ISIS and the Big Three

The Islamic State has found its latest social media flavor of the month, the encrypted and security-conscious messaging service known as Telegram.

J. M. Berger

The Islamic State has found its latest social media flavor of the month, the encrypted and security-conscious messaging service known as Telegram.

It’s only the latest installment in the saga of jihadist use of social media, a story that stretches back more than a decade and encompasses a multitude of platforms.

isis-socialmedia

Illustration: ISIS flag and social media logos.

Terrorists are no strangers to technology; most are early adopters. Since the late 1980s, right-wing extremists in the United States had used one of the earliest forms of social media — dial-up bulletin boards — to stay in contact and share information. For instance, one white supremacist group maintained an electronic list of gay men compiled by members who dialed in from various locations, with the intention of using it as a hit list when they launched their hoped-for insurgency.[i]

As far back as the 1990s, jihadists used computers and e-mail to communicate and coordinate operations. After September 11, web sites, blogs and message boards became key nodes in the global jihadist movement, as in-person communication and recruitment became riskier. Some were directly controlled by al Qaeda members, while others were controlled by supporters.[ii]

Message boards and chat rooms became multi-function platforms for recruitment, operational communications, and the authentication and distribution of propaganda. But they were limited. You had to find one, first, and register, and many of them required a referral to create an account. Over time, the forums became technically unstable, with cyber-attacks slowing page loads to a crawl or knocking them offline entirely, for days or weeks.[iii]

Yet jihadis were slow to adopt social media platforms, as they first rose to prominence. They used YouTube, because it was an effective platform for disseminating video propaganda, but most of their activity remained on the message boards. In part, this was driven by security concerns. But, importantly, the forums offered a measure of control for al Qaeda. Each forum was policed by moderators, who were empowered by doctrinaire forum owners. If a user expressed dissenting opinions, they could be disciplined, censored or even expelled.[iv]

This strength ultimately became the greatest weakness of the message boards. Starting in 2012 and deepening in 2013, a number of internal divisions rocked the boards. Although al Qaeda had some presence on Twitter and Facebook already, two conflicts among jihadists fueled a massive shift in activity from the closed ecosystem of the boards to the Wild West environment of social media.

First, foreign fighters with Somalia’s al Shabab, broke with the group’s leadership, alleging corruption and airing other complaints. The media-savvy al Qaeda affiliate had been one of the earliest adopters of Twitter as a method of disseminating official propaganda. The most visible face of dissent, American Shabab recruit Omar Hammami, first tried to air his problems on the message boards, but administrators censored all discussion of the dissent. Hammami then took to YouTube and Twitter to air his grievances in the hopes of attracting the attention of al Qaeda Central, whom the dissenters could not otherwise reach.

Omar Hammami. Screenshot from a video released on YouTube.

Omar Hammami. Screenshot from a video released on YouTube.

Other dissenters also took to Twitter and to Facebook, where Hammami maintained a more covert presence for communicating with trusted associates. In response to the allegations, dozens and soon hundreds of al Shabab supporters also began using Twitter, at first to rebut the dissenters, but soon for social conversation among themselves and other jihadist sympathizers. Many of them stayed online even after the uprising was brutally crushed and the dissenters killed.[v]

Around the same time, conflicts began to brew on the top tier al Qaeda-controlled message boards regarding the Islamic State of Iraq, the precursor group to ISIS. Prominent, veteran members of the forums began to express suspicions about ISI’s intentions, intimating that the group had been infiltrated by the forces of evil and was planning actions that would harm the global jihad.

Because of the stature of those making the allegations, the administrators did not immediately eject them, but the conflict became uglier and more divisive, and eventually several key figures were banned from the message boards. They moved to social media, including Facebook and Twitter, where some of them netted tens of thousands of followers, a far bigger audience than they ever enjoyed on the closeted boards. Soon, most of the prominent message board members and administrators had established themselves on Twitter, creating an alternative forum for conversation, and for recruiting.[vi]

Recruitment was, in many ways, the game changer. Online activity and terrorist recruitment had always gone hand in hand, but the Syrian civil war had dramatically amplified the problem. In part because of widespread support for the rebels in the Gulf and elsewhere, fundraising, recruitment and incitement took place in broad daylight, with prominent clerics tweeting bank account information to send donations. While online networking was by no means solely responsible for the growth of these movements, it added value exponentially, allowing extremists to operate at scale and efficiently sift the world for the tiny percentage of people who were susceptible to their message.[vii]

One group was especially poised to take advantage of the new format. In late 2013, ISIS launched a highly organized social media campaign on Twitter, the likes of which had never been seen before. Employing large teams of highly organized users, along with techniques to automate tweeting, ISIS exploded into prominence, quickly dwarfing the more organic efforts of its primary competitor for recruits and funds, the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.

A cadre of more than 3,000 Twitter accounts drummed out a steady but fast-faced beat of propaganda and hashtags, steering the global jihadist narrative toward ISIS and away from al Qaeda. Soon, these accounts were supplemented by thousands of bots, which could tweet ISIS propaganda in concert, allowing trending its hashtags and inserting its propaganda into online conversations about different topics. While social media was only one part of the complex picture that led ISIS to dominate the global jihadist movement, it was an important part, helping inspire lone wolf attacks and fuel foreign fighter migration in unprecedented numbers around the world. At the peak of this activity, would-be foreign fighters would sometimes travel to Turkey without clear plans and once there, send tweets asking for assistance crossing the border into Syria.[viii]

But from 2013 through 2016, social media platforms began to crack down on ISIS-supporting users and other jihadists, suspending accounts by the thousands. Facebook and YouTube took very aggressive action to suppress terrorist propaganda and recruitment, while Twitter ramped up its efforts more gradually. Today, ISIS is under pressure on all three platforms, although it continues to focus particularly on Twitter, where it has enjoyed its greatest success.[ix]

In response to pressure from suspensions starting in 2014, ISIS began an exodus to other, smaller social media platforms, including Friendica, Diaspora, Quitter and the Russian version of Facebook, VKontakte. But each of these platforms eventually cracked down. It moved content to Tumblr, and second-tier video sharing sites like Vimeo.[x]

Today, its alternative platform of choice is Telegram, a system that combines elements of both Facebook and Twitter, along with options for encryption and secret chats. Currently, most of ISIS’s official output is released on Telegram first, then disseminated to other platforms. As many as 20,000 ISIS associated users can be found on Telegram, although its privacy settings make it difficult to estimate accurately. In addition to the release of propaganda, Telegram provides a home for conversation, and represents a hybrid of social media functionality with the moderated space of the old message boards, since membership in group and secret chats can be controlled.

Telegram has cracked down on ISIS content, but only sporadically so far, and its efforts have focused on ISIS disseminators more heavily than the accounts of individual supporters. For now, at least, Telegram is a fairly stable space for ISIS supporters to communicate, if not exactly safe – Egypt and Iran have arrested scores of people on the pretext that they were supporting ISIS on Telegram.[xi]

So why do ISIS supporters keep returning to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, despite the significant pressure from fast and furious suspensions? Why do ISIS recruiters and social media activists urge users to return to Twitter over and over again, creating new account after new account, as many as hundreds of times, even though many returnees are almost immediately suspended?

The answer is simple. That’s where the audience is.

While ISIS can and will seek out alternative platforms for its propaganda and recruitment efforts, it can’t make its targets come along for the ride. Telegram, for all its strengths, is not a platform where people can easily seek out and discover ISIS supporters and recruiters.

ISIS has made itself into an unprecedented terrorist force through its smart and aggressive recruitment tactics. But the first stage of recruitment is, necessarily, discovery. If would-be recruits can’t reliably connect with supporters and recruiters whose role is to explain and reinforce the group’s sales pitch, ISIS can’t do its work as efficiently.

Once discovery has taken place, open social media continues to be essential. After first contact, the next step in the online recruitment process sees ISIS supporters swarm around a potential recruit, attempting to create the aura of a welcoming, accepting community, and offering social support on a 24/7 basis. That environment is a precursor to initiating more private communications, such as a shift to a platform like Telegram, and the approach difficult to sustain when accounts are continually knocked offline. The constant absences make the community feels unstable, and the most effective supporters and recruiters have been so heavily targeted by suspensions that they feel compelled to change their online names and personae, further complicating the effort to create an enveloping warmth.

Some potential recruits are so primed for violence or extremist views that they may seek out ISIS on an alternative platform, such as Telegram, but in most cases, these early-stage transactions must take place in the daylight, to some extent.

There is no question that Telegram is the latest, favorite alternative tool for ISIS supporters and members, and it does provide them with benefits. Eventually, Telegram will probably crack down on them. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter all resisted early calls for aggressive action against jihadist use of their platforms; they had to be convinced to take action by a procession of critics and negative news coverage.

Yet Telegram ultimately can’t get the job – recruitment and dissemination – done. That’s why the most prominent ISIS social media activists continue to urge their increasingly reluctant followers on Telegram to get back on to Twitter and Facebook, despite the likelihood their new accounts will be short-lived. In the words of one ISIS activist posting in English on Telegram:

Telegram is not a media platform for dawa [proselytizing] to all Muslims and the West. No one will enter your channel except the Ansar [ISIS supporters] who already know the truth. Or your enemies to report you. Rarely would you find someone from general public following you. That’s why our main platform is [w]here the General Public is found. Like on Twitter and Facebook.[xii]

When Telegram eventually gets tough on ISIS, its supporters and followers will move on to the next new thing. But they will continue to battle for a presence on the Big Three platforms. That’s where “the General Public is found,” and that is where they can do the most damage. Even highly sensitive ISIS operations, such as the terror cell that carried out attacks in Paris last year and Brussels in March, have used open social media platforms, including Twitter, for communications and recruitment.[xiii]

The scope and reach of the Big Three platforms have helped to swell jihadist ranks dramatically over the last ten years, and the same social dynamics that empowered jihadists will likely fuel growth among other extremist movements in the next ten.

That is why the battle over those platforms’ terms of service and rules of behavior will continue to be a critical element of fighting violent extremism and a major subject of debate. For jihadists to sustain the historic growth that the movement has experienced over the last several years, they need access to the biggest possible audience.

J.M. Berger is a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror.

Footnotes:

[i] FBI Letterhead Memorandum, “Texas Reserve Militia,” December 21, 1990. Obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

[ii] SOCOM-2012-0000004-HT. “Letter from Adam Gadahn.” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. January 2011.

[iii] “Jihadist forum knocked off Internet.” Associated Press. June 30, 2011; Stern, Jessica, and John M. Berger. ISIS: The state of terror. HarperCollins, 2015. Chapter 6.

[iv] Stern and Berger, op. cit.

[v] Berger, J.M. “Me Against the World,” Foreign Policy (2012); Berger, J. M. “Omar and Me: My strange, frustrating relationship with an American terrorist.” Foreign Policy (2013).

[vi] Busch, Tony. “How Twitter Is Messing With Al-Qaeda’s Careful PR Machine.” The Atlantic. May 14, 2013.

[vii] “Fundraising Campaign In Kuwait For Designated Terrorist Group Jabhat Al-Nusra Using Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube.” MEMRI. May 17, 2013.

[viii] Data collected from Twitter and analyzed by the author.

[ix] Berger, J. M., and Jonathon Morgan. “The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter.” The Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World 3, no. 20 (2015); Berger, J.M. and Heather Perez, “The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter,” George Washington University’s Program on Extremism (2016).

[x] “ISIS Faces Resistance From Social Media Companies.” Anti Defamation League. July 23, 2014.

[xi] Berger and Perez, op. cit.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Based on data collected from Twitter and analyzed by the author.

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About J. M. Berger

J.M. Berger is a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism. He is a researcher, analyst and consultant, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and use of social media.
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