Video games, Twitter tricks: How ISIS pulls in the kids

Islamist extremists need young members to build Caliphate dream; social media is good for recruitment strategy

Scene from the Jihad Simulator trailer (Youtube screenshot)
Scene from the Jihad Simulator trailer (Youtube screenshot)

Get the kids on your side. That’s a strategy used by 20th century tyrants from Stalin to Hitler to Pol Pot for gaining and retaining power. The 21st century tyrants of ISIS, the Islamist group that seeks to set up a Muslim Caliphate in as much of the Middle East as possible, are using the latest tools in their quest for youth.

Over the past year, the group has made a splash on social media, producing slick recruitment videos, developing online games and activities, and utilizing Twitter to send out messages to users’ networks.

In its latest social media foray, ISIS released a trailer for a game called the “Jihad Simulator,” which looks suspiciously like the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto video game. In Jihad Simulator, players hijack military vehicles and blow them up, carry out drive-by shootings of police cars with markings used by American police departments), and shoot up what appears to be a school or office park. The video shows the perpetrators not as keffiyeh-wearing terrorists, but as long-haired American kids wearing hoodies and knit wool hats. And, of course, players get points for every “kill” or explosion they successfully pull off.

It’s not clear who uploaded the video, and there was no website link for the actual game. As of Sunday afternoon, the video had not been taken down by YouTube administrators. Still floating around on the Internet are the videos showing the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, journalists captured by ISIS and brutally murdered. Those videos were also posted on YouTube and quickly removed but can still be found — so it’s likely that the Jihad Simulator promo will have a long online life as well, regardless of what YouTube does.

ISIS is as concerned with Arabic-language video and news sites as it is with the Western-oriented YouTube, and according to Arabic news sites, there are dozens of Arabic language ISIS recruitment videos and even several jihadist games floating around the Internet. In one game aimed squarely at kids, Egyptian media report, players use animated characters to attack Iraqi and American forces, also represented by cartoon characters. There’s no blood, but there is a lot of killing, and the game drives home a message of just how much “fun” jihad can be, what with all the cartoon killing, the Egyptian report said.

ISIS has plenty of other social media tricks, according to US cyber-security firm ZeroFox. In a special report, the group said that ISIS “has built a sophisticated and impactful online propaganda campaign using many social media networks, including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp. The group employs experts in the areas of marketing, PR and visual content production to ensure the legitimate appearance of its messages.”

Scene from the Jihad Simulator trailer (screen capture: YouTube)
Scene from the Jihad Simulator trailer (screen capture: YouTube)

One of the simple but effective methods spammers use to gear online conversation their way is by using hashtag hijacking, in which spammers use hashtags of trending Twitter topics in their own tweets to get the attention of people searching for a particular subject. With this tactic, ISIS could, ironically, soon be sending out jihadist and anti-American tweets using #worldseries, when the championship games of the Great American Pastime take place in October. Twitter’s demographic skews young, and by choosing hashtags that highlight topics kids are talking about and searching for on Twitter, said ZeroFox, ISIS can make sure the people they’re most interested in have access to their message

ISIS also uses a version of a tweet forwarding app which allows them to use member accounts to send out tweets on its behalf. The Arabic-language “The Dawn of Glad Tidings” app, which was until recently available in several Google Play stores, promises to give users up to the minute news about what is happening on the ground in Iraq and Syria – but also has an option that allows users to automatically forward ISIS-oriented tweets. ZeroFox said the idea is that the tweets will reach “hundreds or thousands more accounts, giving the perception that their content is bigger and more popular than it might actually be.”

ISIS also utilizes bot networks to spread its message. An old hacker standby, bot networks are essentially large groups of hacked computers that are surreptitiously used to forward e-mail and social media messages employing the user accounts of the owners of the computers. They’re usually used to send out spam, but ISIS is using it to send out recruiting messages, mostly in Arabic, and with links to images and videos designed to appeal to the young recruits it covets.

Scene from the Jihad Simulator trailer (Youtube screenshot)
Scene from the Jihad Simulator trailer (YouTube screenshot)

US and European-based services can try to shut out ISIS social media efforts by closing down accounts that post their content – but new accounts are being opened as quickly as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook close ISIS-oriented content pages. But good luck shutting down ISIS on its home turf — the vast Arabic Internet – said ZeroFox.

“We have seen social media platforms act as channels for virtual grassroots campaigns, where the voices of millions coalesce into a single actionable goal,” said the cyber-security organization. “ISIS has taken this use of these platforms a step further by mastering the art of taking the voices of few and making them sound like the voices of millions. It is of utmost importance that the users of social media understand the real-world impacts it can have, because unfortunately, social media is not always used for good.”

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