It is a testament to the propaganda prowess of the world’s most infamous new terrorist organization that, in April of this year, the U.S. State Department created a Twitter account specifically to dissuade young men from running off to fight for the Islamic State (IS).

The account, called “Think Again Turn Away,” is nominally aimed at condemning all terrorist groups, but has focused its efforts almost exclusively at IS (previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL). However, with just 5,000 or so followers, the State Department’s account has only a tiny fraction of the following of IS-related accounts on Twitter. Indeed, almost every item the U.S. government account posts is usually inundated with antagonistic replies from IS supporters.

In terms of military might, resources or training, there is no comparison between the United States, in possession of the world’s most powerful military, and the ragtag group of local and foreign fighters currently wreaking havoc across much of Iraq and Syria. But in the propaganda war, at least, IS appears to be winning.

The most infamous piece of IS propaganda is the video released last week showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley. But the group also disseminates countless other clips via social media, including ones which glorify day-to-day life in IS-controlled land.

In the past year, thousands of young men from Europe, Australia and North America have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS. The influx reflects not only the group’s growing popularity but also the stunning effectiveness of its propaganda arm, which today runs multiple video production studios, social-media accounts and even merchandising stores, where clothing stamped with the IS black flag logo is readily available for sale.

“Joining IS is now the cool thing to do in jihadicircles,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

“The number of Westerners that have been joining IS is unprecedented,” he said. “It’s probably in the thousands, and the return of foreign fighters … in the coming years will be one of the most important security concerns for the West.”

As the United States prepares in the coming weeks for what could become a much more sprawling effort to combat IS, the foreign fighters represent a unique challenge. Not only does their very presence in IS serve as a potential lure for other Western would-be jihadis to follow suit, they may also one day attempt to return to the West, taking the fight home to the places they were born.

Identifying a killer

James Foley, an American journalist with experience reporting from hot spots such as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, was abducted in Syria in 2012 and held hostage since then.

When an IS propaganda arm released a video last week showing Mr. Foley’s beheading, much of the world reacted with revulsion over his horrific death.

In the video, Mr. Foley is seen on his knees, wearing an orange jumpsuit. Standing beside him is an IS fighter holding a knife. The figure is clad entirely in black cloth, all but his eyes covered. After Mr. Foley is made to say a few last words, blaming the U.S. government for his looming execution, the IS fighter addresses U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their right of living in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” he says, referring to the Islamist state the group is attempting to establish. The camera then cuts away as Mr. Foley is beheaded. His executioner then reappears beside another U.S. hostage, journalist Steven Sotloff, and says his fate is dependent on Mr. Obama’s next decision.

The hooded figure’s apparent British accent has sent authorities in that country scrambling to use sophisticated voice-recognition technology to identify the man. And by analyzing the man’s eyes, investigators have formed a composite sketch of what the rest of his face might look like. At the same time, British authorities have begun scouring some of the neighbourhoods in and around London where, in recent years, hundreds of young Muslim men have left to fight for IS in Iraq and Syria.

“There is a lot at stake,” said Mark Rowley, national policing lead for counterterrorism at London’s Metropolitan Police, in a plea for community support issued this week. “In addition to the public assistance in identifying potential terrorists, we all need community and religious leaders to continue to speak out against warped narratives and we need everyone to ensure that public debate does not give oxygen to the terrorists by giving them the publicity they seek.”

Mr. Rowley noted that British authorities arrested 69 people for Syria-related activities in the first half of this year, a fivefold increase from last year. Nearly half of British travellers to Syria who have been deemed “of concern,” Mr. Rowley added, were not previously known to authorities as terrorist risks.

The struggle to identify Mr. Foley’s killer is in many ways illustrative of the myriad challenges facing Western governments trying to slow the recent meteoric growth of IS. Even if Mr. Foley’s killer is identified, capturing him from IS-controlled territory may still prove exceedingly difficult. The challenge is as much about combatting the terrorist group’s narrative as it is about bringing any one IS member to justice.

For the IS propaganda arms, the Foley video represents one extreme of a binary media strategy. On one hand, the group has become infamous in recent months for posting graphic videos showing beheadings and multiple executions as a kind of warning to the organization’s many enemies.

However, the IS media teams have also produced many videos that present the so-called Caliphate of Iraq and Syria as a safe haven for pious Muslims. In one such video, released earlier this month, a handful of foreign fighters call on Muslims from around the world to come join IS. Interspersed with footage of children playing, the video features testimonials from fighters originally from South Africa, Belgium, Britain and the United States, among other countries.

A slick, 10-minute IS video apparently recorded in Syria in 2013 includes a Canadian who is believed to have died fighting with the extremists. André Poulin of Timmins, Ont., says he was just like any other “regular Canadian” before he embraced Islam. “I watched hockey. I went to the cottage in the summertime. I loved to fish,” he says in the video. “I was a regular person. Mujahedeen [holy warriors] are regular people too … We have lives outside of our job.”

The quantity and production quality of the IS media offensive has, in many ways, caught Western authorities off-guard. Mr. Rowley said that British investigators are currently in the process of removing some 1,100 pieces of content from the Web that breach the country’s terrorism laws – of these, about 800 are related to the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Building a coalition

As British and U.S. investigators attempt to identify Mr. Foley’s killer, Washington appears on the verge of enlisting a broader coalition to contain the massive gains made by IS in the past few months. With many U.S. voters still not very supportive of another large U.S. combat troop presence in Iraq, the White House is pressing its allies to engage on a number of other fronts.

“It will require an effective, inclusive Iraqi government that can unite that country to face the threat that’s posed by [IS],” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest this week. “It will require the involvement of other governments in the region that have a blatantly obvious interest in this outcome. It will require the involvement of countries around the world, particularly our Western allies that also have an incentive to confront that threat that’s posed by [IS].”

For Washington, that strategy necessitates asking different things from different allies. For example, the White House is likely to request that Turkey beef up security along its border with Syria, which is a potential gateway for money, arms and fighters coming in from Europe. The U.S. government will also press Saudi Arabia to pressure Sunni groups in Iraq to buy in to a unity government, rather than side with Sunni militants in IS.

“The most important thing for IS to be contained … is for moderate Sunnis to hive themselves off from a very fragile coalition with IS and join a unity government in Baghdad,” said Prof. Juneau of the University of Ottawa.

But unlike the United States, many of these regional allies are next-door neighbours to IS and must weigh the likelihood that their actions may provoke an immediate response from the terrorist group. As such, it is yet unclear just how much they will be willing to contribute to U.S. efforts to contain, if not crush the so-called Caliphate.

“What you now have is the beginning of a full-fledged strategic approach on the part of the Obama administration,” said Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.

“Many of us will regard this as a test case of how much you can do by supporting like-minded groups in the region.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Aug. 28 2014, 8:10 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Aug. 28 2014, 8:20 PM EDT