ISIS Opponents Take Aim at Its Online Presence

Groups as different as Anonymous and the U.S. government are taking the fight to ISIS on the Internet.

An Iraqi man uses a computer at an Internet cafe in Baghdad.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
June 30, 2014, 9:34 a.m.

The Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia has taken to Twit­ter to spread its mes­sage, trum­pet bloody suc­cesses, and re­cruit po­ten­tial ji­hadists, but its so­cial-me­dia cam­paign has come un­der at­tack from forces that range from the U.S. State De­part­ment to the mys­ter­i­ous group of hack­er-act­iv­ists who call them­selves An­onym­ous.

IS­IS has main­tained a not­ably act­ive pres­ence on Twit­ter, us­ing cre­at­ive and tech-savvy tac­tics to amp­li­fy its mes­sage, main­tain­ing ac­counts that tweet in Eng­lish, Ger­man, and Rus­si­an in ad­di­tion to Ar­ab­ic, and post­ing pol­ished videos with very graph­ic ac­tion se­quences and spe­cial ef­fects straight out of a Hol­ly­wood play­book. Some of these tac­tics are tar­geted to­ward young Syr­i­ans, Ir­aqis, and oth­er Muslims in the re­gion, im­plor­ing them to join the fight to carve an Is­lam­ic state out of the Le­vant. Oth­ers, like a re­cruit­ment video that in­cludes testi­mo­ni­als in Eng­lish from IS­IS fight­ers with Aus­trali­an and Brit­ish ac­cents, are meant to at­tract sol­diers from West­ern coun­tries.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has an an­swer to IS­IS’s re­cruit­ment cam­paign. Long be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced he would send mil­it­ary ad­visers to Ir­aq, the State De­part­ment launched a pro­gram to en­gage ter­ror­ists on Twit­ter. A veri­fied Twit­ter ac­count called Think Again Turn Away sports the State De­part­ment’s of­fi­cial seal as its avatar (“Some truths about ter­ror­ism,” reads the ac­count’s bio), tweet­ing replies to ji­hadi pro­pa­ganda and calls to ac­tion. “Your de­luded opin­ions are in­cap­able of jus­ti­fy­ing #IS­IS’ acts of bar­bar­isms against ci­vil­ians,” read a re­cent tweet from the ac­count.

The State De­part­ment an­nounced last week that it will ex­pand the Think Again Turn Away coun­terter­ror­ism pro­gram, award­ing a con­tract worth more than half a mil­lion dol­lars to a com­pany in North­ern Vir­gin­ia to run the ac­count. Of­fi­cials at the State De­part­ment would not com­ment on how ef­fect­ive the cam­paign has been.

Mean­while, an anti-IS­IS hasht­ag, #No2IS­IS, has cropped up in Ir­aq. In an at­tempt to coun­ter­act the power­ful IS­IS pro­pa­ganda ma­chine, hun­dreds are tweet­ing their op­pos­i­tion to the group and their tac­tics — in­clud­ing Ir­aq’s Am­bas­sad­or to the U.S., Luk­man Faily.

IS­IS’s op­pon­ents are joined by a Twit­ter ac­count with the handle @wikibagh­dady, which has been re­veal­ing in­sider in­form­a­tion about IS­IS’s deal­ings for the last six months, The Daily Beast re­ports. Al­though no one knows who is be­hind the ac­count, many of its tweeted pre­dic­tions have been borne out. @wikibagh­dady ex­posed the real name of the mys­ter­i­ous lead­er of IS­IS as well as those of many on his coun­cil, in ad­di­tion to in­form­a­tion about the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s struc­ture, fin­ances, and fu­ture plans. But al­though who­ever is be­hind the handle seems to be privy to some IS­IS secrets, the mole is prob­ably not a good samar­it­an — he’s likely a “fel­low ji­hadi play­ing dirty polit­ics against mem­bers of his own co­hort,” writes The Daily Beast’s Jac­ob Siegel.

This ragtag crew wa­ging war on IS­IS’s on­line pres­ence finds an­oth­er ac­com­plice in An­onym­ous, the shad­owy net­work of hack­er-act­iv­ists that uses cy­ber­at­tacks to fur­ther its causes. An­onym­ous is plan­ning to at­tack IS­IS’s spon­sors in what will be called “Op­er­a­tion No2IS­IS,” ac­cord­ing to a For­bes re­port. “We are un­able to tar­get IS­IS be­cause they pre­dom­in­antly fight on the ground,” a source with­in An­onym­ous told For­bes. “But we can go after the people or states who fund them.”

In a con­flict that’s in large part be­ing fought over the hearts and minds of Ir­aqis, Syr­i­ans, and po­ten­tial re­cruits, IS­IS’s so­cial-me­dia prowess has frightened its en­emies and brought new con­scripts run­ning. It’s no sur­prise, then, that an un­likely band of op­pon­ents is demon­strat­ing its res­ist­ance both on the bat­tle­field and on the In­ter­net.

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