October 27, 2015 | House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,Subcommittee on National Security

Radicalization: Social Media and the Rise of Terrorism

Download full testimony here.

Chairman DeSantis, Ranking Member Lynch, and distinguished members of the committee, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it is an honor to appear before you to discuss how violent extremist organizations use social media and other tools to radicalize and mobilize supporters.

This testimony focuses primarily on the propaganda and recruitment strategy of the Islamic State (IS), which has justifiably moved to the top of the U.S.’s national security agenda. IS has shocked the world not only with its utter barbarity, but also with the quality and quantity of its propaganda output, particularly on social media. The proficiency of IS and its supporters as communicators can be discerned from the group’s creation of tightly choreographed and slickly produced videos, its apparently deep understanding of how to catch the Western media’s attention, and IS’s coordinated distribution of its content on platforms like Twitter.  Through the strength of its communications, IS has helped inspire unprecedented numbers of young Muslims from across the globe—around 30,000—to flock to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of jihadist organizations. IS has provoked a wave of terrorist attacks in the West that raises legitimate questions about whether extremists’ savvy use of social media might produce a permanent rise in so-called lone-wolf terrorism.

But IS’s propaganda machine is not indestructible. Beneath the hard shell that IS has cultivated through its propaganda campaign there is a soft underbelly: IS relies on cultivating an image of perpetual success and momentum, and should this image of a successful organization be disrupted, IS’s “brand” may precipitously decline. IS’s flawed military strategy has left it surrounded by foes, fighting wars on multiple fronts. As IS fights a range of foes, from the nation-states bombing its convoys to the shadowy vigilantes killing IS officials in the group’s territory,  IS’s propaganda has become the key to recruiting new fighters in order to prevent IS’s overstretched caliphate from experiencing even greater setbacks.

IS’s grotesque propaganda and battlefield successes have also had a significant impact on al-Qaeda. In many ways that impact has been negative, as al-Qaeda has lost both leaders and affiliates—including Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt’s Sinai and Boko Haram in Nigeria—to IS. But in other ways al-Qaeda has been able to benefit by playing itself against IS’s more overt brutality, adopting a propaganda strategy that stands in contrast to IS’s hyper-violent and highly public approach. Al-Qaeda has quietly engaged in an image makeover. Using IS’s over-the-top brutality as a foil, al-Qaeda has depicted itself as a more reasonable and controllable entity, one that represents an extension of the aspirations of people in the areas it operates, rather than being purely imposed by force. This rebranding campaign, which al-Qaeda has sought to implement ever since the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq (IS’s predecessor) in the 2007-09 period, has gained traction among local Sunni populations and some Sunni states, which have come to see al-Qaeda as a potential bulwark against expansion by both IS and Iran. But behind this façade, al-Qaeda’s core objectives remain the same: to weaken and overthrow impious regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, and to reestablish a global caliphate.

This testimony first explores two core elements of IS’s propaganda strategy: projecting and maintaining an image of strength, and presenting the caliphate as a religiously legitimate utopia. It then illustrates how IS, using its propaganda machine, has inspired significant numbers of individuals living in the West to migrate to the caliphate or to carry out violent attacks on its behalf. The testimony then explores al-Qaeda’s rebranding strategy, and the early successes it has attained. Finally, the testimony examines policies that legislators can consider to undercut jihadists’ propaganda efforts.

IS’s Propaganda Strategy: The Victorious Caliphate

The central theme of IS’s propaganda strategy is that the group is extraordinarily powerful, constantly gaining new territory, and in perpetual possession of momentum. Indeed, IS has based its legitimacy on its ability to establish, defend and expand the caliphate’s territory. The group’s slogan, baqiya wa tatamaddad—remaining and expanding—speaks to the importance of defending and enlarging the caliphate.

IS relies on three primary sources of external support: “foreign fighters” from outside the Syria/Iraq theater, likeminded jihadist organizations outside Iraq and Syria who may pledge allegiance to IS or otherwise support it, and other rebel factions in Syria and Iraq who can bolster IS’s local capabilities. IS’s propaganda machine—which emphasizes its strength, and thus can be understood as a “winner’s messaging”—is critical to the group’s efforts to attract these kinds of support, particularly from individuals who might never come into physical contact with IS fighters.

The military campaign against the Islamic State has been confused, disjointed, and slow to find success. Nonetheless, as the group comes under increasing military pressure due to the war it is fighting on multiple fronts, its winner’s narrative is challenged. IS’s victories in Ramadi and Palmyra in May 2015 were highly significant, but came in the context of a broader trajectory of slow decline. Put simply, IS took on too many enemies too quickly, and refused to cooperate with potential allies, which has hampered the group’s ability to sustain its gains. IS is now in a defensive position in most theaters. In the months following the Palmyra and Ramadi offensives, IS has made only incremental gains while ceding other territory, such as the cities of Ain Issa and Tal Abyad in Syria’s Raqqa Province, and the Bayji oil refinery in northern Iraq.

For this reason, IS has systematically exaggerated its gains and its capabilities, particularly in Africa. In October 2014, a group of militants in the eastern Libyan city of Derna openly pledged bayat (an oath of allegiance) to IS, and declared that they had established an emirate in the city. Soon after the bayat pledge, IS flooded social media with videos and pictures of IS militants in Derna, including a video showing a parade of militants waving IS flags as they drove down a thoroughfare in the city. This show of force led many observers to conclude that the Islamic State controlled Derna, and numerous major media outlets reported IS’s control of Derna as an objective fact.  But in reality, control of Derna was divided between a number of militant groups, including some al-Qaeda-linked groups that opposed IS’s expansion into Libya.

Recent developments demonstrate that IS’s reported control over Derna was highly exaggerated. In early June, Islamic State militants killed Nasir Atiyah al-Akar, a senior leader in the Derna Mujahedin Shura Council (DMSC) with longstanding ties to al-Qaeda. Clashes broke out between the Islamic State and DMSC immediately after Akar’s death. On June 9, Islamic State militants killed Salim Darbi, the commander of the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and the head of the DMSC. In response, the DMSC launched an offensive to oust the Islamic State from the city. Without drawing upon outside reinforcements, the DMSC defeated IS in most of Derna, swiftly confining the group to limited areas in and around the city. The fact that IS was so easily forced out of Derna suggests that it did not control Derna to begin with.

In addition to exaggerating its gains, IS has sought to downplay, or deflect attention from, its military losses. Relatively little media attention has been devoted to IS’s losses in Derna—which is actually justifiable, as IS came to control the city of Sirte, which is a significant victory for the caliphate. But an even more under-publicized IS setback has been its losses in Algeria.

An IS branch emerged in Algeria in mid-2014, when the “center zone” of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which was based in the Kabylie coastal mountain region, announced that it was defecting and joining the Islamic State. The commander of the unit, Gouri Abdelmalek, declared that al-Qaeda had deviated “from the true path,” and announced that his group would now be known as Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate). Days after Jund al-Khilafa was formed, the group posted a video of its beheading of Hervé Gourdel, a French hiker whom it had kidnapped. The Islamic State’s Algeria branch was never well-positioned to endure a great deal of attrition because, even at its peak, Jund al-Khilafa only had around thirty fighters. In December 2014, the Algerian army killed Gouri Abdelmalek and two other militants in a raid in the Boumerdès region east of Algiers. But an even deadlier blow occurred in May 2015, when Algerian security forces launched a large-scale military operation against a high-level meeting of Jund al-Khilafa militants in the Bouira region. The Algerian operation not only killed about two dozen fighters at minimum, but also new emir Abdullah Othman al-Asimi and five of Jund al-Khilafa’s six military commanders. Algerian security forces were able to kill three more Jund al-Khilafa fighters the following day. The May 2015 operation imposed significant attrition on the Islamic State’s Algerian branch at the leadership and foot soldier level, and at this point IS is essentially irrelevant in Algeria from a strategic perspective unless it can rebuild its in-country capabilities.

Overall, IS’s winner’s message is prone to disruption and reversal. IS’s claim that the group is defeating its opponents on the battlefield is not a simple matter of opinion: It is either objectively true or not. Yet IS’s opponents have done little to publicize the group’s most significant losses.