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ISIS and the Militant Jihad on Instagram

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] is notorious for its slick propaganda videos and effectiveness at online recruitment, particularly on social media, of men and women all over the world to fight for and live under their Caliphate. Now with the territorial defeat of ISIS, its recruiters continue to be prolific online, encouraging supporters to hope and work toward the Caliphate’s return and to seek revenge on those who destroyed it by mounting attacks at home. While ISIS’s activity on Facebook and Twitter, as well as encrypted apps like Telegram, has been studied extensively, there is a dearth of information about their activity on Instagram, a platform increasingly used by young people vulnerable to ISIS recruitment. This article provides a brief examination of ISIS supporters’ activity on Instagram, even in the face of takedown policies, and also briefly discusses the possibilities of using a counter narrative video ad campaign on the platform to intervene in and prevent ISIS recruitment.

ISIS has long been noted for its superior use of social media, resulting in an unprecedented recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). As of 2020, over 45,000 FTFs had traveled from all over the world to fight with ISIS or live under the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This number peaked between 2014 and 2016, when ISIS was at the height of its reign of terror and has declined since ISIS’s territorial defeat and the 2019 fall of the Caliphate. Yet ISIS still continues to recruit online, urging supporters to seek revenge for the destruction of the Caliphate and conduct attacks in their home countries while waiting and working for the resurgence of the Caliphate. As recently as March and May 2020, ISIS released propaganda videos touting their battlefield achievements in Syria and Iraq, respectively, portraying graphic footage of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers being slaughtered while also calling for revenge against the countries that helped defeat ISIS territorially.[1]

For years, ISIS would blanket the Internet with their high-quality, professionally produced propaganda videos and written content and then use the immediate feedback mechanisms of social media to swarm in on and “love-bomb” anyone who liked, retweeted, commented on, or otherwise responded to their posts. In this manner, ISIS cast a wide online recruiting net but devoted their time and energies trying to seduce further those who showed interest and vulnerability to their online propaganda. Today’s online experience with video chat, online telephoning and text messaging allows ISIS’s online recruiters operating in at least 25 different languages to create deep and meaningful relationships with those on whom they are able to home in. As they do so, they artfully identify and meet the specific needs of their prey, creating intimate relationships and crafting individualized message that promise dignity, purpose, hero status, love, or anything else sought by the recruit should they attack on ISIS’s behalf or travel to fight for them. Due to this advanced recruitment strategy, ISIS was able to attract a significant amount of foreign terrorist fighters solely online, with no face-to-face recruitment. [2]

Because ISIS has been so prolific and so effective at using social media to radicalize and recruit, policy makers, scholars, and practitioners alike agree that effective efforts to prevent and counter violent jihadist extremism also require a social media aspect. Jihadists’ use of myriad platforms, including Twitter, Ask.fm, and Telegram have been studied extensively, and counter narratives have also been used in online campaigns created and posted by government and non-governmental entities, with mixed results, on a variety of platforms. [3]

The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] has over the past five years created and built its own counter narrative program, titled Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project, which features 194 short video clips of ISIS and al Shabaab insiders denouncing the group, and TheRealJihad.org website that features additional counter narrative material and resources to prevent and intervene in ISIS’s recruitment. ICSVE has also extensively studied online engagement with their and others’ counter narrative materials. It is clear that the most successful counter narratives are emotionally evocative, use credible insiders to deliver the message, and recognize the grievances that viewers may feel in a manner that creates rapport with the viewer rather than mocking the jihadist narrative, condemning those interested to join, or simply promoting pro-democratic, pro-secular society messages. These latter messages may not resonate with someone who has felt discriminated against as a Muslim immigrant, or individual of Muslim immigrant descent, or as a Muslim convert in the West. ICSVE has also learned from studying multiple campaigns that viewers not only watch the Breaking the ISIS Brand counter narrative videos in significant numbers, but are also moved to engage with the posts, through reacting, commenting, sharing, and saving them, and that viewership can be greatly increased by shortening the videos to one minute and then directing viewers to a website (YouTube or the ICSVE-run TheRealJihad.org) where they can watch longer videos and engage with other counter narrative materials and resources.

Although ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand counter narratives have been successful in the aforementioned ways, it is critical that ICSVE and others working in preventing and countering violent extremism keep up with current social media trends, just as ISIS does, in order to be able to prevent and disrupt their recruitment, especially of young people. Thus, an examination of social media usage among young people is required. In Europe, where ISIS is still actively recruiting and able to move some youth into attacking at home, ICSVE has also been campaigning against them while watching which platforms are being most used by both European youth and ISIS. In the EU, similar to the U.S., Instagram usage is outstripping Facebook and growing for youth, particularly among people younger than 34.[4] This is opposed to Facebook and YouTube still being the platforms of choice among youth in countries in other parts of the world, such as in the Middle East, though Twitter has fallen in popularity among Middle Eastern youth since the height of ISIS’s online recruitment.[5] In 2017, Instagram was the third most popular social media platform in the EU, after Facebook and Google+.[6] Anecdotally, police and security forces in the Netherlands expressed a worry that the youth most vulnerable to radicalization would not be reached through Facebook, as even if they do have accounts, they are much more likely to be active users on Instagram.[7]

Surprisingly, the specific relationship between Instagram and terrorist recruitment has not yet been studied. While there is extensive literature on militant jihadism and other types of violent extremism on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, Instagram is typically mentioned only as an example of a social media platform rather than a unique medium for promoting ISIS and militant jihadist propaganda and for terrorist recruitment. This paper begins to delve into the issue of if and how Instagram is being used by ISIS and other militant jihadist groups.

Identifying ISIS and militant jihadist Supporters on Instagram

Identifying those supporting jihadist ideology and groups on Instagram is a relatively simple task. By searching on Islamic terms and names often associated with ISIS, like khilafah, tawheed, and dawlah and even Awlaki, many posts including those hashtags appear, as they were posted by users with public accounts. Among these, most public posts did not include explicit advocations of militant jihadist violence, but rather promoted conservative views such as the requirement for women to be fully covered in niqab, with the implication that women who show their faces at all were sexually promiscuous and that unmarried women who interacted with men were asking to be sexually assaulted. While these views are not necessarily extremist, there could then be found among them ISIS supporters who posted more violent and extreme ideas on their stories or secondary private accounts which made it clear they sympathize with ISIS.

For instance, one commonly shared meme on public pages contrasted “The Hijabi Queen,” a woman who has never had sex before marriage and dresses modestly, with the “Western Thot [Internet slang for a slut or whore],” a woman who is seen as “a pump-and-dump” and “has slept around with countless random guys in her youth, then settles down with someone she’s not even attracted to.” The conservative Muslim woman is portrayed respectfully while the Western woman is dehumanized and degraded, which is not itself violent extremism, but in some cases, it relates to violent suggestions for dealing with Western women’s violations of the poster’s conservative views. For instance, one account posted a photo depicting a man asking, “Is burning the only solution for the feminists?” and another responding, “So it seems. So it seems.”

Other posts advocated violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially during the month of June, which is Pride Month in the United States. Many of these posts appeared at first to advocate tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality until one looked more carefully at the details of the photos:

The photo above was posted by an account which frequently posted other homophobic content and advocated a broad expansion of the global Caliphate but did not believe that ISIS was the group capable of doing so. This view is akin to many others supportive of militant jihad and the idea of an Islamic State Caliphate but who are opposed to ISIS’s propensity for attacking other Sunni Muslims.  Below are some posts of memes illustrating such views.

More violent content criticized the relatives of victims of the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand for forgiving the white supremacist terrorist instead of punishing him according to shariah. Other posts refer to takfir, which is the extremist Islamic practice of excommunicating others for not following their extremist interpretation of Islam, a common practice in ISIS that included the claim that those takfired should be executed as infidels. An example of a post including a meme promoting takfir refers also to the taghut which are, according to ISIS, tyrannical powers that deny and defy Islam, and mushrik, meaning those who reject the oneness of God and who are idolaters. The post is here:

Other posts were anti-Semitic memes accusing figures like the Rothschild family and George Soros of creating the COVID-19 pandemic and inciting race wars which could be found on both far right and militant jihadists sympathizers accounts, again not necessarily denoting militant jihadist sympathy per se. However, among these were also Muslims who appeared to be ISIS supporters based on a video of a man preaching the “ruling of caliphate.”

The account mentioned above, which appears to be an ISIS supporter, posted a meme depicting various high-profile media personalities with Stars of David on their foreheads, below a photo of Jacob Rothschild holding a fan of cash, with an illuminati symbol on his forehead. The title above the photo reads, “The media moguls are highly-paid agents of Rothschild Zionism, hired and paid handsomely serve their global agenda [sic].”

Under the hashtag taghut, denoting tyrannical powers who deny worship of anything other than God and defy Islam, many Instagram users posted photos of Arab leaders, most notably those from Saudi Arabia, accusing them of hypocrisy and Westernization which aligns with the jihadist messaging from al Qaeda, al Shabaab and ISIS, but does not necessarily mean they are militant jihad or ISIS supporters themselves. Messages warning followers not to participate in democratic elections were also posted with the taghut hashtag although this could also be seen as a very conservative, but nonviolent, Salafi view.

One such post featured a Guy Fawkes mask next to the words, “Dumb politicians are not the problem. The problem is the dumb kuffar [disbelievers] that keep voting for them.” The caption specified the leaders of Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia as polytheists and their supporters as kuffar. The same account posted photos accusing Bill Gates of injecting people with the COVID-19 virus in order to sell them a vaccine; referred to Jews, Shias, Sufis, Brelwees [sic], and Christians of being idol-worshippers; and declared takfir on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her participation in the U.S. government. Many photos posted by the account featured firearms, though the poster stated that they did not support ISIS specifically.

Of the public accounts that did explicitly advocate for violent jihad, most did not mention ISIS, which may be due to the profile owners’ concerns about avoiding takedowns. Rather than directly mentioning ISIS, they posted photos and quotes from ISIS and al Qaeda English-speaking ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki or exaltations of the Taliban, which seemed to be a far more socially acceptable group, or safer to explicitly post, than ISIS within the jihadist sphere on Instagram.

One post featured a video of Anwar al-Awlaki speaking about jihad, captioned, “Beautiful beautiful reminder, Whoever is going to follow a path should follow the path of the ones who’ve died.” Another post on the account featured only the bottom half of al-Awlaki’s face, presumably to avoid takedown software, as the caption began, “Kuffar deleted this post.”

Another account was dedicated entirely to posting al-Awlaki quotes, with a link to a collection of audio lectures in the bio. According to the account holder, he or she was posting the quotes on behalf of jihad and linking to the audio lectures because “YouTube is deleting the videos of the Sheikh cause [sic] it contains Islam in its purest form.” While many of al-Awlaki’s early videos do address many matters about life in Islam, his later videos promoting endless jihad with the West are the actual reason his videos have been taken down.

One of the most prolific Taliban-supporting accounts frequently posted violent and graphic videos as well as photos boasting of the Taliban’s success. For instance, one photo was accompanied by the caption, “Taliban Lions captured a checkpoint in the Antan area of Siagard in Begha Parwan province, killing and wounding soldiers and looting a large number of arms. Allab Almighty gives us enough weapons in one post to suffice to conquer a large bases… [sic].”

The same account frequently expressed anger toward ISIS, however, citing an oft-referenced conspiracy theory that ISIS was created by the United States and Israel to destroy the Muslim people.[8] The photo below was posted alongside a caption claiming that Edward Snowden had revealed that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is really a Mossad agent named Elliot Shimon.

There were, however, a few public accounts that were clearly and unashamedly pro-ISIS. Most focused on the women imprisoned at the al-Hol camp in Syria. One account was even purportedly run by women in the camp who raised money through other accounts to finance their escapes. These accounts threatened punishment for the unbelievers who held them captive and yearned for the return of the Caliphate.[9]

An account seemingly run by a woman in al-Hol wrote, “Remember my sisters no matter what state we are in, no matter what the world think of us. The world still trembles at the mention of us, we have left a deep scar that will never heal and we remain a thorn in the side of kufr.”

One account posted in English, Arabic, and German, raising funds to be smuggled out of Camp al-Hol. This account also provided links to other accounts, which posted links to a PayPal account where supporters could donate to the women or write them letters. On June 12th, 2020, one of the associated accounts posted a video claiming that it was taken while the women were leaving the camp. The account also posted graphic photos of bloodied male faces, claiming that “some sisters from the camp recognized their husbands and their husbands were in Hasakah prison.” There were multiple riots and attempted escapes at Hasakah the days and weeks before these photos were posted. The primary account has either been deleted since then or has blocked the account through which ICSVE was following it.

Another account run out of al-Hol, which was not associated with the German account mentioned above, posted in English only. The account posted about fundraisers through Telegram, but did not link to the fundraising websites themselves, likely to prevent the websites from being taken down. The account also lauded ISIS fighters who were captured in ISIS’s last stronghold of Baghouz, fighting until the very end. They also posted about teaching their children to throw rocks at the camp guards and referred to Camp al-Hol as “the cradle of the new Caliphate.” This account has also either been deleted or blocked the account through which ICSVE was following it.

Most accounts that openly supported ISIS were private, though many of these could be identified as likely ISIS followers by a black flag emoji and an index finger emoji in their bios, both common but not unique symbols for ISIS. Notably, proponents of other jihadist groups like the Taliban did not use these symbols in their bios. These pro-ISIS accounts posted photos of weapons and included more provocative messages, such as those denouncing others as unbelievers, in their Instagram stories. Some photos also included selective Islamic scriptures arguing for severe punishment of unbelievers which also aligns with ISIS ideology. Many accounts also posted black and white videos of men with guns on horses with the identifiable black flags of ISIS and women dressed in niqab, expressing nostalgia for the Caliphate. One account even included a story called “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” which included, “Praying to Allah to reward you with martyrdom,” “financing a mujahid [a jihadist warrior] ,” and “arms training.” Another account was dedicated to inspiring hope for the resurgence of the ISIS Caliphate. Under a photo of Bashar al-Assad, the user commented, “The oppressive rule of these tyrants is on its last legs. Their nations are failing, the people want change. The Khilafah is coming very soon, as prophesized. Why don’t you help re-establish it?” Another post read, “The Khilafah state could easily liberate all oppressed Muslims and protect every Muslim living within it. It’s that simple.” Another account used a photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his profile picture and posted videos of sermons on his story, as well as other videos praising ISIS fighters and promising that “Allah will grant you victory.” Another post by the same account featured a drawing of the ISIS flag over the earth. Many of these accounts accepted follow requests from the ICSVE-run The Real Jihad account, likely without looking at the account’s posts, which all contain counter narrative material.

It should be noted that many of these accounts are taken down within weeks of discovering them, although new and similar ones quickly replace them. In the study of terrorist activity on social media, Instagram may well be a new frontier where younger people are able to post anonymously about their violent extremist beliefs. The Instagram “Discover” page also serves as an echo chamber for these individuals, suggesting posts and accounts to follow that are similar to accounts one already follows. Indeed, many of the accounts followed by The Real Jihad were found not by searching on hashtags or perusing other users’ lists of followers, but by simply looking at the “Discover” page without searching anything at all. Thus, as soon as a user reacts to a militant jihadist account, he or she will be recommended to follow other such accounts and will not be exposed to any counter arguments unless accounts like The Real Jihad insert themselves into the echo chamber by tagging counter narratives with militant jihadist hashtags.

Research on Instagram in Regard to Terrorist Propagandizing and Recruitment Strategies

Most research on the impact of Instagram focuses on the different communities that exist on Instagram. While some communities, such as those promoting body positivity among young women,[10] bond users together through prosocial means, other communities allow users to unite in promotion of maladaptive behaviors such as self-harm[11] and excessive reassurance-seeking.[12] Because terrorist recruitment online involves aspects of marketing as well as promotion of maladaptive behavior, some studies of Instagram can be applied to its utility for terrorist recruitment and opportunities for preventing and countering radicalization. For instance, a 2016 study of Dutch teenagers and young adults found that while young people were more likely to express negative emotion on Facebook and Twitter, they were more likely to express positive emotion on Instagram. However, they were most likely to express any emotion, positive or negative, on WhatsApp, likely due to its double-ended encryption that makes users feel that their expressions are more private and secure. The authors of the study concluded that users felt stronger ties to Facebook friends (a reciprocal relationship) than to Instagram followers (a non-reciprocal relationship), thus enabling them to disclose more private negative emotions.[13] These results suggest that Instagram may be an effective platform to attract the initial attention of targets for counter radicalization, but they should be then redirected to a platform that allows for more freedom to express negative emotions and the potential to build a more personal relationship. Whether or not ISIS has learned this yet is unknown, but the results nevertheless provide lessons for counter narrative campaigning and suggest that attracting attention on Instagram may be possible, but moving the viewer to a platform where more intimate relations and fears, doubts, and needs can be expressed and hopefully answered in a way that redirects the user away from violent extremism would be beneficial.

Pittman and Reich (2016) posited that because Instagram is an image-based platform, it is better equipped to reduce loneliness among adolescents and young adults than text-based platforms like Twitter. The study noted that Instagram posts with faces (i.e., selfies or photos of groups of friends) were 38 percent more likely to be “liked” and 32 percent more likely to receive a comment than other types of photos, such as those of food or landscapes.[14] Thus, decreased loneliness related to Instagram use may similarly confer the sense of belonging and significance, such as the idea that one is worthy of being noticed, that is often an integral part of terrorist recruitment, even if use of the platform does not allow for the development of emotionally intimate individual relationships. The latter can be developed by instructing those whose attention has been captured and who begin to feel a sense of being noticed and belonging to migrate to other more intimate platforms and apps.

Instagram’s utility for organizations, rather than individuals, has also been examined. In ICSVE’s preliminary counter narrative campaigns on Instagram the account running the counter narrative ads, @TheRealJihad_Official, is a business account and is not made to look like an individual user. Thus, it is important to understand how businesses and organizations in general are able to engage followers on Instagram. One study in Finland found that users were most likely to engage with brands on Instagram when the brands’ content was personal and emotionally evocative.[15] The same has been found in studies of ISIS’s online recruitment as well as studies of counter narratives.[16] Among Kuwaiti banks, Instagram has been found to be most effective in image building and communication, rather than establishing relationships, and that banks are able to gain the trust of their followers by invoking religious themes.[17] Although the Instagram ads discussed in the present study were not run in the Middle East, many were targeted toward Arabic speakers. It is therefore critical to understand the cultural aspects of engaging with organizations on Instagram, namely, the suggestion of the Kuwaiti study that Arabs are less prone to interact directly with an organization on Instagram and are more likely to view the platform, with respect to organizations, as a one-way communication medium. Still another study of brands on Instagram found that consumers were more likely to trust brands if they perceive the brand’s benevolence and integrity, and if the brand is endorsed by “Key Opinion Leaders.”[18]

ISIS recruiters have utilized these factors well. By stoking distrust in Western governments in the mainstream online media, they also contrast their own claimed shariah-based values and build up their own reputation for integrity. For instance, by emphasizing the atrocities of the Assad regime,[19] they portrayed themselves as benevolent. Finally, by invoking trusted jihadi narratives, such the idea that Muslims are under attack by the West, the idea that defensive jihad is required and that jihad is obligatory for all Muslims, alongside the promotion of suicide terrorism as a type of Islamic “martyrdom,” sometimes via fatwas by Arabic scholars or sermons by Anwar al Awlaki for English speakers,[20] they ensure their followers that they have been endorsed by trusted and credible sources. As such, a key aspect of the counter narratives presented in this article is the use of ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres as credible, reliable speakers who have suffered some of the same grievances as viewers and sought justice by joining ISIS, to deliver an honest, benevolent message and warnings to those thinking of following their same path to destruction.

A Possible Instagram Counter Narrative Strategy?

ICSVE has over the past two years, in partnership with Facebook, run over 125 campaigns in countries and languages all over the globe with good success in reaching the target audience and engaging them with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos. It is only recently that ICSVE started counter narrative campaigns on Instagram. While the full-scale ICSVE study of running counter narratives on Instagram has been submitted to a scientific journal, some brief results can be relayed here.

Given that we are easily finding outward expressions of support for ISIS, it was not difficult to identify a target population for the ICSVE counter narratives and build a following of accounts that would be viewed as legitimate for people who are in the process of being radicalized toward militant jihad and thus target them with counter narratives. ICSVE researchers were able to identify potential ISIS supporters on Instagram through their bios alone, meaning that one does not have to request to follow a private account in order to determine whether that user can be considered a likely ISIS supporter. Moreover, there is evidence of a large jihadist-supporting community on Instagram, although many of its members do not openly profess to be ISIS supporters. Thus, those aiming to counter militant jihad generally would be wise not to focus solely on ISIS, lest they be dismissed by supporters of the Taliban, al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and Kashmiri militant jihadist groups who support violence but denounce ISIS.

While the counter narratives used in ICSVE’s first campaign were specifically ISIS-focused and aimed at the general population in numerous EU countries, future campaigns may be hyper-targeted at those people more vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.[21]

Running counter narrative videos on Instagram is a slightly different process than running Facebook ad campaigns. On Instagram, users are wary of interacting with accounts that appear to not be run by engaged, active Instagram users, even if the account belongs to a business. Thus, before running the campaign, ICSVE staff set up the @TheRealJihad_Official Instagram account and attempted to amass followers by posting daily, at noon, links to articles on TheRealJihad.org, photos with quotes from ISIS insiders denouncing the group, and links to other ICSVE counter narrative videos on YouTube. The account also began following a number of accounts with jihadist content, in order to legitimize itself among the intended audience. Jihadist accounts were found by searching various hashtags such as #khilafah, #dawlah, and #tawheed. At the outset of the campaign, the account followed 75 Instagram users and had five followers. By the middle of the campaign, the account was following 104 accounts and had 60 followers, many of whom were members of the target audience, thus demonstrating the ability to ingratiate itself within the pro-ISIS community on Instagram.

Already, photos and quotes from ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres have been posted on The Real Jihad Instagram account daily since the account’s inception to position it as a credible account with postings of potential interest to the target audience. It should be noted that all ICSVE counter narrative videos have ambiguous names that could be considered pro-ISIS, and most have thumbnails taken from actual ISIS footage that has been used to illustrate the speaker’s story, which denounces rather than supports ISIS. These posts have sparked likes and a few comments, including one ridiculing the defector for expecting a life of luxury in ISIS instead of jihad. Another user sent a direct message to The Real Jihad, accusing the account of using a fabricated hadith, arguing against the Islamic tenet that the most important jihad is that being against one’s own whims and evils, rather than against outside enemies. ICSVE’s Islamic scholar responded by pointing out the user’s use of a straw man fallacy, explaining the correct translation and meaning. The user was not able to refute the scholar’s argument, responding simply, “Allah knows best.” Other users direct messaged the account asking for more links to the counter narrative videos, which is a positive sign of engagement among the target audience.

The counter narratives were run in Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, and Italy, all countries from which individuals had traveled to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. All of the counter narrative videos used were one minute long and featured ISIS defectors, returnees or prisoners speaking about why they joined and what they actually experienced while in ISIS, and finally denouncing ISIS as un-Islamic, corrupt, and overly brutal at the end of the video. Each of the videos featured an ISIS member who had traveled to ISIS from the specific country in which the video was run or a nearby country (for example, the speaker in the video shown in Austria was from Germany). The speakers in the videos told their stories in different languages, but each video was subtitled in the dominant and minority languages used by Muslims in the countries in which they were run. They were run for 13 days, from May 15 to May 27, 2020.

In general, the results of ICSVE’s first campaigns were positive in terms of being able to create an account that could reach the target audience and engage them to a certain extent.  However, there are concerns that need to be addressed. One is that through the comparison between this Instagram campaign and the identical campaign run on Facebook a few weeks prior, it is clear that one-minute videos do not have the same capability to retain viewers on Instagram as they do on Facebook. This may be because videos on Facebook can be up to four hours long, so users who are accustomed to seeing longer videos on their feed may not get bored as easily, or may check how much of the video is left after watching for 10 or 15 seconds and, seeing that less than a minute remains, decide to finish the video instead of scrolling past it. On Instagram, however, videos cannot be longer than one minute. Therefore, users who are accustomed to watching videos for only a few seconds may not have the patience to watch a one-minute long counter narrative video.

In order to remedy the poor viewer retention on Instagram, future campaigns will feature photos and even shorter videos, likely utilizing ICSVE’s digital posters.[22] These posters are photos of the ISIS defectors, insiders, and imprisoned cadres featured in the counter narrative videos, alongside emotionally evocative quotes about their lives before ISIS and their experiences in the groups. These posters have gained some traction among The Real Jihad account’s regular followers and will therefore likely spark high engagement in an ad campaign.

In summary, ICSVE has been able to determine that Instagram is being used by individuals whose accounts suggest that they are ISIS supporters, and even ISIS members themselves, and that it is possible to reach and target these accounts with counter narrative campaigns. However, our first campaigns taught us that it is critical to carefully determine the best ways to expose both those who are ISIS supporters and those vulnerable to ISIS recruitment to countering arguments in a way that is engaging and emotionally evocative. Likewise it is necessary to keep in mind that Instagram is unique platform where users are more likely to expect to see extremely short videos and photos with less discussion occurring. Our continued work on the platform and future studies will keep this in mind and focus on increasing viewer retention and effectively providing counter arguments to jihadist ideology through photos and videos that are only a few seconds long. Our first campaigns were an important step toward learning if we could utilize counter narratives effectively on Instagram, which differs quite a bit from Facebook in terms of expected mediums and audience. It is clear from our research that Instagram is being used by those supporting, and even members of, ISIS as well as other militant jihadist groups and thus there is a strong need for counter narrative campaigns to be put in place to disrupt and prevent ISIS and other militant jihadist recruitment on Instagram.

The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism thanks the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C., Facebook and the European Commission’s Civil Society Empowerment Programme for their generous support of our research, creation of counter narratives and counter narrative campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. This article was partially funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund — Police.

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[3] Yayla, Ahmet S., and Anne Speckhard. “Telegram: The mighty application that ISIS loves.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2017).; Al-Rawi, Ahmed, and Jacob Groshek. “Jihadist Propaganda on Social Media: An Examination of ISIS Related Content on Twitter.” In Cyber Warfare and Terrorism: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications, pp. 1442-1457. IGI Global, 2020.; Speckhard, Anne, Ardian Shajkovci, and Lorand Bodo. “Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2018).; Shane, Scott, and Ben Hubbard. “ISIS displaying a deft command of varied media.” New York Times 30 (2014).
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[5] AW Staff. “Social Media Use by Youth Is Rising across the Middle East: AW Staff.” Arab Weekly, January 26, 2020. https://thearabweekly.com/social-media-use-youth-rising-across-middle-east.
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[14] Pittman, Matthew, and Brandon Reich. “Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words.” Computers in Human Behavior 62 (2016): 155-167.
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[16] Speckhard, Anne, Ardian Shajkovci, and Lorand Bodo. “Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2018).
[17] Al-Kandari, Ali A., T. Kenn Gaither, Mohamed Mubarak Alfahad, Ali A. Dashti, and Ahmed R. Alsaber. “An Arab perspective on social media: How banks in Kuwait use Instagram for public relations.” Public Relations Review 45, no. 3 (2019): 101774.
[18] Che, Jasmine WS, Christy MK Cheung, and Dimple R. Thadani. “Consumer purchase decision in Instagram stores: The role of consumer trust.” In Proceedings of the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 2017.
[19] Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg, Molly (May 12, 2020). How Assad’s Atrocities Became a Powerful  Motivator for Terrorist Recruitment. Homeland Security Today
[20] Speckhard, Anne. “Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar Al-Awlaki Into ISIS.” Homeland Security Today, April 28, 2020. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/recruiting-from-beyond-the-grave-a-european-follows-anwar-al-awlaki-into-isis/.
[21] Speckhard, Anne, Molly Ellenberg, Haider Shaghati, and Neima Izadi. “Hypertargeting Facebook Profiles Vulnerable to ISIS Recruitment with ‘Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Video Clips’ in Multiple Facebook Campaigns.” Journal of Human Security (In Press).
[22] “Memes – ISIS Defectors Speak Out.” ICSVE. Accessed July 13, 2020. https://www.icsve.org/project/memes/.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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How 4chan Radicalizes Youth and Grooms Them Towards Terrorism

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The image board was started in 2003 to discuss anime and various other topics but festered into a safe space for hateful rhetoric soon after. In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated mass shooting by a frequent user, its dangers have finally reached the mainstream.

4chan is an extremely unique website. It has been running since 2003, and over the course of almost 20 years, has influenced many internet memes and phenomena. However, in the wake of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015 and the 2016 Presidential Election, it became associated with white supremacy, especially on its /pol/ board. This hateful rhetoric festered, worsening in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and George Floyd protests. 4chan was sprung into the spotlight once again on May 14th, 2022, when a white supremacists livestreamed his massacre of a supermarket.

This attack, fresh in American’s minds, led many to question why 4chan is still allowed to exist. This comes after 4chan’s rhetoric inspired a 2015 mass shooting in Oregon and its users aided in the organization in the Unite The Right Rally and the January 6th Riots. Clearly 4chan is a hotbed for far-right terrorism. But why is this image board the way it is? The answer lies in its lax moderation of content.

Upon looking at 4chan, you will find it is mostly made up of pornography. However, if you go on the site’s /pol/ board, it does not take long to find the kind of rhetoric that radicalized the Buffalo shooter. One particular post I found featured a racist joke at the expense of Black people. Another was praising fighters in the Ukrainian Azov battalion while joking about killing trans people. Yet another post complained about an “influx of tourists” due to the Buffalo shooter, who they insulted with an anti-gay slur. These memes and jokes seem to appeal to a younger, perhaps teenaged audience. It is clear that they are still trying to recruit youth into their ranks even after the tragedy in Buffalo.

The content is, to say the least, vile. The fact that this stuff is permitted and encouraged by not just the userbase (which numbers in the millions) but also many moderators tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with 4chan. In fact, copies of the livestreamed Buffalo massacre were spread widely on 4chan to the amusement of its userbase.

Many of the users on 4chan are social rejects who feel as if they have nothing to lose. They feel unaccepted and alienated from society, so they turn to 4chan. Many harmful ideologies, such as White supremacy and incel ideologies, seem extremely validating for these dejected youth.  Young, socially alienated men, who make up the majority of 4chan’s userbase, are also among the most vulnerable demographics for radicalization.

What can we do to prevent further radicalization of youth and deradicalize those already affected by harmful rhetoric? First of all, we need to either heavily regulate 4chan or have it shut down. There is no space on the internet for this kind of hatred or incitement to commit horrific acts like what happened in Buffalo. For those already radicalized, we need to perform a campaign of deradicalization among those affected by this rhetoric. But how can this be done?

4chan prides itself on anonymity, so it is difficult to figure out who uses it. Thus, education on radicalization and identification of propaganda is vital. This education should focus on adolescents mostly due to their predisposition towards radicalization when exposed to hateful rhetoric. While White supremacy must be emphasized, other forms of radicalization should be mentioned as well such as Jihadism and other forms of ethnic supremacy. Finally, tolerance must be fostered among all people, not just those at risk of becoming groomed into terrorism.

The age of 4chan has spawned many humorous memes, but it has since become a hotbed for hatred and terrorism. Since memes are able to convey dangerous ideas, websites like Reddit and Facebook need to be heavily regulated to prevent the dissemination of dangerous misinformation. It is unlikely that 4chan will ever moderate itself, as lack of strict moderation is its defining feature. Thus, it has overstayed its welcome and no longer has a place in today’s information-driven society.

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New ISIS Strategy and the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan

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ISKP Uzbek Jihadist

Unlike Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the second late leader of ISIS, who was derided as a “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody” for his relative anonymity and non-publicity, the new caliph of the Islamic State, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, has apparently launched a new strategy to strengthen linkages to regional wilayahs (provinces) and boost the group’s global presence.

Indeed, during his short time leading the group (31 October 2019 – 3 February 2022), Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi never publicly addressed his followers, which negatively affected the coordination of the activities of Islamic State-Central (ISC) and its regional branch of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP). Although his killing during a US counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria in early February was a major blow to the global jihadi organization, the change in leadership nevertheless provided it with new opportunities to update its command-and-control, recruitment and propaganda campaign.

Predictably, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the new ISIS overall leader, sees his historical role not only in ensuring the Caliphate’s continuity and avoiding its potential fragmentation but also in establishing a more direct and consistent command line between its core in Iraq and Sham and its Central and South Asian affiliates.

ISIS collage dedicated to rocket attack on Uzbek Termez

The new strategy of the Islamic Caliphate not only gave a new impetus to its Khorasan offshoot waging a holy jihad in post-American Afghanistan against the Taliban but also opened a new front line against the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes. Indeed, the analysis of ISKP activities revealed that the proclamation of Abu al-Hassan al-Quraishi as the new Caliph and the launch of a new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” increased the combat capability of IS Uzbek and Tajik fighters, as well as strengthened the coordination of local language and IS-Central propaganda machines.

Notoriously, on April 17, ISIS launched the new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, and his official spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who were killed in a US raid in February in the northwest Syrian town of Atmeh. In his recent audio address, Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu-Omar al-Muhajir called on the Caliphate warriors to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leaders by “painfully striking” the enemies of “al-mujahideen” and saying that if they kill, they should “kill by many.” This call was made to the group’s followers worldwide and asked them to remain patient, but also be ready when the “war” begins. Al-Muhajir called to expand the campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to the territory of US, Europe and Central Asia, urging Muslims living there to follow the lead of past “lone wolves” who conducted operations that “filled with horror.” He asked them to repeat “lone wolf” operations by stabbing, attacking, and ramming, and drawing inspiration from recent attacks in Israel.

ISKP Threat to Central Asia

Among the first to support the Islamic State’s new ‘global offensive’ campaign were ISKP Uzbek and Tajik jihadists challenging the new Taliban government and dreaming of overthrowing the ‘Taghut (idolaters) regimes’ in Central Asia. Thus, inspired by the new Caliph’s new strategy, for the first time in the history of the Islamic State, they managed to conduct a transnational jihadi operation from Afghanistan to the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Initially, on April 18, 2022, the ISKP fired ten rocket salvos into the territory of Uzbekistan, which was successfully exploited by the Uzbek-speaking regional jihadi media and IS-Central’s propaganda resources as evidence of the opening of a “second front” in the Central Asian direction. Expert assessments clearly observed the good coordination between the IS-Central’s media and ISKP’s local jihadi mouthpieces, both in terms of Islamic ideological content and hierarchical sequences.

ISKP Uzbek nasheed performer Asadulloh Urganchiy

The Islamic State-Central’s Amaq News Agency reported that “Mujahedeen of the Caliphate have fired 10 Katyusha rockets at a murtad (apostasy) Uzbekistan’s military base in the border town of Termez.” The ISIS central media wing also released a photo and video of the projectiles to back its claims. Another IS-Central’s weekly al-Naba newsletter also widely covered the topic of rocket attacks by detailing how the projectiles were fired from Afghan territory on the Central Asian nation.

Following IS-Central official news agencies reports, IS-Khurasan Willayah’s local media outlets, such as Al-Azaim Foundation and Khurasan Radio, the Uzbek-language Xuroson Ovozi (Voice of Khurasan), Tavhid Habar (Tawhid News), Tajik-language Telegram channels Mujahideen of the Caliphate and The Army of the Victorious Nation published a series of audio, video and text messages in Uzbek and Tajik detailing the goals, causes, and consequences of the rocket attack. In particular, Al-Azaim Foundation glorified the rocket attack as “the heroism of the brave lions of Allah Almighty punishing the corrupt army of the murtad Uzbek government.”

The ISKP media outlets were extremely outraged by the Uzbek government’s denial of the rocket attack, claiming that nothing had landed on their territory. In response, pro-ISKP Uzbek, Tajik and Russian Language Telegram channels re-posted IS-Central’s statement, photos, videos of the attacker and a map marked with the possible rocket impact location in Termez.

Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi experts’ attention was drawn to a 24-minute audio address of Khuroson Mujahid, the leader of ISKP Uzbek group, whose speech style and ideological views strongly resembled the late ISIS chief strategist Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. His speech revealed that the ideological vision of ISKP Central Asian jihadists, staunch followers of Takfiri Salafism, is in line with the Islamic State’s global agenda. He considers democracy to be the religion of “murtad states” of Central Asia, the Taliban government and Pakistan. He believes that due to committing shirk (idolatry), deviating Allah and doubting Tawheed (God’s Oneness), the leaders of taghut countries should be killed.

Considering Khuroson’s oratorical skills, Takfiri persuasion and ideological savvy, it is quite possible that the ISKP recruitment and incitement campaign will intensify in Central Asia in the near future. Obviously, the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP in the military, media and ideological directions reached a new level in the more permissive operating environment of post-American Afghanistan.

On May 7, the ISKP carried out a second rocket attack, this time into Tajikistan. According to the Central Media Office (Diwan al-I’lam al-Markazi) of ISIS, “Caliphate’s fighters fired seven rockets from the Khawaja Ghar district of Afghanistan’s Takhar Province towards the Tajik military base near the city of Kulob.” The rocket attacks on the territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for three weeks nevertheless mark a clear escalation by ISKP Central Asian foreign fighters from just hostile anti-five post-Soviet “murtad governments” rhetoric to direct militant action.

Notably, the methods of media coverage of both attacks and the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP’s local media resources were clearly similar. The algorithm of their actions was in line with the new ISIS strategy. Thus, IS-Central posted a brief information about the rocket attacks with video and photos, then the Tajik, Uzbek and Pashto-language local media resources of ISKP glorified the “warriors of Allah”. The Uzbek-language pro-Islamic State Telegram channels Islomiy Maruza Davat Guruh, Khuroson Ovozi, Tawheed news, the Tajik-language Telegram channel of Ulamoi Rabboni (إنَّ اللّٰهَ مَعَنَا) actively propagated ISKR rocket attacks, undermining the image and credibility of the military potential of Tajikistan and the Taliban.

These Central Asian pro-IS media resources, supported by IS-Central propaganda bodies and comprised of a constellation of official branch outlets, regional pro-ISKP groups, and grassroots supporters have become a prominent voice aggressively impugning the Taliban’s reputation in the global jihadi world. Such method makes it possible to preserve the hierarchical structure and maintain a uniform media strategy of the global jihadi group. This reflects that after the fall of the Caliphate and a series of dramatic losses of its leaders, ISIS has learned a bitter lesson and is now moving from centralizing power to strengthening its wilayahs.

Apparently, the ISKP seeks to broaden its appeal in Central Asia both through increasing cross-border attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors and ramping up the production, translation, and dissemination of propaganda directed at Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz communities in the region. These rocket attacks and ISKP’s propaganda campaigns targeting Central Asians for recruitment are any indicators, the group has become a serious jihadi power challenging not only the Taliban government, but also the post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Through its Uzbek, Tajik and Pashto-language Telegram channels, the ISKP is conducted an unprecedented activity to recruit Central Asian jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as new radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley.

Future of ISKP Central Asian Jihadists

Obviously, the ISKP is exploiting the US military withdrawal from the region and the Afghan Taliban’s deviation from the hardline jihadi concept by successfully portraying their government as a Pashtun ethno-nationalist organization rather than a bona fide Islamic movement.

In conclusion, it is to be expected that the ISKP will actively capitalize external operations to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, which assured the US and Central Asian neighbors not to allow Afghan soil to be used to attack Afghanistan’s neighbors. Strengthening cross-border rocket attacks has already raised the morale of ISKP fighters and consolidated its support base.

Thus, the new Islamic State’s strategy to strengthen its offshoots in its provinces is quite capable to reestablish its positioning in the broader global jihadi movement, which we see in the example of IS-Khorasan Province.

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How Memes Can Spread Dangerous Ideas

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Internet memes are an excellent way to send powerful messages to millions of people. But what happens when they are used for malicious purposes?

Memes have been a means of transmitting messages for centuries, proliferating immensely in recent decades due to their mass proliferation through the internet and their ability to broadcast messages to a massive audience. They have quite a bit of cultural significance and can be based on almost anything, provided they achieve viral status. However, memes have been subject to abuse by malicious groups and actors.

From the Blue Whale Challenge, an internet challenge that resulted in multiple suicides worldwide, to terrorist organizations like ISIS, which use internet memes to recruit young people, memes can be used for malicious purposes. Even toxic subcultures like MGTOW serve as a pipeline towards the incel movement. Indeed, such male supremacist organizations are not strangers to using memes and viral media to propagate their ideas and recruit young men and boys to their cause. In fact, one influencer, who goes by Sandman MGTOW, often posts such misogynistic memes and videos on his Twitter and YouTube channel.

These kinds of memes are easily identifiable by their bias towards a specific issue and their often-political message. One great example of a meme that has been subject to abuse by malicious actors is Pepe the frog. Based on a character by Matt Furie, this meme was abused by the alt right, being depicted as controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. The meme was so badly abused by these far-right actors that it was listed as a hate symbol by the ADL.

Memes have also influenced major world events like the 2016 election in the United States and the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010’s, which garnered immense media attention through the use of internet memes and viral media. This shows that memes can have the power to influence elections (albeit slightly) and topple oppressive regimes. Being a powerful tool for spreading information, there is also the use of memes for spreading misinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic mediated a sizeable but modest anti-vaccine movement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. These anti-vaxx groups used social media like Facebook and Reddit to spread memes full of misinformation and pseudo-science It can also be argued that memes were effective tools in spreading misinformation around the elections of 2016 and 2020 in the United States. Memes, while powerful, can be used by malicious actors such as far-right groups and anti-vaxx groups to peddle false information. This has contributed to the US having a COVID death toll of over one million, higher than most other countries worldwide.

The world has progressed quite a bit in the information age. People are able to communicate ideas with millions of people worldwide in seconds. The proliferation if information has never been more efficient in history. That is why the threats that arise from the mass proliferation of memes and viral media are so dire. As was seen during the 2016 and 2020 US elections, COVID, and Arab Spring, memes can be spread to convey messages that can change nations, affect millions (perhaps even billions) of people, and topple dictators. It has become possible for people to change the course of history with a single tweet or a single meme on Reddit or Instagram going viral.

What can we do to stem the massive proliferation of memes that serve to recruit people into dangerous organizations and fill their minds with misinformation? The answer lies in how we confront our biases and how we detect misinformation. People need to be informed about how they can detect bias and propaganda, in addition to using independent fact-checking services. By identifying propaganda from malicious actors and misinformation from online groups, we can stop the spread of dangerous memes before they proliferate.

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