Social Media Jihad: Islamic State ramps up gruesome Internet campaign

The Islamic State is proving highly adept at using 21st century technology to lead the Middle East back to the Middle Ages.

The Sunni Muslim extremist group formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is using social media websites like Twitter and Facebook and video upload sites like YouTube and to strike fear across the Middle East as it wages its brutal campaign to create a caliphate that extends from northern Africa to Iraq.

In its most recent video, Islamic State fighters are shown executing dozens of men in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, according to a description posted on Twitter. The five-minute clip, culled from a longer propaganda video, shows the militants packing their victims into a caravan of trucks and transporting them to a field, where they force the men to lie face-down on the ground as a militia member shoots them one-by-one, execution style, with an AK-47.


The same video shows other men being dragged to the edge of a large body of water, shot point-blank in the back of the head and then thrown in.

Click here to see the video (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT).

“The Islamic State is a social media master,” Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst with the Clarion Project, told “They know these videos get them attention – but more importantly, they are seen by IS and like-minded jihadists as proof of success.

“The videos are also an intimidation tactic. The Iraqi government is launching counterattacks, and these videos may dissuade Iraqi soldiers from participating and Iraqi civilians from cooperating with the government.”

Mauro says the videos are a haunting reminder to Iraqis of how dangerous the Islamic State is.

“The videos reflect an unpleasant reality for Iraqis who oppose IS. Even if the Iraqi forces push IS back, it's questionable whether they will hold that territory, and IS supporters will stay behind. Iraqis look at the videos and know that could be them.”

Another video released this week seems to reinforce this theory. It shows the heads of 50 soldiers impaled on poles at a military base in the Syrian city of Raqqa, where an estimated 85 soldiers were killed and another 200 were unaccounted for after an ambush, according to The Syrian Human Rights Observatory.

In June, the Islamic State posted a video of a public execution in the main square of Manbij, near the Syrian city of Aleppo. It showed two men being executed and then crucified before a large group of people, including children, who cheered and shouted Allahu akbar (God is great).

Some experts say the uptick in online posts is just part of an expansion of the Islamic State’s social media campaign over the last several months.

“There has been a total increase, especially on Twitter. It is out there big time,” said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

“It’s having two different effects. One, it’s showing the reality of what is happening on the ground to many different audiences. Second, their methods of forcing people to watching executions in public and leaving the heads of their victims strung up or impaled are to leave them in fear. It terrorizes the population.

“This is part of their media campaign, so it adds to their reputation as being ruthless and even worse than al-Qaeda.”

Stalinsky, who is preparing a report on the Islamic State’s social media campaign, said the extremists have also created a series of videos with slick graphics, quick editing and overdubbed music tailored to appeal to Western audiences.

He noted that most of the videos are posted on numerous Twitter accounts that are directed at different audiences with different goals.

Stalinsky’s report will spotlight how IS used social media to announce its new Islamic Law for the land and then posted imagery and videos in which its operatives dole out punishment to anyone who violates the law. The group has posted a steady stream of photos and video clips online of these punishments, including stonings, floggings, amputations, crucifixions and beheadings – all in front of public audiences forced to watch the brutality.

“The social media companies have done nothing to stop this,” Stalinsky said. “In one way, they are helping them in their inaction to stop it.”

Erin Evans, an Iraq researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to that there’s really nothing new in the Islamic State’s tactics. She said IS has been using social media since it was part of al-Qaeda.

“I do think that their social media sophistication has increased and could explain why it seems like they're more active on video now,” she said. “They have multiple Twitter and Facebook accounts that, unfortunately, reach an unprecedented number of people.”

But Evans questions whether the videos have had their intended effect in the region.

“I don't think this is an indication of their increased popularity in Iraq,” she said. “On the contrary, their brutality turns off most Sunnis I have spoken to in Iraq. The government's indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Sunni areas, on the other hand, does seem to radicalize people and exacerbate the sectarian nature of Iraq's conflict.”