© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Using Social Media, Jihadi Groups Stay On Message


The Taliban scored a propaganda coup when it's video of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release went viral. The video was so popular that within hours the Taliban website crashed. Jihadi groups from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria, have developed sophisticated media campaigns to get their messages out and attract new followers. And as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, social media is playing a bigger and bigger role.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The Taliban had carefully planned how it would shape the narrative surrounding Sgt. Bergdahl's release.

SETH JONES: They had a pretty coordinated information operations campaign.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Seth Jones is an associate director of international security at the Rand Corporation.

JONES: They had the camera there so they could film it, so they could put it into context and then push it out. And it went viral.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What went viral was a very specific message that the Taliban has been honing for years. That it is a legitimate government and that it could make an agreement with the U.S. and deliver. The U.S. government's message on the other hand has been a bit more muddled. It's still try to explain why Bergdahl was exchanged for five Guantanamo prisoners in the first place. So why was the Taliban able to control this narrative?

JONES: The difference is a much smaller organization trying to coordinate across a massive U.S. government, especially when there are differences in views about the objectives of fighting a war like this mean that there are actually multiple audiences, multiple messages and it's really hard to make a unified one.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So the U.S. system is just more cumbersome. The Taliban has other advantages.

STEVE BOYLAN: They can say what they want, when they want, how they want, without regard if they remain credible or not.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Retired Col. Steve Boylan was a spokesman in Iraq for Gen. David Petraeus. He says it's easier for adversaries to put out their narrative first because they aren't constrained by the truth or concerns about operational security.

WILL MCCANTS: I'm Will McCants. I direct the Brookings Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He says the Bergdahl video showed a scene that the public doesn't get to see.

MCCANTS: The power of the Bergdahl video was it's immediacy and that you can see with your own eyes. And I doubt that the U.S. government would have put something out comparable. So it's hard to compete.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now there's something else that's hard for the U.S. to compete with. The immediacy and reach of Twitter and Facebook and other social media. McCants say they have turned jihadist fighters into minor celebrities.

MCCANTS: Guys who use the toil in anonymity on the private jihadi discussion forums, all of the sudden they can become rock stars on Twitter.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In fact, before the Bowe Bergdahl video was released yesterday, one of the most popular jihadi videos with thousands of views, was this one.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a message to Canada and all the American (Foreign language spoken). We are coming and we will destroy you. (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's a video from Syria of a man who claims to have joined an al-Qaida affiliate there. He's participating in something that has become widespread in the jihadi social media world, passport burning.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: After Sham, after Iraq, after Jazerra, we are going for you Barack Obama.

TEMPLE-RASTON: With his comrades chanting and punching the air, this jihadi kneels down before a camp fire, tears up his Canadian passport and throws it into the flames. The camera zooms in on the fire and music swells.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The ceremony is supposed to be about renouncing the past and symbolically becoming part of the greater Islamic brotherhood. The big difference - an act that might have been seen by a handful of people, can now be watched by thousands. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.