The Islamic State is unlike nearly every other extremist group to come before. Not for its brutality, riches, or guns — but for the way it exploits social media as a tool of propaganda.
Following days of U.S. airstrikes that emboldened Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State, the militants have renewed their online battles and sharpened their attacks on the United States. According to Reuters, it threatened the United States in a Youtube video since taken down, warning it will attack Americans “in any place” if U.S. strikes hit members of the Islamic State. The video stitched together scenes of militants shooting American soldiers and broadcast a picture of an American who was beheaded during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Under the hashtag “#AmessagefromISIStoUS,” which has been tweeted more than 70,000 times according to Topsy, the video issued a warning. An American flag was splattered in blood, followed by the message, “We will drown all of you in blood.”
The release of the video closely follows the retaking of the strategically vital Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, which the Islamic State only recently seized from Kurdish forces. The United States has carried out 68 airstrikes in Iraq since the operation began on Aug. 8, according to this Washington Post report. An Iraqi army said the Iraqi forces working with the Kurds had “fully liberated the dam” and that troops had “hoisted the Iraqi flag over it.”
“The dam is completely under our control,” an Iraqi special forces commander said. “Our soldiers are now relaxing swimming in the lake.”
The retreat of Islamic State forces marked one of the first defeats the movement has suffered. In the past several months, it amassed millions of dollars, vast tracts of land, American weapons and fresh recruits — some of whom are traveling from North Africa and even Europe to fight for the Islamic State.
But while Iraqi and Kurdish officials claimed Islamic State fighters were on the run, the movement drew on its auxiliary strength: social media and propaganda. Another YouTube user purporting to be a militant also published this video on Monday. It follows the U.S. involvement in Iraq from a speech delivered by Colin Powell in 1991 through the U.S. invasion and then tracks the rise of the Islamic State. It also shows weeping Americans and militant snipers shooting U.S. soldiers.
Like the other video threatening to drown Americans in blood, it’s slickly-done, with plenty of special effects and singing. This fits the movement’s online identity, analysts say.
“Social media is driving the mobilization phenomenon in ways nobody could have anticipated,” John Horgan, director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Terrorism and Security Services, wrote The Washington Post in an e-mail. “The Islamic State is proving that fantasy and reality don’t have to be so differing. Recruits are reportedly having very positive experiences.”
Horgan says such messaging, even in times of apparent defeat, beam an image of invincibility back home and can persuade fresh recruits to join. He wrote: “The message is — why are you living out your hopeless lives when you could be here with us, making a difference, and achieving immortality online?”
The modern videos, replete with voice over, sound tracks and scenes of carnage, represent a sharp departure from past clumsy recordings of militant leaders holed up in a cave.
“They are getting far more adept at persuading others of the righteousness of their cause,” Horgan told The Post. “They don’t need to rely on clumsy, half-baked propaganda. They simply tweet images of emaciated corpses, bloodied infant bodies, and these images resonate more than any propaganda narrative ever could.”