CASE STUDY: How ISIL have weaponized Social Media in Iraq

As events in Iraq have unfolded, I have kept a watching brief of the chatter on Twitter. From an Information Operations (IO) perspective, cyberspace has never before been so actively used by a hostile militarized force. Amongst a plethora of anti-muslim rhetoric, news outlets promoting dubious click-bait and armchair Generals offering opinion; the rate of tweets from ISIS or ISIL as they now prefer to be called, that is infused with social propaganda is astounding. Even more surprising is how on target their messaging has and continues to be.

ISIL have weaponized social media in a way no one has done before, expanding their Area of Operation (AO) beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. In doing so they have redefined the modern battlefield.

What is particularly interesting to note in their adaptation of social media for warfighting is the narrative embedded in video’s such as ‘The End of Sykes-Picot’ (read historical significance here). At time when cyberwar is not thought of as inherently information based, ISIL have achieved full spectrum militarized dominance in both the physical and cyber AO’s quickly, effectively and with little to no opposition.

It’s an achievement that is hard to believe; but so effective has their online and social media PSYOPs and IO activities been, that reports out of Iraq suggest that after seeing graphic pictures on Facebook and Twitter of those who dared to oppose ISIL and what remains of them (literally) Iraqi Police and members of their Armed Forces simply flee the AO to avoid capture, torture and certain death.

ISIL’s social media narrative is clear: oppose us and we will behead you or crucify you.

But beneath the terror campaign being waged with hashtags is a far more subliminal set of messaging that strikes at the core of Muslim cultural associative thinking and mainstream religious ideology.

Let me step you through ‘The End of Sykes-Picot’ and why it is such a solid example of an effective IO offensive:

Social Media thought leaders the world over talk extensively about the importance of narrative – authenticity – timeliness – audience relevancy and the production of valuable social content; and it appears ISIL have been paying attention because their narrative is all this plus more.

ISIL are telling their story.

That story is being delivered by a spokesman who is articulate and educated. This makes him exceptionally audience relevant – not only to the global Muslim population, but also to English speakers around the world. It’s not confrontational to watch, there are no tyrannical monologues and like a reporter delivering news, the narrative built for YouTube is digestible, marketable and succinct.

There is no requirement for English subtitles and the religious overtones that are part of his ordinary vernacular ‘Insha’Allah’, ‘Bismillah’ and ‘Hamdullah’ are delivery eloquently and with no hint of fundamentalism. From the AK-47 slung casually over his back; to his untrimmed hair and beard, clean traditional clothing, to the modern western military style wristwatch, cargo pants and combat boots – this is a man that does not need to use fear on camera to convey his message. He is the very picture of a modern Muslim warrior – and so arises a new generation of Saladin’s.

The production quality of ‘The End of Sykes-Picot’ is exceptional. They take their fight to the location – amongst the sand dunes and villages they claim, telling their story against a traditionally Islamic soundtrack with a very purposeful use of words. For example:

Upon entering the former Iraqi Commando checkpoint building on the border (time stamp 3:03) “This is the place they used to be….”

On finding apparently discarded Iraqi military badges within the building (time stamp 3:26) “As you can see there (pointing to a military patch) weapons and swords – the Iraqi flag … but they are nothing but cowards. They only run away … (the) Iraqi Army …There is no Army.”

Even when talking to camera on how many Iraqi’s they encountered during the battle to take the border checkpoint he states as a matter of fact – (time stamp 5:12) “As you can see these cars got exploded … we killed most of them … some of them ran off and we took a lot of prisoners.”

No hints of an enjoyment of violence; no threats; no rants. This is a calm man, speaking rationally about winning a battle and showing his audience the spoils of war.

It’s not what you’d expect. It’s very disarming.

Rational terrorism: the oxymoron-ism of putting those two words together isn’t lost on me – but the point I’m making is that it’s difficult to be in conflict with a rational person, which makes the ISIL story an incredibly powerful narrative.

This is in stark contrast to the poor quality, shaky hand-held amateurish videos we have become accustomed to from AlQaeda that depict their leaders and spokesmen raving fundamentalism in fits of anger; and brandishing weapons and threatening hostages amid sub-title laden footage from sandy caves north of anywhere. All this makes Al-Qaeda incredibly easy to hate. They have no broad scale appeal – even amongst Muslims they come across as fanatical lunatics.

With the rise of ISIL, it’s plainly obvious that Al-Qaeda are out of step with the mechanics of modern warfare: by their own inactions in having a tactical strategy devoid of cyber and social communications Al-Qaeda have made themselves irrelevant.

It’s this distinct contrast – as a strategy- that has enabled the ISIL to control the narrative on social media and dominate the world news.

It’s allowed them to weaponize social media before anyone got wise.

It’s a masterstroke in IO strategy.

With the world now playing catchup – and formulating counter IO strategies; what will we see next?

With ISIL’s objectives arguably won on a social media front – any attempts to combat the narrative will now be largely overrun by bots and ISIL supporters.

But – with full spectrum dominance comes weakness. How long can they keep it up? How coordinated can they be over a protracted campaign?

ISIL’s ability to continue to dominate world news will only remain so long as the information vacuum created by their dominance of the Social AO is based on their using IO as both a tool of terror and tool of propaganda simultaneously.

For any willing, able and mobilized coalition forces, it’s the ‘what-comes-next’ that will see opportunity arise to enter the social fray.

ISIL will, at some point – need to effect an operational step-chance in the physical AO. This will likely bring about an ability to reacquire an understanding of their tactical technological weaknesses – and anticipate their next social strategy.

Cyber warfare – no, social warfare … is no longer flying under the radar.