Yesterday evening, I returned home, made a cup of tea and slumped down to catch up on the day’s news. A piece on Twitter caught my eye. Posted by Channel 4, it was titled ‘#Jihad: how ISIS is using social media to win support’. Click. Soon I was learning about how ISIS was calling for global support via a sophisticated social media campaign, branded the ‘one billion campaign’. Click, click. Onto YouTube, where I found graphic videos recorded and uploaded by ISIS members. Click, click, click. Ten minutes later, and I was on Twitter, being recruited by jihadis to come join them.
Clearly, I am not about to head to Syria or Iraq. But I was struck by how quickly I found material asking me to show support and help the cause. If I was an impressionable young Muslim man, perhaps I would have found it alluring. I came across a podcast uploaded by the British jihadi Abu Summayyah al-Britani, which suggested that fighting in Syria was better than playing Call of Duty.
The imagery ISIS promotes is also absorbing, in a dark, sinister way. The black and white flag is the new Jolly Roger; balaclavas and AK47s the new uniform. ‘Come fight with us, brother’ it screams. It looks dangerous and exciting. This belligerent propaganda has zipped round the world at an unprecedented speed. It’s a potent mix of graphic imagery and piratic behaviour blended with a fanatical message. It’s hard not to look, no matter how much you try.
The message is important too. As Douglas Murray discussed in The Spectator in January, the Middle East is now inflamed by religious sectarianism. ISIS – with its message directed at Sunni Islam – calls for a religious conflict that hopes to re-align the Middle East. It asks Muslims to identify with a sect, and do their duty for it. ISIS’s focus on establishing an interconnected state may seem like a more attainable goal then al-Qa’eda’s more nebulous version of jihad.
The recruitment process is astonishingly brazen, there for everyone to see. I began to wonder what my search terms might suggest to someone at GCHQ, keeping tabs on things. It probably looked like I was considering signing up. But given how easy it is to come across ISIS’s promotional material, there must be plenty of other people who also look like they are about to sign up. I was simply curious, but buried within the growing mountain of material about ISIS, there will be intelligence available. Intel about people heading to the Middle East. Intel about people planning to maim and massacre in the UK on their return. ISIS’s audacious use of social media suggests the sheer volume of search terms may act as a cloak for anyone heading out there. Let’s hope our intelligence services are able to filter out the noise.
And just to make it very clear, I have absolutely no intention of joining ISIS. The GCHQ dude lurking behind the postbox on Old Queen Street can be deployed elsewhere.