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Extremist Marketing: How ISIS Recruits with Killer Messaging


As one administration in government comes to an end and another is about to step in, SPA Assistant Professor Tricia Bacon says it’s a good time to reflect on what has and hasn’t worked to combat the war on terror - particularly in the fight that is taking place online.

“There are a number of discussions going on about these issues, but they are often stovepiped and there isn’t necessarily the kind of collaboration with the different spheres working on this that there could be,” said Bacon during an Oct. 6 panel event featuring government, academic, and private-sector experts on counterterrorism messaging.

The panelists, speaking to a large group of AU students and faculty members, outlined the breadth of the digital marketing campaign being waged by the so-called Islamic State - or ISIS - to groom recruits and spread its radical message through social media, videos, and magazines.

“ISIS is by far the most effective terrorist organization that we’ve seen in terms of this combination of sophisticated propaganda that is tightly managed and bureaucratized within the organization,” said Bacon. “And it has taken that and been able to exploit the masses of social media to really propagate its message far and wide.”

Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, said that ISIS has peaked and its daily production of messaging in cyberspace is down by two-thirds this year compared to 2016.

“In ISIS videos, there is more use of file footage and old material,” said Fernandez. “There is an increasingly obvious, not-that-well hidden desperation. In place of the victory narrative, the focus is on sacrifice, losses, victimhood, the use of children and paraplegics in operations - everything a loser would be saying.”

Bacon also said that, since the declaration of the Islamic State 10 years ago, this is the first sustained period the group has suffered losses of territory, oil fields and associated revenue, and foreign fighters.

War on Terror – Turning the Tide

J.J. Green, local WTOP radio national security correspondent and moderator of the discussion, asked the panelists what could be done to counter the terrorist organization’s messaging campaign.

Fernandez said as ISIS spreads its revolutionary message to a young, alienated population, it portrays itself as powerful and growing. As the group struggles and its efforts are undermined by events on the field, he suggested highlighting those military setbacks.

“The fact that it is losing on the ground is the simplest way to discredit it,” said Fernandez, noting the evidence on the battlefield doesn’t match its claim that ISIS’ victory is divinely ordained. “It doesn’t look like the Almighty is listening to them.”

Bacon said ISIS looks to form alliances with groups outside of Syria and Iraq, and there should be a focus on disrupting that expansion. She is also conducting research about which messengers of counter narratives – former terrorist group members, clergy, or governments – are most effect and persuasive in reaching vulnerable audiences.

A new competition sponsored by Facebook, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State, “Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism,” is one way young people are engaging in countering extremist messaging. Bacon asked her students to come up with their own ideas for the competition.

Danny Herzog, SPA/MA ‘16, who is studying terrorism and homeland security policy, helped develop the “AUnited” campaign with posters and social media messaging. Its mission is to inspire college-age people to be more civic minded, engage in the silent majority, take a stand against intolerance while fostering goodwill toward the Muslim community, said Herzog, who also spoke at the event Thursday.

Tracking Progress Online

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, is following how online channels are being used to radicalize Americans – 89 percent of whom are male, an average age of 26. He explained how groups are using Twitter, Telegram, and other forums to lure recruits, provide logistical support for attacks, and encourage people to take action in their home countries. Hughes is researching how to best sow a “seed of doubt” and intervene with potential recruits before they are radicalized.

Despite efforts to shut down this extremism online, Khuram Zaman, chief executive officer at Fifth Tribe in Arlington, Va., explored the basic question: Why can’t we get rid of these guys? Terrorist groups have developed strong brands and used smart tactics. They are transmitting messages in different languages through games, mobile apps for kids, blogs, and high-end videos. With a series of examples, he showed the audience how it is hard to distinguish good and bad players on Twitter with some legitimate groups using dark symbols and real terrorists drawing in viewers deceptively with cute characters.

“We are in a new space of information warfare and of hybrid warfare combining propaganda, violence, and the types of things that mobilize people – religion, politics, sex, violence – anything that gets people riled up, being used by a whole range of unsavory actors, not just the Islamic State,” said Fernandez.

For more on SPA’s homeland security and counter terrorism program, visit: