As a fierce battle rages between Kurds and the Islamic State in the Syrian town of Kobane, the fight has another front, aimed at U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.
Kurds, and those supporting them, have been sending hundreds of urgent Twitter messages calling for Centcom, which controls U.S. military operations in the region, to start bombing the jihadis who are attacking the town on the Turkish border.
Centcom officials say while they are aware of social media traffic, it does not drive targeting decisions.
“We get a lot of suggestions for targets on social media,” said Army Maj. Curt Kellogg, a Centcom spokesman. “We monitor social media and see comments about all kinds of things, but that does not mean it is driving what Centcom is doing in our area of responsibility.”
The situation in Kobane, being compared to the genocidal conditions faced by the Yazidi minority in Iraq who were rescued only after U.S. airstrikes, has the attention of the highest levels of the U.S military.
“We are aware of what’s going on,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon Friday. “We are discussing how and what we can do with our coalition partners to help them deal with it. So it’s not a matter of us not being aware of it, nor not actively looking at the options that we have to deal with it.”
So far, the U.S. and its coalition partners have made 33 airstrikes, unleashing more than 260 bombs and missiles, including 47 Tomahawks launched from sea, on jihadi targets in Syria since the bombing campaign there began Monday, according to Air Forces Central Command spokeswoman Capt. Malinda Singleton.
But none of those targets as of Friday afternoon have been in Kobane, northeast of Aleppo. And that is driving a large amount of online activism, with Twitter users employing hashtags like #USHearKobane and #kobane and using Centcom’s twitter handle, @CENTCOM to draw attention to their messages.
“Unbelievable: most #ISIS units in #Syria are around #Kobane with massive amount of heavy weapons, but no airstrikes at all. Why? @CENTCOM,” tweeted Benedikt Zäch.
A Twitter user named ARM RADIF, who repeatedly turned to the social media site to deliver his message, pleaded again Friday afternoon with Centcom for help.
“@CENTCOM @brett_mcgurk Kobany needs help,” ARM RADIF tweeted. “Y we helping the people who do not fight ISIL and forget about who are fighting ISIL”.
One Twitter user even taunted Centcom.
“@KurtPelda @CENTCOM I have an #ISIS bunker in front of me and no civilians around,” tweeted a user named Oscar A.M. Bergamin. “Need of coordinates? pic.twitter.com/y8neiqQwWg”
Karla Stevenson, director of media engagement for the University of South Florida’s Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict, said new media gives the individual a chance to try and influence diplomacy and military tactics, “turning modern warfare into post-modern warfare.”
There is an increasing reliance, said Stevenson, “on social media — or new media — in not only social movements like the Arab spring, but in outside groups trying to virtually influence military campaigns and foreign policy.”
While it is clear that Centcom is not taking targeting cues from Twitter, Stevenson, former director of outreach for Centcom’s intelligence directorate, said it still important to pay attention.
“There are multiple audiences here — Centcom and the public who may pressure law makers to take specific action on an issue and the media,” she said. “The dissemination of these tweets en mass has a teaching or educating function — raising awareness and offering specific options for air strikes. It creates an opening for people to ask where is Kobane, why is it important and if strategy does not include airstrikes there, why not?”
There is another affect, said Stevenson.
The Tweets “put Centcom in a difficult communication position — timing is everything and they need to be careful to strike a balance between awareness of the movement on Twitter and clearly communicating the level they are paying attention to it. They don’t want to be in a position where they are seen as ignoring valuable open source info or Intel, nor do they want to be seen as developing tactical strategies based on something as dynamic as Twitter.”