Not satisfied with its brutal effectiveness in battle, the group known as Islamic State has pursued an aggressive and savvy social media strategy. It is an approach, experts say, which has helped the group to rise above its competitors and attract a growing number of Western converts.
To much of the public, the strategy can be seen in the group’s slickly produced videos aimed to make the battles look as though they have been pulled from a Hollywood movie along with Tweets and online testimonials from those who have made the journey to join IS.
It is also just a first step. For Westerners who click on those videos or follow the social media trail, what comes next is often a more personal introduction to the Islamic State.
“It’s very well organized,” said former senior FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole. “It’s almost as though they have a clinical psychologist working with them.”
According to O’Toole, the danger is similar to one presented by online sexual predators who wait for the right opportunity to come into someone’s home.
While intelligence officials and experts say there is no one psychological profile for those most susceptible to IS recruiting tactics, most of the Westerners targeted by IS tend to be Muslims or Muslim converts in their mid-teens to mid-twenties, a time when they are still breaking away from their parents, tend to be idealistic and place a higher value on the opinions of their peers.
O’Toole says that makes it easier for the Islamic State’s online operatives to start “grooming” their targeted recruits who “have absolutely no idea what they’re walking into.”
“They’re [IS] taking advantage of that age. They’re manipulating that age.”
Most of the recruits tend to be male, though experts note the group has made an effort to reach out to women, even using different color schemes in videos made to appeal to specifically them.
U.S. intelligence officials are watching closely but caution it is too early to draw too many conclusions.
“There’s no question that ISIL, their very savvy approach to social media is helping them spread their message where young people communicate,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, calling the group “by far the most media savvy of any terrorist organization.”
“It remains to be seen whether that helps them gain more U.S. recruits,” he said.
In fact, the number of Americans leaving their homes to join IS is small. Recent estimates from U.S. intelligence agencies put the number of U.S. citizens leaving their homes to fight in Syria and Iraq at more than 100. Of those, the FBI says perhaps a dozen are fighting with the Islamic State.
But some analysts argue what makes the Islamic State dangerous is that it does not need a recruit to make it to Syria or Iraq to claim victory.
Charles Strozier, director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Center on Terrorism, says this strategy paid off for the Islamic State just recently, when three teenage girls tried making their way to Syria and stopped at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany only after U.S. and German officials intervened. Only later did the girls’ parents learn they had been using the Internet to communicate with an IS recruiter.
Strozier says, in some ways, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could not have planned the episode any better.
“He’s a master of the media and he’s pulling everybody’s chain on this one,” Strozier said. “He knows if you get three girls from Denver and handful of women from [elsewhere], it’s going to get blown up on the Internet which make it seems like women all over the world are flocking to Syria in order to join the jihadis which is not the case, to say the least.”
Still, IS has had some success recruiting Westerners, specifically from Europe, where governments estimate about 2,000 people, many from Muslim communities, have left their homes to join IS and other groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.
“They are large populations on the fringe - there’s some significant disaffection - and again, mostly young men with often a good deal of education,” Strozier said. “ISIS doesn’t create their resentments but it focuses their resentment.”
And the focus is on more than just the brutal violence. Strozier says the group, also known as ISIL, markets the violence as a means to an end, drawing in people because they also give the promise of a better tomorrow.
“For the most part they’ve been attracting young men who have been drawn to the message of ISIL, their messianic dream of creating a caliphate,” Strozier said. “It’s a very powerful, very powerful dream.”
“They are extreme and brutal and barbaric. But they’re not psychotic,” he said. “That’s an important distinction.”