The Islamic State’s (ISIS) caliphate has, for all intents and purposes, been destroyed. The terrorist organization suffered its final defeat in Eastern Syria, and no longer holds a significant swath of territory. But it’s not the time for celebration just yet; despite losing their land, the extremist group still poses a threat to the West.
Even at the height of their power, leaders of the Islamic State always knew that losing their caliphate was a possibility — if not an inevitability. Because of this, they developed a “plan B” of sorts, a strategy they would follow in the event that they were overthrown in the territories they ruled. The world has already seen some of the results of their new approach. But now it appears they are ramping up their online radicalization efforts through social media propagandizing, which means that the West must both prepare for and find ways to subvert their efforts.
Media organizations linked to ISIS have kicked their online operations into high gear, publishing content that urges their supporters to expand a virtual caliphate designed to inspire terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe. The organization intends to achieve its goals by facilitating the spread of extremist propaganda over the internet.
Muntasir Media, an ISIS-affiliated extremist media outlet, published a poster on social media depicting a grenade wrapped in keyboard letters and urged its followers to “Help to expand, transfer and share the official contents of the Islamic State to other platforms.”
The user is then prompted to visit Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms to spread the message to as many potential recruits as possible. Another radical Islamic group, the Al-Haq Foundation, published similar content: a hooded man typing on a computer in front of a background showing logos of LinkedIn, Reddit, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and other social media companies.
These are only a few examples of how radical extremist groups use the internet to convert recruits to their cause. Indeed, many of the recent terrorist attacks European and U.S. soil have been carried out by operatives who were radicalized after they immigrated to their host country. Using marketing and persuasion techniques, these organizations have learned how to play on psychology to target, groom, and indoctrinate these people into becoming self-radicalized terrorists.
Social Media Is ISIS’ Most Deadly Weapon
Now that the Islamic State’s physical caliphate is no more, the organization is focusing on expanding its online footprint in order to wage a different type of jihad against the West. Rather than sending troops into Middle Eastern villages to murder, rape, and steal, they are using Twitter and other outlets to lure young, impressionable individuals into the world of radical Islamic theology.
Khalid Masood, the terrorist who killed five people in Westminster, was radicalized through propaganda he consumed on the internet. Similar to others, he concealed his extremist views from those around him until the day he decided to run over four British citizens with his car before stabbing another to death. Omar Mateen, who carried out the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, was also indoctrinated into extremist Islam through the internet.
The Islamic State has mastered the art of propaganda. According to Booz Allen, a leading information technology and management firm, ISIS “can reportedly generate as many as 200,000 tweets and disseminate an average of 38 unique propaganda events each day.”
The western world has made significant steps towards destroying the Islamic State, but just as the terrorist group is pivoting, the U.S. and Europe are also adjusting their focus. Instead of guns, radical Islamists are using laptops and smartphones as their weapons of choice. Now counterterrorism agencies are now preparing for a different type of war.