Iraq's Sunni militants take to social media

On Twitter, ISIL has hijacked World Cup hashtags, flooding unsuspecting soccer fans with its propaganda screeds.

The extremist group battling the Iraqi government, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, may practice a seventh-century version of fundamentalist Islam, but it has demonstrated modern sophistication when it comes to using social media, particularly Twitter and other sites like WordPress and Tumblr. 

On Twitter, ISIL has hijacked World Cup hashtags, flooding unsuspecting soccer fans with its propaganda screeds. It has used Facebook as a death-threat generator; the text-sharing app JustPaste to upload book-length tirades; the app SoundCloud for jihadi music; and YouTube and Twitter for videos to terrify its enemies. 

One Twitter account that purports to be linked to the group even altered a picture of Michelle Obama to boast about its capture of U.S.-made war matériel. The sign in her hands was changed from one saying “#BringBackOurGirls,” referring to the worldwide campaign to save the schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria, to one saying “#Bring Back Our Humvees.” 

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has outfought both its Syrian rivals and the Iraqi government online, as well as on the battlefield. The Iraqi government’s response has been to order Internet providers in the country to block most social media sites. 

What ISIL realisd, more quickly and effectively than its rivals, was that “smartphones and social media accounts are all that is needed to instantly share material in real time with tens of thousands of jihadists,” said Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst who on Friday published a study of ISIL and Twitter on the website of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online. 

Soon, ISIL was posting Twitter messages from the battlefield in Syria and later in Iraq. When the governments it was fighting pulled the plug on its cellphone connections, it had engineers come in to set up mobile hot spots offering Internet access. 

ISIL has also actively looked for ways to increase its traffic internationally, as part of its recruitment drive aimed at Europeans and Americans. At one point, the group hijacked several Twitter hashtags related to the World Cup and fed soccer enthusiasts ISIL propaganda instead of news about the current tournament in Brazil. 

In one particularly gruesome instance, the organization posted a videotape of the beheading of a policeman on Twitter, with the message:“This is our ball. It’s made of skin #WorldCup.” 

Aside from sowing terror and winning extremist admirers, ISIL’s use of social media has also had both strategic and tactical impacts on the battlefield. 

In Mosul, two weeks before ISIL attacked and overran the city, it began broadcasting individualized death threats on its Facebook accounts to every Iraqi journalist working in the city, according to one of those singled out. 

Most of them fled or stopped working, which was probably one of the reasons the militants’ advance on the city received such little outside attention. 

During those weeks, ISIL also greatly stepped up its Twitter campaign, a kind of online equivalent of a pre-invasion artillery barrage, posting scores of videos and photographs of Iraqi soldiers being executed. 

Officials at the Ministry of Communications later said that they shut down social media because the campaign by ISIL had undermined the morale of Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, contributing to the stunning overnight collapse of two full divisions. 

Many experts on extremists’ online activity have complained that the social networking sites should be policing their platforms better. 

In response to inquiries about ISIL’s Twitter presence, Nu Wexler, a Twitter spokesman, said: “We don’t comment on individual accounts or suspensions. We do not proactively monitor content on the platform, but we review accounts when they’re reported to us and suspend them if they violate our rules.” 

Wexler declined to answer any other questions about ISIL’s use of Twitter. 

An official of a social networking site, who said he would speak frankly only if his name was not used, said the huge size of the major sites made it impossible to enforce rules against terrorists’ use. 

“It’s kind of like whack-a-mole,” he said.  ISIL’s use of Twitter is even more pervasive than its use of Facebook, since its brevity lends itself to posts from the field. It runs Twitter campaigns in each of the provinces where it operates, and also has campaigns based on activities on the battlefield and elsewhere. 

One of the group’s newest Twitter hashtags trending in jihadi forums is #CalamityWillBefallUS, a response to reports that the United States is sending advisers and armed drones to Iraq. 

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