When one thinks of an extremist / terrorist organization such as ISIL, the first things that comes to mind are probably guerrilla warfare, intimidation and coercion; given recent mass killings in Syria and Iraq, it is obvious where this image comes from. While this image is accurate, it is an incomplete view of the enemy we are fighting. What we are dealing with is a foe who embraces the theory of “hearts and minds” by providing essential services to people, is skilled in propaganda (especially when we give them “ammo”, such as drone warfare), and has embraced social media in order to attract a larger, younger, international following:
The extremist group battling the Iraqi government, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may practice a seventh-century version of fundamentalist Islam, but it has demonstrated modern sophistication when it comes to using social media, particularly Twitter and other sites like WordPress and Tumblr.
What ISIS realized, more quickly and effectively than its rivals, was that “smartphones and social media accounts are all that is needed to instantly share material in real time with tens of thousands of jihadists,” said Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst who on Friday published a study of ISIS and Twitter on the website of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online.
“ISIS, as well as its fighters and supporters, quickly adopted these tools and has been utilizing the latest Internet technologies and social media outlets to maintain massive, sophisticated online media campaigns used to promote jihad, communicate, recruit and intimidate,” Ms. Katz wrote.
Aside from sowing terror and winning extremist admirers, ISIS’s use of social media has also had both strategic and tactical impacts on the battlefield.
In Mosul, two weeks before ISIS attacked and overran the city, it began broadcasting individualized death threats on its Facebook accounts to every Iraqi journalist working in the city, said one of those singled out.
Many experts on extremists’ online activity have complained that the social networking sites should be policing their platforms better.
“Twitter must adapt to these new circumstances and become more proactive in deterring such activity,” Ms. Katz said. “It has the capability to carry out account monitoring and suspensions on much larger scales than it has thus far.”
An official of a social networking site, who said he would speak frankly only if his name was not used, said the huge size of the major sites made it impossible to enforce rules against terrorists’ use. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole,” he said.
“We constantly look at these things and when we find them we take them down,” he said. “Our policy is any terrorist organization, we take down.”
For instance, Facebook has shut down a half-dozen accounts linked to ISIS, the social networking official said.
Guerrilla warfare is intrinsically hard to defeat; by decentralizing power, the cost of any individual loss is minimized. Terrorist groups have successfully used this leaner form of warfare to counter opponents who have greater resources than them. Social media is an extension of guerrilla tactics; accounts are free to setup, and once one is closed, another pops up.
On Sunday, ISIL announced the formation of an Islamic caliphate on Twitter. This announcement was billed as “the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” according to Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. The fact that ISIL would take to social media for such an important announcement shows how fully the organization has embraced modern technologies.
To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist whose famous work “The Art of War” remains relevant today, it is important to both “know thy enemy and thyself”. The United States, under the leadership of President Obama, has “found” its Post-War on Terror foreign policy identity: a mixture of drone warfare, local capacity building in conflict areas (including technical “good governance” assistance, intelligence sharing, military training, and economic assistance) and more evenly spreading the costs of global security with other developed world powers.
We found this identity both from our own failures, and by recognizing that our enemy has evolved. Al Qaeda and its offshoots have gone from a relatively “vertical” organization under Osama Bin Laden, to a “horizontal” and splintered group of extremist organizations. Due to shortcomings in domestic governance, they have positioned themselves to Middle-Eastern societies as an alternative to modern democracy; a preserver of tradition and religion and provider of basic needs (including security against American drone warfare). Furthermore, they have begun to utilize tools such as social media to galvanize public support (similarly to how democratic movements have been organized via social media).
Extremist groups like ISIL are deplorable; they represent backwards and socially regressive norms. However, they have also proven themselves to be incredibly adaptable and resilient. With this in mind, it would be prudent for America and it’s allies to shift resources away from programs which fuel extremist popularity (such as drone warfare, which while sometimes needed, has been overused too the point of counter-productivity), and towards programs that undermine their appeal (government capacity building both for public service delivery and security forces, and building relationships / institutions which promote inclusive and pluralistic democratic governance).