That message, like so many other pieces of Islamic State propaganda, was crafted not just to stir the hearts of potential recruits but also to boost the organization’s ghastly brand—to reinforce Westerners’ perception of the Islamic State and its devotees as ruthless beyond comprehension.All terrorist groups seek to cultivate this kind of image, of course, because their power derives from their ability to inspire dread out of proportion to the threats they actually pose.
Unlike al Qaeda, which has generally been methodical about organizing and controlling its terror cells, the more opportunistic Islamic State is content to crowdsource its social media activity—and its violence—out to individuals with whom it has no concrete ties.
And the organization does not make this happen in the shadows; it does so openly in the West’s most beloved precincts of the Internet, co-opting the digital services that have become woven into our daily lives.
The Islamic State maximized its reach by exploiting a variety of platforms: social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, peer-to-peer messaging apps like Telegram and Surespot, and content sharing systems like Just
More important, it decentralized its media operations, keeping its feeds flush with content made by autonomous production units from West Africa to the Caucasus—a geographical range that illustrates why it is no longer accurate to refer to the group merely as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a moniker that undersells its current breadth.
Here in the US, the group’s message has found a foothold among people who map their own idiosyncratic struggles and grievances, real or imagined, onto the Islamic State ideology.
These half-cocked jihadists, while rare, come from all walks of American life, creating a new kind of domestic threat—one that is small in scale but fiendishly difficult to counter.
Its brand has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that it has transformed into something akin to an open source operating system for the desperate and deluded—a vague ideological platform upon which people can construct elaborate personal narratives of persecution or rage.
Some individuals become so engrossed in those narratives that they scheme to kill in the Islamic State’s name, in the belief that doing so will help them right their troubled lives.
They got that way by diligently analyzing how the West manufactures and consumes information.
To chip away at what they’ve created, we must now learn from them.
And like those ventures, the Islamic State hews to a few tried-and-true techniques for boosting user engagement.