Twitter has launched an offensive against Jihadist propaganda by closing down accounts belonging to Islamic extremist groups, mostly those affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), now rebranded as a self-proclaimed caliphate, or Islamic State.
Back in my PSYOPS days, about 5 years ago, part of our job was to conduct “counter-PSYOPS” operations, by capturing and analyzing enemy propaganda so we could use it against them. For instance, “Night letters” – death threats pinned the houses of Afghans working against the Taliban – became “day letters” sent to the enemy.
But most shocking were always the DVDs found in bazaars featuring successful suicide attacks against military convoys with voice-overs quoting the Quran, disseminating these videos as a show of force to convince the civilian population that they were winning and, most likely, to recruit young men and fool them into thinking they just bought their one-way ticket to Paradise aboard a suicide vest.
This was 2008, an era future anthropologists will likely refer to as the “Pre-Twitter Age.” Nowadays, anyone with an internet access and a Twitter account is able to follow ISIL’s advance on Iraqi cities, and the Taliban posts regular updates about their operations on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s account, @ABalkhi. Anyone, including young Muslims all over the world who only needed a little nudge to push them into the downward spiral of radicalization. An era when a Pakistani internet user in Abbotabad tweeted that he was hearing “helicopter noises” minutes before DEVGRU operators stormed Osama bin Laden’s lair.
Over the last few years, Jihadi and other extremist groups like ISIL and the Taliban have mastered the use of social media to spread propaganda, disinformation and to encourage recruitment. Gone are the days of Osama bin Laden’s VHS tapes sent to al-Jazeera – hundreds of videos have found their way on YouTube or are posted on Jihadist propaganda news forums, then forwarded on Twitter.
A technological savviness most appealing to a younger generation they wish to martyr, as most young men own a cell phone that can at least receive text messages and access the internet, and whose economic and political future lies in jeopardy – a vulnerability they happily play with. And they don’t limit themselves to social media – they even publish their own sleek, Western-style weekly magazine.
It took a while, but Twitter recently started suspending accounts related to ISIL as they kept marching on Iraq, notably one @Nnewsi which live-tweeted the advance on Mosul. In September 2013, they also took down an account related to Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants following the attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall.
Yet, for some reason, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Twitter account is still up. And in another twist of irony, extremist Islamic groups are using technology in a vast effort of information warfare while prohibiting it to the very people they conquer – Muslim civilians living in the areas they control – Western and Israeli technologies, no less (Israel is a major player in information tech).
In the second part of this analysis of armed groups’ propaganda efforts, we’ll examine their Hollywood-style means of production.