The Social Media Strategy of ISIS

If you look at the use of social media by the Islamic State from a religous, business and marketing perspective you can see big changes recently in their operations which tell us something about their performance: ISIS (further called IS) is losing momentum and has big internal problems!imageAbove a painting of the French painter Jean Fouquet painted 500 jears ago of a beheading, not much changed since then! What’s essential on this painting is that four groups are presented: 1) the victims, 2) the executioners, 3)  the ones on the horses presenting the elite class giving the orders and 4) the masses watching and agreeing on what is happening.

If you watch the video published this week of the execution of the Jordan pilot Moaz el-Kassasbeh taken hostage by IS you can see:

  • On the video you only see the victim and the executioners, no civilians or persons presenting the people or religous leaders are shown. This is very strange because the reason all this is done has religous context, why are they excluded? Who is the boss and where is he?
  • Probably the objective of this project was not to kill someone but to create a video to be published on social media causing maximum exposure and big impact on the viewers, the brutal execution was needed to get more media attention because the public was getting used to old way of killing…
  • In stead of only one person doing the execution now a lot of people are acting in the video and they all are dressed the same, probably to give the impression of a well organised army. While IS soldiers in the past were easy recognisable, they did not care, now the soldiers are not recognisable, they want to impress us by the numbers.
  • The person who did the beheadings until now in the videos is missing, what happened to him? There are a lot of rumours going around on what happened to IS fighters who wanted to leave IS or did something illegal according to IS, IS is not only cruel to outsiders but also to the ones not commited to the severe sanctions when trying to leave.
  • The video is produced by a professional team with access to modern equipement, a lot of time is spend to produce this.
  • It looks the soldiers are casted to play a role in a movie, they all act the same and are carefully instructed by the director of the video: this are experienced professionals with probably a Western Europe background at work knowing all about journalism, productions of video’s, IT and social media.
  • The storyboard of the video could have come from a James Bond movie where the bad guys have captured a prisoner and want to punish him just like the in the cage in Francis Ford Coppola’s movies ‘Apocalypse Now’.
  • The stage was professional setup: a cage produced, the ground flattened and a bulldozer arranged, this all to create the maximum effect.

There was a long time between the execution took place and the release of the video on the internet, probably weeks. At the moment the Jordan government wanted proof of the pilot still being alive the negotiations stopped, the execution had already taken place.

What does this tell us about IS?

  1. From a branding point of view IS is not in the build-up phase anymore but they are now entering the consolidation phase, it’s not the first generation of IS soldiers with focus on the realization of an Islamic State but it are now the marketing an IT guys who are in the lead and who have the task to expand the business by using social media as a weapon.
  2. The fact that it took so long to bring the movie out could have two reasons: 1) they were negotiating with Jordan on the exchange of prisoners, 2) they were internally not aligned about the content and release of the video. I think it probably was the last one because until now IS never negotiated successful.
  3. What is different compared with earlier executions is that these were based on ruling according to Sharia law, this is probably not the cases with this last execution seen the discussions on the justification of this execution according to the Coran and Islamic law in countries surrounding IS, have they gone one step to far?
  4. This video was released by the social media guys, most of them coming from Western Europe countries, not the religious establishment from IS coming from Syria itself, their voice has not heard for a long time. In Iran, when the Ayatollahs came into power, it were always the religous leaders who had the final say about important religious issues or when the Coran needed to be explained or interpreted, not the cowboys with the guns and mobile phones.
  5. Just like the gap between business and technology in enterprises there is now a gap between IS members with a Western Europe background and the local religous community.

My conclusions.

  1. IS is losing momentum. They are not expanding anymore but loosing terrain and are bombed away by the international coalition and also have strong competition from Al Quada coming back as competitor regarding media attention. As every new organisation they come, after the initial success, in a new phase where they not only have to focus on the external world but also need to spend much attention on internal issues like the question how to control your own people and stop them from leaving the organisation.
  2. IS is having big internal problems. I’m afraid we can expect more of this video’s as long as the IT department is in control over the social media strategy dominated by IS members with a western background. Best option for us would be when we receive a video from their religious leader condemning the last execution because it can not be justified by Sharia law.imagesR3VO7KMT

My recommendation: develop a counter social media strategy!

In the war room off the international coalition staff is looking at satellite images and send drones in once a target found, IS probably has a war room also but they are probably looking at traffic on social media. This war will not be won on the ground or by drones but is the first war which will be won by the strategic use of propoganda now meanly driven by the use of social media. The target is not territory but focussing messages on target groups and the masses of potential followers in a lot of countries. We need a clear counter social media strategy for this and it’s not enough to give only a briefing after next execution that we will ‘investigate if this a real execution’. It’s not enough to only monitor the internet, close sites down and delete posts, social media should also be used to broadcast clear messages. We need to be more in control on the strategic use of social media, set the agenda ourselves and communicate our own messages.