Media is half the battle – An overview of the Islamic State’s media apparatus

Note: I finished writing this article in early January, 2016

The rapid emergence of the Islamic State in Syria & Iraq has brought with it a greater focus on the organization’s brutality. Widely circulated videos displaying extremely graphic violence, like the beheadings of American and British hostages, provoked massive outcry and rage from the West. However, execution videos make up just a tiny fraction of the amount of propaganda that the Islamic State’s media apparatus puts out on a daily basis. Mainstream media’s selective reporting about the Islamic State’s heinous acts has contributed to the commonly accepted idea that people join the group simply because they want to pillage, rape and plunder the non-believers. On the contrary, the caliphate appeals to people not just because of its brutality, but because of the judicial order, economic plenty, religious piety and social justice that their media promises countless times a day. [1]

The videos, along with the photographs, articles, nasheeds and other forms of media that the Islamic State (hereafter IS) release are the primary means through which they project their own image of themselves to the wider world. It’s also one of their biggest recruitment tools. Hence, it’s imperative that we understand their media strategy and the reasoning behind it in order to be able to successfully come up with and offer an alternative narrative that’s just as appealing as the one IS offers.

The IS media apparatus is made up of 38 provincial-level media offices in 11 countries from West Africa to Afghanistan, that all answer to the IS central media command. On top of that, the central media command further controls another 7 media offices tasked with producing nasheeds in a multitude of languages, daily radio reports, longer documentary-style propaganda videos, multiple online magazines, shorter battlefield reports, and more.

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Today’s tech-savvy Islamists in the caliphate are a far cry from Bin Laden’s lecture-style recordings. The IS media apparatus is dominated by foreigners, whose production skills often stem from previous jobs at news channels or technology companies. Senior media operatives can at times preside over hundreds of videographers, producers, and editors. [2]

A Moroccan that spent nearly a year as a cameraman for IS before defecting, recounted his experiences. After two months of military training he was admitted to a special month-long program for media operatives that specialized in how to film and edit footage, and how to get the right voice and tone in interviews. Only sanctioned crew members were allowed to carry cameras, and even they followed strict guidelines on the handling of their footage. Not knowing where his work would take place from day to day, he received his work assignments each morning on pieces of paper that also served as travel documents, enabling him to pass IS checkpoints. Once finished with a day’s shooting, he would load his recordings onto a laptop, transfer the footage to a memory stick, and then deliver it to a designated drop site. [3]

While their decentralized provincial-level media offices allow for greater autonomy in running day-to-day operations and an increased resistance to enemy attacks (one air strike won’t take out their entire media apparatus), the IS central media command holds a very tight grip over the kind of message they send out. This becomes blatantly obvious when multiple provincial offices conduct coordinated and targeted media efforts in response to outside events. After pictures surfaced of Alan Kurdi[4], ten separate IS provincial media offices released very similar videos all in a little more than day, denouncing refugees and urging them to join the caliphate instead.[5] When Palestinian attacks surged in Israel in October last year, the same thing took place. At least 8 provincial media offices released very similar videos in a short time frame, all inciting violent attacks on Jews.[6] These are very calculated and sophisticated propaganda campaigns with video releases from across the caliphate.

The slick production techniques that they use include very good attention to lighting, composition, detail and editing. Strictly visually speaking, the various IS media branches use a variety of techniques in order to make their videos appear more professional. Other than recording footage with expensive high quality cameras, they utilize more vibrant colors by minimizing the color palette that’s shown on video, which makes the end result come off as clearer and sharper. Also, using a shallow depth of field in order to get a tight focus, using camera angles in fairly sophisticated and subtle ways (e.g. switching from a normal to ‘first person’ perspective), as well as recording the same subject from more than one angle. IS is systematically working to use visual standards that will give their videos an underlying professional look to someone whose eye is accustomed to a European or North American industry standard. [7]

While the quality of videos released by provincial level media offices may differ some in terms of quality (depending mostly on how long they’ve been active), the overwhelming majority of videos released by al-Hayat, the IS central production unit responsible for all the longer documentary-style releases, appear as if every frame of every shot of every scene has been carefully calculated, thought through, and laid out.

Accompanying every IS video is at least one or two nasheeds[8], religious acapella hymns that praise and mythologize its fighters. Ever since it rose to prominence, IS have emerged as the most prolific creators of jihadi nasheeds in the world. The inclusion of the songs in IS videos have made them highly popular among supporters, and fighters sing them in training camps, listen to them in their dorms, in their cars, and even in the trenches on the front lines.[9][10] They are produced by several IS media companies strictly tasked with creating nasheeds in Arabic (al-Ajnad) and a range of other languages (al-Hayat). The catchy tunes, along with the vivid and often violent lyrics produce rousing songs that stir the emotions and form an essential part of the IS media apparatus.[11] In the last year alone, IS released more than 30 nasheeds. The second half of 2015 saw an increase in non-Arabic nasheeds, with releases in Turkish, Uyghur, English, Bengali, French, Russian, and Chinese (Mandarin). If anything, this is indicative of the diverse range of nationalities present in the caliphate and their continued efforts to spread their message throughout the world.

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While most of their media operation takes place on the Internet, it should be noted that IS also organizes viewing parties of its official content locally in the areas it controls. They’ve also created media points in a number of cities and villages under their control. These consist of either a stationary stall or a roving car that distributes CDs/DVDs and/or USB drives of IS media content to locals, with a target audience mainly comprised of children and young teenagers.[12] IS has even banned satellite television along with the buying and selling of receivers, in an attempt to further consolidate its control over the type of media available to civilians living under their rule. [13]

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During a one month period last year (17th July – 15th August, 2015), IS released a total of 892 separate media items, averaging at almost 30 unique items every day.[14] Strictly speaking, IS are unparalleled in the media aspect. No other Islamist group has ever managed to produce this much content on a regular basis. While most international media has been focused on commenting on their videos, the majority of the content they release are picture albums of their activities, which are a lot easier to produce than edited videos. During this time period 77% of all content consisted of photo albums. [15]

An in-depth analysis of all the content of the published items revealed four underlying but prominent themes; Utopia, war, victimhood, and brutality.

* The biggest theme present in the dataset was utopia, at 53%. Over half of all content released during this time period was focused on creating and cultivating an image of life in the caliphate as peaceful and normal. Statehood is one of the group’s chief appeals, and photo essays/videos depicted busy markets, the implementation of Sharia law, religious activities, governance (infrastructure repairs, sanitation, health care, education), along with a variety of nature and landscape imagery. [16]

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* Footage of war-related activities accounted for 37%. Scenes of fighting are naturally going to be a big part of the output seeing as war is their main agent of change and the tool they use to fight its enemies. IS only show a fraction of their military operations on camera, and when they do it’s almost exclusively when they’re on the offensive.[17] They can’t afford to be perceived as ‘on the defensive’, because one of its chief appeals is the perception of its political and military supremacy. [18]

* Displays of victimhood accounted for 7% of the output. Graphic images of infrastructure damage and civilian casualties as a result of Coalition, Russian, and Iraqi/Syrian government air strikes are used to justify not only its most heinous acts, but also its very existence. The air strikes are used as a cause to rally around the flag. [19]

* Execution videos and other displays of brutality accounted for only 2% of the total output and was dwarfed by the other three. The documented executions of spies or enemy soldiers are intended to intimidate adversaries and prevent challenges to their authority in areas they control, although it wasn’t nearly as prominent as many observers tend to assume. [20]

Over the past four years, nearly 30,000 foreign recruits have joined IS.[21] The number has increased drastically over the past two years, even eclipsing the flow of militants into Afghanistan in the 1980s.[22] In the past, terror organizations relied almost exclusively on direct contact in mosques or other settings for recruitment. Nowadays, 90% of all recruitment happens online, and the media that IS release is tailored for that purpose.[23] The IS media apparatus runs an exceptionally sophisticated information operation campaign, the success of which lies on the twin pillars of quantity and quality.[24] Their media is disseminated across multiple social media services by a vast network of dedicated supporters every day, and remains largely unchallenged.

In attempting to counter their online presence, the US administration has put pressure on social media companies (especially Twitter) to remove IS-related accounts. However, it’s proven to be a game of whack-a-mole, as accounts are simply re-created after being removed.[25] Given the scale and dedication of the IS media apparatus and the availability of its media across multiple social media platforms, negative measures like censorship are bound to fail. [26]

US intelligence officials have spent months mapping out known physical locations of IS media safe houses that the group use to edit together footage into finished media content ready for distribution. Most of them are embedded in heavily residential areas in Syria, Iraq, and Libya and are not being targeted by airstrikes due to the US administration’s concerns for civilian casualties and an urge to continue studying how the IS media apparatus operates.[27] While it may not take out their whole operation, experts and former officials say that destroying the facilities is especially important in countering their online presence. [28][29]

Counter-messaging efforts, such as those by the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), have been riddled with ineffective campaigns and misguided attempts to de-legitimatize the group. One of its more embarrassing ventures is a video of IS footage in which the speaker voice sarcastically tells viewers to “Run, do not walk, to ISIS land”, promising new arrivals would learn “useful new skills” such as “crucifying and executing muslims”. Their efforts have also been underfunded, and have failed to reach the intended target audience. [30]

The underlying problem with conducting this type of counter-messaging campaign is that the CSCC and other agencies involved are always one step behind IS, since they’re merely responding to and attempting to expose weaknesses, lies, and hypocrisy in the media content that IS release. This becomes a Sisyphus task, as the amount of IS media released in just one month far outweighs the quality, quantity and variation of any attempts, state or non-state, to challenge the group. [31]

More crucially, IS has a rich and enticing narrative that appeals to many young and disenchanted Sunnis. It’s often described by their opponents as superficial, bankrupt, or worthless, but it’s not. Their fighters may be naïve or stupid, but they didn’t sacrifice everything for nothing. People who join IS are trying (in their mind) to find a path, to answer a call to something, to right some perceived wrong, and to do something truly meaningful with their lives. [32]

One of the greatest challenges in counterterrorism today is working out how to create a narrative that directly speaks to a similar kind of longing among potential IS recruits, and channels that longing in a nonviolent direction. What the CSCC is offering is half a message: ‘Don’t do this.’ But they lack the ‘do this instead.’ [33]

The reality is that any attempts to discourage people from joining IS are going to be largely unsuccessful until experts come up with and offer an alternative narrative that is as powerful and enticing as the one IS offers.

 

SOURCES:

[1] [14] [15] [16] [18] [19] [20] [26] [31] http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FINAL-documenting-the-virtual-caliphate.pdf

[2] [3] [23] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/inside-the-islamic-states-propaganda-machine/2015/11/20/051e997a-8ce6-11e5-acff-673ae92ddd2b_story.html

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Alan_Kurdi

[5] http://uk.businessinsider.com/isis-propaganda-videos-on-europe-refugees-2015-9?r=US&IR=T

[6] http://blog.adl.org/international/isis-promotes-murdering-jews-in-new-online-campaign

[7] http://jihadology.net/2015/07/06/guest-post-isis-and-the-hollywood-visual-style/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasheed

[9] [11] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/12/isis-jihadi-cool/421776/

[10] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/nov/09/nasheed-how-isis-got-its-anthem

[12] [17] http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/445/html

[13] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-bans-corrupt-foreign-television-and-calls-satellite-dishes-the-machinations-of-satan-a6779511.html

[21] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/world/middleeast/thousands-enter-syria-to-join-isis-despite-global-efforts.html

[22] [30] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-a-propaganda-war-us-tried-to-play-by-the-enemys-rules/2015/05/08/6eb6b732-e52f-11e4-81ea-0649268f729e_story.html

[24] [25] [27] [29] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/dec/14/us-has-mapped-isis-propaganda-centers-but-wont-lau/?page=all

[28] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/18/health/al-quaeda-recruiter-fight-isis-online/

[32] [33] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/03/why-its-so-hard-to-stop-isis-propaganda/386216/

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