Covering ISIS

Amaq News Agency on Telegram – Photo by (IBTimesUK)

Only a handful of journalists have gone into ISIS territory and come out alive to report about it. The group’s brutal tactics and its history of violence against journalists mean that most of what the world learns about ISIS, and about life inside the territory it controls, comes from nontraditional reporting – often citizen journalism videos, photos, and dispatches.

ISIS itself actively uses social media networks to promote its ideas and to recruit supporters. Twitter has long been a favored ISIS platform, though in early February Twitter announced it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for ISIS-related promotions of terrorism since the middle of 2015.

“We condemn the use of Twitter to promote terrorism, and the Twitter rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service,” the social media platform said in a statement.

According to a study released last month by George Washington University’s program on extremism, ISIS’s ability to recruit foreign fighters has declined in the wake of Twitter efforts to remove its accounts from the platform.

But for those who seek out ISIS, it’s still not very difficult to get in touch with the group’s jihadists or its supporters via Twitter. In a propaganda video that ISIS released on the encrypted platform Telegram February 24, the group boasted that it will continue to create new accounts on Twitter and Facebook, no matter how hard the platforms campaign against ISIS.

“If you close one account we will take 10 in return,” ISIS said in the video. The process of creating new Twitter or Facebook accounts only requires signing up with a new email account.

The continuing presence of ISIS on Twitter does provide some information for journalists who seek to cover the group. A September story by Deborah Amos, who covers the Middle East for NPR, used ISIS videos to report that “The Flood Of Syrian Refugees Puts ISIS On The Defensive.” The videos, all posted on social media, advised Syrians headed to Europe that they would be better off coming to the Caliphate, as ISIS refers to the territory it controls within Syria.

“Every once in a while, the videos they put out give us some clues,” Amos said. Another resource cited by Amos is Dabiq, a monthly, English-language online magazine used by ISIS for propaganda since July 2104.

Amos notes that because it is virtually impossible to verify ISIS postings, a post by itself usually is not a story. But it can provide a tip for additional reporting. “I am extra careful about citing anything directly,” said Amos.

Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times frequently writes about ISIS. Although it is impossible to report from inside the Islamic State, Callimachi said it is possible to use a technique she applied previously in covering conflict in West Africa.

“You can go to the last safe place before their territory starts,” Callimachi said in a January interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour Podcast. “Here are often refugees, traders, survivors.”

Callimachi said she also uses a variety of digital platforms to directly reach jihadists inside ISIS territory, including Twitter and Telegram, an encrypted instant messaging service.

In her New Yorker interview, Callimachi described contacting Abu Khalid Al Amriki, a jihadist who she says tried to convert her to Islam. Al Amriki spammed her with dozens of YouTube links, insisting she watch them before he would speak with her. Eventually Callimachi used Kik Messenger, an instant messaging application for mobile devices, to communicate with Al Amriki. “Clues on Twitter Show Ties Between Texas Gunman and ISIS Network” is one story that Callimachi wrote based on ISIS tweets.

As Twitter has become more active in pulling down ISIS accounts, the jihadist group has turned more to the encrypted Telegram platform.

Amaq, which functions like an official ISIS news agency, runs “breaking news” and “exclusive” alerts on a Telegram channel with some 9,000 subscribers. Its information comes directly from ISIS, so “for those of us on the terrorism beat, that has made Amaq a must-read every time a bomb goes off,” Callimachi wrote in January.

ISIS also has a Telegram radio channel called Albayan that produces a daily radio hour that includes Islamic lectures and songs.

The group recently created what it calls “The Emergency Channel,” to transmit the names of new channels whenever Telegram blocks existing ones. But the emergency channel itself was blocked two weeks ago.

In an interview conducted on Telegram, Khalid Alaraifi, the platform’s Middle East and North Africa regional ambassador, said that Telegram blocks ISIS channels when it discovers them, but it does not systematically search for them.  “Online activists usually follow them pretty closely and send us lists,”Alaraifi said.

Other sources, offering a very different perspective on ISIS, are citizen journalism efforts run by Syrians in exile, who write about life within ISIS territories. The best known of these is Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RSS), a collective of some 16 Syrians. Most live in Raqaa, in northern Syria, where they secretly record videos and write reports that are then posted on a website run by several Syrian exiles in Europe. The site’s English-language reports are popular among western media as one of the few sources of information from the city; the group was awarded the Committee to Protect Journalists’ international press freedom award last year.

But the RSS journalists know well the dangers of reporting on ISIS. They report constant threats, and some of their members have been killed. These killings drew far less international attention than the high-profile ISIS beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2014.

In that same year, two other journalists for western media organizations traveled in ISIS territory in Syria and later reported on what they found. Both trips were officially sanctioned by ISIS.

German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer entered ISIS territory with a small piece of paper with the title “Safety Guarantee” stamped by the secretariat of the Caliph. Todenhöfer traveled there in December 2014, just months after ISIS had killed journalists Foley and Sotloff.

After his 10-day visit, the German journalist wrote an open letter to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, saying that the group’s military operations have nothing to do with Islam. Todenhöfer also demanded that Al Baghdadi invite more journalists from all over the world to cover ISIS from the ground.

But only one other reporter for western media has done so in Syria. Medyan Dairieh, a Palestinian filmmaker, spent two months with ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Dairieh produced a documentary for Vice News that got more than 10 million views and sparked considerable controversy, particularly after Dairieh said in an interview with a Lebanese TV channel that the Islamic State has all the elements of an actual state. “This state was formed by its citizens and their blood, not like Arab countries,” he said.

In the wake of controversy, Dairieh eventually stopped talking to the press. “I am sorry, I am not available for any interviews,” he wrote in his last tweet on November 2015.

Covering ISIS recruitment is one more method that some journalists have used to learn more about the group. In some cases family and friends of young people who have joined ISIS have told their stories to reporters – such as Ben Taub, who reported on a Belgian teenager who converted to Islam and later joined ISIS.

Taub reached out to a variety of sources, attending court sessions, and eventually got his story – published in The New Yorker – by making a series of connections: “From one guy to another, or one parent of an ISIS guy, to another parent.”