Over the weekend, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS for short) released horrifying photos of a massacre of captured Iraqi Army troops. ISIS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, claims to have slaughtered 1,700 Shia Iraqi soldiers taken prisoner during their rapid march across north-central Iraq. No one has verified the claims about casualties, but the pictures are strong evidence that a massacre happened. Warning that several pictures are posted below, and that some of them are graphic.
This isn't just ISIS bragging about their murderousness. ISIS has a well-developed social media presence, which they're using deliberately in this campaign to do two things: intimidate Iraqis who might oppose them and win supporters in their battle with al-Qaeda for influence over the international Islamist extremist movement.
ISIS has an incredibly sophisticated social media organization, rivaling major corporations' work (albeit put towards much, much darker ends). "American ad companies could learn a lot from what ISIS is doing now," J.M. Berger, editor of Intelwire and a well-regarded expert on the use of social media by extremist groups, told me. "They've designed social media applications that will broadcast tweets at regular intervals and manipulate hashtags" to get their message across.
Berger thinks the first goal of broadcasting these gruesome images is to scare Iraqi civilians. "They're trying to intimidate the populations in the areas where they're headed," he said. This makes sense: as ISIS progresses southward from northern Iraq, they're moving towards land with larger Shia populations. Instead of trying to win over Sunni civilians by adopting sectarian grievances against Iraq's Shia government, they need to scare Shia civilians (who will never side with ISIS) so they don't actively oppose their march.
Take Baghdad, a formerly diverse city that's now predominantly Shia. ISIS wants Baghdad, though they aren't strong enough to take it. If you searched "Baghdad" in Arabic on Twitter Sunday night, "your first result would be an ISIS poster that said ‘we are coming to Baghdad,'" Berger said. That social media manipulation is consistent with the goal of intimidating Shia populations.
According to Berger, the second goal of ISIS' social media campaign is to win its global competition with al-Qaeda. ISIS actually used to be part of al-Qaeda, but the two groups split in early 2014. ISIS had stopped following al-Qaeda leadership's orders, particularly with respect to killing civilians. al-Qaeda wanted ISIS to slow down the pace of civilian killing, and ISIS wouldn't.
Now ISIS is "in the midst of a struggle to claim the mantle of the global jihadist movement, Berger said. "They're in competition with al-Qaeda, and they want to be the leader." One way to do that is to show how powerful and vicious you are by executing captured Shia soldiers.
Aside from the strategic considerations, this makes plain that, however bad the Iraqi government is — and they're likely to start bombing indiscriminately in cities soon — ISIS is much worse. Last week, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth got in a lot of trouble for tweeting this:
"That tweet was kinda nuts," Berger said. "The idea that ISIS would be more inclusive and less sectarian than [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki is absurd."
After looking at these photos, it's really hard to say he's wrong.