By Brendan I. Koerner
The Islamic State recognized the power of digital media early on, when its brutish progenitor, Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, discovered the utility of uploading grainy videos of his atrocities to the Internet. As the group evolved, its propagandists surpassed and humiliated their bitter rivals in al Qaeda by placing a premium on innovation. 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 JustPaste.it. 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.
Today the Islamic State is as much a media conglomerate as a fighting force. According to Documenting the Virtual Caliphate, an October 2015 report by the Quilliam Foundation, the organization releases, on average, 38 new items per day—20-minute videos, full-length documentaries, photo essays, audio clips, and pamphlets, in languages ranging from Russian to Bengali. The group’s closest peers are not just other terrorist organizations, then, but also the Western brands, marketing firms, and publishing outfits—from PepsiCo to BuzzFeed—who ply the Internet with memes and messages in the hopes of connecting with customers. And like those ventures, the Islamic State hews to a few tried-and-true techniques for boosting user engagement.