My latest term at Conrad Grebel University College for my Master of Peace and Conflict Studies (MPACS) graduate programme has been long and arduous. The focus of my studies have been on the multifaceted nature of Islamic State. Drawing on course themes, I have analyzed Islamic State through many different perspectives. Previously, I wrote a paper on "The Failure of Soft Power to Destroy or Degrade Islamic State". The following article is an analysis of Islamic State and their unprecedented recruiting campaign, specifically in their use of social media and their target audience of foreign fighters.
(Here is an Academia.edu link for a .PDF version)
(Here is an Academia.edu link for a .PDF version)
Note of Process and Terminology
Media outlets, politicians, academics, and denizens of Islamic State controlled territory have referred to this organization as ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’ or ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ – ISIS, ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ – ISIL, and/or ‘ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fil-Iraq wash-Sham’ – DAESH. In the context of this report, ‘Islamic State’ will be uniformly used throughout for the name of the group in question. The geographic region known as the ‘Levant’ will be understood to include the modern nations of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. Any comments on or portrayal of Islam or its theology will be representative of Islamic State ideology and is in no way representative of true or mainstream Islamic thought. In addition, when Arabic or Islamic elements are described, they will be transliterated from Arabic to English using a simplified phonetic spelling. References to the United States Armed Forces in comparison to Islamic State are in no way meant to be defamatory or critical. Any comparisons are made for that singular specific juxtaposition and do not extend in scope beyond what is described therein.
The Levant continues to be rife with conflict and destabilizing violence. The most recent conflict to strike the region started in spring 2011 as the Syrian Uprising – and has since metastasized into the Syrian Civil War. The death toll from the ongoing conflict ranges from a United Nations (UN) estimated 220,000 to a Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimated 310,000.  Amidst the chaos of a conflicted region were the waning hours of an American combat operation, Operation Iraqi Freedom, in Iraq. The United States Armed Forces decision to withdraw combat troops in Iraq by December of 2011 left an immense power vacuum in the still destabilized Levant region. Emboldened by Western and American inaction, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad continued its brutal military crackdown on opposition movements within Syria’s borders. In response to the Assad regime’s offensives against civilian neighbourhoods, resistance forces began fighting back against regime security forces and likewise aligned paramilitary militias. The subsequent eruption of open conflict flooded the region with what has been described as “the largest foreign fighter mobilization since the Afghan conflict in the 1980’s”, by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).
The largest draw to the region is the enticement of Islamic State via their recruiting efforts through social media and video productions. Islamic State started with the migration of regional al-Qaeda affiliated foreign fighters arriving to fight in the Syrian Civil War. According to a February 2015 assessment by the United States Intelligence Community, the number of foreign nationals fighting for Islamic State are estimated at 20,00 to 31,500, with 3,400 coming from nations in the Global North. United States Secretary of State John Kerry suggests that the target demographic for Islamic State recruiting are “[those] among the disaffected and disenfranchised, but also among those of all backgrounds on a misguided quest for meaning and empowerment”. Islamic State is able to successfully connect with their target audience via “the power of modern communications”, as described by CIA Director John Brennan:
“New technologies can help groups like [Islamic State] coordinate operations, attract new recruits, disseminate propaganda, and inspire sympathizers across the globe to act in their name.”
Islamic State has a candidate pool and the means to contact them, but potential and ability alone do not automatically convert into actually recruiting foreigners. The underlying issues described by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are not new phenomenon in the Global North, especially regarding those who are first or second generation immigrants from outsider countries.
The most prominent societal issues are often predicated on institutionalized racism and discrimination. The resurgence of extreme right-wing political movements in Europe has lately exacerbated those factors. The recent economic slumps that hit the Global North have further marginalized already isolated non-Caucasian demographics. Lastly, the desire for adventure, belonging, and empowerment is a strong urge that transcends ethnic or religious divisions. Alienation from western society experienced in their own countries of residence is a key force for potential radicalization. Much like how America constantly reaffirms its national identity through hypernationalism and uniting against an enemy of the other, so too has Islamic State fashioned its ideological foundation. Understanding their target audience for supporters, Islamic State crafted their recruiting message to reflect the unique nature of their group, leading to an unprecedented mobilization campaign of foreign fighters devoted to fight and die for their newly created state.
The Rise of Islamic State Ranks
Islamic State began with an estimated 5,291 foreign fighters, of which 1,626 were from nations in the Global North, as of late 2013. Since Islamic State’s rise to prominence, their number of foreign fighters, as of February 2015, increased to an NCTC estimated 20,000 fighters with roughly 3,400 of those fighters coming from nations in the Global North. Although Islamic State began as a semi-autonomous al-Qaeda affiliate group, in February 2014 “al-Qaeda’s central leadership announced that it had severed ties with” Islamic State due to their excessively brutal and unforgiving tactics to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In June of 2014, in the midst of their aggressive military campaign, the American supported Iraqi military largely crumbled under the advance of Islamic State fighters, resulting in the capture of Mosul, an Iraqi city with the population of over 1 million residents. Islamic State quickly took control of major cities in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq, while in the process accruing fiscal assets, estimated to be around the “$2 billion (USD)” mark.
The current leader of Islamic State is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose duties include military command, spiritual leadership, and acting as the group’s public face. Al-Baghdadi is an Iraqi-born Salafist Sunni Muslim with a claimed PhD. in Islamic Studies and alleged ties of descendancy to the Prophet Mohamed’s Quraysh tribe. Al-Baghdadi was detained by U.S. Armed Forces as a civilian during Operation Iraqi Freedom, was jailed by the Iraqi government from 2005 to 2010, and placed on a UN Security Council (UNSC) “Al-Qaida and associated individuals” sanctions list on 15 August 2014. Al-Baghdadi is an enigmatic figure that is rarely seen in the public eye. During one of al-Baghdadi’s rare public appearances he gave a speech to mark the creation of Islamic State, humbly saying to Islamic State fighters and denizens of the Iraqi city of Mosul that "I am not better than you or more virtuous than you".
Al-Baghdadi’s public appearance followed an online document release that outlined the aims of Islamic State:
“[the] legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of [Islamic State’s] authority and arrival of its troops to their areas…We [Islamic State fighters] spilled rivers of our blood to water the seeds of [Islamic State], laid its foundation with our skulls, and built its tower over our corpses… It is the state for the Muslims – the oppressed of them, the orphans, the widows, and the impoverished.”
The document was a well formatted ten-page .PDF transcript released in Arabic, as well as translated into four languages - English, Russian, French, and German. The manifesto laid out a bold design for what Islamic State aimed to achieve and represent. While the aggressive verbosity of the document was defended with lines from the Koran and Hadith, the tone of the message echoed the Machiavellian maxim that, for the leader of a kingdom, “it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one of the two.” Unlike Hezbollah’s foundation in 1985 and Osama Bin Laden’s Fatwas in 1996 and 1998, in which both appeal to the Ummah, Arabic for “Islamic Community”, and still operate within the dialectic of international relations, Islamic State appeals to the Ummah, while conversely rejecting the current existence of state borders, national identities, and religious denominations.
Islamic State Social Media
Islamic State social media efforts are bold and continuous in their outreach efforts. The ability to interact instantaneously on an international scale has been heavily employed by Islamic State. Different social media platforms serve different purposes in their design: Facebook is meant for more personal interactions with a fairly limited social circle and is heavily regulated in regards to what sort of content can be posted, YouTube is the world’s most popular streaming video website and features moderate content restriction, and Twitter is meant for instantaneous and immediate communication with minimal content restrictions. Additionally, while all three of those social media websites have reporting processes for questionable or objectionable content, Twitter is the least reactive in prosecuting content removal. Hence, the most popular social media platform, for Islamic State supporters and fighters alike, is Twitter.
Islamic State has quite a sophisticated media production division and their social media efforts are just as relentless. The media produced by Islamic State is of no usable value unless it can be broadcast to the world. Islamic State supporters have learned how to exploit the mechanics behind Twitter to positive effect. Using the ‘trends’ mechanism in Twitter’s coding, Islamic State supporter use what are known as hashtags to promote a singular identifier even in the absence of an official Islamic State Twitter account. Additionally, Islamic State supporters will often coopt regional or worldwide trends and tag Islamic State messaging with arbitrary tags in order to increase that tweet’s exposure – such as #AaronHernandezTrial, #LillyforTarget, and #StanleyCupPlayoffs. Those topics have nothing to do with Islamic State, but people who click on those tags are taken to a central page that aggregates all tweets with that tagged phrase. In a similar fashion, the tag of #baqiyah, baqiyah is Arabic for “it will remain”, is used by Islamic State supporters. Going to the Twitter webpage that aggregates content with the #baqiyah tag reveals the variety of Islamic State supporters as well as the range of to what extent users declare their support. The accounts that are the most fervent and verbose in their support for Islamic State are suspended without the ability to appeal. The more subtle Islamic State supporters will often post tweets with double entendres, innuendos, vague messaging, and religious proclamations.
Reliable data on the subject of Islamic State is hard to come by. In the realm where a person can pretend to be anybody or even an automated bot can emulate a person, the Internet can be a deceptive arena for data collection. The best estimates of pro-Islamic State Twitter users comes from a March 2015 Brookings Institute research report. The study estimated with, with over 90% confidence, that the “total number of overt [Islamic State] supporter account on Twitter [is] 46,000”. They speculated that upwards of 90,000 accounts could be Islamic State supporters, while each account surveyed averaged 2,219 tweets over 1,004 followers. The majority of Islamic State supporter accounts on Twitter “were created in response to the suspensions, either to replace accounts that had been taken down, or as backup accounts to hedge against future suspensions”. The majority of Islamic State supporter account were created in 2014 (59.51%), while just 1.3% were created prior to 2011. The report also noted that the top five countries for the Islamic State were Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, U.S.A., and Egypt. The preferred smartphone platform for Islamic State supporters is Android based (69%), with Apple (30%) and Blackberry (1%) following.
The democratized platform of social media has also presented a few challenges to Islamic State’s public image of battle hardened and disciplined warriors. With the ability to post instantaneously and independently, Islamic State fighters on the actual battlefields in Iraq and Syria can post whatever content or imagery they please. Often times Islamic State fighters post selfies on the frontlines or graphic images after a victory in battle. However, there are instances where Islamic State fighters have posted cell-phone video showing amateur mistakes with weapons handling, explosives manufacturing, or other assorted moments of failure. In response to one of Islamic State’s graphic videos, Internet users compiled all of the video clips of Islamic State fighters making mistakes and failing spectacularly into one video. The edited video shows events like “one fighter blow[ing] himself up when his rocket launcher backfires, another accidentally shoot[ing] a comrade with a machine gun… and [another] mistakenly detonates a bomb during a group photograph”. In some instances social media users have even openly mocked Islamic State movements by humorously parodying their violent threats. In February 2015, Islamic State created the hashtag “#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome” to declare their aim for the center of the Western Christian world. Italian Twitter users responded by warning Islamic State fighters of the perils of rush hour traffic, unreliable public transport, and dysfunctional Italian government.
Islamic State has publicly acknowledge the importance of a proper social media policy, as stated by Abu Bakr al Janabi, an Islamic State official, in a VICE News interview:
“Social media is good for building a network of connections and recruitment… Fighters talk about experiences in battle and encourage people to rise, and supporters defend and translate ISIS statements.”
Even corporations recognize that the key to increasing public exposure and earned profits is through social media, as spending on social media as a part of marketing is expected to grow upwards of 128% in the next five years. Through a comprehensive and mostly coordinates social media policy, Islamic State “is able to project strength and promote engagement online”. Islamic State has made a name for itself in regards to their ruthless military tactics and continuing violence, but their use of social media as an outreach and recruiting tool has been similarly successful to their overall growth.
Islamic State Media Production
Islamic State media production is a multi-faceted propaganda and recruiting factory. The main arm of Islamic State media production is Al Hayat Media Center. Al-Hayat is Arabic for ‘The Life’ and Islamic State coopted the name from a well known newspaper in the Arab world. As mentioned before, Islamic State affiliated social media accounts are frequently suspended or deleted, resulting in a lack of a single stable official social media account. The social media accounts operated by Al Hayat were promptly suspended by Twitter in the weeks after the Islamic State began to regularly publish videos. Outside of the realm of social media platforms is where Al Hayat Media Center is able to maintain a stable publication base via ‘isdarat.org’. Isdarat is Arabic for ‘Publish’ or ‘Spread’ and currently serves as the single fixed point for Islamic State’s internet presence. Islamic State also demonstrates technical knowledge in how they operate their website’s domain rights. The domain address for isdarat.org is registered to a protected and obscured registrar who holds the domain rights until January 2016. The features of the website include a media archive for Islamic State videos and articles, a ‘frequently asked questions’ (FAQ) page, a feedback comments page, and separate page filters for the different geographic territories in which Islamic State is present. While the HTML design of isdarat.org is fairly basic, the overall web product is polished and comprehensive. In addition to isdarat.org, Islamic State uses Dabiq, an online English language magazine. Dabiq is a reference to the name of a Syrian city mentioned in the Hadith in reference to the end-times or the ‘Last Hour’. Keeping the same style of Islamic symbolism, Islamic State purposefully chose Dabiq to fit the themes and motifs of their justification for an Islamic Caliphate.
Islamic State uses isdarat.org as its main broadcast hub to publish Al Hayat Media Center’s video productions. Through navigating the website a visitor can easily find links to the third-party hosting mirrors for Islamic State videos. The pursuit of video files often leads to the discovery of broken URL links and the removal of hosted files. Access to these files are notoriously dubious, often coming from disreputable sources or questionable content hosts. Attempts by Islamic State to have their video content hosted on YouTube is met with minimal success, often staying active for only a few hours before the video is taken down and the associated account is terminated. Nevertheless, Islamic State has still been able to devise a method for hosting accessible media content by encrypting their uploaded files via password, obscuring the filenames, and utilizing third-party file hosts that even offer quick connection speeds with up to 8.3Mbps download rates. Islamic State publishes video content on a fairly regular basis, with eight major video productions that standout above the rest.
The first two Islamic State video releases were in relatively quick succession to each other: their first, “There is No Life without Jihad”, was released on 19 June 2014 and is 13 minutes and 16 seconds long, while their second, “The End of Sykes-Picot” was released on 29 June 2014 and is 15 minutes and 4 seconds long. These two videos serve as an important foundation for the way Islamic State is represented in the digital world. While these first two videos had yet to feature the high value production and sleek editing synonymous with the latest Islamic State video releases, they still outlined two major components of Islamic State ideology. The “There is No Life without Jihad” video features exclusively English-speaking foreign fighters from countries such as Australia, U.K., Cambodia, and Bangladesh. In a clearly unscripted fashion, the men extoll the virtue of sacrificing one’s family and material possessions in the Western World to wage Jihad in order to implement the law of Allah. The “The End of Sykes-Picot” video features a Chilean Islamic State fighter giving a historical geography lesson and declaring the Sykes-Picot mandated borders in Asia Minor to be dissolved. The point is reiterated as the narrator mocks the dispossessed Iraqi Army before parading prisoners of war in front of the camera and avowing that Islamic State will strive to break more borders. While these videos are basic in their editing technique and production value, there still exists a clear narrative behind the purpose of these two videos.
On 19 September 2014, Islamic State released the video “Flames of War”, their longest video at 55 minutes and 11 seconds. The message of “Flames of War” frames the mission aims of Islamic State by providing theological justifications for their ideology. The video flashes between passages from the Koran and Hadith overlaid on scenes of Islamic State fighting battles in Iraq and Syria. The video’s narrator states that the purpose of fighting on behalf of Islamic State is for “Allah, not land, but the [Islamic] Caliphate.” The end of the video shows purported Assad regime soldiers digging their own graves while, under duress, one man makes the claim that “it’s as if Allah has blessed the Islamic State” because “ten or twenty or thirty [Islamic State fighters] captured the base when it had 800 soldiers.” The videos narrator then declares the fighting has only just begun.
Islamic State also released a series of videos showing the executions of Western journalists, aid workers, and a Jordanian fighter pilot. While Islamic State videos often feature mass executions by firing squad or beheadings, these videos strike a different tone as they are singular executions of high profile persons. The Jordanian fighter pilot execution video marked a distinct change in Islamic State video productions. The 22 minute and 34 second video released on 3 February 2015 opens with an intricate use of detailed computer-generated graphics and geographical schematics highlighted with news clips of U.S. President Barack Obama and the King of Jordan Abdullah II. The intricate digital renderings depict the Jordanian pilot’s strike sortie over Islamic State targets, while the Pilot is made to confess his guilt and wrongdoing. The video is primarily in Arabic and is directed at the immediate regional opponents of Islamic State. The video garnered widespread media attention for featuring the execution of the Jordanian pilot by being set on fire with gasoline while trapped in a metal cage. In previous videos, the Islamic State fighters wore military attire, but they were mismatched and assorted patterns – forest and desert camouflage fatigues are not meant for desert combat. This time the Islamic State fighters are shown in uniformed military attire – desert sand camouflage – while in a straight formation, postured in the same rigid manner, and even equipped with the same model of firearm. The depiction of Islamic State fighters in this video is a stark contrast to the fighters in previous videos, as the fighters now look like a professional military force. Islamic State continued with the depiction of military imagery in their next video release, showing their version of Boot Camp with various training exercises and a column of fleet vehicles dawning the Islamic State Black Standard. While the video is the shortest release at 2 minutes and 9 seconds, the imagery of the fighter training video builds upon the themes of the Jordanian fighter pilot video. However, the video features fairly low production value and was mocked by military veterans who analyzed the video.
Islamic State shifted direction in their, as of yet, penultimate and antepenultimate video releases. Executions have been a significant component of Islamic State videos, but in these two videos the executions are the central focus. The third to last video purports to show the execution of an ‘Israeli spy’ and is 3 minutes and 17 seconds long. The execution is carried out by a young boy, probably not even sixteen years-old, shooting the prisoner in the face with a Glock pistol. The execution is captured with multiple, simultaneous camera angles and in slow motion as well. Post production effects add dramatic thematic elements to the video and colour correction effects are used to emphasize the blood and gore on the dying prisoner. The second to last video titled “Strike Their Necks” is also centered around an execution featuring youth fighters and is 4 minutes and 15 seconds long. The similar editing elements from the previous video are present here, but the method of execution was instead beheading. The executioners are dressed in the now standard desert camouflage uniforms from the Jordanian fighter pilot video. Multiple camera angles likewise capture the blood and gore in an intensely graphic fashion, ultimately showing a collective flow of blood flowing into a collective pool.
The most recent Islamic State video, released on 19 April 2015, titled “Until There Came to Them Clear Evidence” is a 29 minute and 20 second video production in Arabic, but was published with the options of English, Russian, French, and German subtitles. The video opens with scripture from the Koran and Hadith describing the theological justification and subsequent requirements of Jizyah – the compulsion of taxation on those ‘People of the Book’, Jews and Christians, who choose to not convert to Islam. After a long introduction from one of Islamic State’s religious advisors, video testimony of non-Sunni Muslim denizens in Islamic State controlled testimony is shown. Those in the video begin to proclaim the fair and just practices of Islamic State and how their rule is more equitable than either the Syrian or Iraqi governments. The video extolls the virtue of the Islamic society built by the Islamic State. The consequences for failing to submit to the enforcement of Jizyah are shown by Islamic State fighters destroying Christian churches in the region with sledge hammers and vandalism. The conclusion of this video is purported to be in Libya and shows Christian prisoners lined up in front of a firing squad. The narrator frames the issue as “battle between faith and blasphemy, between truth and falsehood”. The final scenes show two mass executions of 21 African Christians, half by firing squad and the other half by decapitation.
Each video released by the Islamic State has its own unique message and substance while still adhering to a coherent message. The subject of each major video production is unique, but certain aspects are repeated throughout each video. The beginning of each video reads “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-raheem”, Arabic for “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful. Each video is also watermarked in a top corner with an animated Black Standard of the Islamic State flapping in the wind. The vernacular of foreign Islamic State fighters in the videos is a unique blend of their primary language, usually English or French, and Arabic phrases. The speakers in the video, whether foreign or from the Levant, most frequently punctuate their dialogue with “Inshallah”, Arabic for ‘God Willing’, “Wallahi”, Arabic for ‘Swear by God’, and “Alhamdulillah”, Arabic for ‘Praise be to God’.
The production efforts of Islamic State are intricate and detailed, which certainly translates in their video releases. Their cinematographic body of work shows clear improvement in multiple aspects, including scripted dialogue, choreography, quality of audio and video capture, costume design, body language, computer generated graphics, and overall production value. Islamic State and Al Hayat Media Center have successfully allocated qualified talent to relevant media production positions. The videos released by Islamic State are graphic in nature, but do not contain boring or disinteresting elements. Since their rise to prominence in the Summer months of 2014, Islamic State has been a permanent fixture in the Western media news cycle. Whether on television or imbedded on news websites, the video news reports feature heavy use of the videos published by Islamic State. Attention to detail and investment in media creation have bolstered the official image of Islamic State in the eyes of the general public, as well as those in the potential Islamic State fighter candidate pool.
American Military Recruiting and Social Media
After the end of the first Iraq War, Operation Desert Storm, in 1991 the U.S. Armed Forces faced a recruiting slump and a declining enlistment in the nation’s all volunteer military. To combat the recruiting slump the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) commissioned a research assessment from the RAND Corporation. The 2001 RAND report on military recruiting assessed the current factors in declining recruitment and recommended that the DoD should “consider additional marketing strategies and enlistment options” to correct the issue. In response, the DoD launched an aggressive television advertising campaign across the branches of the U.S., even enlisting the help of the major advertising firm Campbell-Ewald to help with recruiting messaging. The new content created for recruiting demonstrated an increase and production value, the use of digital graphics, and directed messaging to the target recruiting pool. The classic motifs of “service or duty or patriotism or some potential long-term benefit” were minimized in favour of being “all about the experience” instead. The shift in messaging and design, initiated by the 2001 aim to increase recruiting, has had a lasting effect through current military recruiting efforts.
The U.S. Navy was the most conspicuous in regards to the call for increased recruitment advertising. Their “Accelerate You Life” campaign featured video clips that incorporated heavy metal music riffs, fast-cut editing, and a narrator asking the watcher “If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it?” The U.S. Army, the largest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, also launched renewed efforts with their “Army of One” and, later, “Army Strong” advertising campaigns. After the outset of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) military recruiting campaign advertisements were a mainstay of American television. The latest iteration of a U.S. Armed Forces recruiting campaign is the U.S. Air Force’s “Aim High” messaging. The primary campaign video is a mix of thematic music, military footage of aircraft and soldiers, and narrated by compiled quotes of previous U.S. Presidents. Through the maintained exposure of television broadcast, recruiting methods continued to evolve from the simple days of Uncle Sam posters and movie theater introductions. However, the U.S. Military still employs a multitude of conventional advertising channels including radio, print media – newspapers and magazines, and television commercials.
The four largest branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines, have quite an extensive social media presence. Coinciding with U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from 2001 to 2014, was the rise of the internet and social media. During the height of these conflicts was when the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines began their social media campaigns. After examining each branch’s official page on YouTube and Twitter, the key data points for their accounts analytics were compiled on 19 April 2015. The U.S. Army joined YouTube in March 2006, amassing 2,587,245 views over 780 videos with 19,460 subscribers; and later joining Twitter in September 2007, accumulating over 627,000 followers with 21,900 tweets.  The U.S. Air Force joined YouTube in January 2008, amassing 9,554,804 views over 1,622 videos with 35,370 subscribers; and later joining Twitter in January 2009, accumulating over 407,000 followers with 25,900 tweets.  The U.S. Navy joined YouTube in March 2006, amassing 29,478,673 views over 5,497 videos with 40,532 subscribers; and later joining Twitter in July 2009, accumulating over 463,000 followers with 18,200 tweets.  The U.S. Marines joined YouTube in November 2005, amassing 21,015,729 views over 1,555 videos with 76,901 subscribers; and later joining Twitter in November 2007, accumulating over 537,000 followers with 10,800 tweets.  In total, these four branches have garnered over 62,626,451 views over 9,454 videos with 172,263 subscribers on YouTube and over 2,034,000 followers with 76,800 tweets on Twitter. The reach of U.S. Armed Forces recruiting has grown exponentially with the advent of social media.
The increased emphasis for the use of social media in communications and advertising has acted as a major catalyst in outreach and recruiting efforts. The common motifs of country, duty, patriotism, purpose, and experience are transmitted through electronic methods. The successful recruitment advertising campaigns of the U.S. Armed Forces have employed common thematic production styles and audio-visual elements since the redoubled efforts began after 2001. Scenes of battle, military imagery, regimental consociation, and impassioned background music are central components to the efficacy of U.S. Armed Forces recruiting media. Combined with the effects of the Internet and globalization, the recruiting media used by the U.S. Armed Forces has been viewed the world over.
Same Tactics, Different Intent
The commonalities in recruiting efforts between the U.S. Armed Forces and the Islamic State are numerous. Coincidentally, the intent of recruiting in both organizations are also similar in nature on a main point: Islamic State’s campaign to recruit fighters to volunteer to leave their homes to fight on foreign soil mirrors the U.S. Armed Forces recruiting campaign to likewise find volunteers to leave their homes to fight on foreign soil. The presence of either group in the Levant has proven to be a causal mechanism for regional instability. Whether the scenario is the U.S. Armed Forces fighting against Islamic State or vice-versa, both bring about the arrival of foreign fighters to the region. Even the driving motivation for the individual fighting for their respective cause stems from the same alluring playbook of recruiting media production. The strategies employed by Islamic State communications outreach closely resembles, and even outright plagiarizes, the approaches and recruiting themes employed by the all-volunteer U.S. Armed Forces. Video media from either group contains four major components: 1) Military imagery, 2) Coherent narrative of duty, 3) Enlivening orchestral music, and 4) Quality production editing.
Military imagery is the easiest component to capture. All videos released, from either party, neglect to show the absence of camouflage fatigues, even in the most minor of productions. Similarly, great measures are taken to show the might of each group’s respective hardware – for the U.S. Armed Forces that means a column of M-1 Abrams tanks and fly-bys of F-22 Raptors, while Islamic State features fleet vehicles of SUV’s and trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the beds. Coherent narrative of duty can be a more nuanced task. For the U.S. Armed Forces, patriotism is an often easily aroused passion in the average American. Islamic State, a relatively new creation, has simultaneously bolstered its declared form as an autonomous and sovereign governing body, while literally destroying the history and ancient artifacts of the regions under their control. Enlivening orchestral music is a subtler component, but can give the video a completely different mood. Humans involuntarily respond to music in wondrous ways. The ability to harness that pathway into the mind draws the observer closer in to the transmission. Lastly, major attention to the editing and overall quality is what differentiates between amateur footage and the appearance of a major media production. Quality of the finished product is integral to how viewers perceive the video’s message. The U.S. Armed Forces are able to go to some of the advertising industry’s best firms and invest in their own sophisticated media creation departments. Islamic State is a group constantly on the move, unable to operate in the realm of normal commerce. Nevertheless, both groups are able to record, edit, and produce major video works with proven track records in the effective recruiting. The ability of Islamic State to properly implement strict finishing standards is a vital catalyst for broadcasting their novel approach to state building.
Social media efforts are of paramount importance to both groups, again, for related purposes. For disseminating information among current members as well as helping to raise morale within their ranks. The high quality video productions from both organizations are meaningless unless they reach their target audiences. Social media has been shown to cause gaffes in the public image of Islamic State, but also in the case of the U.S. Armed Forces. However, one of the features of social media called geotagging has presented a challenge for Islamic State, as users have accidentally revealed fighter locations and announced battle plans prematurely. As a result, the U.S. Armed Forces and their coalition allies have translated that data to use in kinetic sortie strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. Despite the lack in low-level operational security, according to UN estimates, “the number of foreign fighters worldwide had soared by 71% between the middle of 2014 and March 2015” – the same period of time in which Islamic State aggressively used social media to release their video productions.
Islamic State influence in the Levant and the rest of the world will continue to grow until their recruiting efforts are brought to a halt. Reducing the ease of which a person can take-up arms for Islamic State alone will not cease the influx of foreign fighters. Domestic situations in a potential foreign fighter’s home country must also be improved reducing the chance that they would even want to leave home in the first place. Just as there is a large emphasis on counterterrorism in America and the Global North, so too should there be a more active counter-propaganda agency to combat the spread of Islamic State ideology via soft power methods. Granted, while soft power failed to destroy or degrade Islamic State in any measurable way during their rise to power, the key to reducing their charm and attraction to disenfranchised foreign nationals is by specifically combatting Islamic State recruiting messaging. Social media has now become the latest weapon in the arsenal of asymmetrical warfare. Regardless of how Islamic State will eventually be brought down and held accountable for their atrocities, their unique recruiting campaign that was able to mobilize a wide array of willing fighters for a newly created cause will become a standard model for future extremist organizations.