Islamic States web success has come through preying on young adherents annoyances, writes Haroon K Ullah, chief strategy policeman for the US governments Broadcasting Board of Governors
If the west( or rather western-backed militias) has won the ground war against Islamic State, then we are still losing the digital war. Accounts such as Mohamad al-Arefe’s prove it: he has 20 million followers on Twitter– more than anyone in the Countries of the middle east. He only follows five accounts- all versions of himself in Indonesian, Farsi, Urdu, Turkish and( perhaps most worryingly) English. He also renders popular “Snap Fatwas” on Snapchat. He is a one-man, multilingual, global extremist-leaning media network.
I’ve interviewed many Isis defectors in my work over the years, and Arefe’s name kept coming up. One in three Saudi youths follow him online, and the other two know who he is. His popularity constructs him untouchable to the Saudi authorities – his arrest is very likely to trigger social upheaval. For years I have watched him retweet Isis fanboys gushing about the virtues of their caliphate, and encouraging Muslim youth around the world to join them.
There is no lack of edgy Saudi evangelists who are less than politically correct, so what induces Arefe so special? He’s 47, which is young by Saudi clerical standards. As well as youth, he has another trait that the Saudi religion establishment absences: charisma. This is in spite of him being such a mediocre alumnu that he struggled to even get a job as a village mosque imam. Just like many of his fans, his rejection by the mainstream drove him to social media.
And social media matters in Saudi Arabia- even more than in the west. Saudi results the world in both Twitter and Snapchat utilization. The result is that Arefe is the 86th most-followed person worldwide on Twitter, only ahead of Hillary Clinton and just behind Ed Sheeran.
Arefe continues to churn out his” tragedy topics” at an alarming rate. He instinctively understands that content is king, whether new videos, apps or games. His output sizzles with a” change narrative”, something young people latch on to in droves.
Isis’s most valuable territory- and the one that it is holding comfortably- is online: it has a hugely successful international brand. To understand why, first we must understand its audience segmentation. Arefe is not helping Isis create a new breed of radicals; rather he is cynically exploiting a vast, already existing segmented demographic.
We feed ourselves a convenient fiction that Isis’s sophisticated use of social media is somehow luring young men who would otherwise be at home with their families, playing video games. That’s just not true. Arefe preys upon their frustrations and a life with very few outlets for free expression. This is self-evident in the chattering of Isis fanboys and” how inspired they are by their brothers “.
This inspirational- and aspirational- side to Isis marketing is neglected by many analysts. Most foreigners guess people such as Arefe are selling a medieval narrative. That couldn’t be further from the truth: a large part of Arefe’s messaging( 70%) tends to be rather positive. Kind of like self-help for radicals:” Change your life- by aiming it .”
The message is also materialistic. When I look at its recruitment videos, I find Isis selling a consumerist lifestyle: a western-modelled, efficient government structure, free of corruption. This isn’t a return to the dark ages, a foster of archaic traditions. This is the new caliphate- on steroids. A caliphate bigger and better than the old model. A caliphate that can beat the west at its own game.
So what’s the answer? First, we must accept that the answer cannot be provided by the technology platforms themselves. It is unlikely that any social media site will ban Arefe, because he is careful not to violate their terms of service. They cannot stop him, for example, speaking out against Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny, while also speaking favourably about religion law and Islamic government. But if you put these two ideas together and add some dangerous context, you end up in a bad place. What’s more, even if social media platforms did ban him, most of his hardcore followers are on the deep and dark web using private Telegram channels and untraceable bitcoin. The radicalisation horse has bolted.
Second, we must understand how Arefe’s notions are disseminated. Public health research can teach us more here than current counter-insurgency strategies, because Isis ideology spreads like a sexually transmitted disease, through intimate, one-on-one contact- including social media contact. To contain the “infection” we need” ring immunisation”, which serves to inoculate against the spread of the virus. This means looking at people’s networks, their communities and neighbourhoods.
Finally, we have to face the fact that Arefe proves that religious leaders still matter, at least in the Countries of the middle east. Based on Twitter stats, it could be argued they matter more than actors, legislators, musicians or athletics icons. There is a strong market among young people for believable, authentic religious leadership that is not associated with the official government line or ministry of religion affairs policy. We must resist the temptation to assume that as Middle Eastern economies develop, western secularism is likely to be bought as enthusiastically as western brands. Quite the opposite: Isis use Nutella to recruit jihadi brides, showing that the latter can be put to service in an attack on the former.
The challenge is to promote local voices, the young Malalas with street cred who can offer a more compelling and stirring vision of the future than Arefe. In the Countries of the middle east, messengers matter at the least as much as the message. Arefe- and Isis- understand that. Do we?
* Haroon K Ullah is chief strategy officer for the US government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, and is the author of Digital World War
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