was actually counter-productive.

“What we realized was that fighting social media fire by social media fire was a non-starter, particularly when that fire comes from the federal government,” said Stengel.

In 2010, under then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a new entity was formed at the State Department, called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism and Communications. The aim was to counter Al Qaeda propaganda on social media. In March  the center was transformed into the Global Engagement Center by an executive order signed by President Obama.

“A tweet from the Under Secretary of the State Department to a young man in Belgium who is thinking of going to fight in Iraq and Syria is not going to dissuade him,” he reasoned. “In fact, what we realized is that with the tit-for-tat we were doing, they [ISIS] were using us as a recruitment tool, having the exact opposite of what we were attempting.”
The GEC has changed its tactics. It now aims to amplify “credible, third-party voices who actually have some skin in the game: Muslim voices,” according to Stengel.

Today, one of the main tasks of the center is to collaborate with organizations working to combat ISIS from across the world and to amplify their voices to reach a larger audience. These include think tanks, mainstream Muslim organizations and religious scholars who have denounced ISIS and its terror tactics. “People have realized that this [ISIS propaganda] is an existential threat to Islam and they must mobilize and get the true values of Islam to others,” he said.

Of late, ISIS’ presence on social media has diminished by almost 70 to 80 percent along with huge losses in territory in Iraq and Syria. Stengel attributed these successes to military action on the ground and stricter enforcement by social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube to mute ISIS propaganda as well as the work done by the GEC.

But the threat is far from over, he warned. Though the ISIS presence on open public forums may have diminished, the terror group has moved to closed groups on encrypted platforms such as Telegram to reach a targeted audience.

“A lot of these ISIS fanboys have left Twitter and moved to some of the encrypted platforms such as Whatsapp or Telegram or Signal where they are reaching out to individuals,” he explained. “That’s the scary part, because it gives rise to the lone actors’ phenomenon that we’ve seen in the domestic space, in Orlando, in San Bernardino.”

With this shift, the challenge too has changed, Stengel believed.

It is no longer about quieting ISIS’ glossy propaganda; instead, law enforcement must find a way to deal with the targeted outreach that has inspired recent terror incidents in the West. “That is a another scale problem, a finer problem. It’s about how do you deal with this kind of threat from a law enforcement standpoint and even a mental health standpoint,” he said.

Photo at top: State Department Under Secretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel in conversation with Poynter Institute chief media writer James Warren at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs on Friday.(Shahzeb Ahmed/MEDILL)