In recent months, the world has become captivated with the activities of the Islamic State (ISIS), a jihadist group showcasing new methods of extremism.
Having declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and harnessed social media as a communication tool in a way not seen before, ISIS is a militant group that has “distinguished” itself from other terrorist organizations, said Fresno State political science professor Dr. Thomas Holyoke.
On Tuesday, ISIS released a video showing a second U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff, being beheaded, this following the execution of fellow journalist James Foley on Aug. 19. Although the video has yet to be authenticated, the victim’s family issued a statement saying they believe Sotloff has been killed. Sotloff, a Time magazine correspondent, was captured in Syria in 2013.
Also in the past week, ISIS captured and killed 150 soldiers in northern Syria, and the Amnesty International accused the group of ethnic cleansing. The human rights group claims that thousands of people belonging to minority groups have either been abducted or killed during mass executions.
President Barack Obama approved sending in an additional 350 troops to Baghdad to help guard the U.S. embassy there on Tuesday, amid growing threats that ISIS could threaten the Iraqi capital. This brings the total number of U.S. military personnel in the country to over 1,000.
In comparison to other groups with similar aims such as al-Qaida, which disowned ISIS in February, Holyoke said the Islamic State has had “more success in terms of territorial gains.”
“In that sense, ISIS distinguished itself simply by having gotten further down to the goal than any other group has before,” Holyoke said. “Whether they can keep what they’ve held or not is the big current question.”
Their territory currently stretches across the border between Syria and Iraq, both nations facing times of uncertainty through civil war or political turmoil. In this “breakdown of authority,” Holyoke said, ISIS took the opportunity to establish itself and declare a caliphate, an Islamic state that is led by a religious leader.
“ISIS seeks to create a state to occupy and control an area and govern,” said John Esposito, a Georgetown professor in Islamic studies and international affairs, during a recent C-SPAN panel. “Not just to dream of her or speak of, but to create and impose their version of a transnational caliphate with its first version of law and order.”
“Killing Westerners is not a goal, even attacking the United States is not a goal,” Holyoke said. “Their goal is to establish basically an Islamic caliphate, this medieval idea of an Islamic theocracy which used to exist in one point of time.”
Despite branching off from al-Qaida and forming in April 2013, ISIS first gained widespread media attention in June when militants captured the city of Mosul in Iraq. Since then, battles over territory and reports of attacks on minority groups in areas of Syria and Iraq and have been more acutely watched by the U.S.
U.S. airstrikes and aid to groups fighting ISIS began on Aug. 8 when Obama approved the use of limited military force against troops moving toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil, home of a U.S. consulate.
“What we’re doing is trying to help the Iraqi government stand on its own feet and fight ISIS with some support from us, including most recently, some air support,” Holyoke said.
Since then, U.S. military jets and drones have continued to bomb ISIS and airdrop supplies to aid those fighting the group. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, said Tuesday that he will also be introducing a bill that would give congressional approval to Obama to bomb ISIS forces in Syria.
However, Holyoke said the U.S. may only have “bad options” considering current foreign relations in the area. With limited relationships in Syria and U.S. resources now withdrawn from Iraq, the U.S. “weren’t in a position there to stop” ISIS’s growth, he said.
Beyond territorial gains, ISIS’s use of social media has drawn the world’s attention by being a means for recruitment, raising money and instilling fear in people through disturbing video footage and imagery. The group constantly uses Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – it even has its own magazine.
Calling their use of social media “propaganda,” Holyoke said ISIS’s communications has successfully crossed national boundaries.
“As a consequence of this ease of communication, you’re essentially able to put marketing videos in front of your target audiences,” Holyoke said.
Additional to Middle Eastern recruits, Westerners have been recruited from the likes of the U.S., Britain and Canada.
Esposito said although ISIS attracts followers with the idea of a caliphate state, they are likely instead driven by other grievances.
“Like al-Qaida, ISIS offers a warped and distorted ideology of religious rationale to justify, recruit, legitimate and motivate many of the fighters,” Esposito said. “Much of what they do violates Islamic law, but that’s typical for what terrorists do.”
Betsy Hays, a Fresno State professor in mass communication and public relations, said social media “has taken down geographic and socioeconomic borders.”
With its speed and flexibility, social media been instrumental for ISIS to publicizing their messages to the public. Hays said with Twitter features such as favoriting, retweeting and modified tweets, there is “opportunity for engagement” on multiple levels – an advantage for those wishing to communicate with the likes of ISIS.
“There’s no hierarchy in Twitter,” Hays said. “There’s no layers, you can go direct to the source.”
“Not only do you have the ability too, I think you also have the confidence,” she said. “Everyone else is saying what they want, why shouldn’t you said what you want? Social media has tremendous power, which is obviously significant to this conversation, but its also got great responsibility.”
Additional to recruitment, ISIS’s use of social media has sent waves internationally by showing their activity through video. The beheading of James Foley is one such example.
“It hit home in a very visceral way with the beheading of the journalist,” Holyoke said. “One, because it was an American journalist being publicly executed, but also because it appeared to be a British citizen doing the executing.
“Again, that’s ISIS being very effective with its online propaganda tools.”
“Right now this is the biggest short term crisis the United States has to deal with – how to confront, and either contain, and maybe ultimately find a way to rid ourselves of ISIS,” he said. “The bigger thing is to find some kind of stability in the Middle East.”