June 19, 2015 / 10:13 AM / in 2 years

Islamic State seen overtaking al Qaeda in South Asia social media war

Militant Islamist fighters hold the flag of Islamic State (IS) while taking part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province in this June 30, 2014 file photo. 2014 saw the rise of the Sunni militant group Islamic State, which has seized swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq. REUTERS/Stringer

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Islamist militant propaganda websites and social media accounts in South Asia are promoting Islamic State at the expense of al Qaeda, analysts said on Friday, highlighting the rivalry between the two global militant groups.

Disaffected Taliban factions have started to look toward Islamic State, impressed by its rapid capture of territory in Syria and Iraq, though there is no evidence it is providing substantial material support to the Taliban.

The popularity of IS comes at the expense of al Qaeda, whose deep pockets and foreign fighters once readily attracted local commanders. But al Qaeda has been decimated by drone strikes and its traditional influence severely eroded.

“The Taliban and al Qaeda have almost been written out of the picture,” said Omar Hamid, the head of Asia analysis at IHS Country Risk. “Most of these sites have converted their content to an Islamic State (IS) platform.”

So far the IS social media campaign has not been matched by material support to South Asian groups such as the Taliban, he said, but it has helped gather dissatisfied splinter groups around Islamic State.

A few Afghan commanders have sworn allegiance to IS, saying they oppose peace talks between the government and Taliban. Others have questioned whether reclusive one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who has close ties to al Qaeda, is alive.

In Pakistan, home to a separate but allied Taliban insurgency, the leadership of the Taliban is hotly disputed. Some factions there also swore allegiance to Islamic State, cementing their vow by beheading a soldier and posting the video online.

This week, the Afghan Taliban sent a letter to Islamic State’s leader, urging the group to stop recruiting in Afghanistan.

“Twelve months ago, a majority of social media sites in Urdu or Pashto had around 70 percent (of content) related to South Asian jihadi groups,” Hamid said, referring to two languages commonly spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “It changed to about 95 percent IS content by September last year.”

Hamid, a former Pakistani counter-terror police officer, analyzed dozens of militant Twitter and Facebook profiles and militant propaganda sites.

Pakistan’s government has repeatedly promised to ban jihadi websites but most remain online. A spokesman for the country’s telecoms authority could not say how many militant websites had been banned.

Islamic State is definitely gaining in popularity at the expense of al Qaeda, said Saifullah Mahsud, head of Islamabad-based thinktank the FATA Research Centre.

“Islamic State is the new poster boy,” he said. “But the ideology has been around a long time.”

Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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