'Their social media campaign went from scary to farcical once we started tracking down their fanboys'.
ISIS is known both publicly and in intelligence circles for their highly successful use of social media, but on Saturday one of their campaigns backfired spectacularly.
Ahead of the release of a much hyped audio message from the group’s spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, supporters around the world posted images of solidarity. Handwritten notes contained verses of the Quran relating to jihad.
But it wasn’t long before other social media users got hold of the images for their own purposes. This included Dubai based reporter Jenan Moussa and UK based open-source journalist Eliot Higgins, who led a crowd-sourced Twitter effort to pinpoint the supporters’ locations.
"Their social media campaign went from scary to farcical once we started tracking down their fanboys," Higgins told SBS. "I think it shows that this aura of invulnerability they like to project can be punctured rather easily."
Users were able to use landmarks and other methods to pinpoint the location of four users in Germany, London, Paris and the Netherlands. Google Earth and Street View were vital for confirming the locations, Higgins said, describing the effort as "crowd-sourced intelligence."
"French, Dutch, and UK police have responded, and as a couple of photos appear to have been taken from apartments those should be easy to look at. The two in the street might be harder, although they might get lucky with CCTV catching something," Higgins said.
Amateur investigators analysed bike paths, lamp-posts and buildings to track down one supporter claiming to be in Amsterdam. Ultimately, the user was tracked to Hoofddorp, near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
Fredrik Naumann, a Norwegian based photographer, even pinpointed which building the message was likely posted from.
Another Twitter user found an online map of advertising pillars in the German city of Münster and used it to track down the poster’s location.
In Paris, it was the hint of a Suzuki logo in the background which was a dead giveaway for a French amateur sleuth.
Eliot Higgins’ blog, Bell¿ngcat, summed up the events in a post.
“Overall, the ISIS social media campaign backfired spectacularly, likely revealing information about multiple ISIS supporters in major European cities, including their residential locations and, perhaps with CCTV cameras, their identities,” it wrote.
This isn't the first social media fail for the terror organisation. Last June a US Air Force General claimed to have tracked and ultimately bombed a target after a supporter’s post on social media revealed their location.