You are a jihadist fighter wandering around the desert with your sniper rifle as convoys of trucks explode around you. You pull the trigger and watch an apostate fall to the ground, as you shout your allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the leader of the Islamic State in the Levant, or ISIL.
These are scenes from a YouTube video, a mock-up of the video game franchise Grand Theft Auto. Only instead of the protagonist being a mob hitman in southern California as in GTA, the video game world has been adapted to depict life as a jihadi with the group that has taken control of swathes of Syria and Iraq. And it begins with a chilling message: “We do the same actions in the battlefields.”
The video may not have originated with ISIL itself but with a fan, says Wassim Nasr, a journalist for the France24 news network who has researched the group. Still, no matter its origin, the jihadist recruitment version of Grand Theft Auto has been viewed more than 360,000 times on YouTube – and is testimony to the reach and quality of the a social media campaign that has helped ISIL recruit thousands of foreign fighters, from Indonesia to Tunisia to the United States.
ISIL is active not only on video-sharing services like YouTube but Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and even Pinterest, a social media site known more for creating shopping lists and sharing knitting patterns.
“You have a number of jihadists who actively tweet in almost every language there is, and they tweet [everything] from …what they are eating to important things like taking over a new battlefront,” says Veryan Khan, editorial director of the Florida-based Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.
Khan’s group follows 700 social media accounts affiliated with ISIL and other jihadi groups, and tracks the jihadi posts about everything from ideology to efforts to open schools and conduct charitable activities.
Given that ISIL has limited access to traditional media—and is indeed well-known for releasing online videos showing the execution of two U.S. journalists—social media has become its main forum for engaging internationally.
One of the group’s most popular videos, Salil al sawarim released in May, shows ISIL fighters burning their foreign passports, raising the group’s black flag over cities in Syria, and staging executions of its opponents. In one two-day period following the release of one installment in the series, the video’s name was tweeted more than 32,000 times and it was viewed on YouTube more than 124,000 times, according to Jihadica, a website that tracks Islamic militant groups.
Only a decade ago, such videos would have been censored in most countries by news networks. Today, new social media accounts can be created as quickly as companies like Twitter delete suspected jihadi accounts—allowing information to be republished and shared again instantaneously.
Not all of ISIL’s videos are violent. One of the group’s online videos, known as “Five Star Jihad,” shows a masked man with a British accent giving a tour of his cramped living quarters. The intention, he says, is to dispel rumors that ISIL fighters live in luxury. Though it shows men sleeping on thin mattresses on the ground and complaining about a lack of electricity, videos like this serve to demystify the group, says Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun, a think tank specializing in preventing radicalization of Muslim youth.
“They have videos which are very personable: here’s my life, here’s what I’m experiencing,” she says. “When they are targeting for example the U.K., they have people who are from the U.K. If they are targeting the U.S., they actually have Americans.”
This also allows the group to both counter depictions of it as a barbaric gang of religious war criminals while targeting people under 30—its main recruiting demographic.
“There are people from so many countries there and they are all talking about what life is like because it normalizes [it],” says Khan, of Muflehun. “You have women who are talking like ‘Well, today we ate pizza and I love extra cheese on my pizza’ and you have the Instagram accounts which are describing, ‘Here’s a sunset.’”
It’s “exactly what we are used to with our friends,” she adds. “It’s just that they are doing it for this horrible purpose but they are normalizing it in a way that’s like ‘Look, this is a good cause.”
Social media also allows ISIL to safely interact with potential international recruits from a distance. “You interact with a person you get an idea of who they are,” says Khan, of Muflehun. “So they spend weeks and hours and hours actually with individuals to see ‘hey, is this person really wanting to join.’”
The challenges of censoring ISIL on social media has left the group’s opponents scrambling to counter it with their own message. The U.S. State Department has launched its own social media messaging effort called “Think Again, Turn Away” to dissuade potential ISIL recurits in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Its video “Welcome to the Islamic State,” released in August, features gruesome images of executions and scenes of ISIL blowing up mosques along with ironic comments meant to discourage Westerners from joining the group.
That effort, which has also included online debates between the State Department and ISIL via Twitter, has been derided by some as ineffective and counter productive.
Likely more effective are grassroots efforts by Muslims in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere to combat ISIL’s online propaganda. The #notinmyname campaign, which features Muslims posting images of themselves denouncing ISIL, has gone viral in Europe and the U.S.
Still, perhaps the most telling sign of the ubiquity of jihadist social media is that their posts are now fodder for satirists. A YouTube creation by British street artist Banksy shows two heavily armed jihadis jumping for joy and shouting ‘Allah Akhbar’ [God is great] after shooting down a flying object – only to discover that what they’ve killed is Dumbo the flying elephant.
With reporting by Alyssa Strickland, Natalia Avdonina and Danielle Dieterich