It was a small blip on television news screens at the end of April. Reports of the death of Mohammad Shafi Armar, the head recruiter of the Islamic State (IS) in India, in a U.S. drone strike in Syria, got buried in the din of India’s domestic news. No surprise, considering parliament is in an uproar over scandals and the heated state election season is in full swing. All is business as usual — until, God forbid, India is hurt by another heinous terror attack.
The death of the Islamic State’s head recruiter in India is worth more than a news flash.The ISIS flag has been waving for over two years now. The Indian government too, after the 2015 Paris attacks, has moved beyond the rhetoric of ISIS as a distant problem.The spate of arrests of Indian sympathizers this year alone has proved that ‘Brand ISIS’ has found its foothold in India. The threat is manifold because the Islamic State is winning supporters via social media, the most potent weapon in their arsenal. With the IAMAI-IMRB numbers pegging social media users in India at 143 million, and a 100 percent jump in users in rural India from 2014 to 2015, the Indian audience is ripe for the picking.
According to media reports, Shafi, the Islamic State’s chief recruiter in India before being killed in a drone strike, was close to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Intelligence agencies believe that Shafi was putting together an ISIS unit in every Indian state. He had reportedly recruited 30 youngsters and was in touch with 600-700 potential recruits via Facebook, Whatsapp, and other social media platforms. In fact, Muddabir Sheikh, the ISIS recruiter arrested by the National Investigative Agency during its countrywide raids, was radicalized by Shafi, who promised a promotion and additional money for Indian operations if Sheikh successfully carried out his first assignment. Sheikh reportedly had been unemployed since October 2015 and spent most of his time on the internet, combing through ISIS propaganda.
Indian authorities are clearly concerned with ISIS recruitment via social media. A Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) advisory released after the Paris attacks reiterated the Islamic States’ “success of online radicalization of youth (…) and the possibility of piggybacking on terror groups operating in India, opened up the possibility of IS-sponsored terrorist action on Indian territory.” As of December 2015, close to 150 Indian youth from the south were under surveillance for their alleged sympathies toward IS, apart from 30 odd preventive arrests of Indians seeking to join ISIS in the Middle East. These concerns led the MHA to announce in December that it is examining the feasibility of a multi-agency 24/7 Social Media Analysis Center to monitor online recruitment.
While these efforts, supplemented by the center’s de-radicalization program, are steps in the right direction, they face the mighty challenge of scale — both the target audience and the amount of ISIS propaganda online.
Terror: now armed with a tweet
Gone are the days of Osama bin Laden-style long sermons; ISIS has mastered the art of selling terror and ideology instantly. Social media is a tool so powerful and untamed that counter narratives just can’t seem to keep up. Today the group’s “lone wolfs,” armed with smart phones, run “DIY Terror forums,” virtually scouting for recruits across the globe. The growing number of foreign fighters in Islamic State are proof that its gruesome propaganda has an audience. Many in India may not know much about ISIS ideology or the rank and file, but most would have heard of “Jihadi John,” the now deceased British Arab, would became infamous for beheading ISIS captives in the group’s propaganda videos, which were viewed millions of times across the globe.
ISIS has made brutality fashionable by exploiting the medium. YouTube videos edited in fancy Hollywood-esque sequences show jihadis as regular Joes, interested in sports and movies — while unflinchingly posing with the decapitated heads of victims who went against ISIS decrees. These videos use gaming language, graphics, and effects coupled with trending hashtags, to target their global audience — disenchanted youth who are spoiling for a fight . ISIS speaks to them in a language they understand.
Studies on the Islamic States’ social media expertise have made interesting comparisons with corporate marketing techniques, where new brands seek to disrupt established ones by changing their target audience. ISIS employs this practically by promoting profiles of its teenage recruits, encouraging them to publicize the outfit’s brand. In essence they are investing in a ‘young force’ to ‘disrupt’ the old order. The average underdog fighting for a cause and a new identity is a story which often resonates with the age group that IS targets; confessions of Indian ISIS sympathizers apprehended by the NIA are a case in point.
A Brookings Institution study of ISIS propaganda on Twitter alone, found that group puts out 18 media releases a day and has up to 90,000 dedicated twitter handles, which helped it recruit over 20,000 followers – including 3,000 teenagers and over 200 women. These numbers may have shot up since the study was released in March 2015.
This social media strategy truly gains a global audience thanks to the convergence of social media and traditional media. ISIS understands this. It generates shocking, brutal content, playing on the emotions of disenchantment and fear, which then get amplified by both organized groups on social media and, consequently, reporting by the traditional media.
The Western press is full of stories from defected recruits describing the media war games of the Islamic State. A Washington Post investigation revealed just how much value ISIS ascribes to its propaganda agents:
Senior media operatives are treated as “emirs” of equal rank to their military counterparts. They are directly involved in decisions on strategy and territory. They preside over hundreds of videographers, producers, and editors who form a privileged, professional class with status, salaries and living arrangements that are the envy of ordinary fighters.
It is grand production, which very few governments can match in resources or scale.
Lessons for India
The West’s experience tackling ISIS holds lessons for India. Despite larger coffers and media specialists in play, the counter response has been lacking, says the former chief of the U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. He recently told CBS News, “There is a fantasy in Washington that if you somehow put magic social media or public diplomacy pixie dust on a problem, it will go away. “It’s not that ISIS is so great. It is that the response against ISIS is both limited, and weak.” He reiterated that dismantling the group’s Twitter feeds was a temporary solution; the challenge remains the wide range of audiences to target with counter propaganda.
For companies who host these social-media platforms, the Damocles sword hangs perpetually overhead. The sheer volume of propaganda that needs to be sifted through, not to mention the precarious balance between enabling people to discuss and access information about ISIS without being a distribution channel for its propaganda, becomes challenging.
India has worked on a multi-layered response, from surveillance and monitoring to involving religious heads in de-radicalization programs designed to reach out to disenchanted youth. Yet the scale of the challenge requires an institutionalized, not ad-hoc, response. Agencies warn that ISIS propaganda is already fueling competition between terror groups on social media, driving other non-state actors to bandwagon on the Islamic State brand and even prompting insurgent groups to copycat recruitment strategies.
ISIS has complicated the theater for warfare into a battle of ideas which it, at least in perception, seems to be winning. It is time to be aware and fight this “spam.”
Shruti Pandalai is a research scholar with IDSA working on Emerging Challenges to India’s national security and foreign policy. This piece is based on her latest paper “Armed with a Tweet: The Islamic State’s Virtual Propaganda Wars, Its Appeal and Looming Threat to India,” in The Asian Strategic Review 2016. She tweets @shrutipandalai.