'Hit list' of 100 US troops: What it says about Islamic State power

The Islamic State has asked American sympathizers to kill 100 US military personnel. The threat is being taken seriously, but it also points to how the Islamic State has used social media to create an outsized reputation.

Militant video/AP/File
Leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivers a sermon at a mosque in Iraq in this July 2014 photo. The Islamic State has been successful at promoting itself online.

The latest threat by the Islamic State fits a now-familiar pattern of the group ingeniously using social media to create the impression that it has greater reach and power than it actually does.

The Islamic State has posted online the names, photos, and addresses of 100 American military personnel and has asked sympathizers in the United States to kill them. The threat is one that US authorities take seriously. While officials say the Islamic State likely does not have the capability to launch a terrorist attack in the US, "lone wolf" terrorism remains a concern.

Yet the manner in which the Islamic State issued its call to "brothers residing in America" appears to be filled with no small amount of false information intended to make the group look impressive. Indeed, apart from its military operations against a ragged Iraqi Army last summer – which are now being slowly reversed – the Islamic State's greatest success has arguably been its self-promotion.

The Islamic State says it got the names, addresses, and photos of the 100 service members by hacking military servers, databases, and e-mails. It said the work was done by the "Islamic State Hacking Division."

But a Defense official told The New York Times that the names on the list appear to have been taken from news accounts of troops who participated in air strikes against the Islamic State. The rest of the information was likely drawn from public records, online real estate websites, and social media, the official said.

In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation in December warned military personnel to scrub their social media sites of personal information, specifically to thwart the potential for such a plan by the Islamic State.

The Islamic State has proven adept at using the Internet to its advantage. By some estimates, its social media campaign sends out more than 90,000 tweets a day, with 2,000 core users rigorously tweeting the same content.

"To have that many accounts in a very disciplined way out there doing the same thing every day is a pretty powerful tool," J.M. Berger, an expert on online extremism, told the Times. "It doesn't sound like it's that much, but it's very difficult to get that many people who are that committed."

Yet the Western media has, to some degree, been complicit, giving the Islamic State the appearance of outsized influence – both within Muslim communities and on social media. Mr. Berger said Islamic State content accounts for about 0.01 percent of Twitter traffic, for example.

“We really give these guys a lot of oxygen for the size of their presence,” he said.

That has been especially true after the Islamic State released videos of beheadings of Westerners and an immolation of a Jordanian pilot. 

"The press coverage and the accompanying public reaction ensures that IS, or whichever jihadist group that committed the beheading, is portrayed as a 'deadly threat' to the West and ensures that it is seen in the Islamic world as the leading edge of the jihadist struggle," writes Joseph Micallef, author of the forthcoming book, "Islamic State: Its History, Ideology and Challenge," on The Huffington Post.  

Indeed, one of the Islamic State's core goals with attacks and atrocities is to turn the West against Islam, so more Western Muslims will be pushed into its arms, he says.

"The more IS threatens to kill Western hostages ... the more likely it is that Muslim communities will be viewed with suspicion [by Westerners] and be singled out by police and security forces."

The call for American jihadists to target American military personnel appears to be one more page out of this playbook.

Ultimately, the reversal of the Islamic State's success on the Internet will likely be linked to its success on the battlefield. But the broader question remains of how to counter the appeal of militant Islam, which offers angry young Muslims a shared enemy and sense of purpose.

Writes Simon Cottee of The Atlantic: "One of the greatest challenges in counterterrorism today is working out how to create a narrative that directly speaks to a similar kind of longing among potential terrorists – and channels that longing in a nonviolent direction."

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