By Anne Speckhard*, Ardian Shajkovci** & Neima Izadi


In 2017, ISIS suffered major territorial and military defeat in Iraq. Despite the achieved success, the group remains active and in control of small pockets of territory in Iraq.  It also continues to lure foreign fighters into the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria at somewhat astounding rates, given their so-called defeat. According to General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, foreign fighters continue to come over to the Turkish border at a rate of about 100 a month. Although not comparable to 1,500 a month at the height of the group’s recruitment, the numbers remain worrisome and problematic. [1] Moreover, public distrust towards the government of Iraq, millions suffering from conflict-related traumas and injuries—including youth and children—and community and sectarian distrust enduring, all represent volatile conditions that can individually and collectively lead to the return of violent groups like ISIS. These conditions are especially problematic when considering the group’s ideology, including in Iraq, remains widespread and still legitimate, especially in the eyes of some who continue to perceive terrorism as the only means to address socio-political grievances.

On social media and social media platforms, violent extremist groups, continue to “harass, recruit and incite violence.” [2] In this regard, more efforts are needed to counter jihadist already existing Internet-based and face-to-face recruitment efforts.

As of December 2017, Iraq had fourteen million Internet users. [3] A more recent statistical report on the share of Facebook users in Iraq showed that Facebook, with 17 million users, remains an extremely important social media communication platform, particularly to Iraqi youth between the ages of 16 and 34 (See Table A). In our sample of 20+ interviews with ISIS cadres in Iraq—out of a total 100+ to date—we also found Facebook to be especially popular among the 14-35 age group and that some first interacted with and followed ISIS on Facebook.

During December 2017, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) ran a Facebook campaign in Iraq using The Promises of ad Dawlah video. The video features the testimony of a Belgian female ISIS defector who had taken her young son to live in ISIS territory. The December campaign led to a total reach of 1, 287, 557, while also leading to a total of 2, 339, 453 impressions and close to 1.7 million views.[4]

In 2018, between July and September 2018, respectively, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) ran three additional safety awareness campaigns in Iraq using Facebook ads. Three ICSVE-produced videos, “Rewards of Joining the Islamic State,”  “Swearing my Bayat to the Islamic State in Fallujah,” and “ Swearing my Bayat to the Islamic State in a Time of Sectarianism,” all featuring Iraqi former ISIS cadres, were used in the campaign. The first video features a thirty-three-year-old Iraqi, Abu Ghazwan. In the video, he discusses his desire to restore rights and dominance to Iraqi Sunnis, which he claims led him to join ISIS.  He also discusses his involvement with ISIS, namely his role in placing bombs and attacking the enemies of the group.  The second video features 46-year-old, Iraqi Abu Bassim, who, according to him, was forced to join ISIS after being imprisoned by them. The third video features a 28-year-old Iraqi, Abu Omar, who, similar to Abu Ghazwan, was lured by al-Qaeda and ISIS’ promise of restoring Sunni rights and dominance in Iraq.

The first 2018 campaign using “Rewards of Joining the Islamic State” ran from July 27, 2018, to August 16, 2018. The second campaign using “Swearing my Bayat to the Islamic State in Fallujah” ran two weeks in August of 2018 and two weeks in October of 2018, ending November 1st, 2018. The third campaign using “Swearing my Bayat to the Islamic State in a Time of Sectarianism” ran from August 25, 2018 to September 25, 2018. The month-long campaigns served to raise awareness about the dangers of joining violent extremist groups like ISIS as well as to drive online engagement among the citizens of Iraq over Facebook.

 Table A

Source: Internet World Stats[5]

In addition to the Facebook awareness campaigns, ICSVE developed a new website entitled, The Real Jihad (, which serves as a landing page for viewers of the video.  The Real Jihad website features all 80 counter narrative videos made by ICSVE, as well as writings by Islamic scholars that refute the claims made by ISIS, al Qaeda, and other like-minded groups that attempt to reason their brutal actions as rooted in Islamic scriptures. Likewise, the webpage features “calls to action” to address concerns over socio-political grievances without resorting to sectarian violence and terrorism or responding to the calls of violent extremist and terrorist groups.  The Real Jihad website is new and was only recently translated into Arabic. It currently functions in English, Arabic and Albanian and is being expanded as time and resources allow.  Facebook has a feature that allows those launching awareness campaigns to direct viewers to the landing page while also promoting the videos. At the time of the launch of the aforementioned Facebook ad campaigns, the website was still under development; therefore, not all of the campaigns directed viewers to it.


Facebook Data

Video: Iraq-The Rewards of Joining the Islamic State (Also Directing viewers to the  Real Jihad website) Running from  07-27-18 to 08-16-2018

This campaign targeted the following governorates in Iraq: Al-Anbar, Basra Governorate,  Muthanna, Al Qadisiyyah, Sulaymaniyah, Babil, Baghdad, Dohuk, Dhi Qar, Diyala, Erbil, Karbala, Kirkuk, Maysan, Nineveh, Wasit, Najaf, Saladin. Baghdad (23, 552), Sulaymaniyah (20, 576), Erbil (38, 816), Nineveh (20, 128) and Dohuk (21, 024) governorates achieved the highest reach. The campaign achieved a moderate reach in both Sunni and Shia dominated governorates, such as Anbar (1, 568), Basra (4,096), Babil (1, 312), and Nineveh (20,128). Ninety-six percent of the reached population was male and four percent female (See Figure 1 for demographic and reach breakdown across two genders).

Figure 1: Demographic Breakdown

The campaign generated a total reach of 151, 328, while also leading to 232, 667 impressions and close to 156, 820 video views (See Table A).[1] The impression score indicates the total number of times our content was displayed, regardless of whether clicked or not. In other words, the score indicates the number of times our reached target base has been exposed to our video content, whether they watched it or not. The higher the impression score, the more indicative that people are seeing our content, that they are becoming more exposed to our content, and that they are sharing our content, although this score does not indicate if they actually watched the video. As a metric representing the total number of times our video content was displayed to our target audience—content surfacing more frequently into our user’s feed—is an invaluable metric in demonstrating that our ad was engaging. [6]

The impression frequency of 1.54 (Impression/Reach) indicates the average number of times each individual has seen our ad over the period of thirty days. That said, because Facebook ad frequency indicates an average score, in practice, this means that some among our target audience might have been reached a number of times while others only once. Campaigns with high reach naturally have lower frequency rate. Moreover, the relatively low frequency rate of 1.54 suggests that we are not oversaturating out target audience with our content.

The table below presents data on how much our video content was watched. There is a total of 156, 820 video views at 3%, 10 %, (42, 371), 25% (21,441), 50 % (15,020), 75% (9,899), 95% (5,675) and 100 % (1,848) video watches. [2]As the data indicate, there is a total of 96, 254 clicked-to-play shared among 10 %, 25%, 50%, 75 %, 95%, and 100 % recorded watches. Note, however, that the percentages include those who watched the full length of the video and those who skipped to the end of the video. The video average watch time is 0:40, calculated as the video total watch time/total number of video plays (this includes replays). This number highlights the potential usefulness of making shortened versions of the videos for complementary ads, as some will only watch very short videos and may click through a short version once hooked, to watch the longer version.[7] Table B contains a breakdown of video views by age group and the area targeted.

The Facebook ad led to a total of 1, ,480 post reactions (e.g. Like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry), comments and shares. For instance, there are 193 comments and 41 post shares. Given that one of the objectives of the campaign was to drive traffic towards ICSVE’s website, there was good success in that regard, as there was a total of 18,194 visitors to the website originating from this campaign.

Table B: Performance and Delivery


The campaign generated a relevance score of 10, calculated on a 1-10 scale. The higher the relevance score, the better in terms of how our audience is responding to our ad. Facebook calculates the relevance score “based on the positive and negative feedback we expect an ad to receive from its target audience.”[8] The relevance score  is calculated based on a number of factors, such as the positive vs. negative feedback it is expected to receive. For instance, video viewsshares, and likes represent positive indicators. Conversely, the number of times our ad is hidden, or when someone clicks, “I don’t want to see this” our ad, represent negative indicators. Five hundred impressions need to be received before a relevance score is generated. This Facebook ad metric is useful to better identify our target audiences and use it for our campaign optimization. That said, the relevance score is used to measure relevance of a campaign and not the quality of campaign. Put differently,  it is generated based on interaction and interest in our campaign. The relatively high relevance score suggests that the ads are generating  audience engagement.

Video: Iraq-Swearing in Fallujah – (Directing viewers to the ICSVE YouTube Arabic Playlist) Running from  08-26-18 to 11-1-18

This  campaign ran two weeks in August of 2018 and two weeks in October of 2018, ending  November 1st, 2018.  It targeted Al Anbar (188), Basra (380), Muthanna (128), Al-Qadisiyyah (168), Sulaymaniyah (1,648), Babil (232), Baghdad (5,376), Dohuk (200), Dhi Qar (280), Diyala (2, 476), Erbil (1,432), Karbala (308), Kirkuk (528), Maysan (200), Nineveh (460), Wasit (164), Najaf (384), and Saladin (164) governorates. Baghdad, Sulaymaniyah, Diyala, and Erbil governorates had the highest reach. Ninety-five percent of the reached population was male and five percent female (See figure 2 for demographic and reach breakdown across two genders).

Table C: Video Views Breakdown by Age Group and Area Targeted

The campaign generated a total reach of 14,715 while also leading to 410, 676 impressions and close to 71, 120 video views.[3] There is a total of 71,120  video views at 3% (43,266), 10 % (14, 788), 25% (4,545), 50 % (3,568), 75% (2,665), 95% (1,642) and 100 % (646) video watches. A total of 941 post reactions, (e.g. Like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry), comments and post shares were generated (See Table D). 

Figure 2: Demographic Breakdown

The video average watch time is 00:05, calculated as the video total watch time/total number of video plays (this includes replays) which again points to the potential usefulness of making very short “teaser” videos to link to longer ones. A total of 782 individuals also clicked a link that led them to the ICSVE’s YouTube channel, where they could continue watching other counter narrative videos in Arabic.

Table D: Performance and Delivery


Table E: Video Views Breakdown by Age Group and Area Targeted


Iraq-Swearing my Bayat  (Directing viewers to the ICSVE YouTube Arabic Playlist) Running from  8-25-18 to 9-25-18

The August campaign targeted Al-Anbar, Bara, Muthanna, Al-Qadisiyyah, Sulaymaniyah, Babil, Baghdad, Dohuk, Dhi Qar, Diyala, Erbil, Karbala, Kirkuk, Maysan, Nineveh, Wasit, Najaf, and Saladin Governorates. Basra (8, 512), Sulaymaniyah (8, 736), Erbil (11, 936) Baghdad (45, 024), and Nineveh (20, 896) Governorates had the highest reach.  Ninety-one percent of the reached population was male and nine percent female. See figure 3 for demographic and reach breakdown across two genders).

Figure 3: Demographic Breakdown

The campaign reached 153, 664 while also leading to 278, 745 impressions and close to 156, 907 video views. There is a total of 136, 907 video views at 3% (68, 406), 10 % (33, 248), 25% (13,347), 50 % (9,554), 75% (6,642), 95% (3,621) and 100 % (2,089) video watches. A total of 741 post reactions, (e.g. Like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry), comments and post shares were generated (See Table F). The video average watch time is 00:22, calculated as the video total watch time/total number of video plays (this includes replays), again suggesting that short “teaser” videos may be helpful for those who do not watch the entire long ones.  The campaign generated a relevance score of 10, calculated on a 1-10 scale, with a frequency of 1:81.   A total of 222 individuals also clicked the link that led them to the ICSVE’s YouTube channel to view additional ICSVE-produced counter narratives with Arabic subtitles.

Table F: Performance and Delivery


Table G: Video Views Breakdown by Age Group and Area Targeted



The four video campaigns in combination led close to 2.5 million views. The campaigns also led to thousands of post reactions (e.g. Like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry), comments and shares, including thousands of visits to ICSVE’s website and ICSVE’s YouTube channel. The videos also generated hundreds of comments related to ISIS, the message, and the messaging strategy applied to our counter narratives. While it is likely impossible to observe or report direct cognitive or behavioral changes resulting from our campaign among those reached in our sample, particularly in those who support violent extremist groups or ideologies propagated by groups like ISIS, we hope that may in fact be occurring. As some researchers have observed, “It is possible that some of the counter-narrative narrative videos have managed to dissuade individuals from joining or supporting extremist groups, but those users are simply not leaving comments like, ‘Great, video really changed my mind.’”[9] Sample comments generated across all four campaigns to date are presented below:

Sample anti-ISIS comments:

The counter narrative videos engaged many in making comments condemning ISIS.  While it is difficult to discern whether the viewers who made such comments were already disgusted by ISIS, their responses to the video show deep disgust.

Oh, Allah, get rid of them as a mighty benevolent God

Yea we used to kill them in groups those sons of bitches

Indeed, screw them

Allah damn your filthy Islam, you ISIS members

I swear that if he gets out of prison, he [the defector featured in the video] will become even worse, dogs of hell, may Allah damn them  

May you go to Hell, you are the dogs of Al-Baghdadi, may Allah damn you and everyone who gave Bai’a to the filthy and weak ISIS member, cowards, bastards and have no morals

They, ISIS, is not an Islamic state and Islam is innocent from them… because Islam is a religion of peace and prophet Mohammed is a mercy to all human beings

 ISIS members are infidels

Sample anti-government and anti-Sunni comments (including responses):

Some viewers commented that ISIS was in their view a product of the U.S., the West or other foreign powers:

May Allah curse you and curse you masters; America, Iran and Israel, we haven’t heard that you have attacked Iran, not even once, you even wanted to destroy the house of God, both you and Iran couldn’t reach it, you heretics because these are your sources, them and Israel 

Goat, I mean ISIS [in Arabic the kind of have the same rhythm so he was making a pun to mock ISIS] is a production of America and Israel, the western infidel colonialism uses it to pressure the miserable people so that they can sell their weapons and control the goods of the country that is being invaded by this infidel, none-humanitarian organization. So, this damned movement is directly connected with the infidel colonialist invasion.

Others criticized their own government (Iraqi) for their failures to stop groups like ISIS:

Both of you are national security and you have done nothing, your reputation is only there in Baghdad, it’s impossible for people to say we’re national security, aren’t you in the intelligence?

Some comments focused on sectarian divides in Iraq and blamed Sunnis:

Allah damn your father, Al-Baghdadi’s father and everyone who has given Bai’a to ISIS, you have orphaned kids and widowed women and made parents cry to the point where they couldn’t see anymore, you and the Sunni people who have given Bai’a to you are in hell, in the name of Muhammed and his family, I swear that people in west of Iraq cause nothing but destruction to Iraq

You are such an idiot, what does Sunni people have to do with this, those who joined them were deceived, you ignorant, you live aboard and you don’t know what used to happen, you only heard the news about Sunni people and Sunni people, you destroyed Sunni people, none of you knows that the people we joined them were deceived by them.

Sample comments about the Defector featured in the counter-narrative video:

She [defector] left safety and all the good things in her country and came here looking for religion with Isis??!!

 4 years of prison for an Isis member? Are you insane?

 I swear to Allah if I grabbed you, even if in Belgium, I will put a bullet in your head because you guys have destroyed my life

 If it was in my hands, I would’ve burnt you and your husband and your filthy offspring

I swear that burning you is not enough

The sentence should be #execution to her and her husband

There were comments about how ISIS views both moderate Sunni and Shia:

You damaged Sunni people more than anyone else

Liars and hypocrites, you say that you are Sunnis, but you were the first who killed Sunnis and displaced them in camps, you dogs

 The outcome of your deed and those who have worked with you, did you forget the Prophet’s [peace be upon him] saying: we Shiite like our Sunni brothers, and we will circulate those days between people, but we ask that if you ruled with your ideology, how many Muslims will you kill… we repeat the question, the Shiite and Sunnis people fought together and liberated the land from your rule, who rules your lands now? 

A correction, there were no Shiite and Sunni people in the time of the prophet

He tagged someone, if they were Muslims, then why the Takfir [calling someone an infidel]… and for your information, even Sunnis are infidels to Wahabis

The moderate Sunni people are the reason, why haven’t you held those accountable, don’t you have anti American factions, Islamic army and Naqshbandis, especially those who are in Mosul, how have you not punished ISIS, unfortunately a lot of the people who live in the west of Iraq have joined ISIS, I won’t say everybody, there are a lot of honorable people

who are against ISIS

Others point to their faith in God as the answer to sectarian and terrorist violence:

May Allah take revenge from every oppressor, Allah is my only supplier, he is the only supporter

Sample comments that reflected societal unease and fear that ISIS could return:

We beat you and even kicked you out of Syria. Come if you dare. Bastard I swear that we will beat you / I dare you to come you fuckers

[…] Alhamdulillah, we got rid of them due to the efforts of our heroic al Hashd Al Sha’abi, (i.e. the Shiite militias that supported the Iraqi army)

 We were under their invasion for 3 years and we didn’t join […]


In addition to the Facebook metrics that we were able to observe and analyze, we also found that those reached have both thoughtfully engaged with the content of our videos and initiated debates on ISIS and other contentious socio-political issues that often influence and drive violent extremism. This impact should not be underestimated, as talking about grievances, namely providing a platform for raising grievances and discussing contentious socio-political issues, could be considered an intervention in the way of  redirecting viewers from considering, or actually engaging, in violent extremism and terrorism.

The results of the campaign represent a short-term measurement of the impact of our videos, which allows us to utilize such data to further improve our future targeting campaigns over the next year, as we also continue to create counter narrative video content from Iraqi and non-Iraqi ISIS defectors, returnees, and prisoners. By gaining an increased understanding of user behavior on Facebook and other social media platforms we target online, we are able to more carefully create and target our counter narrative content. Moreover, in our future campaigns, we will continue to expand our targeting campaigns in Iraq to also drive further engagement on our newly created website, which is currently running  in Arabic, and with the content and language alternatives growing on a monthly basis.  We are also working to seek support from those who may be willing to act as influencers and magnify the impact of our counter-narratives, as well as those who can use the counter narrative videos in face-to-face interventions, which we at ICSVE have also found useful to turn individuals away from groups like ISIS.[10] The goal of our work, both offline and online, in Iraq is to break the ISIS brand by using insiders voices to discredit the group as un-Islamic, corrupt, and overly brutal.  Judging from the results of these four campaigns, the videos are effective and making an impact.




This article was first published on November 06, 2018 on The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)



About the Authors:

* Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here:  and on the ICSVE website. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

**Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College.




[1] Note that the actual metric of organic and paid campaign was recorded at 197K views.

[3] Note that video plays, or the number of times our video starts to play, is recorded at 245, 310, while organic and paid ad campaign generated a total of 425K views. In combination, both organic and paid aid led to 8, 608 engagements and 1, 287 post reactions, comments, and shares.

[1] The Defense Post. (2018). “ Foreign fighters continue to join ISIS in Syria, US joint Chiefs chair says,” Retrieved from

[2] Kilgore, A. (2018). “ Fighting the terrorist threat online: New research can identify extremists online, even before they post dangerous content,” INFORMS, available at

[3] See for example Internet World Stats; URL:

[4] Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A., Wooster, C., & Izadi, N. (2018). Mounting a Facebook brand awareness and safety ad campaign to Break the ISIS Brand in Iraq. Perspectives on Terrorism, 12(3), 50-66,

[5] See Internet World Stats, available at

[6] Klipfolio. (2018). “Facebook ad impressions and reach definition,” available at

[7] In our research experience and consultations with DOD and other CVE entities engaged in counter-narrative production, we found that shorter videos tend to lead to more consumption and a higher retention rate among our target audience.

[8] Facebook Business. (2015). “Showing relevance scores for ads on Facebook, “available at

[9] Woron, F. (2018). “ Dubious claims of counter-narrative videos,” Tech and Terrorism, available at

[10] Note that we may also shift our focus to other social media platforms. See the report on media consumption habits and patterns in the Middle East: