Jihadists fight Iraq battle online and on ground

BAGHDAD- Supporters of a powerful jihadist group are waging an online propaganda war in concert with its battles on the ground in Iraq, where Sunni militants have overrun swathes of the country.

For militant groups, the fight over public perception can be even more important than actual combat, turning military losses into propaganda victories and battlefield successes into powerful tools to build support for the cause.

The offensive, led by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but involving other Sunni groups as well, swept down from northern Iraq, overrunning major areas of five provinces and reaching less than 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Baghdad.

As the militants advanced on the ground, they also did so on micro blogging site Twitter, where users posted a near-constant stream of updates and photos.

“They put not just other insurgent groups to shame, but even legitimate companies that are trying to sell products online,” Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said of ISIL’s public relations efforts.

“They are very, very good.”

As Iraqi security forces wilted in the face of the initial offensive, ISIL supporters posted pictures of captured military vehicles and positions on Twitter, as well as short accounts of attacks.

After the group seized most of the northern province of Nineveh, photos of it bulldozing the berm dividing Iraq from Syria in a symbolic unification of the two countries appeared online as well.

And when ISIL claimed it executed Iraqi security forces members in Salaheddin province, images of militants firing on scores of men, who lay face-down in shallow ditches as blood pooled in the sand, were posted on Twitter and elsewhere online.