A 24/7 help desk that offers support to ongoing operations. A marketing machine that enhances and speaks to the organization’s mission in the world. A top-notch human resource recruiting capability that identifies motivated, potential employees. All things any new startup would want to have as part of its go-to-market strategy. Unfortunately, in this case, the start-up is ISIL and it’s not really a startup, but a savvy, violent organization bent on destruction. ISIL has successfully co-opted modern corporate strategies and brought them to the business of terror. Indeed, the brand they're selling is commercially successful.
ISIL Help Desk
According to Dr. Aaron Brantly of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, ISIL has created a support capability of five to six members that offer guidance on how to use encryption, hide personally identifying information from authorities, and use apps like Twitter while avoiding detection. The support team is a group of IT specialists all around the globe. "I would say they're quite technically sophisticated on the whole," Brantly said.
Some of the questions the ISIL help desk answers?
- How to conceal your phone number when signing up for apps like Telegram: One example provided to CNNMoney showed a 28-page guide to faking your phone number when creating accounts on both Telegram and Twitter.
- Questions on whether jihadists should use Skype to communicate.
- Precautions users should take when using Instagram to avoid releasing their location, and tips for thwarting facial-recognition technology.
- Which apps are best for making a phone call?
- How to digitally communicate if Internet access is cut off.
- How to securely browse the web.
Routinely, ISIL produces and distributes a sophisticated, slick, propaganda-laden magazine aimed at influencing the message around its activity. Created by ISIL’s marketing arm, the al-Hayat Media Centre, and dubbed Dabiq, the magazine bills itself as “a periodical magazine focusing on the issues of tawhid (unity), manhaj (truth-seeking), hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war), and jama'ah (community). It will also contain photo reports, current events, and informative articles on matters relating to the Islamic State.”
There have been 12 issues of Dabiq released thus far, covering topics like the justification of sex slavery and the glorification of children soldiers. The most recent issue covers the terrorist attacks in Paris, the double-bombing in Beirut, and the downing of a Russian plane in Sinai.
Dabiq takes its name from a town in northern Syria. According to Islamic prophecy, the town will be the site where the caliphate’s forces will destroy “Rome” and bring about the apocalypse, a theme essential to ISIL’s recruiting. As Mother Jones reports, Dabiq “is a recruitment tool for ISIS, which uses the publication to deliver ‘informative’ updates from its territory and articulate lengthy religious arguments that the group says justify its brutal tactics."
In justifying the attacks on Paris earlier this month, Dabiq says:
“A year earlier, on '19 September 2014,' France haughtily began executing airstrikes against the Khilāfah [Caliphate]. Like Russia, it was blinded by hubris, thinking that its geographical distance from the lands of the Khilāfah would protect it from the justice of the mujāhidīn. It also did not grasp that its mockery of the Messenger would not be left unavenged. Thus, the Islamic State dispatched its brave knights to wage war in the homelands of the wicked crusaders, leaving Paris and its residents 'shocked and awed.' The eight knights brought Paris down on its knees, after years of French conceit in the face of Islam.”
In a Brookings Institution study released this spring, it was discovered that ISIL supporters used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts. On average, those accounts had about 1,000 followers each. The scope and breadth of ISIL’s reach via social media is astounding as other statistics from that study show:
- Almost one in five ISIS supporters selected English as their primary language when using Twitter. Three quarters selected Arabic.
- Much of ISIS’ social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume.
- Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS-supporting accounts sent tweets with location metadata embedded.
"There are thousands of messages being put out into the ethersphere and they're just hoping that they land on an individual who's susceptible to that type of terrorist propaganda," said John Carlin, assistant attorney general of the U.S. Justice Department's national security division.
"This is not your grandfather's al-Qaida," FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. "This is a group of people using social media to reach thousands and thousands of followers, find the ones who might be interested in committing acts of violence, and then moving them to an (end-to-end) encrypted messaging app."
ISIL truly has the most successful global recruitment and communications strategy of any terror group in the world. And like corporate competition in capital markets, we can cause their failure. If we treat ISIL as a brand, as a commodity, as a business, we can apply strategic messaging and branding tactics that force their demise. In much the same way as two corporate competitors battle head to head for market share, we can interrupt their supply chain and disrupt their financing.
If you want to know what you can do to fight terrorism, to end the cycle of brutality and fear, stop buying the ISIL brand. Stop watching the videos; stop re-tweeting their messages; and tell others to do the same.