Marco Werman: One of the many disturbing aspects of James Foley execution is that it was part of a deliberate PR strategy on the part of his killers. They're pretty savvy when it comes to social media and that's thanks in part to one specific group of recruits.
Peter Neumann: We're talking round about 2,500 people who have gone to Syria as foreign fighters in the past 3 years and who come from Western countries. That is, Western Europe, North America and Australia.
Werman: Peter Neumann is a professor at King's College London. He helped put together a detailed study about how these foreign fighters operate on social media. Most of them, Neumann says, have joined up with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, two of the most brutal extremist groups in the region.
Neumann: Some of the Westerners who have turned up in Syria, now in Iraq, are people who have experience with web editing, video production and for them the use of social media, whether it is Twitter, Instragram, Facebook, any of these platforms, is something that they've grown up with, it is completely normal to them and they are often maintaining their social media presence even whilst they are fighters in Syria.
Werman: What kind of things are you looking for in their social media interactions?
Neumann: They're using social media for all kinds of things. So they're posting pictures, they are having debates about issues that are of interest to them. They are of course reaching out to folks at home and that is perhaps the most problematic aspect of their social media use because they are speaking to wannabe foreign fighters who are still in Western countries and they are reaching out to them - not recruiting them aggressively but they are there to explain the logistics and they are making it easier for wannabe foreign fighters to come to Syria or to Iraq and become fighters themselves. Of course, they are also involved in producing propaganda videos and packaging messages in European languages that are also being put out there on the internet.
Werman: We think of the video of the beheading of James Foley and that's obviously barbaric but it's also propaganda. Would you describe the media strategy of the Islamic State? Is it sophisticated?
Neumann: It is incredibly sophisticated and you can see in every message they put out the ultimate objective behind it. They are very disciplined in terms of the publications they put out. The Foley video, for example, was very clearly aimed at an American audience. I think that's why they picked a British speaker. They wanted to have an English speaker so it would be picked up by American media because they know that if there's not an English speaker, there's no chance that those clips would be used on American media reports. We also see a lot of publications that are published by them that are very well-designed, very well-produced and that are very disciplined again in their message. Right now, for example, a lot of the messaging that comes out from ISIS is aimed at persuading, convincing young Westerners to come to Syria and to Iraq to help build the Islamic State. For them, that's a really inspirational message. They're saying "You can be part of something fantastic" or "something historical. Something that people in a thousand years will be talking about because we're creating the new caliphate. Come and be part of it."
Werman: Do you have any sense that the governments of the UK and the US might be ready to launch some kind of cyber counteroffensive against these guys?
Neumann: Various governments have tried things. The US State Department, for example, runs a Twitter campaign called "Think Again," which is taking on jihadist preachers, including people that inspiring foreign fighters on Twitter. I have to say that these campaigns often are not as sophisticated as the jihadists.
Werman: How is that possible?
Neuman: I don't know. I've been asking the government people and at every conference I have been to they are saying "We're working on it. We're working on a new strategy." I think that there is a thing about governments because they want to be very careful but the whole thing about social media is that you do not get attention unless you're doing risky things. So the US State Department or the US Department of Defense, in order to be on Twitter, every tweet has to be approved by 20 people. But that's not how Twitter works. You sometimes have to do risky things and you have to get yourself out there. But they are not quite ready to embrace social media for what it is.
Werman: Peter Neumann, professor at King's College London. Thanks so much for your time,
Neumann: Thank you.