Social Media and the Rise of the Islamic State in 2014

by Joe Galvin

It has been 11 years since U.S. President George W. Bush gave his ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln signaling the end of major combat operations in Iraq. “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” Bush said.

It was a speech that was to be referenced for years to come, but in 2014, the US military, for the first time in three years, returned once more to Iraq. It also expanded military operations into neighboring Syria, the first direct Western military intervention in the country since the onset of its bloody civil war in 2011. The reason? The rise of arguably the most deadly, and now certainly the richest, terrorist organization in the world — the Islamic State.

On June 6, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) attacked the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-most populous city. The Iraqi Army, corrupt and floundering, fled before their advance. Four days later, ISIL were in control of the city. The capture of Mosul was to set off a chain of events that would lead to the return of Western military forces to Iraq and, for the first time, a US military intervention in Syria in the form of airstrikes against ISIL forces.

The assault on Mosul resulted in a devastating victory for ISIL forces. Mosul resident Mohamad Ghassan was on hand to film the aftermath of the assault, with this video filmed in northern Mosul near the city’s main hospital.


ISIL quickly gained the advantage, seizing large swaths of territory in northern Iraq, including Baiji and its oil refinery, Iraq’s largest. Iraq’s response was swift, and it carried out a series of airstrikes against ISIL militants in Baiji and Mosul. This Iraqi military footage, geolocated and verified by Storyful, shows Iraqi strikes against both areas on June 11.

ISIL pushed south as far as Tikrit, where an assault on a military position north of the town led to the capture of dozens of Iraqi soldiers. This video, geolocated and verified by Storyful to a road just north of Tikrit, shows dozens of men being paraded by their ISIL captors. According to investigations by Human Rights Watch, more than 500 of those captured near Tikrit were killed by ISIL.

The Iraqi Army’s intervention came too late to undo the damage that had been done. By early July, ISIL had consolidated its position in northern Iraq, so much so that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared that the territory they controlled in Iraq and Syria was to be designated their new “caliphate” under the name Islamic State (IS).

The declaration was celebrated in what was now the Islamic State’s de facto capital; the Syrian city of Raqqa, more than 400 miles from Mosul, and controlled by ISIL since 2013.

Al-Baghdadi was riding the crest of a wave, and by early July felt comfortable enough to appear before the public in Mosul – his first and, to this date, only public appearance – to lead Friday prayers. Video of the event – not included here – was widely shared on social media. He declared himself “the leader” of the new “caliphate,” and urged others to join him in “Jihad.”

The Islamic State’s expansion, along with Al-Baghdadi’s call to action, drew an influx of foreigners to its ranks. Fighters from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Finland and elsewhere all rallied to Al-Baghdadi’s call. A video, released on August 3 to mark the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, shows militants from the US, UK and Finland sending their Eid greetings. It was one of many such videos to feature foreign militants with IS. As radicalized Muslims fled the West to join IS, fears of their return became a major issue for Western governments, some of whom cancelled the passports of those they knew had joined the fight in Syria and Iraq.

As IS expanded, Western powers increased aid to Iraq; however, it was not to prove enough. On August 7, the US carried out airstrikes against IS targets near Erbil, regional capital of Kurdish Iraq. It was the first time the country had carried out a military operation in Iraq since its withdrawal in 2011. The video below, published on August 26, shows US strikes on targets in Iraq. A coalition of Arab nations and Western countries, including France, the UK, Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands, joined the US in carrying out strikes against IS targets in Iraq. Later, the US would begin to strike IS targets in Syria.

As IS’ strength and wealth increased, so too did the sophistication and brutality of its social media operation. This was starkly laid clear with the release of a video on August 19, showing the execution of US citizen and journalist James Foley. It was the first of a series videos released by IS showing the killings of Western citizens; Foley’s beheading was followed by the deaths of Stephen Sotloff and Peter Kassig, two US citizens, and UK citizen David Haines. Below, US President Barack Obama speaks about the killing of James Foley.

However, not all Western hostages were killed. Another UK citizen, John Cantlie, was instead deployed by IS to present a series of propaganda videos attacking the West. Cantlie, who said he was “abandoned” by the British government, was to feature in a number of videos over the following weeks. His exploitation by IS would lead to his terminally-ill father calling for his release in a powerful video statement. A version via ODN can be seen below. Despite this message, Cantlie’s propaganda videos would continue to be released.

It was one battle in particular that was to capture the world’s attention — the battle for Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab. Kobane, a predominantly Kurdish town on Turkey’s border, came under siege by IS in mid-September, and it would become one of the defining battles of the conflict with IS. Kurdish forces, outnumbered and under equipped, staged a last-ditch defence of the town. Though the battle seemed lost, the intervention of the US and, later, Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan, forced IS back. This video, from the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, shows Kurdish residents of Kobane fleeing.

As the battle for Kobane entered its sixth week, IS released a video on October 27 described as showing Cantlie giving a report from the town. In the video, Cantlie said that IS was firmly in control, and that victory was assured. By December, however, the battle raged on.

Indeed, the war of attrition was beginning to take its toll on IS-held territory, with consistent airstrikes by both coalition and Syrian forces hitting IS-held positions and cities. The most deadly of these attacks, carried out by the Syrian Air Force, hit Raqqa in late November, killing more than 200 people according to local activists. The US State Department condemned the strikes. The video below, posted by a pro-IS media outlet and which features graphic scenes that some may find upsetting, shows the aftermath of the strikes.

As the year drew to a close, with the battle for Kobane reaching a stalemate following US intervention and the deployment of Peshmerga forces to support Kurdish troops in the area, the IS advance had stalled. Al-Baghdadi, so certain of his power in July, had yet to make his second public appearance.

Approximately half a year after the devastating IS assault on Mosul and their rapid expansion, IS returned to the scene of their victory. In this propaganda video, partly captured from the same bridge as the first video above, an IS militant describes the battle to capture Mosul – the IS victory that was to begin their ascent to becoming the most powerful and feared terrorist organization in the world.

Joe Galvin is the Europe News Editor with, the world’s first social media news agency. He has been tracking the rise of the Islamic State and the Syrian conflict via social media since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011. The post was originally published on Republished here with author’s permission.

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