Authors: Jeff R. Weyers and Camie Condon
The Battle for Hearts and Minds on Social Media
Starting in November of 2013 the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), a terrorist organization currently operating out of Syria, began a massive social media campaign in an attempt to gain sympathy, support and recruit members. iBrabo has been tracking the development and propagation of ISIS’s content on social media and as a result has identified a number of groups and individuals supporting the organization and others at risk of recruitment to the organization.
At the start of this surge several of the ISIS pages seemed to fly under the radar continuing to operate on Facebook spreading their propaganda. In late November Facebook, no doubt aided by law enforcement, began a strong effort to limit the access of ISIS. By some accounts this has been a cyber-war of persistence between Facebook and groups like Bilad al Shaam who has rebuilt their page 45 times and “We are all ISIS” who has rebuilt their Facebook page 38 times (including as recently as April 1st 2014). Many of these pages now maintain sister sites in preparation for their removal linked to the original site.
Other pages like the Islamic Stat of Iraq and Ash-Sham Media Hub and The Victorious Party in the Land of Ash-Sham appear to have maintained their presence despite their obvious links to ISIS. In addition to its account on facebook, the ISIS hub twitter account also continues to tweet out the progress of ISIS in Syria.
Media Men in the Advertising of Terror
On November 29, 2013, an individual believed to be a former French resident named James Rebeiy started a Facebook page entitled, “The Islamic State of Iraq & Sham” with the following facebook address: https://www.facebook.com/groups/228051280704039/ (Last Captured 10 Nov 2013). On the 4th of December 2013, Rebeiy altered the name on his personal facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/james.rebeiy) to Abu Qatada (Almuhajer). The name Abu Qatada is often affiliated with a Jordanian man who has been accused in England, not only of providing a “religious justification for acts of violence and terror”, but also of being a “significant international terrorist, with extensive extremist contacts”, engaging “in conduct which facilitates and give[s] encouragement to the commission, preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism”, and “raising funds for terrorist groups”. It is very likely that REBEIY has used this name in title only.
On his facebook REBEIY identifies his hometown as being: Paris, France and indicates having attended a highschool in Tours, France. His profiles last updated location indicated that he was in Istanbul, Turkey. Much of material Rebeiy posted included what appeared to be original ISIS content not previously seen on other ISIS sites. The nature of this content has an Inspire magazine style and structure in its design and quality which appears to be a trend in the extremist material being generated by ISIS. The content is predominantly being created in English and targeting western audiences (below). Both James Rebeiy’s site and his ISIS page have since been torn down. While his pictures can be seen in various ISIS social media forums, it is unknown if he will take on a reputation for media savvy like that of Inspire Magazine author Samir Khan. Based on the initial observations made of Rebeiy it appears highly likely that he is providing material support to ISIS through his online contributions, including their recruiting and media campaign.
The Path Forward in the fight against Cyber Extremism
As terrorist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra (JN) continue to utilize social media to their advantage there will be a growing onus on social media companies and law enforcement to have advanced strategies for eliminating their content. In the past terrorist organizations relied upon their own websites but have quickly found it expensive and unproductive to keep them operational against government efforts to crush them. In contrast as has been noted with “We are all ISIS” and Bilad al Shaam they can literally recreate their pages on social media daily, in little time and at zero cost on systems that are designed for open expression and networking. Perhaps more concerning is that there are 100’s to 1000’s of individuals that rejoin these sites daily as well. This will require social media companies to rethink how they eliminate terrorist sites including the potential for automated identification tools for emerging concerns. No doubt this cyber war is far from over in a battle where vigilance and indeed technology itself may be our best weapon against our enemy. As illustrated below their understanding of the media battlefields and how to use them are quite clear.