ATbar Russia Social Media on the service of jihad

Russia Social Media on the service of jihad

20/04/2017 | by Fainberg, Alisa (Dr.)  


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The phenomenon of terrorists using the Internet for their purposes is not new: online activity of terrorist groups and terrorist individuals is registered since the late 1990s and thereafter underwent essential changes. Such an interest is caused first of all by those apparent advantages terrorists gained from the Internet: freedom from traditional media limitations, decentralization and safety, access to wider audience, etc. The engagement with cyberspace also changed the basic principles of communication within terrorist groups: from chain network to “all to all” communication, which in turn influenced many aspects of terrorist activity, such as propaganda, fundraising, etc.

At the beginning, terrorist groups dealt with websites, and later on expanded their presence to forums and chatrooms, which, despite their effectiveness, still remained limited in reaching wide audiences, since were not highly publicized, and on the contrary, were frequently password-protected and used for inner communication. Nevertheless, there are online communication tools which were (and are) used by Al-Qaeda while planning the 9/11 terror attack and others. Also, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a successor of Osama bin Laden, places high emphasis on electronic warfare and “jihad of the bayan” (message).[1]

Today, due to such factors such as technological development and radical changes in the core of online communications, one can observe two main trends in terrorist online activity: grasping of popular social media networks and the dark web.

While the dark web (as well as password-protected websites and forums) are used by terrorists mainly as a safe haven and for inner communication, mainstream websites and social media networks allow terrorist groups and individuals to turn their activities into borderless and cosmopolitan ones within the cyberspace and to get unparalleled tools for reaching out to as wide an audience as possible. Communication technologies used for planning and coordinating jihadists’ actions, form the basis for a transition to a less organized structures and enhance the capacity of small terrorist groups, which are able to carry out their operations in a decentralized manner. Social media networks have become an integral part of jihadi groups’ modus operandi and are used for the following purposes:

  • offensive activities (gathering information on potential targets, threats of attacks, cyber attacks, etc.)
  • operational uses (inner and outer communication, propaganda, radicalization, recruitment, fundraising, etc.)

Despite the fact that the Islamic State group (ISIS) was obviously not the first terror organization to employ social media networks, the rise of ISIS has definitely highlighted the phenomenon, and tens (if not hundreds) of academic and media analytic papers were written on this subject.

Indeed, without any doubts one may claim that it was the Islamic State (ISIS) group, who made the quantum leap and propelled jihadi involvement in online communication to the next level. Not least thanks to using internet technologies, ISIS has changed the very patterns of jihadi propaganda, and the full impact of these changes is still to be assessed. The group had developed a multidivisional media empire, which includes various divisions with certain specializations, such as al-Furkan Foundation, al-Hayat Media Center, al-Bayan Radio, etc., as well as smaller media groups targeting specific audiences in local languages.

Social media networks became an essential part of that empire. Among other features characterizing ISIS' propaganda are wide coverage of audience, high diversity of propaganda materials, and active use of the most popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., which led to unprecedented ISIS expansion in the virtual world. For example, in just one month, from 17 September 2014 to 17 October 2014, the acronym “ISIS” was mentioned in Twitter about 4,000,000 times.[2]

Advantages terrorist groups gain from social media networks stem from their very nature. Each network is used according its general dedication: YouTube for uploading video materials (statements, footage, video games announcements, etc.), Twitter for real time updating, hashtags, and, for instance, for targeting Western news media in order to receive from them immediate reaction, etc.

Moreover, democratic and dialogue-oriented, social media not just pushed the limits of propaganda distribution, but contributed to creation of a new form of jihadi propaganda - a public one, which is created, developed and distributed not by the official media centers of a particular terrorist group, but by its remote followers and supporters, who act at their own discretions.

Seeking to expand their presence in social media for further advantages, ISIS media centers started to search for additional local social media platforms, and in 2013 put their attention to popular Russian social media networks: VKontakte (In Contact) and Odnoklassniki (Classmates), and for a relatively short period (compared to its presence on Facebook and Twitter) “occupied” these two with its propaganda activities.

There are a number of pull factors which could explain such an attention of ISIS to the Runet (the Russian segment of Internet). First of all, Russian foreign fighters comprise a significant part of jihadists combating in Syria, and consequently are significant targets of ISIS propaganda. Secondly, until a certain point in 2014, Russian social media were hardly censored and security services did not initiate any measures against jihadi online activity in Vkontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki (OK), which became another pulling factor for ISIS to turn its attention towards the Russian internet.

This paper will examine the development of jihadist usage of Russian social media in the context of the branched system of ISIS’ Russian-language media, the specifics of the message oriented toward Russian-speaking audience and translated through the platforms, as well as countering actions made by both government and private companies for a better understanding of the phenomenon.

[1] Maeghin Alarid, "Recruitment and Radicalization: The Role of Social Media and New Technology," Center for Complex Operations, May 24, 2016, accessed March 1, 2017,


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