NEW DELHI: In addition to battling forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq (and now expanding into Libya, Tunisia and Yemen), the Islamic State is engaged in another -- perhaps equally important -- war. The key component of this war is the group’s online presence, as social media websites are used to spread propaganda, recruit, and communicate messages -- including those of beheadings of captives -- to the outside world. Twitter, especially, has become a tool in spreading this propaganda, with the social media giant moving to suspend at least 90,000 accounts believed to be associated with the group, but unable to stop new accounts from constantly propping up.

This huge number provides a resource pool for those looking to gain an insight into profile of individuals who are likely to join or support the militant group. From the few stories in the media, we know that this profile is not limited to a disenchanted jihadist with a violent past. A few months ago, India and the rest of the world reeled from shock when Chanel4News revealed the identity of one of the most prominent IS-linked Twitter accounts. @ShamiWitness, a vocal supporter of the war in Syria with over 20,000 followers was actually an executive named Mehdi living in Bangalore with a Facebook page full of "pizza dinners with friends and Hawaiian parties at work."

Such also was the case Al-Darawy, a 38-year-old father of three, a former policeman and manager in a multinational company in Egypt who died in May 2014 fighting for the Islamic State.

In fact, contrary from the stereotypical picture of the disenchanted jihadist, several studies have shown that people who join extremist groups tend to be better educated, financially better off, more exposed to Western culture and generally more accomplished than average.

One such study by Walid Magdy and others at the Qatar Computing Research Institute in Doha tried to provide further insight into the makings of an Islamic State supporter. The research uses some 3.1 million Arabic tweets mentioning the Islamic State created by more than 250,000 users between October and December 2014. Of these users, 165,000 had active accounts that dated back to pre-Islamic State times.

Next, tweets that support and those who oppose ISIS were distinguished. The research that the name used to refer to the group was telling of whether a person supports or opposes them. The research noted that using the full name of group is a strong indicator of support for ISIS (93%), and using the acronyms is a general indication of opposition (77%).

The research then looked at the hashtags used by pro and anti ISIS tweets. The hashtags these people use give an interesting insight into the origin of their support or opposition. “Looking at discriminating hashtags suggested that a major source of support for ISIS stems from frustration with the missteps of the Arab Spring,” say Magdy et al. “As for opposition to ISIS, it is linked with support for other rebel groups, mostly in Syria, that have been targeted by ISIS, support for existing Middle Eastern regimes, and Shia sectarianism.”

The group analysed how tweets supporting or opposing ISIS varied in time. “Anti-ISIS tweets generally peaked when news of ISIS human rights violations emerged such as the killing of hostage, accounts of torture, or reports of the enslavement of Yazidi women,” they say. “On the other hand, pro-ISIS tweets generally peaked in conjunction with the release of propaganda videos and major military achievements.”

The researchers co trained a machine learning algorithm to spot users of both types and concluded that it was able to identity pro and anti-ISIS accounts with high accuracy. “We train a classifier that can predict future support or opposition of ISIS with 87 percent accuracy,” they say.

Read the full research here: