On Tuesday, people around the world were able to watch Islamist militants burn a man alive as easily as they could see Rihanna and Kanye's new music video. The face of the victim, Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh, was plastered across Facebook and CNN—and here on Gawker. The moments before his demise became ubiquitous. And it was made possible by one of the most sophisticated propaganda machines ever created.
The caged immolation video followed a polished, lubricated route from a Syrian war zone to its intended western audiences in a matter of minutes. In this sense, it was a resounding success—a feat of the viral age. ISIS has nearly perfected the dissemination of violent propaganda, much as BuzzFeed has nearly perfected the dissemination of quizzes and videos.
Yesterday I got a crash course in ISIS' viral methodology from Laith Alkhouri, who runs the Middle East desk at Flashpoint Partners, a security firm that monitors extremist activity online. Alkhouri spends many waking hours doing nothing but watching how ISIS shuttles information across the internet with impunity.
Terrorism's embrace of social media started like so much on the internet does: Because of a bunch of trolls, Alkhouri explains. When ISIS began to compete with Al Qaeda, which had always used web forums as a staging ground for propaganda, these forums turned toxic:
"The official channels were split. Those web forums are now biased towards one group or another, ISIS guys bashing Al Qaeda, and vice versa, calling them deviants. The web forum became a sketchy place for an offiial media unit of a terrorist group to post. They needed to reach masses for their PR."
Long before execution videos get tweeted, they're just a video file on someone's computer. The process begins inside the Islamic State, where the movement's "media office" employs a state of the art video production team. In terms of fidelity and graphics, what ISIS is able to produce is on the same level as something you'd see on ESPN—Alkhouri speculates militant studios could be using pro software like Pinnacle Studio or Adobe Suite. Gone are the days of grainy Bin Laden recordings that look like they came from an attic.
Once the video is edited and exported, it exists inside a compressed RAR file—Alkhouri tells me this most recent release was protected with a strong 34-character password and likely ferried via encrypted flash drive. The video file itself uses the "K-Lite Codec," software that allows it to be played on a variety of computers around the world, including multiple subtitle translations.
From here, the video goes in two directions, spearheaded by a "logistics team" that works directly with the ISIS media production office. This logistical squad begins to upload the video to a number of free, anonymous hosting services that you probably use, too—YouTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion, and Archive.org—and publishes the links on anonymous text sites like JustPaste.it, or Arabic-centric services like Nasher.me. It will never matter if these services suspend or block ISIS, because there are countless competitors that offer the exact same thing for free.
The front page of Alpatformmedia, the primary message board of ISIS
Once the package—offering a sort of bloodthirsty press release coupled with a download link—is complete, these pages are shared inside Alplatformmedia, an invite-only, password-protected, closed-registration message board populated by ISIS fighters and leadership. The use of shady hosting services without any clear rules perfectly mirrors the way many hackers operate; this is basically the Sony playbook, radicalized.
At the same time, these downloads begin to reach Twitter. This is the most vital part of the entire ISIS media operation; "They absolutely need Twitter," Alkhouri tells me. "ISIS guys are young, they're media savvy, and they grew up in the age of the touchscreen—they know what it takes to stay plugged in online." Part of this goes without saying: of course the millennial dudes of ISIS are Twitter-fluent, because all millennial dudes are Twitter-fluent. But this isn't just savvy, it's mastery: ISIS is using American software to evade American authority and terrorize Americans. ISIS is using social media to flex real power across the world, and make sure its message is known and cared about—you can't say the same for, say, all of American advertising.
A teaser image tweeted before the release of the most recent execution video; this one hijacked a One Direction hashtag
This social media expertise has "completely revolutionized how terrorist groups and their supporters" broadcast a message like the Jordanian execution. ISIS tweeps now begin autonomously and tirelessly tweeting and retweeting links to and still from an execution video, Alkhouri told me: "All they do all day long is make sure ISIS material never disappears online." This mechanism is completely decentralized and self-propelling, with fighters on the ground using Twitter to employ "peer pressure and peer support" and egging each other on "to continuously distribute." When someone invariably reports a user for posting a picture of a human burning alive, they're already covered: "They're relentless; they'll create three or four accounts at a time." Alkhouri told me of one "cyber-jihadi" who's been suspended and reemerged on Twitter over 90 times. It's in Twitter's business interest to make it extremely easy to sign up for Twitter, and in ISIS' too.
Between this unceasing link spam and account creation, Alkhouri says all ISIS need do is rely on one of the internet's most powerful truisms: "Once it's out there, it's out there." Any controversial material, once introduced to the web's petri dish, will explode—particularly when any authority figure tries to make it go away. A video of a man being burned alive in a cage—an objectively heinous thing—becomes treated more or less like a photo of Beyonce falling in a puddle. The fact that it's heinous might only aid its spread: ISIS tweeters "love harassment," Alkhouri says. "They love having arguments online, it facilitates the distribution of their message." Trolling works, and it always will, though of course in this case let's remember the "trolls" are fascistic murderers, maybe of them tweeting directly from within the Islamic State: There are about 10 accounts I believe are directly with the group on the grounds," Alkhouri said, "who are privy to their exclusive media before release."
Also there are dozens of actual fighters who tweet regularly, many of them are foreign fighters. [Calculating] a rough ratio is tough, but I'd say that 2-3 percentile of the overall pro-ISIS Twitter supporters are on the grounds or in ISIS territory.
The only step remaining is the jump from Twitter to television, from a jihadi booster's screen to CNN's. Alkhouri says that the media itself makes this easy for ISIS: "a big number of followers from [ISIS] accounts are actually analysts and journalists...a lot of [media] end up giving a voice to the jihadis through RT." Alkhouri admits there's "a very fine line between reporting the news and distributing the propaganda."
[Top image by Jim Cooke]