Originally published 5 May 2015. Picked by Natalie Sambhi.
Recent reports demonstrate that the online environment is playing an ongoing role in the radicalisation of those joining jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. Oliver Bridgeman’s decision to reportedly travel to Syria and fight with Jabhat al-Nusra is claimed to have been shaped by the online environment, and the role of ‘Australi Witness’ in the attacks in Garland, Texas testify to the power and significance of the online space. Various jihadist groups in the Syria-Iraq conflict zone, particularly Daesh, use social media aggressively, especially Twitter, to recruit fighters and disseminate propaganda about their activities. Daesh successfully exploits Twitter in both a strategic and tactical manner. Understanding why Daesh deploys and leverages Twitter is crucial in the development of effective intervention and disruption strategies. As the online environment continues to play a central role in the lives of particularly young people, the inherent vulnerabilities associated with it provides ubiquitous opportunities for malicious influence by these groups.
One of the primary purposes for which Daesh uses social media is to reinforce and refine the narrative associated with their activities—particularly their violent activities. Justifying violence with political or ideological claims is at the core of any terrorist or extremist action. These justifications are what distinguishes that violence from conventional criminal acts and empowers terrorist and extremist actions. Twitter can deliver, to a global audience, an increasingly refined and professional message designed specifically to leverage the established jihadist narrative that has been consistently reinforced since at least 9/11.
Twitter enables the establishment of a direct line between the tweets of individuals involved with Daesh and the front pages of major newspapers and the television screens of the broader public. By engaging in their communications strategy in a context whereby much of the symbolism and imagery of jihadist violence is well established and easily understood, Daesh is able to engage in more sophisticated symbolism and messaging. By forcing captives to wear orange jumpsuits reminiscent of those worn by detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Daesh provides imagery that resonates with their target audience, which enhances the messaging embedded in their output, and through symbolism, communicates the justification for their violence. The ease of access, scale of output, and options for interaction by virtual jihadists make Twitter an incredibly powerful tool for the political and ideological communication essential to any terrorist or extremist organisation.
Twitter is also increasingly powerful as a command and control system for the leaderless model that Daesh relies upon for its global operations. Recent attacks such as those in Garland, Texas demonstrate how guidance as well as suggested targets and tactics provided via Twitter are playing a role in the launching of Daesh activities outside of their discreet area of operations. In this instance, tweets allegedly by an Australian directly suggested the targeting of the cartoon competition. These were followed by tweets by the two operatives pledging allegiance to Daesh, and tweets from an ‘official’ account accepting this pledge all took place in close proximity to the attack. For an idea of how simply individuals can use Twitter in a sophisticated way, the attackers pre-emptively deployed a hashtag for the attack, providing a coherent stream of related tweets which other users could follow. Daesh intentionally seeks control of and actively shapes the social media coverage of themselves and empowers its supporters to participate via Twitter. This social media campaign is crucial to Daesh’s successful management of its public profile, and to the management of its global operations. Whether tweeting links to the ‘open source Jihad’ sections of Inspire, the Lone Mujāhid Pocketbook, or any of the doctrinal work that justifies and legitimises individual and small cell jihad, the network—and its empowerment—is greatly strengthened by Twitter.
The role of trust in social networks also informs much of the Daesh’s effectiveness in social media. Advertising and marketing research, as well as computer science research have demonstrated the benefits of peer-to-peer communication, and the authority and trust that is placed in information received through trusted peer relationships. In a terrorism or extremism context, social media enables this network of relationships to expand globally, and to no longer require either geographic, organisational or relational proximity to exist. It also greatly reduces opportunities for exposure to authorities. The privileging of information that is obtained through ‘friends’ on social media, combined with issues related to what David Malet identifies as transnational identities, provides a fertile basis on which Daesh is able to plant seeds of extremism and potentially terrorism.
Understanding how Twitter is exploited by Daesh is crucial to the development of effective counter strategies, be they rooted in countering violent extremism approaches, law enforcement responses, intelligence, or a carefully calibrated combination of these, and other public policy levers. The power of social media to maintain and reinforce narratives of meaning and to act as a command and control system for a decentralised and distributed network of global actors, built on peer-to-peer trust, is crucial to Daesh’s global aspirations, and the maintenance of its global presence. Monitoring and disrupting this network, and contesting the Daesh narrative are crucial to limiting the malicious power of Twitter.