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Hunting for IS: How social media sleuths traced 'fanboy' to London bus stop

Islamic State publicity campaign 'backfires spectacularly' as social media users 'geolocate' followers tweeting messages of support for group
Islamic State fighters featured in a propaganda video in 2014 - not filmed at a London bus stop (AFP)

On Saturday night, the Islamic State's (IS) media wing urged its followers around the world to take to social media to show their support for the group using the hashtag "Al-Furqan" to whip up hype ahead of the release of an audio recording by its spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani - but the initiative did not quite go as planned. 

IS initially used Telegram channels to promote a new audio recording:

Journalist Jenan Moussa then started tweeting out photos released by IS followers worldwide participating in the social media campaign:





SITE Intel group also picked up a photo from the UK:

As IS supporters grew increasingly active, social media analysts noticed the spike in activity:

But things were about to take a turn for the worse for some of those spreading IS's message.

Eliot Higgins, an analyst and founder of the open source data journalism site Bellingcat, issued a geolocation challenge to his Twitter followers:

The first supporter on the hit list was ‘fanboy number one’ in Munster, Germany. Twitter users @ArtWendeley and @hotzn1 identified the advertising pillar in the photo and used a map of all advertising pillars to find his exact location:

The exact location of photo for IS ‘fanboy 1’ is found:

This motivated more social media users to get on board and help with hunting down the remaining IS supporters.

Shortly after the second supporter was located in North London. Twitter user @mamzbondok started to work on geolocating the photo taken in the UK. It was initially confirmed that it was in London from the red bus in the photo. However the photo was too blurry to identify the bus number so it wasn’t possible to check the bus route. The next clue was the letters ‘GROVE’ written on the bridge.

A variety of Google searches using different combinations of the words ‘blue grove bridge London’ didn’t help. The bus stop in the photo was also blurry but the bus stop code letter ‘K’ and was the crucial clue.

Bondok searched ‘bus stop K grove London’ which gave the result of a 149 bus route and identified the bus stop to be near Bruce Grove Station in North London. Bondok then used Google Streetview to confirm and get a screenshot from the exact location of where the photo was taken.

Google search result
Google search result

It also turned out that this IS supporter was standing in very close proximity to the local police station and magistrates' court:

IS supporters started to realise they were in big trouble and started to warn others against posting their photos publicly:

Translation: “The game of writing the name of the city and country on a piece of paper is very dangerous and there is no need for it. Just months ago they caught some in Italy”

The IS supporter in Amsterdam was a bit tricky to locate and more help was needed:

But soon after the exact location of a third IS supporters was found in Paris by Twitter user @Naenil. And this time the photo was taken from a home window:

As more users got involved to help, the IS supporter in Holland was eventually found:

The apartment block where they took the photo from was also identified:

By now the much-anticipated audio had been released, to little fanfare.

Meanwhile, Dutch police had been informed of the findings and started to investigate:

Along with the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security:

London's Metropolitan Police also confirmed there were enquiries ongoing in relation to the IS supporter found in North London:

IS supporters came to realise what mess they got themselves into:

“What we were warning of happened. The crusaders are looking for the supporters after their locations were revealed from their photos.”

With police and local authorities checking CCTV to determine the identity of the group's supporters, Higgins said IS's social media campaign had "backfired spectacularly”:

Social Media 1, Islamic State 0.