Careless ISIS use of Twitter & YouTube enables analysts to track militants' movements

Reuters / Stringer
Using geolocation data from some 4,000 entries, a team of analysts has scrutinized tweets and YouTube videos by Islamic State militants and managed to track their movements in Iraq and Syria, and map major and minor attacks by ISIS.

Islamic State (formerly ISIS/ISIL) currently has about one-third of Iraq and Syria under its control, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. The data collected by the Britain-based analysts from IHS Conflict Monitor shows how ISIS forces are pushing toward Damascus and Baghdad, according to AFP.

"Islamic State is shifting its attention to the weakened Syrian government at the expense of losing territory to the Kurds in northern Syria," the head of Middle East analysis for IHS, Firas Abi-Ali, told AFP.

"We see the group's operational reach goes far beyond the territory it controls,"
he stated, adding that this is a "continually expanding project, there is no limit to where they would stop."

The IHS team began the mapping project and ranking the reliability of sources nearly nearly a year and a half ago.

"What we've seen in the Syrian conflict is groups over-reporting their activity to gain credibility. There were a lot of unsubstantiated claims that one side or another was winning,"
the head of Middle East analysis for IHS noted.

The IHS data from March to May reportedly shows that IS decided against launching offensives against Kurdish forces on the northern front, for fear this would make its forces prone to airstrikes.

"Neither the Kurds nor the Islamic State appear interested in changing that front line," Richard Jackson, deputy head of political violence forecasting at IHS, stated.

"That frees up IS fighters to push towards the capitals."

Reuters / Stringer

The only exception, according to Jackson, has been the strategically important town of Tal Abyad, a key link between Turkey and the northern Syrian city of Raqqa (also used by ISIS as a major channel of commerce from where it smuggles in foreign fighters and sells oil on the black market) which the Kurds recaptured from ISIS this week.

"They're not strong enough to take Damascus because the strong Sunni threat in that region is [Al-Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat Al-Nusra and Jaish Al-Islam, Jackson said, but they will push towards the Damascus-Homs road," cutting off Bashar Assad from his Alawite community's stronghold of Latakia.

"Damascus is important, but Latakia is their home,"
Jackson told AFP. "That frightens Assad supporters."

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IS fighters couldn't care less to hide their whereabouts on social media, and this has been playing into the analysts’ hands.

"They rely heavily on their mobility, they move between battlefronts quite quickly and effectively, so they are less worried about giving away their location," Abi-Ali said.

According to AFP, the IHS data shows IS pushing into the Iraqi capital, with as many as 70 explosive device (IED) attacks in Baghdad between February and April, plus three suicide bombings.

"This is about undermining the enemy's will to fight," according to Abi-Ali. "In their grander aspirations, it's about inflicting enough casualties that you bring down the government or spark an exodus of the enemy population."
Some ISIS operatives used to be intelligence agents under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, IHS told AFP.

"They have really well-structured sleeper cells," Jackson said. "The beards come off. They speak against the Islamic State to see who disagrees. It's divide and conquer."

READ MORE: Female jihadist geo-tracked from Canada to ISIS frontline

ISIS could meanwhile give other militant groups, like Al-Qaeda, an opportunity to reinstate themselves.

"Al-Qaeda tends to work with a group to take over an area and then back off, letting the local group run it," Jackson said, citing examples in Yemen and Syria.

"That sort of cooperative approach is more likely to pay dividends than the IS approach of mass executions and killing all the dissenters. But that's long-term, and we're talking years."

According to the US State Department's latest global terrorism report, terror acts rose by more than one-third from 2013 to 2014, while deaths nearly doubled. Boko Haram and the Islamic State were mainly responsible for a hike in the atrocities. Nearly 33,000 people were killed in about 13,500 terror attacks across the world in 2014, while terrorism-related kidnappings nearly tripled, going up from 3,137 in 2013 to 9,428 in 2014, the report said. Terror attacks occurred in 95 countries in 2014, yet the bulk tool place in the Middle East, South Asia, and west Africa.

Along with the Islamic State's recruitment abilities and expansion into Libya, Egypt and Nigeria, the report emphasized an "unprecedented seizure" of territories in Syria and Iraq by ISIS in 2014.