The terrorist radio revival: How the Islamic State’s radio station survives on social media

By: Moustafa Ayad

January 4 2024


Figure 1. Image of al-Bayad radio programming branding.

While the Islamic State’s al-Bayan FM radio station was bombed off the airwaves half a decade ago, its once on-air programing consisting of official Islamic State edicts and interactive call-in shows survives on social media. The legacy radio content of the terrorist group manned station continues to thrive on platforms such as Facebook and TikTok unscathed by moderation, partly due to the inability of companies to home in on the branding associated with the radio station, and a concerted effort by Islamic State supporters to resurrect the station online.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found 167 Islamic State al-Bayan radio pages on Facebook, and 156 al-Bayan radio videos on TikTok clearly branded as al-Bayan radio content. The Islamic State’s al-Bayan radio has been under-researched in comparison to the other official media outlets manned by the terrorist group, yet its programming played a central role in the ability of the group to communicate with local populations in Iraq and beyond. Consisting of daily bulletins, speeches and edicts by Islamic State ideologues, al-Bayan radio was considered “one of the strongest” propaganda tools of the Islamic State according to the United States Joint Operations Command in Iraq.

In the Western press there has been a glut of articles about the English language content of the Islamic State radio station, but little on its impact beyond the West. Similarly, little academic scholarship has focused exclusively on al-Bayan, and instead wrapped any insight about the station into larger pieces focused on the terrorist group’s offline media strategy. Al-Bayan radio was a vehicle to spread Islamic State ideology unimpeded offline, and it remains so on social media.

Social media companies are facing increased scrutiny over damaging failures in their ability to effectively moderate terrorist content in the wake of the Hamas attacks on October 7 and the subsequent bombardment of Gaza. Meanwhile, perennial issues such as the ability of Islamic State content to thrive openly on two social media platforms with a combined 4 billion users highlight just how ill-equipped companies are to deal with terrorist audio content on their platforms.

On Facebook, the al-Bayan radio pages shared 2,538 videos of repurposed al-Bayan radio content for the platform during a one-year period starting on December 2022 until December 2023, according to the Facebook research tool Crowdtangle. The videos shared by the pages — often branded with the Islamic State’s al-Bayan radio logo — were watched more than 121,000 times and shared more than 31,000 times during the same period, illustrating how much of a radio revival al-Bayan is experiencing on just one platform.

The pages accumulated 34,749 followers throughout the year period, growing more than 444%. Their largest growth spurts happened in August, September, and October 2023, when they added 19,125 followers in three months. During the last week of September 2023, the pages released 1,621 videos likely corresponding with an increase in followers that took place during the late summer and early fall.

 

Figure 2. Graphic of views (Crowdtangle) of views of al-Bayan pages on Facebook.

While the 167 al-Bayan radio Facebook pages illustrate one platform’s failing regarding terrorist radio, TikTok similarly continues to be a vector for Islamic State radio content long thought relegated to dead air. Eight TikTok accounts were able to pump out 156 al-Bayan radio videos on the platform, generating more than 83,000 views over the course of a year. Furthermore, using the al-Bayan radio hashtag produced 120 al-Bayan-linked additional videos by a range of accounts that accumulated more than 336,000 views. Many of the videos on the platform featured now-dead Islamic State ideologues who championed killing “traitorous” Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The most watched video in the dataset is a 17-minute-long radio segment that was part of a two-program series called “the conditions of unity.” The program highlights the importance of the concept of the Islamic State’s version of ‘tawhid,’ or unity, and underscores that those that are not in lockstep with the group’s vision are ‘kafir’, or disbelievers. The video was shared in a page called “lessons in unity,” which was the name of the program on the al-Bayan radio station when it was originally broadcast. Other programs such as the seven-part series “Why do we fight and whom do we fight,” narrated by Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, the former leader of the Mujahideen Council of Iraq, and the Islamic State of Iraq, predecessors to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. All the Facebook pages ISD researchers found were named after specific programs aired on al-Bayan, illustrating once again a gap in understanding Islamic State propaganda by technology companies.

The ability of clearly branded terrorist audio to thrive on popular platforms illustrates not just a revival in the Islamic State’s radio station, but also the inability of technology companies to keep pace with a plethora of audio offerings by designated terrorist groups. Islamic State supporters know this loophole well and are exploiting it effectively, part of which is a coordinated effort to create individual pages for al-Bayan radio programs that were once broadcast live during the height of the Islamic State’s presence in Iraq and Syria.

Coordinating the creation of the pages is only one aspect of this exploitation, the second is organisation. Supporters have strategically created pages that function as reference points for all the pages on Facebook, using posts to link to each one by name, so that they are easily found and easily accessed by those looking for the material. They are labelled by program title and number so that it is clear just how many exist. Just like the Islamic State radio archives of Telegram, Facebook is thus similarly playing a role in keeping the Islamic State brand alive.

ISD’s surfacing of these pages not only suggests that terrorist content is far from dead, but it also highlights the gaps in moderation that continue to plague two of the largest and most used platforms globally. With a clear radio revival amongst supporters of the Islamic State afoot on Facebook and TikTok, so does the continued stymieing of both platforms’ content moderation efforts.

Figure 3. Image of al-Bayan radio content on TikTok.

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