Unlike Al Qaeda which took pains to avoid the World Wide Web and the digital age, fearing their movements could be tracked, Isis has embraced technology, employing it to inflate the organization’s profile and using it as a recruiting tool. According to writer Jared Cohen, the organization has flooded social networks on the open media as well as sites on the dark side to recruit converts to its cause. (“Digital Counterinsurgency,” by Jared Cohen, Foreign Affairs, pgs. 52-58) 14 million sites have been found on YouTube alone. (Ibid pg. 58). 10,000 accounts have been found on Twitter and after each sweep to clean them out, they reappear on other channels, achieving their aim of almost uninterrupted recruitment.
The advantages to the organization for embracing technology are many. Not all followers have to journey to the Middle East. They can help the cause from their home base without risking life and limb. One of the places tech savvy volunteers might work is for Al-Hayat, the media arm of ISIS. Al-Hayat churns out quality videos and other forms of propaganda, and works with robots to create fake accounts. ISIS also uses robots to flood digital spaces with countless tweets, making the numbers of their followers seem limitless. (See Related blog 6/1/15) Or, volunteers can engage in a campaign of intimidation, terrifying citizens in an occupied area with images so threatening, the community becomes compliant. (Ibid pg. 52) As these activities can be parceled into small accounts, authorities have a difficult time sniffing them out and if found, the accounts are recreated elsewhere. The problem becomes the proverbial one of swatting flies. In fact, ISIS has become so successful at guerrilla marketing that during the 2014 World Cup for soccer, supporters hijacked trending hashtags and flooded sports fans with propaganda. (Ibid pg. 53)
Driving ISIS underground isn’t an option, Cohen says. First, it already has a presence there. Second, if all of its operations went underground, it would be harder to track and would leave its chain of command in place. (Ibid pg. 57) The organization’s one weakness is that its electronic platforms exist in hostile territory where companies and the vast majority of Internet users who oppose ISIS ideology coexist. (Ibid pg. 58)
Cohen outlines actions that can slow ISIS down, but warns we are at the beginning edge of countless digital wars — a sad thought and a blight on the once bright hope the internet could unite the world with shared information. How ironic that followers of a backward and medieval ideology should use technology and the principle of free speech to drop the world on its head.