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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – As the Islamic State group battles across Syria and Iraq, pushing back larger armies and ruling over entire cities, it is also waging an increasingly sophisticated media campaign that has rallied disenfranchised youth and outpaced the sluggish efforts of Arab governments to stem its appeal.
Long gone are the days when militant leaders like Osama bin Laden smuggled grainy videos to Al-Jazeera. Nowadays Islamic State backers use Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms to entice recruits with professionally made videos showing fighters waging holy war and building an Islamic utopia.
The extremist group's opponents say it is dragging the region back into the Middle Ages with its grisly beheadings and massacres, but its tech-savvy media strategy has exposed the ways in which Arab governments and mainstream religious authorities seem to be living in the past.
Most Arab governments see social media as a threat to their stability and have largely failed to harness its power, experts say. Instead, they have tried to monitor and censor the Internet while churning out stale public statements and state-approved sermons on stuffy government-run media.
Last week, Saudi Arabia's top council of religious scholars issued a lengthy Arabic statement via the state-run news agency denouncing terrorism and calling on citizens to back efforts to fight extremist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Leading Sunni Muslim authorities in Egypt have issued similar government-backed statements.
Compare that to the Islamic State group. Its Furqan media arm produces slick videos complete with interviews, graphics and jihadist hymns echoing in the background, with Arabic and English subtitles. It promotes the videos and its glossy monthly magazines on an array of social media, reaching out to people in the Arab world and beyond. Islamic State fighters even tweet live from the battlefield, giving real-time updates and waging theological debates with online detractors.
"They definitely have an electronic army behind them," said Ray Kafity, vice president of FireEye for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa. The company manufactures IT solutions for defending against cyber threats.
The Islamic State boasts thousands of foreign fighters, some of whom were first drawn to it in the privacy and security of cyberspace. It also uses social media for fundraising.
Fadi Salem, a Dubai-based researcher on Internet governance in the Arab World, said the immediate response of Middle Eastern governments to the power of social media has been to "control, block and censor as much as possible."
"Very few governments viewed this as an opportunity rather than a risk," Salem said.
Egypt shut down access to the Internet during the bloodiest day of the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, and Syria cut off access in rebellious provinces shortly after the start of the revolt against Bashar Assad later that spring.
Iraq's government followed suit in June of this year, when the Islamic State group swept across much of the country's north and west. The government cut off Internet access to several areas overrun by militants, including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
A study by The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto showed that despite blocking mobile messaging apps and social media platforms, Iraq's authorities failed to block seven websites affiliated with or supportive of the Islamic State group. New accounts appear almost as quickly as old accounts are reported and taken down.
"It's hard to wage a war with ideas online," said Abdulaziz Al-Mulhem, the spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Information and Culture. "When we talk about monitoring or controlling social media it is like trying to control air, and this of course is hard."
Facebook says it has 71 million active monthly users in the Middle East, and youth between the ages of 15 and 29 make up around 70 percent of Facebook users in the Arab region, according to a report by the Dubai School of Government.
Facebook's Elizabeth Linder says Middle Eastern governments are still in the early stages of realizing the full potential of social media. She advises governments on how they can better use Facebook for diplomacy.
"The most important thing is to be there," she told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a social media conference in Dubai. "And that's something that I really do encourage governments to do, not to leave the space but to enter the space."
The United States, which has long struggled to craft an effective public diplomacy in the region, has taken note. The U.S. State Department launched a "Think Again Turn Away" campaign on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, with Arabic and English videos similar in style to those of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. One video is titled "Airing al-Qaida's dirty laundry" and another shows images of children allegedly killed by these groups.
But none have gained the traction of the Islamic State's videos, which pair brutal images of mass shootings and beheadings — aimed at striking fear in the hearts of its enemies — with heroic portrayals of its fighters as models of bravery and piety.
A slick 55-minute video entitled "Flames of War" came with its own trailer, and features images of exploding tanks and wounded U.S. soldiers. The video, which came out this month, was allegedly released by the Islamic State group's Al-Hayat media center. It idealizes militants as "warriors" and "truthful men."
The message to alienated young men in the region and abroad is that they too can wage holy war, exact revenge on those seen as oppressing Muslims and help build a just society based on divine law.
The videos that have gained the most attention in the West are those that show a masked man beheading two American journalists and a British aid worker in the desert. But others document life in militant-held Raqqa in eastern Syria, and cheerfully invite potential recruits to move there.
"We want to be your brothers and for you to be our brothers," an Islamic State fighter tells Syrian men and children in a video entitled "The best ummah" — or Muslim society.
The Arabic video with English subtitles depicts a community where pious men police the streets, eliminating drugs and alcohol and making sure everyone prays together at the mosque. The militants distribute food to those in need and ensure fair prices in the local markets.
For many it's a compelling vision of a better world, one that stands in stark contrast with most states in the region, in which aging autocrats preside over governments seen as irredeemably corrupt and stagnant. Combatting that vision will require more than simply silencing its advocates, experts say.
"Pure censorship and blocking is not really working. It will continue to be a cat-and-mouse game," Salem said. "Another way is to use these tools to attract people away from these ideas. A combination of both is required."