07/02/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 08/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Iraq Crisis: ISIS Social Media Blitz Could Be Its Downfall

In the wired age, "Twitter bombs" that spam feeds with militant propaganda are as much a part of the modern jihadi’s arsenal as bullets. But with every burst of online messaging from extremists comes potential blowback.

No insurgent group has embraced social media like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The world’s most dangerous Sunni militia has waged a sophisticated soft power campaign that seems to borrow a page from a viral marketing handbook.

A groundswell by ISIS members on Twitter calling for a new global Muslim empire, or caliphate, preceded Sunday's announcement by the group's shadowy leader imploring all followers of Islam to unite in declaring him as their holy ruler. That 19-minute recording was then spread on the online audio distribution platform SoundCloud, and its release was accompanied by a multilingual PDF document exulting "the promise of Allah."

There have also been massacre videos filmed in HD, selfies, crowdfunding drives, advice threads offering travel tips, an official Android app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, a trending hashtag — even kitten photos.

As sharp as the Sunni insurgency’s outreach strategy is, however, it cuts both ways. More public interaction between the militants could mean more intelligence for governments to mine.

One member gone rogue is already operating as an ISIS whistleblower, anonymously exposing sensitive information such as the identity of the man in charge, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

It all makes for a compelling case for allowing the extremist group's communication channels to keep flowing, counter-terrorism scholars say. A Canadian analysis even suggests that Iraq might want insurgents to stay connected online as they seize more checkpoints along Syria.

But to what end?

"It’s definitely a double-edged sword," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies who teaches in Georgetown University's security studies program.

Signage at U.S. military bases often remind soldiers to restrict their social media activity for "OPSEC," or operational security, reasons. One would think the same logic applies to extremists, Gartenstein-Ross said.

"The debate comes down to causing them inconvenience and disrupting their cells of communication and thus disrupting their ability to propagandize, versus allowing them to remain open in order to gain intelligence and create other information," Gartenstein-Ross said.

Although Islamist extremist groups have used Twitter and Facebook to spread their messages before, ISIS outguns them when it comes to online propaganda.

The Sunni insurgency’s polished social media push has helped it recruit members from the West, as well as poach defectors from rival groups such as the al-Qaeda splinter organization Jabhat al-Nusra.

The tactics range from the mundane (Facebook outreach) to the approval-seeking (hyping up the #AllEyesOnISIS hashtag) to the frivolous (sharing photos of kittens with guns).

And then there’s the downright sneaky stuff.

In an insidious bit of click-baiting, a "Twitter bombing" ploy last week gamed the service by hijacking the popular hashtags #WorldCup and #Brazil2014 to misdirect unwitting soccer fans toward ISIS propaganda.

"All of a sudden you're reaching people who kind of heard about ISIS in their homes, at their seats, when they're most vulnerable and looking forward to something," said Erin Marie Saltman, a senior researcher who specializes in radicalization with the British think-tank the Quilliam Foundation.

"It's very petrifying that [ISIS] is being very, very smart about social media usage."

The group's boasts about mass killings, promises of a "five-star jihad" experience and updates on operational victories offer a trove of intelligence to governments, Saltman said, even though many of the claims are difficult to authenticate.

The armed Sunni movement has already tweeted a map revealing its intended land grabs, for example.

"They're saying a week in advance, ‘We're approaching Baghdad’ before they reach those towns. That's somebody giving away their strategy and their territorial game plan," Saltman said.

UCLA Mideast historian Jim Glevin likened the social-media exposure to "painting a bull's-eye on their backs." Broadcasting atrocities might inspire some new recruits, he said, but it could also provoke the Shia Mahdi army to put them down.

"Social media is a force multiplier for them, but they’re really a small grouping scattered all over," Glevin said. "If they’re going to try to take Baghdad, they’re finished."

ISIS whistleblower on Twitter

Iran, which has joined the fight against Iraq’s militants, previously spied on Twitter dissidents supporting the peaceful 2009 Green Revolution.

"And frankly, the Iranians would have no problem with lending their expertise to [Iraq’s] Maliki government," Glevin said.

Using the Twitter account handle @wikibaghdady, mystery ISIS opponents with insider information have since last December leaked details about the insurgency's council members, its structure, and fundraising ploys. Reddit users have helped to translate the Arabic-language tweets into English, including gossip about al-Baghdadi's rumoured jealousy of the growing celebrity of Jabhat al-Nusra's chief militant.

ISIS fighters have also used platforms such as Ask.Fm to answer user-submitted questions such as whether converts can join, how the mujahedeen will obtain their weapons, what meals are like, and how to exchange currency in Syria. The decentralized nature of some rebels' accounts could also lead to over-sharing, however.

"We’re talking about grassroots soldiers giving away tons of information," Saltman said. "It can be key to look at locations, strategies, weaknesses, successes, what resources do they have? What do they not have?"

Intelligence agencies are almost certainly trying to parse the Sunni insurgency’s communications, said Ramesh Srinivasan, a UCLA professor and director of the Centre for Global Digital Cultures.

But to hit a censorship "kill switch" would only strip the government of legitimacy and empower the insurgency, he argued, noting that "oppositional" elements tend to be very resourceful when it comes to finding new communication pipelines.

"Think of an organism that, if you cut off one of its tentacles, it grows three others," Srinivasan said.

Some YouTube videos, tweets and accounts have already been disabled for violating terms and conditions banning content that supports terrorism or incites violence.

Last week, the Iraqi government shut down Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, apparently to restrict the amount of co-ordination ISIS can do by using those services.

Tellingly, though, Iraq’s crackdown left out seven websites that were affiliated with — or supportive of — ISIS, according to a June 20 analysis by the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto group that researches cyberspace, human rights and global security issues.

"We did not find any evidence, through both DNS lookups and proxy testing, that any of these URLs are blocked," the Citizen Lab report concluded. "Given that the insurgency was cited as the rationale for the shutdown and filtering, this finding is curious."

Media suppression only goes so far, attacking symptoms rather than the cause, Saltman said. Extremists will persist whether Twitter is offline or not.

"Better critical engagement is key. We should take away that want to join ISIS in the first place," she said.

One way or another, the conflict in Iraq has entered the digital battlefield. How governments engage with these new weapons of war could be crucial to blunting ISIS's scorched-earth push.

"If you think of Vietnam as the first televised war, this is really the first social media war," Saltman said. "These are grassroots strategies as well as technological strategies we've never seen before."

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