Written By: CENSA Editorial Board----
In the last few years, news of the Islamic State (ISIS) has spread aggressively throughout the world. While glimpses of similar entities appear on newscasts and in social media, ISIS holds particular attention of viewers. Why? Because it innovates and produces its own form of sophisticated media instead of settling for poorly developed video statements or waiting passively to be mentioned by other news sources. Its members execute the dissemination of news through modern, accessible and easily viewable content.
The West African-based terrorist group called Wilayat Gharb Ifriqquyah, or Boko Haram, (as it is more widely known), has also displayed a growing sophistication and presence in social media. This growing maturity is in large part because of its pledged allegiance to and virtual alliance with ISIS. And it continues to march and make strategic gains in West Africa even as ISIS has lost a considerable amount of previously acquired territory in Syria, As such, Boko Haram’s ever-increasing presence in social media and throughout publicly available information also serves as a strategic benefit to ISIS; the relationship appears to be a worthwhile return on investment for the larger group in terms of time, effort, and the issuance of online statements of moral support and allegiance. This strategic alliance is, in turn, mutually beneficial: by improving its digital profile, Boko Haram appears strong, healthy, and intimidating no matter how many military setbacks it might experience on the field of battle; and for ISIS, the alliance represents an ability to influence perceptions regarding not only its in-the-field success but also its territorial reach and impact.
Boko Haram has an interesting history. In 2002, local Salafi leader Mohammed Yusuf established Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or the “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” and advised followers to accept the teachings of Osama bin Laden, Wayyid Qutb, and Ibn Taymiya. Yusuf also preached against the secular nature of Nigeria, referring to the central government’s failure to follow and adhere to the teachings of Islamic law as cause for and legitimizing his opposition. His preaching began to cultivate considerable support and sparked tensions in 2009 with Nigerian security forces, resulting in Yusuf’s arrest and execution, as well as the deaths of more than a thousand of his followers.
Abubakr Shekau filled the leadership void created by Yusuf’s death and violence continued and significantly increased after July 2010 when the group officially declared jihad against both Nigeria and the United States. The frequency and sophistication of coordinated attacks increased, with the first vehicle-borne suicide bombing in Nigeria’s history occurring the following year (August, 2011). Several major operations were carried out after the extremist group’s official declaration of jihad, to include: the Bauchi prison break of September 2010; the October 2010 assassination of the Muslim cleric and Boko Haram opponent Bashir Kashara; numerous attacks on schools and places of worship not aligned with Boko Haram; and the high-profile April 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in the Nigerian town of Chibok. In the aggregate, estimates suggest that Boko Haram has killed as many as 20,000 people and displaced more than two million.
Yusuf’s successor, Abubakr Shekau, made a pivotal move in March 2015 when he declared allegiance to Abubakr Al Baghdadi, ISIS, and the idea of the Islamic Caliphate. Members of ISIS responded quickly in social media with acceptance and celebration. The group’s name officially changed to Wilayat Gharb Iffriqiyah, or, literally: Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP).
The statement of loyalty was not only verbally recognized but also confirmed in practice, as the production quality of ISWAP’s on-line video messaging dramatically improved. Earlier pre-alliance products can be identified by the display of an ISWAP logo at the upper corner of the screen, the absence of subtitles, and the poor quality of visual and audio definition. Post-ISIS alliance video images are sharper, more detailed, and include both subtitles and a more stylized logo. The ISIS influence and assistance is clear and consistent with the same characteristics appearing on videos produced elsewhere (as in Libya).
The ISIS influence on ISWAP has been widely noted and recognized, and even more so when the influence disappeared. On March 24, 2016, for example, after being isolated from both ISWAP and ISIS for more than a year, Shekau returned to public view to officially relinquish his ISWAP leadership position, an act that caused a marked reaction in social media. Observers noted that the poor quality of the audio and visual production (so much so that Shekau’s face is nearly unrecognizable!). He also appears in the video alone behind a solid backdrop, unlike other more recent videos produced again with ISIS assistance and projecting strength through the display of weapons and military vehicles in the background.
In contrast, an ISWAP video posted less than nine days later with clearly identifiable ISIS trademarks and displays subtitles and is of better quality. It has comparable backgrounds of military force in the footage as well. It denied any sign of defeat or surrender and reconfirmed Shekau as the present leader of ISWAP while he remains hidden from the public eye, similar to other leaders of ISIS. The video is noteworthy in that it displays a capacity for rapid responses to shape online messaging and counter criticism or speculation, and indicates a desire to promote and protect their interests in the region.
In light of Boko’s media growth, it is essential for the West to increase its analysis of online traffic and to engage in social media-based counter messaging. It helps isolate propaganda and distinguish between truth and fiction. Messaging campaigns such as the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in response to the Chibok kidnapping and the dissection of the Shekau video from culturally local sources are excellent examples of fighting ISWAP digitally. At a minimum, these messages show that public opposition to ISWAP/Boko Haram (I/BH) remains active. It would be more encouraging if the volume of messaging about I/BH turned from pleas into requests for more foreign assistance, and to more active condemnation and rebuttals to the extremists’ propaganda.
Middle Eastern and Western powers have stepped up their efforts in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and to tremendous effect. The coalition has succeeded in pushing back ISIS’ ownership of territory by supplying local forces and augmenting their efforts with airstrikes. However, the battle on the ground is also being fought online. To mount a comprehensive counter-campaign, Western strategists must recognize the alliance and important linkage that exists between ISIS and I/BH; pushing back in this space is just as essential, as failing to do so would continue to yield an important medium in the battle of ideas and influence.
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