When people think of terrorism, they often have in mind a physical battle coloured with shootings, bombings, and executions. But more daunting is the ideological battle that extremist groups like ISIS wage through the use of social media.
ISIS knew that the media war was more important than the real war on the ground
In the early days, ISIS produced low-quality videos on CDs to spread their message. But they quickly recognized the importance of social media as a way to both increase levels of recruitment beyond Syria’s borders and strengthen the global legitimacy of their message and ideology.
As a citizen journalist covering the ISIS occupation of my hometown, Raqqa, Syria, I experienced first-hand the power of media in ISIS’s fight to establish an extremist caliphate. We began to see ISIS making public advertisements for recruits with media experience in order to bring “the real news to people”, taking advantage of the trend of online misinformation that has become so popularized.
We were shocked to see the quality of the videos that ISIS started to produce, with special effects that looked like they were out of a recent Hollywood action film. These videos, and the narrative that they portray, glorify jihad and life within the caliphate.
ISIS capitalizes on people’s insecurities and feelings of powerlessness. Social media became the ideal platform through which the group could reach individuals who may be socially, politically, and economically isolated, and eager to join a cause that could provide them with a sense of power and belonging.
By the time that ISIS came to Raqqa, they had perfected this technique. They began to produce videos in international languages to entice foreigners, creating hashtags and Twitter accounts to strengthen their international reach. Spreading content online became one of the central focuses of ISIS’s strategy and through this propaganda they were able to recruit individuals from over 85 countries to fight for their cause.
Our City of Ghosts
ISIS enveloped our city in darkness; there were no headlines detailing the horrors that we witnessed. The international media community had already been on thin ice when the Assad government was in power and once ISIS established control, it became too dangerous for them to stay. With no one else to tell the story of extremist occupation, local citizen journalists began to document what was happening.
At this time, I was a university student with no political background. Nevertheless, I decided to join millions of Syrians in demonstrations to demand freedom. This is when my friends and I started the organization Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) to counter the narrative that ISIS was constructing and to bring truth to the international community.
Most of us had no experience with journalism and so the easiest way to inform was through uploading videos and photos to social media platforms, such as Twitter. We used nicknames to upload the content because if someone were to discover our true identities, we would be arrested or made to disappear. We were — and still are — often told by family members and friends to stop. They warned us that the work is too dangerous. ISIS executed the brother and father of a member of RBSS in an attempt to put a stop to us.
But if we weren’t doing this work, no one else would be. We don’t believe in guns as a solution, so our videos and our stories are the only means we have to fight ISIS. The fact that ISIS would dedicate substantial resources to have us followed, to terrorize our family members, to follow us outside of Syria indicates that that our work is really affecting them. So, we cannot stop.
The Future of Extremist Media Wars
ISIS is not only a group that exists in Syria and Iraq. It is an idea, an ideology, that has spread to all corners of the world. In Asia, ISIS has used the recruitment method of calling people to “defend Islam”, especially in Muslim-majority countries. But many people don’t know that despite the fact that ISIS claims to protect Islam, 95 per cent of ISIS victims are Muslim.
The spread of misinformation is central to ISIS’s strategy. The international community must work to fight against extremism online through the use of social inclusion and empowerment — especially when it comes to youth. Otherwise we may end up having something that is much more menacing than ISIS: an entire generation of children who have not received an education, instead growing up being taught by ISIS and their extremist ideology through the online space.
It is terrifying to think what those children may grow up to be capable of, if the international community fails to act.
About the Author
Abdalaziz Alhamza is the co-founder of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of citizen journalists who risked their lives to uncover the atrocities committed by the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. The group was awarded the International Press Freedom Award in 2015. In 2017, he was featured as a speaker for UNDP’s #ExtremeLives project, a video series investigating stories of violent extremism in Asia.
Written as-told-to Isabella Caravaggio, UNDP in Asia and the Pacific