ISIS/ISIL: Jihadists Go for the Lulz

CBC The Current - ISIS/ISIL: Jihadists Go for the Lulz

I don’t seek out media appearances but last week was a busy one for me. I was interviewed by CBS News, BBC World Service, Jonathan Green of Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sunday Extra, and by Piya Chattopadhyay of the CBC’s The Current. I also had invitations from NPR and CTV that I, unfortunately, had to turn down due to time constraints. It was a busy week but thankfully all of the journalists, hosts and producers who reached out to me had a sincere interest in complex stories. They are my kind of people so talking to them was actually quite fun.

A thirty minute guest slot on a radio show seems like an eternally long time when the invitation is extended. But believe me when I tell you that it passes in an instant. A five minute appearance is even worse. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. I still have no idea what I said during my brief 1 a.m. BBC World Service appearance but I do know that an absolutely terrifying number of people do. So that leaves a few more thoughts on this subject that I didn’t quite get to…

It wasn’t too long ago that the hacker group LulzSec rampaged through the internet. They appeared to be an unstoppable force. They were seemingly above the law. In fact, they openly mocked it day in, day out. Throughout it all their message was magnified by non-stop attention from global media fueled by a massive social media footprint. For months the feds looked absolutely lost and outmatched. In reality, they were quite the opposite. They quietly and methodically identified the key players, picked the core group apart, then shut them down and locked them up. Along the way they leveraged the intelligence gathered and the informants created to go on a rampage of their own. The feds won and they won big. So when looking at groups like this it’s important to remember that Superpowers don’t tweet their way to lulz. They use intelligence, police work, courts and the occasional missile. And Hellfires are the ultimate last lulz.

ISIS, although far more dangerous and disturbing, has swept into the public consciousness in much the same way as LulzSec. Their spectacular success on the ground has been augmented by a clever, well-orchestrated, social media campaign. More importantly, its members and supporters speak the language of social media, and are able to build campaigns around it, in a way that few other groups have. They get snark. They understand the quirky humor and leverage it to their advantage. They know how to make their message move and how to trigger a response. They even have technical resources to help them do that. All of it would be unremarkable, actually, if not for their mission and the surrealness of unspeakable brutality juxtaposed with the odd kitten and AK-47 pic.

Still, none of this should be surprising. We are now in era where a good portion of the planet has grown up with social media. In the very near future (and in the case of ISIS right now) extremists won’t have to learn how to leverage the tools or the lingo. Everyone of fighting age will be a digital native with life in social media that likely pre-dates their radicalization. All of this social media campaigning (which still strikes some as sophisticated) will be second nature to them. And again, in the case of ISIS, it is obviously second nature to many of its supporters right now.

A rapid stream of ISIS victories, massive amounts of media coverage and millions of breathless tweets have had a powerful combined effect on the group’s image. Like LulzSec at it’s height they appear to be unstoppable. And while they are a massively destabilizing force in the region, the general public (and many journalists) should start taking a much more critical view of their propaganda. This five year projection would be a good place to start.

ISIS Trolls the Internet with its Five Year Expansion Plan

When looking at this map it is important to understand that ISIS is thriving in a near vacuum created by conflict in Syria and a completely dysfunctional Iraqi government and military. They have not been at the top of a superpower’s target list. And now, after this onslaught, the group has risen to the top of several kill lists. They are creating enemies on a massive scale. So that five year expansion plan is equal parts wildly optimistic recruit bait, psychological warfare and outright trolling. What the group really needs is a five year survival plan. Life for them is about to get much more challenging.

Technology is a Double-Edged Sword

It is quite easy to understand how a broad social media campaign helps ISIS. But their success in this area will create some problems for the group over the long haul. Their members and supporters are feeding scores of intelligence analysts across the globe. Members and supporters are being cataloged, mapped and tracked back to their real identities on a massive scale. Those hashtag campaigns that encourage supporters around the globe to check-in are also an intelligence goldmine. Some of them will use privacy tools to evade detection but mistakes will be made and when they are several services will be waiting.

Another early success for the group, the use of an Android app to boost their social media presence, will also come back to haunt them. Not only will it be a source of valuable intelligence but it illustrates a point of vulnerability for eJihadists who might be surprised to find that their next favorite app was actually created by an opposing intelligence agency or freelancer. Loose digital networks are shockingly easy to infiltrate and misdirect. This one is going to be targeted on a massive scale.

Obviously, this is a reminder that the internet will remain a persistent battlefield for governments and extremists. But it should also serve as a reminder that quick and easy propaganda victories by small forces do not translate into won wars. And governments, in case you haven’t been watching the news for the past year, know how to wage a digital war. More importantly, they know how to take an online battle into the real world on a scale that ISIS does not yet fully appreciate. They can troll the U.S. government all day with Michelle Obama Photoshops but the memes and hashtags that seem so amusing in the early stages of this conflict may be viewed with regret once ISIS realizes the response they’ve triggered.

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Social Media and Warfare: Till Death Us Do Part

CBS News - ISIS and Social Media


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Why The Spectacular Success of ISIS Will Be Its Eventual Undoing

Understanding ISIS and Their Rampage Through Iraq

No Western politician wants to commit forces to Iraq right now. The world has demonstrated an amazingly high tolerance for terrorism and bloodshed in the country. And the current leadership is showing every sign of not being up to the task of defending itself . But with ISIS exploding into a massively resourced powerhouse the situation in Iraq can not be ignored. At least not safely. They’ve had an unprecedented free run on Iraq but their spectacular success has also vaulted them to the top of the threat list.


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Understanding ISIS and Their Rampage Through Iraq


There is a widespread tendency for people to refer to any frightening group of Islamists as al-Qaeda. It’s sort of like Texans referring to any sort of soft drink as a “coke”. However, details matter when we’re trying to understand the actions of heavily armed and dangerously violent psychopaths so let’s start with the relationship between ISIS and Zawahiri :

Though the ISIS is mostly referred to as an al-Qaeda affiliate, information seems to confirm the opposite, namely that the ISIS is not representative of al-Qaeda in Iraq. On 03 February 2014, al-Qaeda general command published a media statement on jihadi websites stating that the ISIS is not “a branch of the al-Qaeda group”. ISIS members pledge of allegiance is to the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and not to Sheikh Zawahiri (al-Qaeda central command). this is reflected in an ISIS nasheed (a song that carries with it an Islamic belief and/or practice) released during 2013 in which it states (translated version):

“They have closed ranks and pledged bay’ah to Baghdadi, For [he is] our amir in our Iraq and ash-Sham.”

The ISIS non-affiliation with al-Qaeda was also evident in Sheik Zawahiri (al-Qaeda central command) calling during 2013 for the dissolution of ISIS, anticipating that Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would accept authority and control from al-Qaeda
central command.

If you are confused by the media references to al-Qaeda in the surge of ISIS stories it is probably because there’s so much inconsistency in how the group is discussed – even among experts who acknowledge the rift with al-Qaeda central. And it is probably safe to say that the relationship will continue to evolve. Whatever you call them though the broader movement that they both represent will undoubtedly benefit from the massive upsurge in ISIS’s strength and capabilities. The group now:

I could go on. Bad news is flooding in around the clock. This is a tremendously worrying destabilization that will create an environment in which only really terrible things happen. Jessica Lewis and Ahmed Ali of ISW have given some thought to where all of this is heading and paint a pretty dire picture:

Iraq’s security forces will not be able to retake all of the ground they have lost. They may not even be able to hold what they still have. The best-case scenario is a stalemate in which Iraqis manage to contain the ISIS state and army for now. The more likely case is the creation of another Syrian-style conflict pitting ISIS with increasing international support against desperate and increasingly brutal Iraqi Shi’a militias and ISF elements. The two civil wars, which have now completely merged, will continue to expand, destabilizing an already unstable Middle East and inviting further intervention by the Sunni Arab states and Iran. In the very worst case, the fall of Mosul could be a step down the path to outright regional war.

If there is any hope at all, and I am not sure that there is, it might be in that ISIS has overextended itself and the terrible performance by Iraqi forces has made them appear far more formidable than they actually are. Attacking and destabilizing areas that are so poorly defended is relatively easy. Securing cities and holding them long-term will be far more difficult, especially as forces inside Iraq (and quite possibly from beyond) rise to counter their momentum.

I should also add that the significance of their military hardware seizures is also somewhat overstated. The weapons grab is a very big win for the group but utilizing the advanced hardware (especially aircraft) in a meaningful way is just not possible without significant training and support resources that ISIS does not have. The captured small arms and ground transport will be far more useful.

In the end, ISIS may not get their state or hold it for long. But their reach, resources, and brand are all now likely strong enough to survive giving back some of their recent gains. The group is now a massive player in a massive problem that may continue to worsen for quite some time.

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