​#ISISmediaBlackout ‘won’t help to reduce number of jihadists’

Reuters / Stringer
​Fighting the Islamic State on social media by shutting down their accounts is useless, terrorism analyst Max Abrahms told RT. The group’s violent propaganda is counterproductive and will eventually turn people against them, he added.

In the latest PR move the IS jihadists have released photos featuring all sorts of delicacies at a bustling market in Mosul – the northern Iraqi city that has been one of its major strongholds. Analysts say the travel brochure style images aim to send a message of defiance to those fighting the group.

RT:How much damage can the propaganda be inflicting?

Max Abrahms: There are some high-profile cases where jihadists from the West are linking up with Islamic State. In that sense it is often said that it’s gruesome imagery, the beheadings, the torching of the Jordanian pilot are very good for the group in terms of building up its membership size. But in actuality I think that we are currently and increasingly ‘attritioning’ the Islamic State members and even faster than recruitment. In general, when people are exposed to this kind of savage imagery their natural inclination is not to be attracted to the group but to be overwhelmingly repulsed by it. And that is why increasingly Islamic State has fewer and fewer friends including within the Arab world.

RT:Do you think their message should be taken seriously? Do they prove the fire against them is ineffective?

AB: It’s very difficult to counter terrorism in terms of measuring its efficacy, you know, we can look at the membership size, battlefield outcomes, amount of media attention the group is getting, but the point that I want your audience to take away is that really the Islamic State is not doing nearly as well as the propaganda, that it would like you to believe. The images which I’ve seen in Mosul, for example, are completely unrepresentative of life under the Islamic State. We know this for a fact, because at least in Raqqa, which is really the epicenter of the Islamic State right within Syria, people are desperate to leave there. They are not happy under the Islamic State occupation. Living conditions there are bad.

In order for women at least to leave the town they need to leave behind several hostages in order to incentivize them to return because the Islamic State knows that the members and inhabitants under their occupation are desperate to leave. And more and more the Islamic State is being crushed in terms of its finances. Its ability to sell oil has declined. The amount of money it is getting from oil sales is down. Support from Gulf countries is down. And so what that means is that life becomes even harder for those living under the Islamic State occupation, because they are being taxed for everything - for opening up their shop, for every little decision that is made within that society is now being taxed. That’s why people are turning away from the group and that’s why the Islamic State needs to ramp up its propaganda to try to depict the opposite.

RT:How much can the Islamic State propaganda alone help to essentially grow a small army of followers and terrorists inside Europe and the US?

AB: A lot of people point out that there are an unprecedented number of Western jihadists joining up with Islamic State…Furthermore there is real concern that these foreign jihadists are going to return to the West and strike soft targets. However a lot of people are under the misperception that a very large percentage of the IS overall membership is coming from the West. In fact Western jihadists comprise only about 4,000 of the members in comparison to the overall size of the Islamic State which is about 50,000. And so I think, we are very much overstating the role that the social media is playing in terms of growing of IS membership size.

Furthermore, I'm actually not a big proponent of playing whack-a-mole by trying to shut down every IS Twitter account that pops up. There are about 300 million Twitter users in the world. There are about half a billion tweets per day. There are about 300 hours of video uploaded on Twitter every single minute. And it frankly takes just a matter of minutes to create a Twitter account. So this idea that we can dramatically reduce IS membership size by closing down these accounts on Twitter, I think is really just very silly.

RT:There are reports every day that there are tens of thousands of messages from Islamic State supporters posted on social media. How can this flow of propaganda be curbed?

AB: There is no doubt that the social media can be helpful for the Islamic State in terms of radicalizing people online and providing logistical information about how to get into Syria through Turkey for instance. But we should not pretend that there are real trade-offs to this propaganda. I'm not in favor of what is sometimes called an “ISIS social media blackout”. For one thing, a lot of intelligence can and in fact has been gained by looking at the Islamic State social media. Furthermore the number one way in which terrorist groups have gone out of business historically, the number one way in which the terrorist groups have expired is actually by using violence too savagely, too brutally, too indiscriminately. That tends to have the effect of turning the international community against the group, including the local population, and thereby starving it of members. And so yes, I understand that it is frequently said that social media imagery of say of ‘Jihadi John’ beheading all these people helps to attract recruits and thereby help the organization – I believe that this social media propaganda in the long term is actually counterproductive for the group and therefore I'm not in favor of stopping it.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.