Friend request from an ISIS militant

16 September 2014, 00:00 UTC | Iraq, Syria
How ISIS is using social media to spread their message. © Amnesty International
By Terri Carlson - Former Social Media Intern Amnesty International NZ

There’s always that one person, that one Facebook friend, usually a musician or event promoter, who, when you so foolishly accept their friend request, will completely inundate your news feed with copious event invitations and promotions. The person who, despite how nice they are, you eventually have to block on the basis of sheer annoyance. At my university in Canada, Collin Gordon was that person.

Collin was a business student and local events promoter in our town. He was a feverish sports fan, a proud supporter of our University’s Wolfpack Sports teams, and founder the “Kamloops Social Club”, to which I still have my card.

Eventually the events invitations stopped and it seemed as though Collin, like the rest of us, had graduated and moved on with his life, leaving our sleepy University town behind.

This was my assumption until about a week ago, when I was at work in the Amnesty International Office in Auckland, reading up on the situation following the release of Amnesty’s report on the barbaric war-crimes taking place in Iraq. I stumbled across an article from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation which described the recent influx of Western fighters taking part in “terrorism tourism”. The article described how Canadian fighters are traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS), and published a list of suspected Canadian IS members, a list which included a student from my hometown in Canada.

This statement on its own was shocking: the streets of my sleepy hometown, a small forestry hub in Western Canada, seem so far removed from the war and conflict that Amnesty reports on everyday. Then I saw the photo: smiling happily beside his brother Greg, the unmistakable founder of the “Kamloops Social Club” Collin Gordon.

Immediately, I went to Collin’s facebook page and found that his old photos of event flyers and nightclubs had been replaced by images of the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His Twitter feed is much the same: Quran verses and photos of “M16 Training”.

My first thought: “how could this happen?”. How could this normal, albeit enthusiastic kid go from tweeting about wanting to marry Nicki Minaj, to calling the beheading of James Foley “perfection”? From the look of Collin’s twitter feed, the transition seemed seamless.

Collin’s story is becoming more and more common following the Islamic States’ strategic campaign to recruit Western fighters . While the Organisation has historically avoided any social media and had very little contact with journalists, the creation of the Al Hayat Media Center, the rumored media branch of the IS, has prompted a vast shift in the IS public relations campaign.

Their campaign has been widespread: through Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and even the occasional meme. As a part of the new public relations campaign, the group has released, most notably, the filmed executions of the two American and one British journalists by a man who is rumored to be a Western recruit.  In addition to addressing President Obama in the videos, the broadcasted execution of American journalists has also acted as a recruitment video emphasising the power and gravity with the Islamic State’s mission.

In contrast with images of fear, the Al Hayat Media Center has also diversified its releases with a series of recruitment videos called Mujatweets. The videos, documenting IS members giving candy to children, fighting Syrian rebels, and visiting injured IS “brothers”, all highlight Western recruits who speak or are translated into English, alluding to the idea that these videos are made specifically to recruit Western fighters.

The effectiveness of the Islamic States social media campaign has, in fact, been so successful that the United States government has now begun an online counter attack in conjunction with their real life airstrikes on IS militias. The US State Department has been publishing a number of memes and posts under the twitter handle @ThinkAgainTurnAway, in an attempt to “expose” the reality of life as an IS fighter.

While my friend Collin’s transition from sports enthusiast to execution promoter may feel like a stark shift in identity, the full scale campaign behind the IS Western recruitment partly explains the motivation behind the transition. The broadcasted journalist executions and the well produced recruitment videos attempt to present the life of an IS fighter as a heroic and powerful path.

While it remains to be seen the effectiveness of the US’s social media counter-attack, the success of the Islamic State public campaign can arguably be tied to the recent influx of Western recruits, rumored to be in the tens of thousands.

While Western governments struggle to find effective ways to deter citizens from joining the conflict in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State continues to entice recruits through media in various languages and a relatively open recruitment process. While the future of Iraq and Syria remains unclear, one thing is certain: social media is changing the way war is waged.

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