The jihadist group ISIL, which is threatening to overrun Iraq, operates a sophisticated social media strategy that is designed to spread fear, solicit funding and recruit new members.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, feeds updates from the front lines through several platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts.
Jihad experts say ISIL has one of the most sophisticated social media strategies of any extremist group and that the recent surge in social media posts, in a variety of languages including English, is not simply an organic groundswell of support.
The group has had to play a cat and mouse game as it attempts to develop their online following, evade censorship and keep information flowing out.
This means constantly creating and swapping “official” accounts and the use of third parties to disseminate live updates and images.
There's an app for that
The campaign’s core was an Android app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings. It was launched in April and was available on the Google Play store for months. It is understood that Google has recently removed the app.
After signing up, a stream of tweets selected by ISIL's social media operatives would be posted to the user's account, staggered in order to evade detection by Twitter's anti-spam algorithms.
Earlier this month the group was live tweeting updates and images of its capture of the strategic town of Mosul in northern Iraq. The insurgents, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have launched a campaign to conquer much of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan and unite the region into a caliphate, a kingdom under Sharia law.
Queensland University senior international relations lecturer Dr Andrew Phillips told Fairfax Media that jihadists have been using social media for years and that al-Qaeda and now ISIL have been particularly effective early adopters.
“Seizing Mosul is a major propaganda coup, which catapults ISIS over al-Qaeda, with whom they are now estranged, as Iraq and the region's number one threat,” Dr Phillips said.
Beyond intimidating their opponents, the two key target markets for groups like ISIL are donors and recruits, particularly disenfranchised second and third generation Muslim migrants in Western countries (including Australia), who Dr Phillips says are high priority potential recruits.
“Social media appeals to jihadists for the same reason it appeals to non-violent political parties and other social movements: it provides cheap, global platforms that enable non-state actors to reach out to geographically dispersed global constituencies while refining their message to tap into local grievances,” Dr Phillips said.
Coordination is the key
Extremism and social media analyst J M Berger says the group is deploying a coordinated and effective social campaign.
For example, as the attacks on Mosul began, many accounts tweeted a similar message: “We are coming Baghdad” with an image of an ISIL flag above the capital.
“This is a combination of an extremely ambitious military campaign with an extremely ambitious PR campaign. Social media is most of that PR campaign,” Mr Berger told CBS News.
ISIL insider and spokesperson Abu Bakr al Janabi confirmed the group’s extensive social media strategy to Vice News.
“There are different types of ISIS divisions on social media: the ISIS official media account, which publishes all its video releases, ISIS province accounts, which publish live feed info and pictures, the ISIS mujahideen accounts, where fighters talk about their experience and daily life, and ISIS supporters, who counter Western, Shia, and tyrants' propaganda and lies.”
Twitter activity by ISIL supporters and the wider jihadist online community increased drastically in recent weeks with over 40,000 tweets sent.
Mr Berger tracked almost 3 million tweets from 7500 accounts involved in jihadist networks that were hashtagged with four popular jihadist hashtags: #isis, #jabhatalnusra, #islamicfront and #daash.
Tweets tagged #isis doubled during the Mosul attacks, as did tweets tagged Syria. Those tagged Iraq increased tenfold.
The significant increase of tweets among these communities indicates how far reaching and active many of these groups are online.
The tag that saw the highest growth was Daash, which Mr Berger says is a derogatory reference to ISIL used by its critics, in this case jihadist groups chasing the same donors such as Jabhat al Nusra.
Analysts say even if they lose ground won in the recent spate of battles, the recognition and online momentum will be invaluable to ISIL.
The United States and its allies run continuous interference against jihadist social media campaigns. But as fast host sites or social media accounts containing propaganda are taken down, similar ones usually pop up very quickly.
“This is not to say that efforts to suppress jihadist social media campaigns are futile - far from it,” Dr Phillips said. “But it is to stress that while the internet remains a 'Wild West'.
This includes the sharing of horrific photos of victims, as well as genuine accounts from "fan boys" to young people involved in the fighting sharing their experiences and posting images of everyday life from the front lines.