The Success of Islamist Propaganda
Oct 30, 2014
October 30, 2014
Number 10/14 #05
In the wake of a series of apparent Islamist “lone wolf” terror attacks in Canada and New York, this Update looks at the sophisticated media strategy that Islamist groups – and especially ISIS – are increasingly employing to further their cause and recruit volunteers and sympathisers. It also looks at Hamas’ social media strategy during the recent Gaza conflict.
First up is a good story from Germany’s Der Spiegel about ISIS’ well-targeted and professional propaganda. The article notes that there has been a dramatic improvement in ISIS PR over the last year, and ISIS videos and fighters are constantly present on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and SoundCloud – when they get shut down, they simply register under new names. While Western hostages are used to promote ISIS views to the West and also murdered as intimidation, bloody massacres are shown to intimidate local opponents, and material about the joys of living under an Islamic caliphate is designed to recruit Muslim Westerners. For this detailed look at how ISIS attempts to achieve all these differing goals with its propaganda, CLICK HERE. Der Spiegel also had an enlightening interview with an ISIS recruiter, displaying the group’s skill at turning back and twisting any questioning.
Next up, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post also cites Western intelligence officials saying that ISIS has an “awesome” PR campaign to win hearts and minds – and recruits. He goes on to discuss some of the same material as Der Spiegel, but other videos are also discussed in some detail. This includes both the promotion of video games and chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s tailored video messages directed at various countries, including of course Australia. Pincus concludes that, just as winning the ground war will rely on local troops, ultimately the efforts to win local hearts and minds will have to be dominated by efforts within Iraq and Syria. To read his full discussion, CLICK HERE.
Finally, this Update features an interesting examination from Tablet magazine of Hamas’ twitter output during the Gaza conflict, especially contrasting the output in Arabic, English and Hebrew versions. The report notes that Arabic material was devoted to boasting of victories, videos of attacks and pictures of fighters. In English, efforts were made to stress that only “military” targets were being struck by Hamas, and guidelines urged that all killed Gazans were to be called civilians while fighters should not be shown, even as the Arabic displayed armed fighters broadly. Hebrew, meanwhile, was devoted to intimidating and terrorising Israeli – with little success as few Israelis viewed Hamas Hebrew material. For all the details of Hamas’ media strategy – which seem in some ways parallel to ISIS careful targeting of material, CLICK HERE. Plus, an interesting inside look at a Hamas radio station – which exists only to “make Hamas look good.”
Readers may also be interested in:
- A report about the ISIS PR practice of boasting in its publications about giving captured Yazidi women as sex slaves to its fighters. Yet a Shi’ite clerics claims that ISIS is actually a plot to sell Muslim women to Jews.
- A report that some American aid is making its way to ISIS’ hands.
- A useful map of ISIS territorial control and battlelines.
- A good study of what is known about ISIS from Richard Barrett of the Sofran group.
- A Kurdish leader from Kobani in Syria – under siege by ISIS – complains in a New York Times op/ed that Turkey is obstructing desperately needed reinforcements and weapons.
- An argument – from two senior US political leaders – that the key to fighting ISIS is to also take on the Assad regime.
- UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum offers his formula for defeating ISIS – including taking on the ideology and improving weak governance.
- A financial expert talks about the economic side of Hamas’ strategy – which he says is focused on sparking violence as a way to get cash.
- Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon notes that, despite all the talk about Palestine in the Muslim world, Muslims seem much more interested in volunteering to fight for ISIS than for the Palestinians.
- Israeli writer Shmuel Rosner explains the reality behind the latest controversy over an Israeli government announcement that it was advancing plans to build 1000 more housing units in Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.
- An analysis by American reporter Eli Lake of the current crisis in US-Israel relations sparked by an unnamed senior government official in Washington calling Netanyahu a bunch of vulgar names – including “chickenshit” – in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. (More to follow on this in future Updates and blogs).
- Isi Leibler offers his take on the latest US-Israel controversy – arguing it arose from a desire by the US Administration to seek a new confrontation with Israel.
Islamic State’s methods may be medieval, but the group’s propaganda is second to none. The Islamists target their professionally produced videos at specific audiences — sometimes to spread a specific message, sometimes merely to terrify.
Last Monday, the now weekly Islamic State television show pronounced its verdict on Barack Obama’s latest speech about the group: “Disappointingly predictable,” the anchorman intoned. “America is good, the Islamic State is bad,” he said, parodying the US president’s strategy. “And they will be defeated using aircraft and a motley collection of fighters on the ground.”
US allies in the Free Syrian Army, he went on, were an “undisciplined, corrupt and largely ineffective fighting force.” The Islamic State, the anchorman intoned, “welcome meeting Obama’s under-construction army.”
The speaker, pale and thin but bathed in professional lighting as he sat calmly at a table like a real anchorman, is a hostage. “Hello there,” his show began, “I’m John Cantlie, the British citizen abandoned by my government and a long-term prisoner of the Islamic State.” The cameras changed perspective frequently, from a frontal view to a lateral one, and zoomed in on his unshaven face. Cantlie, in effect, was speaking for his life. After about six minutes, he closed: “Until next time.”
The weekly videos featuring Cantlie, in which he argues on behalf of those who likely intend to kill him, are among the most perfidious productions created by the terrorist group Islamic State. Indeed, not long after Cantlie’s latest episode, Islamic State released another video, allegedly showing the beheading of Cantlie’s countryman Alan Henning, a 47-year-old taxi driver and aid organization worker who was kidnapped in Syria nine months ago. He is the fourth Western hostage that Islamic State has decapitated.
In recent months, Islamic State has become known for its adept video production and its fighters are widely present on all manner of social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and SoundCloud. If their accounts get closed down, they just register under new names.
But the group’s marketing gurus do much more than simply repeat the same message ad infinitum on different platforms. They design each video and each message to correlate exactly to the target audience. For Western observers, they are cool, clean and coherent. For locals, they are bloody, brutal and fear-inducing.
Bringing People Together
When it works to their advantage, they exaggerate their own massacres. Sometimes they falsify the identity of their victims. The thousands of fellow Sunnis they killed in Syria were branded simply as “godless Shiites” on television. They even market themselves to kids, manipulating popular video games such as Grand Theft Auto V so that Islamic State fighters and the group’s black flag make an appearance.
In short videos from the series “Mujatweets,” an apparently German fighter talks about his supposedly wonderful life in the Caliphate. Such scenes, depicting the multicultural Islamic State brotherhood, are clearly meant for Muslims in the West. “Look here,” the message is, “everyone is equal here!” The images suggest that jihad has no borders; that it brings people together and makes them happy. Other blogs include women gushing about family life in wartime and the honor of being the widow of a martyr.
Islamic State’s propaganda offers something for every demographic — it is so professionally produced that al-Qaida looks old-fashioned by comparison. It is, as the New York Times recently dubbed it, “jihad 3.0.”
Their strategy is best illustrated by two almost simultaneously released videos from several weeks ago. One was produced to publicize the killing of American journalist James Foley, who had been kidnapped in November 2012. The second was likely never intended for a Western audience.
In the first, Foley’s captors had him deliver a message to the world. In the soft light of morning, Foley — dressed in Guantanamo orange — blamed the US for his death, expressed his regret at having been born American and absolved his murderers of all guilt. After he finished speaking, the masked Islamist standing next to him placed his knife on Foley’s throat and began moving it back and forth as the picture went dark.
There isn’t a single drop of blood to be seen in the video, making it seem as though his on-camera beheading was merely simulated. Experts have puzzled over the meaning of the staging, given the captors later show Foley’s bloody and detached head lying on his body. The most plausible explanation is that the video was designed to be tolerable for Western viewers — its most important message isn’t the murder itself, but Foley’s statement and that of his murderer just prior to the beheading. Those who attack Islamic State, the hooded killer threatens, must bear the consequences. He speaks English with a British accent.
‘Look At the Knife’
The second video couldn’t be more different. Heavily pixelated, it depicts Islamic State fighters murdering a group of rebellious clan members not far from the Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor. It is difficult to find adequate words to describe the 11-minute movie. The victims are lying on the ground, staring upwards with eyes full of fear, before their throats are slit one after the other and their heads are chopped or torn from their torsos. Their butchers laugh as they kill, saying things like “Hey, he’s really got some meat on his cheeks!” or “Hey you, you should look at the knife when I cut your head off!” The killers speak Arabic with Moroccan and Egyptian accents.
This video is aimed at a different audience, people living in the regions under Islamic State control, particularly those who might dare to resist — such as the men from the al-Sheitaat tribe that were massacred on camera. According to various sources, up to 700 tribesmen were killed in the slaughter. And the message appears to have been heard: The tribe’s sheikh responded by begging Islamic State for forgiveness and mercy.
For those against whom Islamic State is fighting, the message is always the same: Be afraid! The panicked fear they spread has become a real weapon for the jihadis, in light of the fact that they are often outnumbered by their opponents. It has worked well in many Syrian and Iraqi towns and villages. At the beginning of August, for example, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters abandoned almost all of their positions in the face of advancing Islamic State fighters.
To spread panic even further, Islamic State often exaggerates its own bloody excesses. After the battles between June 11 and 14, when Islamic State took control of Sunni areas in northwest Iraq, the group’s PR division released videos of its atrocities. They claimed the clips showed Islamic State jihadists killing 1,700 pro-government Shiite soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, a number that quickly found its way into international media reports.
But the videos, brutal as they were, showed the murder of a few dozen captured soldiers at most. People visited several large Iraqi cities on the search for evidence of the massacre, but no mass funerals or mourning ceremonies were observed. Activists from Human Rights Watch studied high-resolution satellite photos for fresh excavation sites that could indicate mass graves. They found evidence of two mass graves, and their initial study concluded that the number of dead was between 160 and 190. The group suspects that other mass graves exist, but no proof for a higher number of casualties has yet been found.
The West has tended to take Islamic State claims of barbarity at face value, primarily because it seems so unlikely that anyone would exaggerate one’s own cruelty. But the Islamic State was likely trying to reap benefits from its own seeming exaggerations.
‘The Law of the Jungle’
The jihadists’ PR experts are adept at altering reality to best fit the message it is attempting to propagate — either by overstating its murderousness or by changing the identities of its victims. Islamic State claims to be protecting and representing the interests of Sunni Muslims. Nevertheless, the jihadists in Syria have killed thousands of Sunnis who refused to submit to their ruthless claims to power. So as to stay on message, Islamic State propagandists simply claimed in video text that those killed were “Shiite soldiers of Assad’s.”
From a technical perspective, the group’s digital jihad has “exponentially improved” in the last year and a half, says Christoph Günther, an Islam expert at the University of Leipzig. Since 2007, he has been monitoring the group’s PR strategy. At the beginning — before it adopted the megalomaniacal name “Islamic State” and proclaimed the establishment of a “Caliphate” — its presentation was modest. “Earlier, the image quality of their videos was terrible,” Günther says. Often, hours-long speeches in Arabic were simply uploaded to the Internet.
Today, he says, the situation has changed significantly, thanks partly to the companies that Islamic State now operates in the territories under its control. The improvements have also stemmed from the influx of foreign fighters who can now spread the group’s propaganda in English, French, German and other languages.
One thing, however, remains unclear: What is Islamic State’s religious message? Osama Bin Laden and his followers made an effort to justify their deeds both before and after Sept. 11, 2001, says Fawaz Gerges, a terrorism expert at the London School of Economics. “They came up with theological justifications, they pointed to the suffering of the Palestinians or they claimed they were defending Muslims.” For Islamic State, though, he says, justifications hardly play any role at all. Its only message is violence and it is aimed even at their own fellow Sunnis. “There is nothing,” Gerges says. “It’s an intellectual desert.”
For years, Gerges has been monitoring the man who claims to be Islamic State’s “official spokesman.” He calls himself Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and the US State Department added his name to its terrorist list on August 18. Adnani, from the northern Syrian town of Binnish, is thought to be around 37 years old and is among the earliest members of Islamic State. He is one of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s closest confidants and was among those sent to Syria in 2011 to gain a foothold there. Today, Adnani is considered to be the right-hand man of al-Baghdadi’s, the self-proclaimed Caliph. A speech he delivered after coalition air strikes against Islamic State began — in which he called US Secretary of State John Kerry an “old uncircumcised geezer” — was translated into seven languages.
One anecdote about Adnani is particularly insightful, Gerges says. Two years ago, Gerges relates, representatives from various Islamist groups met near Aleppo to talk about conflicts among their groups. The others agreed that a religious council should be founded to solve the conflicts in accordance with Islamic law. But the Islamic State spokesman, so the story goes, merely looked at them disdainfully. He then said: “The only law I believe in is the law of the jungle.”
Back to Top
The Islamic State may practice medieval barbarism in Syria and Iraq, but its worldwide media operations are 21st century.
It’s active on social media, it has pamphlets, weekly illustrated magazines, billboards, T-shirts, baseball hats and even propaganda offices in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has expanded the message machine, too, particularly since the United States began its air attacks against the terrorist group’s forces in Iraq on Aug. 8.
Its recent output of videos has been prodigious.
The three professionally staged beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker shocked the world. Whatever their original purpose — seemingly to halt the U.S. bombing — they instead generated U.S. public demand for immediate action against the Islamic State and greater international support for President Obama’s decision to expand the bombing to Syria.
The newest Islamic State prisoner videos, using captured British journalist John Cantlie, take a different tack. They have him questioning the West’s military operations against Muslims.
In two six-minute videos, one released Sept. 18 and one on Sept. 23, Cantlie reads from a script in an apparently forced but calm manner.
He describes himself as “a British citizen abandoned by my government and a longtime prisoner of the Islamic State.” In his first program, Cantlie pointed out how the Islamic State had negotiated the release of other European prisoners — without mentioning ransoms — while the British and Americans refused to make any deal.
Cantlie argues against the United States and Britain attacking the Islamic State, referencing Vietnam and recent criticism of the first Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. He also raises the specter that this approach eventually will require thousands of American boots on the ground.
He closes the newest video quoting former CIA analyst Michael Scheurer, who headed the agency’s original al-Qaeda unit: Islamists “have been in the field fighting since 1979, and their movement has never been larger, more popular or as well armed as it is today.”
Cantlie signs off: “Join me again for the next program.”
The Islamic State’s video output since June has been far greater than these publicized prisoner ones.
●There are recruiting videos such as “No Life Without Jihad,” featuring English-speaking fighters telling others to join, and “Breaking the Border,” showing equipment and prisoners seized on the Iraq-Syrian border area they control.
● A 55-minute documentary “Flames of War,” released last week alternates between horrific bloodshed — Syrian army soldiers forced to dig their own graves and then shot — to a masked American-sounding fighter explaining why he has joined. There’s also a scene in which a jihadist is killed by an explosion as the English-speaking narrator praises him and quotes the prophet Muhammad, saying those who fight on the battlefield “and do not turn their faces away until they are killed” are the best of martyrs.
● A two-minute trailer promoting an upcoming new jihadist video game in which players kill Iraqi and U.S. forces.
The United States and its coalition may have top-notch weaponry, but the Islamic State appears to have what one intelligence analyst recently described as an “awesome” thought-through campaign to win hearts and minds — and recruits.
The Islamic State PR team has a big advantage when it comes to the propaganda war, according to present and former U.S. intelligence analysts.
The region is hospitable to the anti-West and particularly anti-U.S. messaging. In the midst of sectarian conflict, political disorder and years of social inequities, they have been skillfully portraying themselves as having solutions.
One of the most recent examples of Islamic State propaganda came in a Sept. 21 speech by its chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, broadcast in Arabic, translated into many languages and placed on social media around the world.
Adnani sprinkles his 42-minute, 12-page speech with disparaging descriptions of U.S. officials that are bound to be circulated among jihadist fighters, with whom they will resonate. Obama is called a “mule of the Jews,” and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is called an “uncircumcised old geezer.”
Addressing Americans, Adnani says: “The Islamic State did not institute a war against you, as your governments and media try to make you believe.”
He adds that the United States “will pay the price” when its economy collapses and “you will pay the price when your sons are sent to wage a war against us and they return to you as disabled amputees, or inside coffins or mentally ill.”
Then he adds that Americans, “will pay the price as you walk on your streets, turning right and left, fearing the Muslims. You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms. You will pay the price when this crusade of yours collapses and thereafter we will strike you in your homeland you will never be able to harm anyone afterwards.”
He has messages for Egypt, Sunnis in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, Australians and Canadians.
U.S. attempts to counter this type of messaging faces the same difficulty that Washington has had in trying to create democratic governmental partners in the region. The new Baghdad government somehow must overcome the anti-Sunni, anti-Kurd actions of the former Nouri al-Maliki government to regain the Iraqi people’s support — U.S. tweets can’t do it. The task in Syria is even more difficult.
President Obama has repeatedly said that it is up to Iraqis and Syrians to win the military war on the ground. The propaganda war is no different.
During the late afternoon on Aug. 26, hours before the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire in Gaza began, Hamas’ military wing—Al-Qassam Brigades—launched its final attacks on Israel. In addition to the dozens of rockets shot by Al-Qassam Brigades, @qassam_Arabic1, Al-Qassam’s official Arabic Twitter account, defiantly posted dozens of tweets declaring unconditional triumph. Sprinkling religious messaging on their Arabic Twitter page, Al-Qassam frequently utilized Quranic language to inspire its followers. At the same time, in English, Al-Qassam was posting online messages employing terms such as “human rights” to attract a Western audience while emphasizing Palestinian suffering—a campaign that has arguably captured more tangible benefits and strategic ground for the Islamist group than its missiles and tunnels did during the actual fighting this summer.