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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State, is a Jihadist militant group of Sunni Muslims based in parts of Syria and Iraq which originated as part of the global Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda. The group has gained notoriety for their aggressive propaganda campaigns and prolific social media presence, which came under even more scrutiny by the press in June 2014 after the group released morbid photographs of an apparent massacre of captured Iraqi Army soldiers via Twitter.
On June 25th, 2014, as the U.S. armed forces mobilized on the Persian Gulf in the wake of insurgency in Iraq, the ISIS launched a new hashtag campaign dubbed #CalamityWillBeFallUS to threaten retaliation against the United States in the case of military intervention. In the following 24 hours, the hashtag was mentioned nearly 70,000 times on Twitter, along with a slew of graphic images depicting decapitated heads and piles of bodies and anti-American slogans.
Execution of James Foley
On August 19th, 2014, ISIS uploaded a YouTube video that purportedly shows the execution of James Foley, an American journalist who had been reported as a missing person since suddenly disappearing in Syria over 18 months ago. The video begins with Foley, kneeled next to an armed militant dressed in black, reading a presumably scripted message under duress that placed the blame of his death on the U.S. airstrikes and giving his last words before the journalist is seen being beheaded.
“I wish I had more time. I wish I could have the hope for freedom to see my family once again.”
Accompanied by a short description which reads “A Message to #America (from the #IslamicState)” and declares retribution for the American military intervention against ISIS in Iraq, the video quickly began circulating on YouTube and Twitter before most of them were eventually taken offline by the evening later that same day. On the following day, the U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden implicitly confirmed the video to be authentic, citing the analysis of the American intelligence community. Meanwhile, Twitter began censoring still shots taken from the video and even suspending users who posted them, citing that the company decided to respect the Foleys’ request for privacy.
Execution of Steven Sotloff
In August 2013, American-Israeli journalist Steven Joel Sotloff was kidnapped by Islamic militants in Aleppo, Syria. On August 19th, 2014, James Foley’s execution video was released, in which an English-speaking ISIS militant is shown with another U.S. captive, who many speculated was Sotloff.
Days after the threat was released, the United States fired 14 missiles at ISIS targets. On August 19th, 2014, a petition was created on the White House website We the People, which urged the Obama administration to “do everything possible to free American reporter Steven Sotloff from ISIS” (shown below). In the next two weeks, the petition received over 88,500 signatures.
On August 27th, Sotloff’s mother released a video pleading for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to release her son (shown below).
On September 2nd, a video was released by ISIS which purportedly shows Sotloff being executed. In the video, a masked figure also threatens to execute a British hostage identified as David Haines. That day, the White House revealed that the video was being analyzed to verify its authenticity.
Cyberattack on the U.S. Central Command
On January 12th, 2015, the official Twitter and YouTube accounts of the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), one of the nine unified American military commands that oversees combat operations across many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Iraq, were hacked and defaced with a series of propaganda messages declaring a “cyberjihad” against the U.S. military’s cyberinfrastructure.
That same day, a group of hackers calling themselves the “CyberCaliphate” released a statement via Pastebin to claim responsibility for hacking the U.S. military’s social media accounts, along with a series of screenshots allegedly showing military intelligence files and personal information of numerous high-ranking U.S. military officials that the group claims to have obtained from mobile devices in the Pentagon network.
“AMERICAN SOLDERS, WE ARE COMING, WATCH YOUR BACK. ISIS. CyberCaliphate. In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, the CyberCaliphate under the auspices of ISIS continues its CyberJihad,” the group wrote. “While the US and its satellites kill our brothers in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan we broke into your networks and personal devices and know everything about you. You’ll see no mercy infidels. ISIS is already here, we are in your PCs, in each military base. With Allah’s permission we are in CENTCOM now. We won’t stop! We know everything about you, your wives and children. U.S. soldiers! We’re watching you!”
Also on January 12th, a military official at the Department of Defense anonymously confirmed that the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the U.S. Central Command had been breached, which was followed by official responses from the spokespersons of the White House and the Pentagon during the daily press briefings later that same day. While the officials acknowledged that the cyberattack against the U.S. Central Command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts were something to be taken “seriously,” both dismissed the growing speculations of a large-scale data breach of classified information and military intelligence as a result of the attack.
Army Colonel Steve Warren, Pentagon Spokesman: The Defense Department “views this as little more than a prank, or as vandalism. It’s inconvenient, it’s an annoyance but in no way is any sensitive or classified information compromised.”
Josh Earnest, Spokesman of the White House: “There’s a pretty significant difference between what is a large data breach and the hacking of a Twitter account.”
ISIS runs two Twitter accounts, Islamic_States, which has gained over 9,000 followers as of June 2014, and ISIS_Media_Hub which has gained over 1,000 followers. The accounts tweet in both Arabic and English. On June 15th, 2014, the group tweeted out a photograph that appears to show the aftermath of a mass killing of over 1,000 Iraqi military recruits at the hands of ISIS.
A fan page for the group titled “Shia Ibn E Mutta,” which is a phrase against Shia marriages, was active on Facebook until June 16th, at which point Facebook removed it. It was removed shortly after The Washington Times published an article titled “HUSAIN: Facebook refuses to take down ISIS terror group fan page,” which covered Facebook’s previous refusal to remove the page. Before the page was removed it had gained over 6,000 fans. Content contained on the page included graphic photos of violence carried out by ISIS and suggestions as to how the group can take over the city of Baghdad.
Burn ISIS Flag Challenge
On August 20th, 2014, Twitter user @Shadow_Creeper tweeted a photo of two youths burning an ISIS flag on the street (shown below).
On August 30th, the “BURN ISIS” YouTube channel uploaded a video titled “Burn ISIS Flag Challenge,” in which a printout of the ISIS flag is burned with a lighter on camera (shown below). In the video description, the uploader nominates "the whole world to the “BurnISISFlagChallenge” in protest of the militant group’s actions.
The same day, Mother Jones published an article about the burn ISIS flag challenge, highlighting the BURN ISIS video along with other burning examples. In the coming days, several news sites reported about the trend in Arab social media, including BuzzFeed,IBI Times and Yahoo News. On September 5th, Redditor Xanadu_resident submitted the Yahoo story to the /r/worldnews subreddit, where it garnered upwards of 4,900 votes (96% upvoted) in the first 9 hours.
On August 22nd, 2014, British stand-up comedian Lee Hurst tweeted a joke poking fun at the jihadist group’s social media proficiency using the hashtag #AskIslamicState, intended as a parody of the Q&A hashtags that have been derailed by trolls on several occassions, such as #AskJPM and AskThicke:
In the following 72 hours, Hurst’s tweets prompted a slew of tongue-in-cheek inquiries from other English-speaking Twitter users about the emerging rogue state in the Middle East, covering a wide range of topics that would be deemed first world problems. According to Topsy, the hashtag #AskIslamicState was mentioned over 40,000 times over the span of 72 hours.
On September 10th, following the murder of British aid worker David Haines and kidnapping of another humanitarian worker Alan Hemming by the IS militants, London-based integrationist group Active Change Foundation (ACF) launched a Twitter hashtag campaign #notinmyname to raise more awareness about the solidarity of British muslims against the Islamic State, along with a sign holding video that features anti-IS muslims condemning the group (shown below). As of September 23rd, the hashtag has been mentioned at least 28,000 times on Twitter, according to social analytics service Topsy.
The Independent – Who are Isis? The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant
The Guardian – Iraq blocks Facebook and Twitter in bid to restrict Isis
Washington Times – HUSAIN: Facebook refuses to take down ISIS terror group fan page
Huffington Post UK – Islamic State Get Trolled On Twitter As The World Responds To #Askislamicstate
Mother Jones – The Arab Worlds Version of the Ice Bucket Challenge
The Washington Post – U.S. military social media accounts apparently hacked by Islamic State sympathizers
The Independent – Hack of CentCom was not first claimed by CyberCaliphate
Twitter – “U.S. Central Command”:
YouTube – “U.S. Central Command”: