A close look at ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts is giving us an insight into how the group governs the territories it has conquered – and throwing up some surprises

WE KNOW only too well the power that Islamic State wields on social media. After every atrocity, slickly produced images and video quickly circulate online.

The jihadist group is also expert at using social media for propaganda and recruitment. But now a closer look at ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts is giving intriguing insights into how the group governs its territories.

Aymenn Al-Tamimi, an analyst for the think tank Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, has been studying ISIS tweets since about April 2013. “That’s when you begin to see the trappings of some kind of proto-state,” says Al-Tamimi.

A report in March by non-profit group the Brookings Institution in Washington DC showed that ISIS supporters operated more than 40,000 Twitter accounts last year. Most are of no use to researchers, says Al-Tamimi. He is interested in those that originate in territory that ISIS occupies, and which have published documents that give insight into how ISIS operates. For example, some describe the state institutions and new laws that ISIS introduces. Documents include a new curriculum for the University of Mosul in Syria, which cancels all lessons in philosophy, English or French literature and tourism. Another account operated by ISIS administration in Iraq issues strict new rules about issues as prosaic as how waste should be disposed of: a 5000 dinar fine (£3) is to be levied for throwing litter from a car; a 25000 dinar fine is imposed on fly tippers.

Other tweeted documents are more surprising. One details a vaccination timetable for children. This suggests IS is a more modern group than the Taliban, says Al-Tamimi. The Taliban banned vaccinations in Helmand province in Afghanistan last year over fears of spying.

The same move towards the apparatus of a state has been seen in Ar Raqqah in northern Syria, the group’s de facto capital, where the education department is putting into place school curricula, and arranging sharia sessions for teachers. The posts also show how ISIS is unable to provide electricity for some of its territories and that there are shortages of medical supplies.

For Al-Tamimi, these attempts to provide a governmental framework help ISIS control its territory, and might explain its dominance over other groups in Syria. “It’s a lot more complicated, much more developed,” he says. “The model we see brings a sense of order rather than civil war, that’s why you don’t really have any local rivals.”

It might also make the West pause if it wants to arm rebel groups against ISIS. “In Syria, the locals will not welcome local rebels if they cannot offer a viable form of governance,” says Al-Tamimi. Air raids will only go so far. “You can’t just drive them out, you have to offer some sort of governance. Just bombing places to oblivion is not going to help.”

Looking at how ISIS develops could also reveal how the group’s methods are being copied in other areas, such as in Libya and with jihadist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, he says. In Derna in eastern Libya, moves to create education departments show how advanced the group’s presence in the region is. And long before Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS, its official Twitter feed was co-opting songs and videos produced by ISIS.

“We can learn a tremendous amount about ISIS from social media, but you have to approach the material with a sceptical eye,” says J. M. Berger of the Brookings Institution. “No other extremist group has so many people dedicated to social media activism, working in such a coordinated way,” he says. “Social media information can make ISIS look bigger and more powerful than it really is.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “ISIS tweets reveal secrets”

The war online

The war against ISIS isn’t just taking place on the ground. Hacktivist collectives Anonymous and GhostSec have been taking down ISIS websites by using DDoS attacks to overwhelm them with traffic.

They have also released lists of Twitter accounts affiliated with the group. Last month, hackers released a list of 9200 suspect accounts.

As a result, ISIS issued its followers with a social media guide showing them how to bypass having to give phone numbers and email addresses when signing up for a new Twitter account. There has also been suggestions that ISIS is using the “dark net”, via anonymising software Tor, to recruit and to share images.

Issue 3016 of New Scientist magazine

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