Islamic States web success has come through preying on young followers frustrations, writes Haroon K Ullah,chief strategy officer for the US governments Broadcasting Board of Governors
If the west (or rather western-backed militias) has won the ground war against Islamic State, then we are still losing the digital war. Accounts such as Mohamad al-Arefes prove it: he has 20 million followers on Twitter more than anyone else in the Middle East. He only follows five accounts all versions of himself in Indonesian, Farsi, Urdu, Turkish and (perhaps most worryingly) English. He also produces popular Snap Fatwas on Snapchat. He is a one-man, multilingual, global extremist-leaning media network.
Ive interviewed many Isis defectors in my work over the years, and Arefes name kept coming up. One in three Saudi youths follow him online, and the other two know who he is. His popularity makes him untouchable to the Saudi authorities his arrest would likely trigger social upheaval. For years I have seen him retweet Isis fanboys gushing about the virtues of their caliphate, and encouraging Muslim youth around the world to join them.
There is no lack of edgy Saudi preachers who are less than politically correct, so what makes Arefe so special? Hes 47, which is young by Saudi clerical standards. As well as youth, he has another trait that the Saudi religious establishment lacks: charisma. This is in spite of him being such a mediocre graduate that he struggled to even get a job as a village mosque imam. Just like many of his fans, his rejection by the mainstream drove him to social media.
And social media matters in Saudi Arabia even more than in the west. Saudi leads the world in both Twitter and Snapchat usage. The result is that Arefe is the 86th most-followed person worldwide on Twitter, just ahead of Hillary Clinton and just behind Ed Sheeran.
Arefe continues to churn out his calamity topics at an alarming rate. He instinctively understands that content is king, whether new videos, apps or games. His output sizzles with a change narrative, something young people latch on to in droves.
Isiss most valuable territory and the one that it is holding comfortably is online: it has a hugely successful international brand. To understand why, first we must understand its audience segmentation. Arefe is not helping Isis create a new breed of extremists; rather he is cynically exploiting a vast, already existing segmented demographic.
We feed ourselves a convenient fantasy that Isiss sophisticated use of social media is somehow luring young men who would otherwise be at home with their families, playing video games. Thats just not true. Arefe preys upon their frustrations and a life with very few outlets for free expression. This is self-evident in the chatter of Isis fanboys and how inspired they are by their brothers.
This inspirational and aspirational side to Isis marketing is neglected by many analysts. Most outsiders think people such as Arefe are selling a medieval narrative. That couldnt be further from the truth: a large part of Arefes messaging (70%) tends to be rather positive. Kind of like self-help for extremists: Change your life by ending it.
The message is also materialistic. When I look at its recruitment videos, I see Isis selling a consumerist lifestyle: a western-modelled, efficient government structure, free of corruption. This isnt a return to the dark ages, a fostering of archaic traditions. This is the new caliphate on steroids. A caliphate bigger and better than the old model. A caliphate that can beat the west at its own game.
So whats the solution? First, we must accept that the answer cannot be provided by the technology platforms themselves. It is unlikely that any social media site will ban Arefe, because he is careful not to violate their terms of service. They cannot stop him, for example, speaking out against Bashar al-Assads tyranny, while also speaking favourably about religious law and Islamic government. But if you put these two ideas together and add some dangerous context, you end up in a bad place. Whats more, even if social media platforms did ban him, most of his hardcore followers are on the deep and dark web using private Telegram channels and untraceable bitcoin. The radicalisation horse has bolted.
Second, we must understand how Arefes ideas are disseminated. Public health research can teach us more here than current counter-insurgency strategies, because Isis ideology spreads like a sexually transmitted disease, through intimate, one-on-one contact including social media contact. To contain the infection we need ring immunisation, which serves to inoculate against the further spread of the virus. This means looking at peoples networks, their communities and neighbourhoods.
Finally, we have to face the fact that Arefe proves that religious leaders still matter, at least in the Middle East. Based on Twitter stats, it could be argued they matter more than actors, politicians, musicians or sports icons. There is a strong market among young people for credible, authentic religious leadership that is not associated with the official government line or ministry of religious affairs policy. We must resist the temptation to assume that as Middle Eastern economies develop, western secularism will be bought as enthusiastically as western brands. Quite the opposite: Isis use Nutella to recruit jihadi brides, showing that the latter can be put to service in an attack on the former.
The challenge is to promote local voices, the young Malalas with street cred who can offer a more compelling and stirring vision of the future than Arefe. In the Middle East, messengers matter at least as much as the message. Arefe and Isis understand that. Do we?
Haroon K Ullah is chief strategy officer for the US governments Broadcasting Board of Governors, and is the author of Digital World War