ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)
ISIS and the Media
If there is one thing that sets ISIS apart from all other similar groups, it is its mastery of media. It understands how to dominate the news cycle and how to communicate its message. It is a relatively small group in comparison to most nations or states and yet it has the attention of the entirety of the developed world and most of the developing world. As stated in the preceding chapter, it has garnered the loyalty of groups from Pakistan to Nigeria. It operates in Turkey and Europe and inspires attacks in North America. This is both enhanced by and enhances the media perception of the group.
The most publicized media success for ISIS is probably Twitter. There are thousands of people who post on Twitter both in opposition to and in support of ISIS. ISIS has people in the state itself and abroad who post and repost both by order and organically. Twitter provides the ability for ISIS to get a message out to the majority of the world within a matter of minutes through using #hashtags. Twitter is credited with bringing about the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. What is important is that it taught the world what was possible with Twitter. ISIS has now demonstrated to every current and future substate, nonstate, or poststate actor what can be accomplished through the use of a simple phone application. Again, this is both an intentional part of its plan and an organic and supportive nonaffiliated process that benefits ISIS in its messaging.
ISIS has no official Web site because of official controls and sanctions that would have any such Web site shut down by government authority. Despite these restrictions, there are still plenty of images and information available through third-party sites. Many of the sites behave in similar ways as do the recruiters. Some are semiofficials and others are simply individuals broadcasting their own thoughts or trying to be rebels by supporting something they perceive to be on the edge.
There are numerous sites that publish ISIS videos. Some of the videos are ISIS productions. One of the best known and best produced is titled “Clanging of the Swords” and is more than an hour long. Another video published in November 2015 is titled “And No Respite,” which targets the U.S. market with English language and well-crafted imagery and special effects. There are numerous other videos in a variety of languages. Each is sending a message. Some of them communicate the power of ISIS to destroy the old borders or to reach out and kill its enemies. Many of the ISIS videos are snuff films as they show the taking of human life in various ways—explosions, executions, shootings, etc. One should only watch these videos with a serious purpose in mind; as a combat veteran said, somethings you cannot unsee.
The jihadi community produces music videos that feature its fighters either dancing or chanting the lyrics themselves. Others feature the fighters with music playing over the events depicted. Music can be instrumental or it can be a nasheed (or chant). These are particularly popular with salafi-jihadis since they believe there is a prohibition against instrumental music. The chants convey a great deal of information about the intent and objectives of the group. They are also catchy tunes that act as advertising jingles to consistently communicate the goals of the group long after the listener no longer has the music playing.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began the concept of publishing a magazine as a vehicle to get information out. ISIS has taken that original concept and expanded it. It publishes magazines in different languages. Its English-language magazine is called Dabiq. The magazine is named after the Muslim equivalent of the battle of Armageddon where, at the end of days, the army of the righteous will be led by Jesus to defeat the Dajjal or anti-Christ. The magazine is well produced with imagery, articles, and propaganda. It began after the declaration of the caliphate, and by the end of 2015, there were 12 issues published. Though written in English, the tone of the writing is Arabic as many of the articles use poetic imagery and make statements that seem poetically extreme. Reading the magazine is the single best way to understand the ISIS perspective. To fully understand the content requires a grasp of Islamic history and culture as many of the words and references may be easily missed by one who lacks the proper context.
It took al-Qaeda years to admit to being behind the attacks on September 11, 2001. The intent of the organization was to let the attacks speak for themselves. It was content to conduct its business behind the scenes in the shadows because it wanted the Muslim people to rise up and declare a caliphate organically. ISIS is very different. It is a state. It has the agenda of being in the forefront of people’s minds because it is the one that created and declared the caliphate. Thus ISIS takes credit almost immediately upon the commission of an act. In some cases, it seems to take responsibility almost too quickly as if it is trying to beat some other organization to the credit. Receiving credit for attacks is a part of its media effort; it communicates that it is everywhere doing all of the fighting in the name of Islam. The initial credit is typically communicated by Twitter and then may be followed up by video uploaded to a Web site. This, of course, depends on what ISIS is taking credit for. In the case of assassinations and executions, the first word may be through an uploaded video. When the events (like a bomb blast) are covered by international media, Twitter is the common vehicle.
Violence for Media’s Sake
As stated earlier, ISIS conducts its violence with the intent of getting media attention. This is why it is extreme in terms of violence and in the staging of events. Like a reality television star, it has to continually increase the spectacle or it will lose viewers. It started with beheadings because that received massive international coverage. These then escalated in number and in variety. It also understands that the nationality of the person being executed matters because certain nationalities get more media coverage than others. The executioner also matters in terms of the coverage. Simply stated, its staged violence is intended as a reality program with staging, script, and schedule for release in order to maximize coverage.