Groups as different as Anonymous and the U.S. government are taking the fight to ISIS on the Internet.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken to Twitter to spread its message, trumpet bloody successes, and recruit potential jihadists, but its social-media campaign has come under attack from forces that range from the U.S. State Department to the mysterious group of hacker-activists who call themselves Anonymous.
ISIS has maintained a notably active presence on Twitter, using creative and tech-savvy tactics to amplify its message, maintaining accounts that tweet in English, German, and Russian in addition to Arabic, and posting polished videos with very graphic action sequences and special effects straight out of a Hollywood playbook. Some of these tactics are targeted toward young Syrians, Iraqis, and other Muslims in the region, imploring them to join the fight to carve an Islamic state out of the Levant. Others, like a recruitment video that includes testimonials in English from ISIS fighters with Australian and British accents, are meant to attract soldiers from Western countries.
The U.S. government has an answer to ISIS's recruitment campaign. Long before President Obama announced he would send military advisers to Iraq, the State Department launched a program to engage terrorists on Twitter. A verified Twitter account called Think Again Turn Away sports the State Department's official seal as its avatar ("Some truths about terrorism," reads the account's bio), tweeting replies to jihadi propaganda and calls to action. "Your deluded opinions are incapable of justifying #ISIS' acts of barbarisms against civilians," read a recent tweet from the account.
The State Department announced last week that it will expand the Think Again Turn Away counterterrorism program, awarding a contract worth more than half a million dollars to a company in Northern Virginia to run the account. Officials at the State Department would not comment on how effective the campaign has been.
Meanwhile, an anti-ISIS hashtag, #No2ISIS, has cropped up in Iraq. In an attempt to counteract the powerful ISIS propaganda machine, hundreds are tweeting their opposition to the group and their tactics—including Iraq's Ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily.
ISIS's opponents are joined by a Twitter account with the handle @wikibaghdady, which has been revealing insider information about ISIS's dealings for the last six months, The Daily Beast reports. Although no one knows who is behind the account, many of its tweeted predictions have been borne out. @wikibaghdady exposed the real name of the mysterious leader of ISIS as well as those of many on his council, in addition to information about the organization's structure, finances, and future plans. But although whoever is behind the handle seems to be privy to some ISIS secrets, the mole is probably not a good samaritan—he's likely a "fellow jihadi playing dirty politics against members of his own cohort," writes The Daily Beast's Jacob Siegel.
This ragtag crew waging war on ISIS's online presence finds another accomplice in Anonymous, the shadowy network of hacker-activists that uses cyberattacks to further its causes. Anonymous is planning to attack ISIS's sponsors in what will be called "Operation No2ISIS," according to a Forbes report. "We are unable to target ISIS because they predominantly fight on the ground," a source within Anonymous told Forbes. "But we can go after the people or states who fund them."
In a conflict that's in large part being fought over the hearts and minds of Iraqis, Syrians, and potential recruits, ISIS's social-media prowess has frightened its enemies and brought new conscripts running. It's no surprise, then, that an unlikely band of opponents is demonstrating its resistance both on the battlefield and on the Internet.