ISIS—Masters of terror in the digital age

ISIS’ social media presence continues to be strong and, in fact, represents a menace that is as dangerous as the organization’s local military activities.

ISIS (alternately named ISIL, DAESH, or Islamic State), is a Muslim Jihadi organization aspiring to unify the entire Muslim world under one religious and political authority, to be ruled according to strict Islamic law. 

In the past few years, it has gained notoriety especially thanks to a vigorous social media campaign which the organization has launched through multiple platforms, especially Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. ISIS' social media presence continues to be strong and, in fact, represents a menace that is as dangerous as the organization's local military activities.

Operating in northern Iraq and parts of Syria, ISIS takes advantage of the lack of strong central authority in order to expand and conquer villages. Where there is no powerful army to stop its forces, they are able to advance. But estimates put their number at anywhere between 30,000 to 40,000 members-a very small army in terms of modern military forces. As such, ISIS is neither able to conquer larger tracts of territory nor maintain effective, long-term control of the territory that it does conquer. Today, it is being pushed back by local as well as international forces and its territorial expansion has been largely halted-although that may be temporary.

However, there is another dimension in which ISIS is in fact expanding and gaining strength. As an active force in social media over the internet, ISIS is a groundbreaking terrorist organization-the first such organization to have a truly global reach thanks to the Internet. Its operatives make a very sophisticated-and cutting-edge-use of the most modern technology in order to reach millions of people in an immediate, unfiltered, and unmoderated manner that crosses borders, cultures, and languages. The messages, both of indoctrination and of the most gruesome videos of beheadings and torture, resonate as well as repulse-and immediately go viral. 

Researchers estimate that there are over 46,000 Twitter accounts connected to or affiliated with ISIS. These, in turn, account for over 90,000 tweets every single day. ISIS videos on YouTube are regularly viewed by millions.

The use that ISIS makes of social media serves four main purposes:

The first aim is to terrorize-both Muslims and non-Muslims-in the Middle East and beyond. A terror organization has no existence if it does not terrorize,  and ISIS is no different. High-definition YouTube videos achieve that effect in an unprecedented manner. 

A second aim of ISIS is to create legitimacy for its cause among moderate Muslims who might be convinced that the organization's underlying ideology may be a good solution to the needs of the masses throughout the Middle East. 

A third aim is to communicate with ISIS operatives throughout the region in an encrypted and secure manner that is not open to monitoring by the enemy. 

The fourth-and potentially most dangerous-use of social media by ISIS is as a primary tool for the recruitment of new members, both in the region and outside of it. To date, an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 foreigners have joined the ranks of ISIS. Of these, nearly 4,000 were recruited in the West-in Europe and in the United States. These foreigners receive training, weapons, and indoctrination within the ranks of ISIS, only to later return to their home countries where they quickly re-assimilate into society and become "sleeper cells." ISIS may then activate these sleepers whenever it so chooses. "Sleeper cells" likely exist throughout Europe and probably in the U.S. as well, ready to launch terror attacks. The recent suicide bombing in Istanbul in which three Israelis were killed may have been carried out by such a "sleeper cell." 

A more immediate result of ISIS' prolific social media activity is in the encouragement and indoctrination of multitudes of supporters throughout the world who are not ready or able to travel to the Middle East and join ISIS in person. These people, often young men ages 15 to 30, may be disaffected in their countries of residence, frustrated, angry, or simply unbalanced. They are easily influenced by the religious content and the ordered, structured ideology that ISIS presents. They enthusiastically watch the atrocities that ISIS publishes and stand ready to unleash particularly savage acts of terrorism without being officially affiliated with ISIS. When they do commit violence such as in the Paris attacks, in Turkey, (where Israelis were killed recently) or in Jerusalem, where the stabbing attacks are a clear emulation of ISIS's beheadings, ISIS is quick to congratulate them and "adopt" them as subsidiary cells of the organization. It is thus able to project influence and power that far outweighs the organizations actual strength.

The ISIS menace will not soon disappear and will continue to thrive where local governments are eroded and there is a power vacuum. But its real threat lies well beyond the confines of the Middle East where, unchecked, it will continue to prey on disaffected youth who in turn will become domestic threats in their home countries. 

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office. 

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