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Bombing the Islamic State On the Ground Has Made It Quieter Online

After a summer of beheading pictures, Twitter bans and US airstrikes are finally slowing down IS online.

by Ben Makuch
Oct 1 2014, 2:35pm

After a summer marred by beheading videos, images of massacres, combat kitties, and hashtag warfare, it appears the Islamic State is getting quieter on Twitter. The decline in social media activity neatly coincides with an anti-IS bombing campaign led by the United States.

"I have noticed a notable reduction in the number of graphic photos in my Twitter feed in recent weeks, and my colleagues have noticed a similar reduction," Evan Jendruck, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, told me.

Jendruck has been closely monitoring and analyzing the online behaviours of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria for the private intelligence company long before the major IS offensives in the summer. He thinks the bombings coupled with Twitter bans has been effective in disrupting the propaganda wing of IS.

That being said, Jendruck maintains that "the role of social media in IS's propaganda campaign should not discounted."

Related: The US Brought Its Islamic State Bombing to Social Media

With last summer's rapid IS military advance came horrific massacres that were tweeted and shared prolifically by IS and its supporters. With a legion of graphic images acting as war paint, the militant organization had an outsized presence to foreign observers.

Enter strategic air campaigns against IS forward operating bases and frontline targets, which have reportedly slowed the IS advance—online as well, it appears.

According to Jendruck, the number of graphic images being tweeted in the summer directly, "coincided with the territorial advancements made by the Islamic State in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Syria," mirroring the on-the-ground momentum.

But the bombing campaign has resulted in less flashy victories for IS militants, and with it, less to tweet about. Some fighters have even been forced to taunt the American F-22 fighters and drones striking IS targets, from the confines of Twitter.

It's something Jendruck believes is a direct result of fewer on-the-ground successes.

"The decline in recent weeks likely comes from the defensive positions the group has been increasingly forced to take in response to air strikes by the US and its allies," said Jendruck. "No longer on the offensive, the number of successes by the group in recent weeks compared to the summer months has been limited, resulting in less content being shared by fights on the group and less material for online supporters to spread."

And the constriction of its military campaign has also coincided with prolific crackdowns over Twitter.

Just last night, NBC News reported hundreds of pro-IS affiliated users have been booted from the popular social media site. Indeed, I noticed some of my own Canadian jihadist sources ending up on the wrong side of those crackdowns.

"We review all reported accounts against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and violent threats," a Twitter spokesperson told me in an emailed statement.

But in the face of online and offline offensives, IS accounts aren't picking up and abandoning Twitter, either. Much like similar crackdowns in August, IS fighters tweet on with new aliases.

Like several other IS-linked fighters, Abu Usamah, a notorious Canadian social media star, is still active on Twitter, a key recruitment platform for enticing western followers to make the trip to Sham.

Usamah and other online jihadists laugh off Twitter's hardline approach. After being recently booted, Usamah told me via Kik messenger, "they hate me, what can I say?" Either way, it's a simple matter of making a new account. "I just made it like two minutes ago," he said.

Other fighters have done the same, like Abu Dujana, one Western jihadist who was suspended in August for tweeting photographs of the James Foley beheading video. He has re-emerged online at least twice.

Abu Dujana's newest account disappeared over the weekend, with the latest iteration ('Abu Dujana #IS Back') again falling victim to Twitter's ongoing purge. Undoubtedly, this will not be the end of the online militant.

Besides the aggressive bans, Twitter is still clearly the preferred social media platform of IS, against some speculation otherwise. At least according to Usamah, an active social media personality for IS.

I asked him if he ever used Diaspora, another similar social media platform reportedly employed by IS fighters, and he had no idea what I was talking about.

"Diaspora?" he asked. "What's that(?)"