A Demonstration of Virtual Power by Supporters of the Islamic State

Gilad Shiloach investigates a recent propaganda initiative put forward by the Islamic State, which demonstrated its far geographical reach.
Poster circulated by Islamic State: "Soon, God Willing"
Poster circulated by Islamic State: "Soon, God Willing"


On 21 May, supporters of the Islamic State (IS) led an extensive, world-wide campaign on social networking sites (SNS), following an item shared on Twitter and Telegram reporting that the organization’s principal propaganda branch, the al-Furqān Institute, would soon be distributing a recorded speech by one of the Islamic State’s senior leaders. For supporters of the organization, as for media outlets covering it, publications by the institute are important media events, worthy of anticipation. Indeed, the announcement aroused great excitement among followers of IS, who called for spreading news of the anticipated recording in order to create waves of media anticipation. Some went further and uploaded pictures of themselves at various locations around the world, a gesture that went beyond the usual limits on activity in the virtual realm. This demonstration of virtual support provides a glimpse of the ability of the organization’s supporters to organize in cyberspace, and hints at their global distribution.

The virtual show of support began after a poster showing the al-Furqān Institute’s logo was published on Twitter and Telegram channels identified with supporters of the Islamic State. The poster shows a microphone, hinting at an audio recording, with the caption, “Soon, God willing.” The poster does not give any indication as to the possible content of the speech, or the identity of the speaker. To supporters of IS, and to those who monitor its activities, it was clear that the speaker would be one of two people, either the organization’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or its spokesman Sheikh Abū Muḥammad al-‘Adnānī, because al-Furqān does not distribute the speeches of any other leaders.

When news of the recording was received, accounts identified with the organization, especially on Twitter, began sharing messages with the hashtag #al-Furqān in Arabic and accompanied by the above poster. In some cases, a request to tweet as many messages as possible using the hashtag was also included. For example, one supporter of the Islamic State tweeted: “Every supporter should tweet 30 or 50 posts with the #al-Furqān hashtag, so the tag trends and we can show the world the strength of support for the Islamic State.”[1] “Trending topics” are the hashtags being tweeted most frequently at any given moment. These are displayed on the home screen of all Twitter users in the relevant geographical region. A hashtag included on this list is necessarily more successful, and receives even greater exposure as a result of its inclusion. Indeed, screenshots shared by analysts and journalists during the evening of 21 May, before the speech itself was published on SNS, show that the #al-Furqān hashtag was the most popular Arabic-language tag.[2]

The campaign reached its climax when dozens of the organization’s supporters around the world uploaded photographs showing themselves holding notes that included the title of the speech, the #al-Furqān hashtag, plus the date and location where the picture was taken. This is considered an exceptional move by supporters of the organization, who generally avoid any exposure that moves beyond the virtual world, for fear of being caught by the authorities if they express support for a terrorist organization. Photographs were uploaded from a wide range of places including Canada, Paris, London, Belgium, Norway, Germany, Holland, Argentina, Colombia, Turkey, Morocco, Tikrit, Baghdad, Gaza and elsewhere. A document published on the investigative site Bellingcat, and information uncovered by Twitter users who followed the campaign and deciphered the pictures in real-time, confirmed the location of several photographs in Europe and America. In some of the cases, they were able to reveal the residential address of the people photographed. [3]  For example, one user working with Google Street View successfully identified the exact intersection in Münster, Germany where the photograph here was taken.[4] Another user confirmed identification using a map showing the position of street advertisements in the city.[5] In a similar manner, the locations of photographs taken in Paris,[6] London,[7]  and Hoofddorp (a small city adjacent to Amsterdam Schipol Airport[8]) were identified. This sample shows the geographic distribution of Twitter accounts identified with the Islamic State, which may well be indicative of the overall geographic distribution of its supporters.

IS supporters who participated by sharing the hashtag on SNS also used the term “ghazwa,” which means “invasion” or “infiltration,” with additional Islamic significance referring to the Islamic conquests in the days of Mohammed. The use of this word concretizes the feeling of accomplishment that supporters of the organization had following their “battle” to conquer SNS and their use of the networks to publicize the speech.[9] That night (21 May) a recording was distributed containing a speech by IS spokesman Sheikh Abū Muḥammad al-‘Adnānī. In the speech, al-‘Adnānī called on the organization’s supporters in Europe and the US to perpetrate terrorist attacks during Ramadan, and acknowledged the challenges the organization faces at home, as well as the offensive against it intensifying in Syria and Iraq.[10] IS supporters greeted the speech with enthusiasm, which increased the spread of both the recording and the transcript on SNS.

The SNS campaign surrounding the al-Furqān speech actualizes the mantra commonly repeated by people connected to the Islamic State, “half of the jihad is media,” which expresses their perception that cyberspace is a battlefield, and a tool with which war is waged. With their online demonstration of power, the organization’s supporters were successful in their effort to reunify – if only for a few hours – the community of online supporters, and motivate them to take part in the collective effort to promote distribution of the recording. In this context, dozens of supporters took some degree of personal risk by disclosing something of their presence in the non-virtual world, in order to further spread the campaign on SNS. For the management of Twitter, this demonstration of power also reflects the limitations of the control mechanism they have imposed on supporters of IS for the last few months,[11] but were unable to prevent them from making massive use of the platform when called upon to do so.


[3] Ibid.

[10] “Islamic State calls for attacks on the West during Ramadan in audio message,” Reuters, 22 May 2016.


[11] Last February, Twitter published a notice on its blog stating that they network had successfully “suspended over 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS” following criticism that the world’s largest SNS were allowing accounts connected to terrorism to operated unhindered. It should be noted that research published by Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies in February 2016 found that measures such as those taken by Twitter against terror-related accounts are effective and were able reduce the presence of supporters of the Islamic State and their exposure on SNS, thereby having a negative influence on their propaganda efforts. For more, see https://blog.twitter.com/2016/combating-violent-extremism; http://www.wired.com/2015/11/facebook-and-twitter-face-tough-choices-as-isis-exploits-social-media/; https://cchs.gwu.edu/sites/cchs.gwu.edu/files/downloads/Berger_Occasional%20Paper.pdf