It is a testament to the propaganda prowess of the world’s most infamous new terrorist organization that, in April of this year, the U.S. State Department created a Twitter account specifically to dissuade young men from running off to fight for the Islamic State (IS).
The account, called “Think Again Turn Away,” is nominally aimed at condemning all terrorist groups, but has focused its efforts almost exclusively at IS (previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL). However, with just 5,000 or so followers, the State Department’s account has only a tiny fraction of the following of IS-related accounts on Twitter. Indeed, almost every item the U.S. government account posts is usually inundated with antagonistic replies from IS supporters.
In terms of military might, resources or training, there is no comparison between the United States, in possession of the world’s most powerful military, and the ragtag group of local and foreign fighters currently wreaking havoc across much of Iraq and Syria. But in the propaganda war, at least, IS appears to be winning.
The most infamous piece of IS propaganda is the video released last week showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley. But the group also disseminates countless other clips via social media, including ones which glorify day-to-day life in IS-controlled land.
In the past year, thousands of young men from Europe, Australia and North America have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS. The influx reflects not only the group’s growing popularity but also the stunning effectiveness of its propaganda arm, which today runs multiple video production studios, social-media accounts and even merchandising stores, where clothing stamped with the IS black flag logo is readily available for sale.
“Joining IS is now the cool thing to do in jihadi circles,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
“The number of Westerners that have been joining IS is unprecedented,” he said. “It’s probably in the thousands, and the return of foreign fighters … in the coming years will be one of the most important security concerns for the West.”
As the United States prepares in the coming weeks for what could become a much more sprawling effort to combat IS, the foreign fighters represent a unique challenge. Not only does their very presence in IS serve as a potential lure for other Western would-be jihadis to follow suit, they may also one day attempt to return to the West, taking the fight home to the places they were born.
Identifying a killer
James Foley, an American journalist with experience reporting from hot spots such as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, was abducted in Syria in 2012 and held hostage since then.
When an IS propaganda arm released a video last week showing Mr. Foley’s beheading, much of the world reacted with revulsion over his horrific death.
In the video, Mr. Foley is seen on his knees, wearing an orange jumpsuit. Standing beside him is an IS fighter holding a knife. The figure is clad entirely in black cloth, all but his eyes covered. After Mr. Foley is made to say a few last words, blaming the U.S. government for his looming execution, the IS fighter addresses U.S. President Barack Obama.
“Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their right of living in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” he says, referring to the Islamist state the group is attempting to establish. The camera then cuts away as Mr. Foley is beheaded. His executioner then reappears beside another U.S. hostage, journalist Steven Sotloff, and says his fate is dependent on Mr. Obama’s next decision.
The hooded figure’s apparent British accent has sent authorities in that country scrambling to use sophisticated voice-recognition technology to identify the man. And by analyzing the man’s eyes, investigators have formed a composite sketch of what the rest of his face might look like. At the same time, British authorities have begun scouring some of the neighbourhoods in and around London where, in recent years, hundreds of young Muslim men have left to fight for IS in Iraq and Syria.
“There is a lot at stake,” said Mark Rowley, national policing lead for counterterrorism at London’s Metropolitan Police, in a plea for community support issued this week. “In addition to the public assistance in identifying potential terrorists, we all need community and religious leaders to continue to speak out against warped narratives and we need everyone to ensure that public debate does not give oxygen to the terrorists by giving them the publicity they seek.”