The Virtual Caliphate: Daesh and Their Use of Social Media (First published 2 May 2016)



The Islamic State, widely known by opponents as Daesh, has proved itself to be an innovative organisation skilfully using technology and inventive methods to manipulate users of social media and compelling global news networks to run their stories. The methods they employ to radicalize without physical contact and the relationship between individual radicalization and the consumption of extremist material which, by its very nature involves a complex mix of variables, continues to evolve. Consequently, a detailed examination of the Virtual Caliphate is beyond the scope of this paper and the following is intended as a brief introduction to the subject.


According to Hemelin, attitudes are part of the brain’s associated networks; people interact with the environment based on how they perceive and interpret it. This is, people form an internal (cognitive) map of their external (social) environment and these perceptions rather than objective external reality determine their behaviour. Persuasive media messages, in this case social media, are built on the premise that behaviour follows attitude, and attitude can be influenced by the right message delivered in the right way. (Trigger Factors of Terrorism: Social Marketing as a Tool for Security Studies, Nicolas Hemelin, Al-Akbawayn University, Morocco)

Likewise, world events and social issues, both real and imagined, are beacons by which a person forms a cognitive map of one’s environment from which an interpretation of reality is formed.  Furthermore, in the case of extremist narratives of hate and retribution, these do not act in a vacuum, they must be accompanied by supporting ideas to reinforce the belief so the target audience becomes detached from reality. 

The technically astute and media savvy Islamic State’s (Daesh), official messages on social media are supported by several thousand sympathizers and followers, called ‘fan boys’, who regularly re-circulate official content from Daesh propagandists. In the case of Twitter, to greatly increase the coverage of their extremist messages a hashtag campaign was organised. This simply entailed hijacking popular hashtags such as those related to major sporting events to promote links to extremist websites where anyone can anonymously post messages and upload images. Daesh also created their own app, ‘Dawn of Glad Tidings’ to efficiently tweet messages to followers.

Although the accounts of extremist organisations continued to be closed and their material removed from social media platforms, this group, like other extremist movements, remain flexible and resilient. After an account has been closed other accounts are created and quickly publicized via various links and websites. ISIS also maintains a large number of backup accounts and continues to identify more social media platforms to increase their digital presence.

An estimated 10 million people live in Daesh occupied territories (BBC Islamic Group Crisis and maps, 27 April 2016) which is a closed world with no journalists or independent observers. The only source of information for the world’s media originates from the Daesh media center called Hayat which has offices throughout the occupied areas and is controlled by the Media Council. Different areas of propaganda are managed by different departments within the Council and before being released all communications are structured to meet a variety of requirements. This includes ensuring the global media use their content so their messages and visual images gain access to millions of homes.  Official communications from Daesh is greatly supplemented by unofficial material uploaded to social media and websites by their supporters.

The glossy and professionally produced Dabiq magazine, which is translated in English, French and German and is available via the Internet, is thought to be written by professional journalists in occupied areas who were given the option of either working for Daesh or be killed.

Virtual world

The virtual world

Daesh and other VE narratives found on social media and various websites cover a number of separate themes which may be woven together in order to appeal to a certain audience or to encourage an appropriate emotional development. This is essential for the successful engagement and radicalization in virtual space which differs from real-world face-to-face radicalization.  According to Von Behr, whose research is based on the conviction of 15 extremists, “the Internet affords more prospect for radicalization… {the internet} was a key source of information, communications and propaganda for their extremist beliefs… {it} also provided greater opportunity than offline interaction to confirm existing beliefs…”

Research conducted by et Al, in 2014, found that after sampling 199 lone actor terrorists, 35 percent of the sample virtually interacted with a wider network of activists and 46 percent learned aspects of their attack methods through virtual sources. They also found that 65 percent of al-Qaeda inspired actors were significantly more likely to learn through virtual sources.

Forms of virtual interaction include: reinforcing prior beliefs, seeking legitimacy for future actions, disseminating propaganda and providing material support for others, attack signalling, and attempts to recruit others (Gill and Conway,2015).  Forms of virtual learning include, ideological content, opting for violence, choosing a target, preparing an attack and overcoming hurdles.

It is also evident that Daesh and other terrorist movements use the Internet to create a ‘brand image’ to assist them in marketing their ideology, recruitment and influencing media coverage.

There is also what Gill and Corner call, ‘Current Problem Factors,’ “World events and newspapers provide the heads-up about the dangers of the world and opportunities related to one’s degree of concern towards world events…” and these concerns are exploited through the use of appropriate narratives. (What are the Roles of Internet Terrorism? -Measuring online behaviors of convicted UK Terrorists, Paul Gill, University College London, Maura Conway Dublin City University, 2015)

The full spectrum of narratives produced by Daesh is large: some are interrelated and link various secular and religious beliefs, whilst others provide ‘evidence’ supporting the extremist’s views. 

Common themes include: sociological and political, agitation and integration, extreme violence, mercy, victim and blame, war/Jihad; utopia democracy and apocalyptic.

Sociological and political narratives

Sociological narratives, which are often used in tandem with political narratives, may include poetry, visual images and ‘personal’ stories to help maintain the illusion of Daesh’s self-styled caliphate being a democratic utopia. Whilst the political narratives may be paired with tactical and strategic narratives promoting emigration to the Caliphate; attempts to sell the belief of being the duty of all Muslims to support the Caliphate and the need for the birth of children for the Caliphate to grow, prosper and provide the next generation of jihadists known as ‘cubs. ‘

Strategic Narratives                                                           

Strategic narratives have long-term goals and seeks to establish and maintain the organisational line of ambiance (Quillian Foundation). The content may appear largely mundane and insignificant: stories and visual images of children playing in the streets, various social events, shrines being destroyed; western style clothes, make up and western consumer goods being burnt. As well as further enforcing the message of utopia, it is also designed to project the image of the ‘Islamic purity’ of the Caliphate and rejection of western values and culture.

Agitation and Integration Narratives

Agitation narratives are intended to encourage passive supporters to become active members of the organisation. Active membership includes the recruitment of foreign fighters or joining their support structure as technicians, logistics specialists, being responsible for organizing safe houses and documents etc. Integration narratives are designed to encourage loyalty to the system of beliefs promoted by Daesh. Again, Agitation and Integration narratives are often paired or work in tandem for optimum effect on the target audience.

Rational and Irrational Narratives

Rational and irrational narratives are frequently used to distort facts (disinformation) and are mainly used as persuasive tools to reinforce the message of the movement’s superiority and the image of a utopia which must be defended at all costs. Furthering the synthesis of lies, exaggerations and facts are essential for the survival and growth of Daesh and its caliphate. None of the various themes are discrete elements within the narrative strategy: sociological, political, rational and irrational narratives may be used separately or in combinations to spoon-feed their selected audience.

Extreme Violence

Extreme violence may be regarded as the vanguard element of the various narratives which encourages beliefs such as vengeance; supporting the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic’ superiority of Daesh and justifying revenge on behalf of all Sunni Muslims against the Christian-Jewish crusaders and other unbelievers. Within the long list of unbelievers, we also find Sunni Muslims who refuse to follow the organisation’s religious ideology and world views. As with all narratives and propaganda strategies the content and structure is often tailored for specific purposes.

In November 2014, the Daesh media centre produced a video that documented the execution of three members of the Syrian Army and this was intended for a different audience than the one in which Japanese journalist Kenji Gotto was killed. The video of the barbaric execution of Kenji Gotto contained the caption “A Message to the government of Japan”.  We have also frequently seen executions of alleged spies as part of a terror tactic to discourage dissent from the population under Daesh control in Iraq and Syria.

The promotion of extreme violence is also used for the self-gratification of supporters; to intimidate enemies; and to provoke outrage from the global media to ensure further publicity opportunities.

Mercy Narratives

Mercy narratives often work in tandem with extreme violence and are connected with repentance to God and Daesh. An example often quoted is the April 2015 video entitled “From Darkness to Light”. Here we see captured combatants from the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian Army who were all former enemies of Daesh. The carefully orchestrated and professionally edited video shows them reneging their former ‘Islamic’ beliefs and swearing allegiance to Daesh. According to this propaganda video, Daesh is compassionate and will forgive their enemies if they follow the ‘true’ path of Islam and swear allegiance to Daesh and the Caliphate.

Victim Narrative

Victim narratives designed to encourage paranoia is a constant theme and a powerful recruiting tool. This promotes the belief of the global war to destroy Islam and this narrative and propaganda tools are often used alongside extreme violence. For example, Jordanian pilot, Mudh al-Kasabeth who was burnt alive shows the binary opposites of victim and extreme violence.

On 3 February 2015, Daesh produced the video “Healing of the believers Chest” the words ‘healing’ and ‘believer’ are positive words which suggest beneficial treatment! However, this is the title of the video documenting Mudh al-Kasabeth standing in a steel cage before being doused with petrol and burn alive. Shortly after the Jordanian pilot was engulfed in flames, footage of coalition airstrikes was faded in before showing dead children ‘allegedly’ killed during the airstrikes. This video was intended to reinforce the justification narrative, and to remind its audience of the legitimacy of retaliation and the duty of all Muslims to join jihad. The caption at the end of the video, “What is the ruling on burning Kafir until he dies, Office of Research of Fatwas, 20 January 2015,” was intended to provide religious justification for the murder.

Another example shows jihadists carrying dead children before showing a group of alleged ‘spies’ being burnt alive in a car and another groups of ‘spies’ being beheaded by explosive necklaces. These images were for the benefit of the global news networks who, as Daesh predicted, published still images across the world and the video was shared tens of thousands of times within two hours of being posted on social media. Images and descriptions of dead children remain a powerful driver for creating a victim mentality leading to paranoia and a desire for ‘divine’ retribution by becoming a ‘soldier of God’.

War Narratives

Such narratives are intended to create and sustain the illusion of power, military discipline, valour; and feeding the idea that Daesh has a ‘real’ army, which further adds to the illusion of a ‘real’ nation state or caliphate. War narratives are also a powerful tool for recruiting foreign fighters.

Utopian Democracy

The Utopian building narrative promotes social well-being, brotherhood, sisterhood; the multi-ethnic makeup of the caliphate which embraces all colors and nationalities without prejudice and their claim, “all are equal under the Islamic State”. Daesh propagandists and their supporters take every opportunity to promote the false image of an idyllic and harmonious life under their rule. We see a constant stream of emotive stories of happy families which reinforces the myth of equality and a common identity for all Muslims living in the Caliphate.  20-year-old Aqsa Mamood, (aka Umm Layth) who was slowly radicalized by reading extremist articles and posts online in her bedroom in the UK, is believed to have played a major role in recruiting many women from the west.  As well as being a prolific blogger she also engaged in debates on Twitter and gave advice on how to join Daesh. British sisters, Zahra and Salma Halane, through social media became role models for others to join Daesh. These female groomers promoted the Utopian image of nice houses, friendship, good husbands and a shared common identity.

Through careful branding and a continuous marketing campaign the Caliphate which was created by Daesh and is said to have been ‘ordained by God’ is, for many of its supporters, inseparable from the Umma (world community consisting of all Muslims) and is the unique selling point on social media. As the majority of Daesh supporters have never visited the so-called caliphate and their only knowledge is based on the propaganda version or, to be more accurate, a ‘Cyber Caliphate’, and Daesh remains popular, this may be seen as further evidence of the persuading influence of their narratives which alter and reinforce beliefs and attitudes.

social media

Apocalyptic Narratives

The apocalyptic narrative: the continued war between good and evil and those dedicated to jihad having God and the angles on their side, remains a powerful motive for joining the ranks of the jihadists and a willingness to die for the cause. This approach also allows extremists to add additional enemies against Islam as they see fit.

Whilst western governments continue to rely on military options to address Daesh and other violent extremists and neglect the urgent requirement to employ counter-narratives which work in conjunction with a variety of other soft power options, global jihad will continue to grow. 

Further reading on narratives and soft power can be found on the Narrative Strategy blog which is the public platform of a coalition of scholars and military professionals involved in the non-kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism, irregular warfare, and social conflict.

Basic Analysis of Social Media: Examining the use of narrative-based drivers for remote radicalization. (First published 3 August 2016)

Basic analysis


As I am fortunate to have a large number of data analysts and those involved in the behaviour sciences among my LinkedIn contacts, I would like to point out this paper is not intended to bring anything new to the study of radicalization or extremist behaviour. I also feel sure that many of my contacts in this field will put forward various other methods which may be used to collect the same datasets mentioned in this paper.

Several years ago, as part of my research into the induction and radicalization process used by AQ affiliates via social media (SM), I spent a considerable amount of time reading academic papers on SM mapping and human behaviour.  This information allowed me to research SM, the web and dark web in order to increase my understanding of the drivers associated with violent extremism (VE) and the mindsets of vulnerable people who may be psychologically manipulated to join the extremist cause. It also allowed me to examine and test new theories put forward by various academics.

The following is a basic introduction to the subject which is based on the research of others and which I have modified for my own research needs. Furthermore, due to the limited scope of this paper I have not included data associated with demography, gender; or the analysis of text and visual images which are to be found in the ‘extremists’ virtual world of their making.

Finally, although I and other members of the Narrative Strategies Team ( have a comprehensive understanding of the narrative based drivers associated with VE, I have found the following allows us to examine these drivers working over time and space along with the behavioural changes experienced by some members of the target audience. 

Analysing Social Media (SM networks)

Virtual social networks, like those found in the ‘real’ world, consist of relationships and relationship building blocks. An examination of this network reveals a combination of relationships which create identifiable patterns of connected people, groups and organisations.  As explained later, this virtual social network which appears to allow users to remain anonymous provides a false sense of security where members are willing to express their concerns, frustrations and other personal information which they may not be willing to discuss in the real world. This provides an indication of an individual’s vulnerabilities which may leave them open to psychological manipulation.  When one examines the communications between like mined individuals within this network it may first appear to resemble a peer-group support network which by its very nature encourages additional personal information to be shared with ‘like-minded’ people. Accordingly, extremist groomers and recruiters can select suitable individuals who may be radicalized.  

Virtual Social Networks

It is easier to regard social networks as consisting of social entities: actors, distinct individuals, groups and organisations. We must also be prepared to follow these entities as they migrate to or simultaneously use other SM platforms.  For instance, Twitter is limited to the maximum use of 140 characters (Tweets) and due to this limitation member who are of interests to extremists are often encourage to join a similar network on another SM platform with less restrictions and/or is considered more secure.  Consequently, it is not uncommon to find the same social entities on various SM platforms.

relationship ties

Relationship ties (Contacts)

Some relationships which are tied to others across the network/s are said to be ‘informal’ because they are not widely known by others entities of the network under examination.  For example, on LinkedIn we often find third degree contacts commenting on updates posted by members from outside their network simply because the commentator is connected to one or more of the writers’ first degree contacts.  Such entities, in this example LinkedIn members, are often referred to as ‘Muktiplexity’ or ‘Multiplex’ because these individuals are actors with ties to other actors connected to you. I plan to cover this concept in greater detail at a later date during my examination of Russian trolls and the information war.

The Two Node Network consists of actors who may not have direct ties with each other but they attend similar events within a community (Mosques, sports clubs etc.) or may regularly visit similar websites. Although there are no virtual or physical connections, this provides an opportunity for prominent actors (Focal Actors) to form a false rapport with members of the Two Node Network and the opportunity to form a ‘weak’ link.  The establishment of ‘strong’ links are only attempted after an individual is thought to be of interest to the extremist cause.

Egocentric, also called personal networks, tie directly with Focal actors (those with influence, I.e., groomers, recruiters, propagandists etc.) in the network.  Hanson and Shneiderman describe this as, “Social Centric or complete network consisting of the relational ties among members of a single bounded community. (Social Network Analysis: Measuring, Mapping and Modelling Collections of Connections, D. Hanson and B Shneiderman, 2010).

The examination of networks also allows us to develop what some academics call ‘name generators’ which is simply the names of social entities, in this case people, who frequently communicate with the focal actors.  Hanson and Shneiderman call those names generated by the focal actor, ‘the actors alters’.

The use of name generators, as advocated by Hanson and Shneidrman, allows for the identification of strong ties across a dense network.  To identify weaker ties in more wide ranging networks, acquaintance name generators can be used.

Another useful tool discussed by Hanson and Shneiderman, is the Positioning Generator. This allows the researcher to identify people who fill a particular ‘valued’ role or position within the network and therefore have access to a range of resources. These resources may include professional knowledge, or work related experience beneficial to an extremist group. 

Psychological Manipulation

Apart from the same narrative based drivers being used within the real and virtual world, we also find the same methods used to encourage members of their target audience to express their concerns, frustrations, aspirations and how they see themselves.  This information is used to psychologically manipulate suitable members within the network and tie them to others with similar mindsets. The linking of suitable individuals within a network will often reinforce these concerns and produce suitable conditions for physiological manipulation. A United Nations report describes this as, psychological manipulation, “to undermine an individual’s belief in certain collective social values, or to propagate a sense of heightened anxiety, fear or panic within a population or subset of the population…” (The Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes: United Nations Office of Drug and Crime, NY 2012) It is also widely acknowledged that certain cognitive propensities can combine to create a mindset that presents a high risk of being radicalized (see Drivers of Violent Extremism: Hypotheses and Literature Review, RUSI, 16 October 2015) and it is these propensities which extremists seek to identify within members of the network.

Social media has made social connections and networks more visible and open to research. “The internet and its use by terrorist organisations, individual members, supporters and recruits afford new avenues for assessing information about groups and their activities…” (Lorraine Bowman-Grieve, Security Informatics, 2013, 2:9) As Bowman-Grieve says, “individual reasons why people become involved are many and varied, with no single catalyst event that explains involvement.” However, research indicates that involvement is a gradual process that occurs over time and the development of this process, which is driven by narratives and supported by inter-personal bonds that have been created for this purpose, can be examined through social network analysis.

By analysing network activities over a period of time not only do we see the use of narratives as efficient drivers towards extremism, we also see the development of identities being slowly formed. This includes perceived victimization and attempts to convince individuals they are victims and linking this to a common or shared identity and the legitimization of violence to address these perceived injustices. We also see the development of dualist thinking which supports the extremist’s’ view of the world, other cultures, religions and western society. 

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Alan Malcher