The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is the local and increasingly powerful chapter of al-Qaeda, issued a statement on Facebook and Twitter affirming that it has nothing to do with the many Web pages bearing its name. The statement stressed that the only Facebook and Twitter pages that represent ISIS are those of the Itissam Foundation and its official website.
The reason for the announcement was the proliferation of “jihadist” websites and their increased visibility on social networking sites in general. Searching for the term “Islamic state” on Facebook brings results of more than 500 private or public groups, with thousands of followers. The same is true on Twitter, where searching for “al-Qaeda” or “jihad” leads to similar results. Furthermore, there are Web pages specialized in offering services to would-be jihadists, while YouTube is home to official channels for a variety of armed factions that periodically upload videos of killings, bombings or executions.
In addition, we find many offshoot pages. In Iraq, for example, there are pages dedicated to ISIS branches in Baghdad, Diyala and Mosul.
Social networking websites of course employ mechanisms to flag pages that promote violence or racism. But owners of these pages find legal loopholes that permit them to carry on, through encouraging followers to comment on and “like” their pages, thus overwhelming the number of “abuse reports” asking to ban the page. This measure guarantees the pages’ survival in their capacity as “popular” sites.
Despite the above, the so-called “jihadist media” does not really trust many of the most prominent social networking sites and considers them to be “exposed and easily penetrable.” As a result, their use is limited to the spread of propaganda, rhetoric and news. Insurgency discussions and guidelines, according to a media activist by the name of Sarem (meaning "the strict one") on one of the jihadist sites, are disseminated and conducted through private forums on well-known religious networks.
Sarem, like most webmasters of sites associated or affiliated with al-Qaeda, does not allow deliberations or discussions to be conducted, except with members or supporters of the organization. Every applicant for membership or access to the forum is subject to an extensive vetting process that revolves around his identity and orientation. In an online chat with Al-Monitor, Sarem said, “Uncovering infiltrators is easy, for linguistic terminologies and espoused ideologies are exposed within the first sentences of our interview with the applicant. We also try to confirm the information given through a lookup of Internet Protocol addresses, which accurately identifies the location [of infiltrators]. We do not trust people who use proxy servers to camouflage their place of residence. But, once the application is approved, we ask our members to use proxies.”
Sarem admits that jihadist groups now more freely use the Internet and social networking websites, compared with previous years. “During the US occupation of Iraq, we waged a daily war against global Internet companies. Our forums were regularly banned, and we constantly endeavored to prevent them from being infiltrated by international intelligence agencies. Today, matters are very different; we now have greater freedom and are subjected to less electronic harassment. Yet, that is not the most decisive factor in the matter. The most important thing is that our enemies have now realized that they cannot thwart us electronically, for every time they try to ban us, we succeed in overcoming their efforts.”
The truth of the matter is that al-Qaeda and its affiliated or sympathetic websites’ intense media activity is not subjected today to any serious challenges, as was the case between 2005 and 2011. At that time, monitoring efforts were much higher and most jihadist websites were banned. In this regard, Iraqi researcher Hussain Hassib told Al-Monitor that his master’s thesis was on the subject of armed insurgency groups operating in Iraq in 2008, and that he encountered great difficulties when researching the electronic activities of militants during that time. “On one occasion, my personal computer was hacked, and a few hours later US troops raided my home. They thought that my extensive activity on jihadist forums and my attempts to gain access to them were the result of my affiliation with these groups. They gained a better understanding of the situation when I showed them details about my master’s thesis.”
Sarem doubts that jihadist websites might now be subjected to less pressure or censorship. “We do not trust them. They want to entrap us, and we believe that they continue to try to infiltrate our ranks. That is why we back up our websites on an hourly basis and devise methods to circumvent their maneuvers.”
Sarem does not divulge all the secrets, but some of the measures adopted by the electronic mujahedeen is to hold chats between gunmen or their supporters through websites that have nothing to do with jihad. Electronic messages are sent to participants to attend meetings on forums dedicated to movies, songs or culture.
As is the case when using special codes or symbols to communicate, participants seeking confidentiality avoid using words that get flagged by intelligence agency monitoring networks — such as those of al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, al-Zawhri, bin Laden or al-Zarqawi — by substituting them with prearranged code words.
Jihadist websites today form a separate and distinct society that conforms to traditions, a language and an atmosphere completely different than the mainstream. This is all under the strict supervision of moderators who admit new forum members — particularly the young — with extreme caution. Dozens of members collaborate to provide new adherents with an atmosphere of conviviality.
What is certain is that jihadist websites and the forums affiliated with them — whose members all share a unique ideology and refuse to accept those who are different from them — try to portray themselves to the young as being an electronic “utopia” that reflects the presumed shape of the world once the mujahedeen have achieved victory. Yet, contrary to traditional religious websites, they do not rely on spirituality and piousness to instill their ideas, but exploit the “corrupt reality” of the world to prove the validity of their quest for an alternate reality. This, in addition to the services that they offer their members — such as enrolling them in free software or language courses as well as conducting research in medicine, engineering and space sciences, while refraining from devoting all their attention to the study of Quranic verses and religious affairs. The only exception are those verses and religious affairs that enshrine the idea of jihad in the minds of their members.
Al-Qaeda’s electronic abilities, spread among its different branches, are no longer confined to hacking accounts and conducting electronic attacks. Producing movies portraying combat operations, training sessions in addition to speeches and statements by the organization’s leaders all reflect the evolution made in the use of sound and visual effects as well as editing.
Mushreq Abbas is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. He has been managing editor of Al-Hayat’s Iraq bureau since 2005 and has written studies and articles on Iraqi crises for domestic and international publication.
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