It was the first time Anoud heard her two sons admiring ISIS, “They’re real and devoted men,” they said as they watched a video of the group’s militants stoning a woman to death for adultery in the countryside of Hama.

The true shock came in mid-August of 2015 when they disappeared. The fifty-year-old widow from the countryside of Tal Hamis said, “At first I thought they were kidnapped, but a month later my cousin said that they went to Raqqa and joined the ranks of the terrorist group.”

Her son Dhorgham was later captured by the People Protection Units (YPG), while Khalaf blew himself up in a terrorist operation in Deir Azzor last year. His widow married another fighter, forcing Anoud to work as a street vendor in various city allies in order to support her four grandchildren.

So’ad (a pseudonym for a teacher from al-Shaddadi in the countryside of Hasakeh) saw the bodies of her two young sons Ghaith and Laith on her mobile phone, who were killed in an airstrike by the international coalition on ISIS’s Raqqa stronghold two years ago.

So’ad fled al-Shaddadi with her family to live in Hasakeh three years ago, after the radical group took control. She suspected that her sons were affiliated to ISIS after they attacked their sole sister Israa and forced her to wear a black abaya (a long dress) and burqa (head cover). “Ghaith and Laith banned Israa from going to school and called her an apostate and out of religion. They spent most of their time on the internet, until early hours of the morning,” So’ad said.

These behavioral changes made So’ad and her husband check their sons’ mobile phones whenever they got a chance to read their private message. They saw numerous videos of slaughtering, killing, and burning carried out by ISIS extremists.

So’ad said that one day she “read a message from someone called Abu Homam on Twitter promising Ghaith (16 years) a safe passage along with his brother Laith (15 years) to the Caliphate.” Fearing her sons might join the group, So’ad borrowed twenty-five thousand dollars from her brother to pay the cost of sending them to Germany and protect them from ISIS propaganda.

“My husband and I found a human trafficker who promised to take them from Qamishli to Germany through Turkey and Russia. My brother who has lived in Germany for ten years was supposed to receive them there. They arrived to Russia after going through Turkey indeed. However, they went back to Turkey and then to Raqqa. They were killed nine months after their arrival. It is too late now. I failed in keeping the specter of ISIS away from my sons. The end has been catastrophic for us,” said So’ad.

Extremist Imams

Danial Mohammed became increasingly suspicious in his childhood friend and cousin Mohammed’s extremist views as the latter sent him links to Youtube videos for ISIS preachers on Whatsapp application, in which the preachers promised a rosy life after death and “virgins waiting for whomever blows himself up in the infidels, the enemies of the Caliphate.”

Danial finally realized that his cousin, who fled compulsory military service in mid-March 2011 and travelled to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, had soaked up ISIS intellect and was trying to drag him into the quagmire.

“Every time I asked Mohammed why he spoke in classic Arabic instead of our local dialect, he would smile and say because it is the language of Paradise,” said Danial. “ISIS has massive forums on social media to recruit victims. It was able to attract thousands of young people, including my cousin whom I did not hear from for a month. I was then surprised to see a post on his death along with his picture on one of the pages run by ISIS,” Danial added.

Danial believes that a large number of young people were influenced by extremist imams who deformed their thoughts. “When they communicate with them on the internet, it is easy to give them a large dose of hate for their society and further extremism. They become ready to justify the killing and slaughtering of individuals in society they see as infidels because of the extremist imams’ preaches. I think if they had been monitored from the beginning, society would not have produced such unnatural thinking examples,” he said.

Millions of Users

ISIS exploited the internet for its propaganda and to recruit the youth because of its ease of use and the rapid spread of new media among youth groups, according to Moayed Karim, an expert on social media and information technology. Karim said that the rapid development of the internet led to a change of view in the danger of electronic terrorism, from hacking government and big media websites to concern that extremist organizations could use social media to recruit the youth, especially now that the number of Arab Facebook users has exceeded ninety million. “The group’s members resort to their mobile smartphones to promote their extremist ideas, which makes it hard to monitor… ISIS uses psychological attacks against its declared enemies by disseminating horrifying videos of executions and beheading of hostages and prisoners.”

According to Karim, Twitter was the social media which ISIS relied on the most in its electronic war, as it facilitated public posts and direct blogging, which enabled sending tweets to an enormous number of users. The number of active twitter accounts was estimated last year at around two hundred and seventy million with more than four hundred million tweets per day, according to Karim.

Ahfad al-Rasoul (descendants of the Prophet), Dar al-Khilafah (house of the caliphate), and Zahret al-Maqdes (flower of Jerusalem) are all accounts that proliferated terrorism on social media platforms to gain the largest number of youth followers, as Tunisian journalist Zohoor al-Mashriqi put it. Al-Mashriqi mentioned a recent study which found that ISIS had seven media outlets, including Furqan, Itissam, Makateb al-Wilayat, Bayan radio, and Dabeq magazine, in addition to two hundred and ninety thousand pages on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. They all seek to promote and market the group’s intellect around the world to recruit the largest number of young people, especially those who have extremist views from all parts of the world, according to the study.

Muslims and Psychological Experts… For Publicity

Recognizing the importance of electronic publicity, ISIS issued its strategy to make Muslims work as propagandists on the internet. The fifty-five-page document aims to attract Muslims and entice them to promote the organization by disseminating its violent and extremist message in the digital world. “Media weapons can actually be more potent than atomic bombs,” one of the passages states.

After translating the document, researchers at King’s College issued a report to counter the group’s attempt to deputize Muslims as propagandists by offering potential recruits, who may be young Muslims looking for a life purpose in a chat room, with positive messages that meet their needs and prevent their radicalization.

Aram Hasan, trauma consultant and head of the CoTeam center in Germany, mentioned studies and surveys that proved the group’s success in its electronic war, which surpassed its victories in wars on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

Hasan talked about ISIS using psychological experts in its attempt to recruit new members. “They have experience. It is evident in their print and visual media releases which are edited with high proficiency, not to mention the language used, control of voice levels, and other special effects. This all indicates expertise, knowledge, and professionalism,” says Hasan.

Regarding the methods to deal with this propaganda, Hasan said that diffusing the group’s influence on the youth can be accomplished on the individual, governmental, and international institutional levels by establishing centers to fight extremism and raise the awareness of internet users on the danger of such organizations to limit their impact on the minds of young people.

*This article was originally published in Arabic here.