Propaganda shares similarities with advertising and public relations. Thus, whenever the Islamic State or ISIS rolls out a series of propaganda, the goal is to sell a particular brand of Islamic governance, sell jihadist and extremist ideas, and incite other Muslims to join the jihadist movement or provoke targeted adversaries.But like any other messages, the propaganda from ISIS needs an effective medium.
For an Islamist extremist organisation attempting to establish a presence in the international community while parading under the banner of a worldwide caliphate, the Internet proves to be a very useful medium for disseminating propaganda. Through the videos, posts, and other contents shared online, ISIS is able to raise global awareness and solicit support from individuals or organisations with similar ideologies.
Partnership with Al Hayat Media Center and Mu’assassat al-Furqan
Although several journalists have braved occupied territories and warzones to document and report the situation in the territories occupied by the Islamic State, most of the information come from the contents produced and distribution by the organisation itself. ISIS has a well-oiled media capability.
According to a report authored by Dr. Erin Saltman and Charlie Winter of the London-based counter-terrorism think tank Quilliam Foundation, the media strategy of ISIS remains unprecedented. Of course, al-Qaeda was responsible for setting the standards for online jihadist propaganda and several terrorist organisations have used the Internet reach mass audience. For example, the online multi-language magazine Inspire of al-Qaeda was instrumental in soliciting global support and circulating idealism. But ISIS takes the use of the Internet and related technologies up another notch. Its entire media strategy is both organised and sophisticated.
To ensure targeted reach, ISIS has strategically partnered with several media networks and outfits to assist with the production and distribution of communication contents. The Al Hayat Media Center and Mu’assassat al-Furqan both play a critical role in creating and disseminating two broad categories of ISIS propaganda.
Al Hayat Media Center is responsible for assisting ISIS with the production and distribution of diverse communication materials to include videos, news articles, reports, and public or media statements all aimed at recruiting fighters and soliciting support, while also spreading the utopian caliphate ideals of the organisation. The online magazine Dabiq is worth mentioning. Like its al-Qaeda counterpart, the publication is a well-produced and well-written communication material available in several languages, including Albanian, English, French, and German. It features detailed articles on theology, Islamist themes, and ideological constructs.
On the other hand, Mu’assassat al-Furqan assists ISIS with the production and distribution of communication materials aimed at intimidation and dissemination of threats. Unlike the Al Hayat materials that target probable volunteers and supporters, the materials from Mu’assassat al-Furqan target those audiences who are hostile toward ISIS. Thus, this media outfit is responsible for videos that depict beheading and anti-Western sentiments.
Saltman and Winter noted that there is no clear distinction on how ISIS uses Al Hayat Media Center and Mu’assassat al-Furqan. Furthermore, ISIS propaganda is not limited between these two media outfits. The organisation has also used Mu’assissat al-I’tisam for producing off-the-battlefield interviews and in-battle footages.
Social media strategies and notable online contents from ISIS
It is interesting to note that the organisation is highly familiar with social media—utilising several platforms or social networking sites to include Ask.fm, Facebook, Instagram, Kik, Tumblr, and Twitter, among others to distribute its contents and thereby, its propaganda. ISIS knows how social media works. It has used several tools or techniques to include the hashtag inserted alongside unrelated trending topics to generate impression for a particular content. The organisation has also demonstrated coding capabilities through the development of the Android app and Twitter API “Dawn of the Glad Tidings” that grants an administrator access to several Twitter accounts of users so that it could post a tweet on behalf of them.
Take note that there are two broad categories of ISIS propaganda—recruitment propaganda and terror or intimidation propaganda. The beauty of social media centres primarily on its global reach. Contents distributed to any social networking sites are further disseminated by ordinary users and mainstream news organisation. After all, contents that depict either recruitment propaganda or gruesome intimidation propaganda are highly interesting in a medium populated by a diverse and curious audience.
Nonetheless, the online contents of ISIS range from comical to diabolical. For instance, the organisation has been attributed for disseminating several Internet memes including the popular “cats of jihad” that involves pictures depicting ISIS fighters and their cats. It also allows true social media participation as evident from amateur videos and other contents created and distributed by its fighters. These contents vary from battleground footages to selfies and group photos.
As mentioned by Saltman and Winter, as well as from a report by Natalie Johnson of The Daily Signal, the multimedia news organisation of The Heritage Foundation, recruitment propaganda is one of the purposes of using social media. ISIS has exploited social media to broadcast its success and entice individuals or organisations outside the Middle East to join its cause.
Saltman and Winter said that ISIS has developed media strategies and produced contents that are easy to access and highly appealing to young Islamists between ages 16 to 25. Al Hayat Media Centre has rolled out several video series online starring young Islamist fighters and depicting the concept of brotherhood and jihadist ideologies. In an interview with The Daily Signal, James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle East affairs at The Heritage Foundation, said that unlike al-Qaeda that focuses on like-minded Islamist militants, ISIS is a movement spearheaded by a younger generation of Islamist revolutionaries. Their recruitment strategy revolves around using social media or digital platforms to attract young Muslims from around the world.
Another notable content produced by ISIS as part of its recruitment propaganda is a video consisting of edited footage from the popular video game Grand Theft Auto. As reported by Steve Rose of The Guardian, the video entices viewers or more appropriately, the young fans of the video game to join ISIS for a more true-to-life action and experience.
But the most gruesome of all of the contents from ISIS are those video footages depicting beheadings or executions, and in-battle footages. It is important to note that these videos have demonstrated a high production value as evident from multi-camera setup, high definition image quality, and clear audio recording. Furthermore, these videos demonstrated common filmmaking techniques and elements from film or television documentary.
Undeniably, the media strategy and online propaganda of ISIS is remarkable because it further establishes its distinction with other organisations such as the al-Qaeda. Unlike its counterparts, the organisation has created a true media and communication arm placed within a state-like organisational structure. It is easy to consider that the media capabilities of ISIS are akin to the media capabilities of legit governments or the communication capabilities of private media organisations simply because the organisation is capable of challenging Western ideologies and launching a war of ideas while reaching a global audience using the Internet and other related communication tools and techniques.
Further details of the report for Saltman and Winter are in the paper “Islamic State: The changing face of modern jihadist” published by Quilliam Foundation. Details of the report of Johnson are in the article “How ISIS is waging ‘war of ideas’ through social media” that appeared online on The Daily Signal. More details of the report of Rose are on the article “The ISIS propaganda war: A hi-tech media jihad” that appeared online on The Guardian.