October 30, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State: A Monopoly on Messaging
One of the results of the brutal targeting, kidnapping, and killing of journalists by The Islamic State (IS) is that there is very little objective reporting coming from areas under the group’s control or areas it is contesting.
In a remarkable regression, the group has managed to create information-free zones in an age of ubiquitous information-sharing technology. The effect of this is a monopoly on messaging, with nearly all imagery of the conflict zones coming from the group itself. The deliberate targeting of journalists (which is not exclusive to IS; indeed, nearly all rebel groups in Syria have been implicated in this) and the resulting lack of outside reporting set the stage for social media to take over, where IS has a huge advantage given its violent imagery and messages tailor-made for impressionable youth.
The Islamic State’s media effort is an integral and essential part of its operations, on a par with its military and administrative effort. In this respect it is greatly helped by the decentralized nature of social media (particularly Twitter), which has allowed each of its supporters effectively to create and operate his or her own ministry of information, echoing a standard party line as well as creating and spreading IS’s messaging. In effect, IS is crowdsourcing its own propaganda. There is no precedent for this, given the novelty of social media platforms and file-sharing sites, and so, in a counterintuitive move, the group has maximized control of its message by giving up control of its delivery.
The importance of social media to the group is evident in the way that pictures of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring the Caliphate on July 4, 2014 appeared on Twitter before the video of his full speech was uploaded on YouTube, helping to ensure that it would be carried on most major international news networks. Although occasionally its followers make mistakes and start sending links to products before the official launch time—for example with the video of the murder of hostage Steven Sotloff on September 2, 2014—IS has a well-disciplined and well-organized media department.
For example, links to the violent hour-long video “Flames of War,” issued by The Islamic State on September 16, 2014 through its official outlet, al Hayat Media, were posted in several places on the widely-used file-sharing site justpaste.it. These links were then tweeted out to tens of thousands of online supporters, who then re-tweeted the links, and, importantly, created new pages and links on justpaste.it. The video was also uploaded to YouTube on many accounts in order to overcome the inevitable suppression of the video for violating YouTube standards of use. Just one randomly selected page promoting the video among dozens of others, recorded 18,034 views in just seven hours on September 18, 2014, showing the ease, breadth, and speed with which the group is able to spread its message directly to the intended audience. The problems with censoring such a decentralized distribution system were well-illustrated by the two days it took mainstream social media to take notice of what was happening.
The overall media effort of The Islamic State is overseen by Abu Amr al Shami (Amr al Absi, Abu al Athir, Abu al Asir), a Syrian born in Saudi Arabia in 1979, who was previously the group’s leader in Aleppo and who also plays an important role on the Shura Council. Abu Amr controls an army of writers, bloggers, and researchers who monitor global media—social media in particular. Most of these helpers are anonymous and they are spread across the world, with a heavy concentration in the Arab Gulf and North Africa. These bloggers tweet links to videos, generally with high production value, which are then further distributed across social media channels. Abu Amr is also tasked with acting as The Islamic State’s liaison with religious leaders and influencers in the region.
The spokesman of the Islamic State is Abu Mohammad al-Adnani (Taha Sobhi Falaha), a Syrian who fought U.S. forces in Iraq as a member of the Mujahideen Shura Council and was imprisoned from 2005 to 2010. Al-Adnani was reported to be in charge of all operations in Syria at the start of 2013, and is believed to be a member of the Shura Council. But the notion of an official spokesman does not really apply to IS in the way it has applied to al Qaeda. The crowdsourcing of messages negates the need for a single point of contact. This might leave the group vulnerable to unofficial messages polluting its media stream but it is a small annoyance compared to the gains it reaps. Al-Adnani is certainly important, given his proximity to IS senior leadership and his knowledge of their goals, but in the absence of direct contact with media outlets—and little need for it—the role of spokesman is of limited importance.
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