34: ISIS and Social Media (Extended Interview)

July 15, 2015 0 Comments

Dr. Michael Barak, researcher for the Middle East Network Analysis Desk at the MDC as well as the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC, spoke with Diwaniyya about the extensive use of social media by jihadi organizations across the Arab world.
Below is a transcript of our extended interview with Dr. Barak.


Stephan Barton: So we’re talking today about social networks and the influence they have on the different extremist groups and the way that they use them. Why don’t you start by telling us what social networks are, and what are the different Islamist groups that are using it.
Michael Barak: Briefly, social networking is an online platform that allows users to create a public profile and interact with other users on the website. Social networking sites [commonly abbreviated SNS] usually have a new user input, a list of people with whom they share a connection, and then allow the people on the list to confirm or deny the connection.

Today, most of the Islamist groups are using social networks. The most active terrorist organization is ISIS, which has developed sophisticated ways to disseminate its propaganda. You can find ISIS, you can find al-Qaeda, and Nusra Front also.

SB:      I think that’s interesting because al-Qaeda had very different methods to build its network. It seems this is a much more recent take on how to go about that. The use of the internet has developed a lot over the last decade and a half.
MB:    Right. So I think we should take ISIS as an example of an organization that took it to a new level. There is an official media outlet, al-Furqan, which disseminates official messages, videos, and audio [recordings] via SNS. There are also semi-official media outlets which support ISIS. For example, we can take the Palestinian group that supports ISIS from the Gaza Strip, al-Nusra al-Maqdisiyya (The assistants of Jerusalem). Hamas is also [active on social media], it’s not only the Salafist jihadist organizations. Hamas recently opened an option for [Internet] surfers called “Ask Hamas a Question.” Each day, there was a different leader from Hamas, for example Isma’il Haniyeh, who answered questions of surfers on Twitter. The main goal is to disseminate Hamas ideology and propaganda against Israel.

Most terrorist organizations can be found on Twitter. If you are not on Twitter, you don’t exist.

SB:      Should we move on to the question of why the new generation of the social networks is becoming so successful in disseminating these kinds of ideas?
MB:    SNS is widespread among young people. ISIS tries to disseminate its ideology to the young generation and to recruit young people from Europe. You can find propaganda on Twitter in English and in Arabic. In France, for example, there is a big community from Morocco and Tunisia, so many young people from there are being exposed to the propaganda via Twitter, and they join the jihadist theater in Syria and Iraq. So first of all, it’s a good tool to use because most young people are aware of how to use it. Secondly, it costs nothing. You can easily open a Twitter account to spread short messages.
The short message is an important tool to spread and to appeal to young people because it’s short and to the point. You send the message clearly. The messages show that ISIS is successful in the field, having managed to establish a caliphate. They managed to destroy the Iraqi Army, the Shi’a. They spread photos and videos to show how the Iraqi Army was defeated, and also publish online magazines dedicated to this purpose. So when young people see that, messages of success, they want to be part of this success. And they join. It’s also kind of a psychological warfare against the enemy.

SB:      It’s actually very interesting. The notion that you send those small messages, there’s more percussion, it’s almost like advertising, like slogans that will catch.
MB:    And these messages are wrapped, Hollywood-style. The quality of the material is very high. Like for ISIS, sometimes they publish on Twitter or Facebook the desire to recruit [technically-skilled people] who will help them produce these movies. If you watch a movie – I don’t suggest it because it’s filled with violence – but if somebody watches these films, you can see that a lot of thought was invested, every frame has been taken into consideration. So these movies also appeal to young people. And when they come to the field, they get weapons, they get cars, and also a woman, a Yezidi woman for example. Every warrior has the right to have a woman. All this propaganda about the things that he’s going to receive in the field is what attracts young people from Europe.

Now, ISIS also speaks about the old generation. They want to recruit them also, so they opened a new office to invest efforts [towards] a strategy for recruiting older people.

SB:      Is that something that they do to gain more credibility, to have not only youths, but to actually bring in some of the older guard? What’s the purpose behind that?
MB:    They want to show that the message of jihad is not limited only to the young generation, but it’s for the whole Ummah, the whole nation. So they appeal to the whole [Muslim] nation, young and old, men and women. There are special battalions of women that patrol the streets in Syria, for example, in the provinces that ISIS conquered, that are responsible for public order and applying Sharia’. Concerning the media outlets that I mentioned, upon every province that ISIS conquered, there is a local outlet [established]. For example, in Iraq’s Salah ad-Din province, in Baghdad province, there is a media outlet that produces news about what is going on in the field, like, “we succeeded in conquering an Iraqi base, we succeeded in killing Iraqi soldiers,” things like that. So this is also part of the structure of the media of ISIS.

SB:      Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the security measures, if any, that social networks are undertaking to try and control…
MB:    So ISIS is very aware of that, and published guidelines in Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks [about] how to become aware of the activity of the intelligence factors. So first of all they advise to use encryption software. For example, the most famous one is Tor. [1] This way they hope to prevent any exposure of ISIS activities. This is one step of security. The second is to hide your IP address, to hide your identity on Twitter. You don’t have to expose your location when you are tweeting.

SB:      So obviously, some of these kids are very savvy with using these techniques, and this explains also why the recruitment is so international. You know, adolescents from all walks of life, from all around the world who are going there because they are IT specialists, and they take advantage of the techniques that they’ve learned abroad.
MB:    Right. They even sent a threatening message to the founder of Twitter because the management saw that the messages that were being disseminated were too violent, so they shut down the Twitter accounts and the hashtags that ISIS created. So ISIS threatened the Twitter management to stop or risk losing his life.

SB:      What kind of measures can social networks take to do a better job of stopping these incidents?
MB:    There is a debate in the United States whether it’s ethical to close these Twitter accounts or to prevent their political expressions on Twitter. So I think we have to solve this issue first, if it’s ethical or not. Secondly, the Obama administration [speaks] about how they are going to recruit the moderate Muslim voice in the world. The leadership of the Muslim world has to be more aware and more active on Twitter. They have to create a counter-narrative against ISIS. So for example, if ISIS justifies jihad against the Shi’a, there should be involvement of leaders from the Muslim world saying that it is not right to spread your belief by violence. If you want, you can do it by da’wa, by propaganda, but not by [violence]. So first of all, we have to involve the leadership of the Muslim world, for example al-Azhar. [2] Secondly, we can also involve the public to create special units that will monitor ISIS messages on SNS, and to counter them. It’s a never-ending war. You have to be aware all the time.

In the beginning of September 2014 British Muslims from the Active Change Foundation [3] launched an English-language PR campaign against ISIS under the heading #notinmyname. The campaign included a PR video explaining not only why ISIS does not represent Muslims, but also that its behavior and practices actually violate the laws of Islam. In Canada, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community launched a similar campaign under the title #stopthecrisis. [4] So there is also a war of hashtags. If ISIS opens a hashtag promoting jihad in France or the United States, you can find intelligence factors that create hashtags [countering] that this is not right, that this is against Islam.

SB:      We’ve seen that the international community was having some trouble and is usually a step behind in controlling the flow of information that goes back and forth. So it was interesting to me to see a few months ago that [hacktivist group] Anonymous was going to start the struggle against ISIS. Do you think this is a phenomenon that will really take shape? What kind of influence can it have?
MB:    Anonymous, well, first of all you don’t know who stands behind it. This activity, I cannot consider it very successful. OK, they managed to shut down several ISIS accounts, but if you shut down one, a day after that, a terrorist can open two [new] accounts. So it can maybe hinder or slow down the propaganda, but it’s not a useful tool.

SB:      But as far as you’re concerned, if anything is actually going to be effective, it will have to come from nations rather than…
MB:    There should be international cooperation. There should be cooperation between the state, universities, the public, and religious leadership to produce a counter-narrative against ISIS. Everyone has to be involved. Not all the public, [but] there should be special courses for civilians where they will learn how Twitter works, how Facebook works, and [how] to spread a counter-narrative against ISIS.

SB:      Should we go over the recruiting techniques?
MB:    There are several. I can mention for example several online magazines like DabiqDabiq is the most important ISIS magazine. In the end of every magazine, like Inspire which is published by al-Qaeda, there is a special code with a link to a special software program. You have to install this program, in al-Qaeda’s case it’s called asrar al-mujahideen (secrets of the mujahideen). As you install this software, you have to put in this special code, and then you have access to one of the leaders of terrorist organizations, and then you can ask him how you can join. This is the most prominent one. You also have closed groups inside Jihadi forums. You have al-Fidaa’, Shumukh al-Islam, al-Minbar, in which you can also ask the manager of these jihadi forums how you can join. And blogs: Recently we heard about the Pakistani from the UK who opened a blog trying to recruit English-speaking Muslims.

SB:      That, to me, is a great paradox, because on the one hand, these things are supposed to be hidden enough so that they’re not open to just about anybody. But at the same time, there are a lot of people who are able to gain access to it. And yet, the governments and social networks fail to stay ahead of it. It seems like these groups are always a step in front of the security measures.
MB:    Yes. You know that these terrorists, they also translate researchers in the West, about what are the intentions of the West to counter ISIS, or the use of social media networks. By these translations, they want to bring new material to the terrorists, saying, OK, we have to think now how to find new ways to cope with the West.”

ISIS follows think-tank research that tries to find ways to combat cyber warfare. This research has been translated into Arabic in order to let the terrorists learn how the West is thinking, and how to find creative ways to answer that threat. So you can find guides, you can find videos on YouTube explaining to terrorists how to prevent, or how to be cautious of cyber warfare from the West. For example, the United Kingdom is creating a special force of “Facebook Warriors,” skilled in psychological operations and the use of social media, to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age. [5] The Israeli and the US militaries also have similar teams.

SB:      So there is really a concerted effort now by the international community to try to come up not only with an individual response for their particular country, but to create an international web to slow down this process.
MB:    Yes. But again, the activity of these intelligence factors is not enough. The Muslim religious leadership should be [a part of] this story. They should be involved with SNS, to produce and create hashtags against ISIS to show that their messages are against the tenets of Islam.

I mentioned that ISIS and other terrorist organizations are trying to find new ways how to hack into infrastructures in the West, how to cause more damage. Recently, an ISIS hacker group that calls itself the “Cybercaliphate” [6] hacked the French television network Le Monde, and they managed to shut down eleven channels of their TV network for three hours. Not only that, but they also planted a message saying that France should stop interfering in Iraq and pull out its forces from the coalition against ISIS. This is very worrying because if they manage to shut down this TV channel, it means that they are developing their skills. This is the first time we are aware of such a phenomenon. Intelligence factors are worried that ISIS or other terrorist organizations can hack electricity networks and shut down electricity or other facilities like water, [which] can cause a lot of damage and psychological effect.

SB:      Do you think this is what we can expect in the near future? That the development of this warfare technique will actually go beyond recruitment and advertising and into actual concrete terrorist attacks?
MB:    Yes, you are right. That is what’s going on. [As] the terrorist organizations develop their skills, they’re showing new, creative ways to hack, and because of ISIS, they’re successful in the field. Because they fight against the coalition, they provoke more empathy for their cause. So you can find hackers from Morocco, from Mauritania, from Turkey, who try to hack Western sites. For example, there are also attacks against electricity in Israel. Israel, until now, managed to cope with that very successfully. But this is a never-ending war.



Stefan Barton - Host
Jordan Sokolic - Producer, Editor



Diwaniyya Contributor