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Social media battle augments Iraq bloodshed

Doug Gross, CNN
  • A well-orchestrated social media war is accompanying fighting in Iraq
  • Islamic State of Iraq and Syria recruits terror fighters on Twitter
  • Online videos showing group's attacks are glossy, high-quality
  • Google appears to have banned app used by ISIS to spread news

(CNN) -- It's a truth of warfare in the digital era: Bullets and bombs often are augmented by status updates and tweets.

The bloody conflict taking place in Iraq is no different. And Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a terror group so extreme that al Qaeda has denounced it, is taking the lead with a social media propaganda war the likes of which has never been seen.

From recruiting fighters to spreading word of their violent attacks, ISIS is taking to the Web in what analysts say is a more sophisticated manner than previous combatants.

Perhaps as a result, Iraqis have been reporting widespread outages of social sites, a common refrain during recent unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere.

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An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria. An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria.
Iraq under siege
Photos: Iraq under siege Photos: Iraq under siege

CNN's Nick Paton-Walsh in Turkey interviewed a defector from ISIS who said he used to recruit Westerners for the cause through direct messages on Twitter.

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"There was special treatment for the Europeans. One British guy said he was called Ibrahim, then told me he was from Manchester," said the man, who said he left the movement after it killed two of his relatives. "One asked my boss if he should fight in his own country or come to Syria. He was told, 'If God doesn't give you martyrdom in Syria,' then he could wage war in his own country."

The man, now in hiding, said he was part of a team that ran an online chat welcoming new recruits to ISIS.

"There are things I am allowed to answer and things I must ask my supervisor about," he said. "Specific questions about religion -- I have to get their permission to message anyone. I can't talk on Skype. Everything is written down so they can monitor everything."

As the Islamist group's fight has moved from Syria to Iraq, that savvy Web strategy has expanded to include online video posts much slicker than the grainy, shaky clips that have popped up from al Qaeda and other terror groups.

Recently, a slickly produced, hourlong ISIS video titled "The Clanging of the Swords" surfaced, showcasing killings, roadside bombings and other acts of terror for which ISIS claimed credit.

The video vividly displays these scenes in a style reminiscent of Hollywood efforts like "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," complete with elaborate aerial shots.

"This is funded," said Nadia Oweidat, a Middle East analyst. "This is geopolitics. There is money behind it. It's not just idiots; these idiots have somebody controlling them and providing them with equipment that is very expensive. You can't just get it in a cave."

On another front, at least one analyst says ISIS was recently using a mobile app made available in Google's Play Store to inflate its presence on social media. Called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn, the app was promoted as a way to keep up to date with news from ISIS. According to J.M. Berger, editor of national-security blog IntelWire, the Dawn app would post updates to users' Twitter feeds.

By midafternoon Tuesday, Google appeared to have removed the app from its store. Google did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment for this story.

With the digital assault accompanying a ground offensive that saw ISIS fighting Tuesday just 40 miles north of Baghdad in the city of Baquba, access to social media has been disappearing across much of Iraq.

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There has been no confirmation that the Iraqi government is behind a blackout. But both Facebook and Twitter have reported a precipitous drop in the number of people in Iraq using their products in the past few days.

"Users in #Iraq are reporting issues accessing our service. We're investigating their reports and we hope service will be restored quickly," Twitter said on its global policy team's account Friday.

Facebook has issued a similar statement.

"We are disturbed by reports of access issues in Iraq and are investigating. Limiting access to Internet services — essential for communication and commerce for millions of people — is a matter of concern for the global community," read a Facebook statement sent to CNN.

Facebook's internal numbers show that, since June 12, the volume of visits to its site and apps were as low as 30% of their normal volume in Iraq. There are no technical problems on its end, Facebook said.

Web software firm Akamai reports that visits to Twitter in Iraq dramatically plummeted early Saturday. A Twitter spokesman said its internal traffic reports mirror Akamai's.

Iraqis have increasingly turned to Whisper, a mobile app that lets users post anonymous images, in an apparent effort to get around the social-media issues. Neetzan Zimmerman, Whisper's editor in chief, told CNNMoney that Whisper usage in Iraq more than doubled between June 12 and June 15.

During Arab Spring uprisings in places like Egypt and Iran, as well as more recent conflicts in places like Syria, unrest has been met with Internet outages and the blocking of social media sites. In virtually all cases, the opposition has accused sitting governments, who control their nation's Internet infrastructure, of blocking access to make coordination more difficult and keep news of the conflicts from spreading.

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