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US officials warn that ISIS has created ‘propaganda machine’

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The terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is harnessing the power of social media in its violent quest to establish a Muslim caliphate.

Experts in counterterrorism say the group’s gruesome videos of beheadings — the most recent of which was posted Tuesday — are having their intended effect by propelling the group into headlines.

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"[ISIS] operates the most significant propaganda machine of any extremist group," Matt Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Wednesday in a rare public appearance at the Brookings Institution.

As a result of media attention, ISIS threatens to "outpace al Qaeda as the dominant voice of influence in the global extremist movement," Olsen said.

It's unlikely that ISIS's media campaign is over, given the group's threat to kill a British hostage and the looming anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks next week.

President Obama and leaders around the world have condemned ISIS and vowed that the group will be destroyed. Vice President Biden on Wednesday said the United States would follow the group “to the gates of hell,” and some members of Congress are pushing for expanded airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria.

Some intelligence experts have speculated that ISIS timed the release of the two beheading videos for maximum impact. The first video had shown the journalist Steven Sotloff alive, with a masked executioner threatening to kill him unless the U.S. halted airstrikes in Iraq.

But some intelligence officials have suggested that was a ploy and that both Sotloff and the first victim, James Foley, were killed at the same time.

"They're as sophisticated as anybody out there in how they frame and how they use modern technology," Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelLobbying World Ex-Dem leader: Clinton should include GOP in Cabinet Even Steven: How would a 50-50 Senate operate? MORE said Wednesday. 

Counterterrorism experts say the footage produced by ISIS show the group is putting time and resources into its media operation.

Both of the beheading videos contained high-quality images and audio, were edited with on-screen graphics and video transitions, and used recent footage of Obama and apparent military strikes in Iraq. 

"[ISIS] disseminates timely and high-quality media content on multiple platforms including on social media — all designed to secure a widespread following for the group," Olsen said.

Experts say ISIS's media proficiency began back in the mid-2000s, when the group was still known as al Qaeda in Iraq.

"They were the forerunners in Iraq. It is their Web forum administrators that were running the show back then," said Clint Watts, senior fellow at the George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. 

"They were the ones showing the video of IEDs. They were the first to join YouTube. They were the first ones on the social media forums," Watts said. 

The leadership of al Qaeda was far more guarded, typically using private forums to communicate with members and requiring a verification process to keep out intelligence officials and spies.

Watts noted that the last major terrorist attack staged by al Qaeda was the London bombing of 2005.

"[Osama] bin Laden was just this guy that their dads told them about when they were six or seven. It's like listening to your parents talk about old rock groups," he said. 

"The younger generation [of jihadists] is much more excited about ISIS than old guard al Qaeda,” he said.

ISIS's usage of Twitter and Facebook, in particular, is aimed at attracting potential young recruits, especially in Western countries — a prime concern for officials in the United States, who fear that homegrown radicals could evade detection and stage terrorist attacks.

"Young Muslims in the West feel more disenfranchised than young Muslims in Muslim countries," said Barak Mendelsohn, an associate professor at Haverford College and expert on Middle East security and radical religious groups.

Will McCants, the director of Brookings Institution's Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, said the videos of beheadings and battlefield victories serve a specific purpose.

"They are akin to military recruiting videos, only more extreme," McCants said.

McCants noted that ISIS has also been posting videos where members of the group are portrayed as a benevolent force.

"They're shown repairing things, handing out dates for Ramadan. It's a big PR push," he said. 

Much of ISIS’s rhetoric isn’t new, as al Qaeda leaders had long ago stated their goal was to establish an Islamic caliphate. But bin Laden and his lieutenants had always stopped affiliates from pursuing it, sometimes out of jealousy or competition, Watts said. 

"They never delivered on their objectives that they were touting," he said. 

In contrast, ISIS in June declared the establishment of an Islamic State that includes an area about the size of the United Kingdom in both Iraq and Syria.

"You need a product. Al Qaeda doesn’t really have a product to sell," Mendelsohn said. "ISIS has territory." 

Although the State Department has a small team that is working to counteract extremist propaganda online, more effort will likely be needed to counter ISIS, McCants said. 

"Terrorism is very much about theater, so media matters immensely," he said, recalling a letter that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sent to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike. 

"We are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media," al-Zawahiri wrote.

Watts said the surest way to counteract ISIS is to defeat it.

"As long as they're successful, it’s not propaganda, it's proof," Watts said.