ISIS, inside the army of terror: between social media and religion


To understand the Islamic State, or ISIS, it is important to know about their propaganda and the importance of religion to them. Fabio Chiusi, a freelance journalist who focuses on digital surveillance, explained the self-representation of the terror group along with Eugenio Dacrema, ISPI researcher and Marta Serafini, of Corriere della Sera at the International Journalism Festival.

What God tells ISIS

When Hassan Hassan interviewed the ISIS recruits for his book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, he was told repeatedly, “don’t hear about us, hear from us,” a phrase meant to tell the world that they want to be recognized and that they will exploit social media to achieve their goals. Their idea of God, as Chiusi said, gives ideology and deep underlying meaning to the group and their enemies. “You have to understand how it got into their mind, it allows [them] to furnish their image they want to give to the world,” said Chiusi.

Why is it so difficult to stop ISIS propaganda?

ISIS has proved to the world they are fluent and capable of using social media such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. “They are at war but in much of the war, they are playing out the media,” Chiusi said.

“Is ISIS winning on the ground? Is it winning in the media?” The answer, the panelists said, is yes. The West has been trying to deter their social media invasion with different means, but they backfired. The communication of ISIS is a trump card, the experts told the audience — they are winning the hearts of the people and encouraging more to join.

ISIS knows what attracts the Western media and people’s interest, the panelists agreed. When tweets of beheadings of innocent victims go viral and catch the Western media’s attention, they know it is much more attractive than a tweet or a piece of news. As readers, we have “a perverse attraction to blood” and that makes headlines, Chiusi said.

The panelists admitted that building a counter-narrative to control the propaganda is difficult. Chiusi, quoting from U.S. Central Command Major General Michael K. Nagata’s research, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” said: “we do not understand the movement (ISIS) and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.” Of the group’s ideology, Nagata wrote: “we have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.” The war of narrative is becoming more important, perhaps more than a war made by knives or bombs, he wrote.

The New Media

Eugenio Dacrema called the ISIS movement “communication terror.” If you consider the history of the jihadist movement since the 70s and 80s, the communication context has changed. ISIS is now operating with the Internet and its leadership has some “insights” into the way new media can create a sense of urgency among potential recruits, he said.

What has ISIS changed?

“We are doing it now, here,” is the notion of ISIS, according to Dacrema. ISIS is trying to prove that people on their land can be led to a perfect Islamic life, and are using the West’s media tools to fulfill their ideology, he said. They broadcast beheadings and publish maps indicating the direction of conquering territories in an effort to show their plans for expansion to the media.

According to Dacrema, the terror group is currently in Libya and trying to take control of a major city. They are maximizing their exposure to the media with a growing number of followers to deliver a faithfulness and ‘promote their brand’ to fulfill the prophecy.

Role of Women in ISIS

Marta Serafini, who specializes in terrorism and the use of social media for propaganda purposes, said ISIS is using its female followers to carry out the propaganda. ISIS believes Twitter has the power to spread messages.

“Women decide to leave to become part of the group, the slavery psychology is what we do not understand,” said Serafini.

Serafini described the group of 15 or 16 year olds leaving their homes and becoming slaves or companions of the leader as a duty of propaganda. “They are being used to attract other young girls, they show how their lives in ISIS [are] great,” she added.

ISIS is using their view of the role of women — covering up, being faithful to your husband, a double-bond loyalty and the possibility to become a fighter — as a bridge to send messages to the future foreign fighters who are struggling with identity problems.

The White House has been trying to close down accounts related to ISIS and asked for their removal from Google and Twitter. But Serafini questioned if that was the best method. “You have to be careful about closing these accounts, otherwise you don’t know how to understand them,” commented Serafini.

After all, Serafini, one of the few Italian correspondents who has been to Syria, said the media coverage of ISIS needs to improve. “In Italy, we are narrating it badly,” she said.