WASHINGTON – Tweets and online videos are emerging as weapons of war in the Islamic State’s campaign to seize a swath of Iraq, with the al-Qaida offshoot’s use of social media dwarfing efforts by other militant groups.
Over the weekend, websites previously used by the group calling itself the Islamic State featured a video purporting to show its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon in the captured city of Mosul.
Two weeks ago, an audio recording posted online proclaimed a caliphate across the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria.
While such official pronouncements remain rare, supporters and sympathizers of the Islamic State have opened an online offensive making use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. To intimidate their enemies in Iraq and beyond, the group’s backers have posted gruesome videos, including one purporting to show the beheading of a Sunni police officer.
“This is our ball,” said a tweet accompanying a photo of the decapitated head. “It’s made of skin #WorldCup.” The World Cup hashtag ensured it would pop up on news feeds of the tournament’s followers until Twitter could take down the posting.
The volume and timeliness of pro-Islamic State postings far exceeds those of other terrorists, such as the core al-Qaida organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“For a terrorist group, you do hear a lot about them on Twitter,” Hamid said. “They document their attacks, their military victories on the ground, going into considerable detail.”
While al-Qaida produced an English-language magazine called Inspire and occasionally delivers audio messages from its leader, “there’s definitely a gap in effectiveness,” Hamid said. “I don’t think that al-Qaida central can really claim that level of success.”
The online audience for the Islamic State and its boosters is difficult to measure, partly because social-media companies such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook regularly delete communications by terrorist groups under their rules of service that prohibit threats of violence. Nor is it possible to confirm whether a particular posting originated with the Islamic State itself.
Even so, “it’s an impressive operation all around,” said Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm.
“They are keeping records, making slick video productions,” he said. “And it’s all open. Anyone can get in touch, communicate.”
Islamic State supporters showed their online sophistication by developing an Arabic-language Twitter application for Android phones that could be downloaded through the Google Play store. Those with the app received tweets posted to their Twitter accounts, including links, hashtags and images, according to a report by J.M. Berger, an independent researcher on extremists’ use of social media.
The militants also try to depict a softer side as they seek to recruit new members and woo the Muslims they aspire to govern in Iraq and Syria.
One site that expresses sympathy for the militants counts on the “awww” appeal of kittens, a ubiquitous magnet on the Internet. It has photos of the animals being petted, fed and posed next to machine guns.
“Most important thing to put in your ammunition vest and bring to battle is a kitten,” someone using the name Abu Hamza tweeted with a kitten photo posted on the Twitter feed, called Islamic State of Cat. It is unclear if the channel has any connection to the militant group calling itself the Islamic State, but the name suggests some distance.
The feed also has postings of smiling children, pet birds and German pancakes. A photo posted elsewhere online purports to show a militant in Syria posing in a grocery store with a jar of Nutella, the hazelnut-flavored chocolate spread popular in Europe.
“Part of it is a charm offensive, people trying to normalize” the Islamic State “and make it acceptable to the audience in the West,” said Joseph Carter, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, based at King’s College London. “The cat stuff has been going on for a long time, since some of the early tweeters, and part of it is because the Prophet really liked cats.”
The online material has served as a valuable intelligence tool for the U.S., which mines social media for insight into the Islamic State’s ground operations and motivations, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Even so, many of the online postings can be difficult to verify and are sometimes manipulated to deceive.
“When it comes to assessing authenticity, it can be really difficult,” Carter said in an interview. “We have thought someone was a foreign fighter and it turns out they weren’t, and vice versa.” He added that “quite a lot is authentic.”