The media strategy of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) is effective and successful. The professional use of social media to project a coherent worldview has enabled IS to be both resilient to account takedowns on social media platform and attempts to deploy “counter-narratives” (or: “alternative narratives”) against the group. IS publishes videos on an almost daily basis: from gruesome execution videos the group is notorious for to movies showing the “statehood” and reconstruction of infrastructure, IS deploys a rich blend of narratives that are conveyed in pictures and related to a corpus of writings of thirty years of jihadism. By establishing a “state” (Arabic: dawla) and by rendering the borders between Syria and Iraq as irrelevant, IS has realized what AQ has pledged for decades: to erode the borders of Sykes-Picot and establish a “state” on the very theological grounds of extremist interpretation.
IS embodies the “new AQ”, applying AQ ideology within territories in the Sunni-Arabic heartlands of Syria, Iraq, and to a varying decree in Libya, Sinai Peninsula, Yemen etc. Hence, the majority of foreign fighters among the rows of IS are Arabs and the overwhelming majority of IS videos are in Arabic, addressing and targeting a likewise rich and disperse Arab(ic) target audience.
By projecting a physical “Islamic State”, IS embodies a positive worldview, provides a clear cut videotaped “Sunni Muslim identity” and uses Arab and non-Arab foreign fighters for their media productions to boost the image of this “state”.
Fighting for Hegemony: Claiming Sunni-Muslim identity and “Prophetic Methodology”
This is a fight for hegemony and identity: what does it mean, being a Sunni Muslim in times of war and sectarianism? To answer these questions, the “Islamic State” has taken the lead in producing mainly Arabic language videos to incite a global Arab audience by popularizing their fighters, ideologues and preachers as ultimate role models, modern day Islamic warriors, or simply as defenders of Sunni communities in time of suffering. IS is a Arab movement fighting for independence, yet welcoming non-Arab Muslim foreign fighters into their ranks who are used strategically and on a tactical level for jihadist media, the battlefield or the hinterland where they can be of value to the state-building efforts. Non-Arab foreign fighters tend to address their target audience in their respective language, and oftentimes are featured in special videos with Arabic and non-Arabic titles. This accounts for Brits, Germans, Austrians, French, Russians, and so on, while the overwhelming majority of IS and AQ videos are in Arabic featuring native Arabs.
With the influx of foreign fighters among the ranks of The Islamic State from the European Union and the United States, the use of social media has reached an unprecedented dimension – with an immense input from both Arab and non-Arab foreign fighters in various languages on respective social media sites. These foreign fighters have the potential to have particular resonance for Islamic communities in their respective countries of origin, as the grievances and framing of “injustice” can vary depending on the local context, while the ideology is tied into the Arabic religious reasoning as expressed by writings and most important as conveyed by audio-visual means. With Arabic as the most important language for Islam, as the Qur’an is the speech of God (kalimat allah), revealed in Arabic, the lingua jihadica is likewise Arabic. Arabic key words of the jihadist segment, as a consequence, have become a mainstream substrate in many non-Arabic languages where Islam has found a home, providing non-Arabic speaking sympathizers of jihad an everyday slang to identify with and to use for their religious rituals and codes of identification. This is of importance when studying Arabic jihadist materials, perhaps even more so important in regards of the social media jihad, as the questions and answers provided within this framework for operational or plainly ideological purposes produce new key words for the jihadist lingual substrate worldwide.
Sympathizers and media operatives use key words strategically alike with the aim to widen the appeal of the jihadist ideology, while assuming a monopoly over the mainly Qur’anic terminology in by extremist definitions. Deriving from the original Arabic, the key words are transcribed in Latin letters and are the most integral part of any non-Arabic language production. The use of these key words is significant to grade and understand what impact the Arabic dominated ideology has on non-Arab majority societies, expressed both on- and offline, whereas non-Arab foreign fighters project influence and the extremist hegemony of what it means being a ‘true’ Sunni Muslim by injecting such keywords into their target audiences. The interaction of social media platforms calls on the sympathizers to engage with such videos and role models, hence popularizing specific key words and having a potential impact on the local non-Arab milieus within non-majority Islamic societies such as in Europe and beyond.
Videos are the most important medium through which to demonstrate the manifestation and realization of jihadist creed (‘aqida) and methodology (manhaj), for which IS claims to fight, as described in an earlier post. Re-enacting the extremist understanding of the conduct of Prophet Muhammad and hence claiming being “upon the Prophetic Methodology” as one of the most important video by the same title clarifies.
The Media Works of IS
IS occupied swathes of territory in the Sunni-Arab heartlands of Syria and Iraq in June 2014. In a blitzkrieg style, the “Islamic State” was able to take over major cities and declared a “caliphate”.
The valorization of achievements is expressed in a young and highly visualized language. When the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, prior to the declaration of the “Caliphate” in a surprise move was able to gain a momentum and take control of vast parts of Iraq, including the urban hubs of Mosul, Tikrit and Samara’, the jihadist self-esteem was boosted in their conviction of being the chosen few to act on behalf of God and the prophetic conduct. This found its expression in a most modern format on Twitter by sympathizers. By taking Hollywood movies, sympathizers frame and reframe their perception of what is happening on the ground. Pro-IS Twitter users part of a cluster network of English language supporters were quick to remodel movie posters of the film “300” to visualize the victorious “800” mujahidin of the “Islamic State”, citing the Guardian as a source.
The fans and sympathizers, not only create their own fan-content, or user-generated content, but understand and know the movies and codes popular within the specific circles – crafting a connection between hard-core mujahidin and popular global culture, dominated by Western elements and movies in particular. This mechanism of relaying the on- and offline worlds is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the modern usage of the Internet by jihadist activists to develop a deep-rooted movement in the Middle East and North Africa region. Simultaneously, within the “state”, within consolidated “provinces” of IS the Internet is the main hook to connect to the outside world to call on Muslims everywhere to – at least – support and – at best – join this project. The logical consequence, perhaps, with IS making gains in Iraq and declaring an Islamic caliphate, media activists embedded along the front lines and their global support networks, the media mujahedin, valorize their achievements in HD video and Hollywood film style posters which are distributed via social media. The public diplomacy and cultural relations organizations mandated to counter violent extremism require strategies based on network concepts to counter it.
Jihadi subculture online is characterized by a culture of individual participation whereas user-generated-content enriches the propaganda by IS. This user-created-content should not be underestimated or underrated. While some favor gory videos or movies from the frontlines, others are more attracted to the “civil side” of “the state”, whereas IS presents itself as a functioning state providing the population with energy, water, the reopening of grocery stores, or by showing a fire department brigade in Raqqa. This is a niche hardly covered by other players in Iraq or Syria allowing IS to claim sole responsibility for the (Sunni) civilian population and fosters the image of the soft side of the terror group as a savior handing out aid for their brothers and sisters in need.
Perimeter control: Resilience of IS networks and a coherent ideology as a mental safeguard
IS is a revolutionary group that deploys a highly professionally and ideologically coherent media strategy. It systematically makes use of the Internet like no other terror or interest group to market their messages and narratives to a global audience in multiple languages. Time and again, IS has proven to be skillful to adapt, respond and to reconfigure. The first year anniversary of the coalition airstrikes against the group, that had been launched to retaliate the filmed execution of U.S. citizen James Foley and others was mocked by the group in videos showing members of al-Hisba, the “Islamic State’s” police, patrol the market of Aleppo and address the audience of the futility of the war against IS. Responding to the refugee crises, IS not only claimed the drowning of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi as God’s punishment for wanting to leave the “Islamic abode” in the English language magazine Dabiq. In several Arabic language videos, IS dignitaries decreed any Sunni Muslim turning away to Europe and elsewhere as a legitimate target for the group. These statements were enriched by accounts of local Syrians and Iraqis expressing their gratitude to be finally able to live out the true Islamic identity and have protection. These films are usually in Arabic featuring local Arabs – reaching out directly to a target Arab audience in neighboring countries, within refugee camps worldwide and within societies outside of MENA region. Such messages are part of the rich blend of videos released on an almost daily basis. These videos, to share the links to watch or download, are talked about on social media where users across a wide range of languages respond and engage personally to foster the “Islamic State” as the only legitimate source and physical representation of “Islam”.
In this regard, Twitter is the most important platform for IS. Despite the tireless takedowns of IS accounts by Twitter, the extremists are disseminating their material more decentralized, relying on mainly Arabic language hash tags and have given up to re-establish “official” IS media Twitter accounts.
This adaption of their marketing strategy is successful. Accounts are replaceable, the consistent use of specific hashtags (#) on Twitter ensures an undisrupted flow of content and information that seek to indoctrinate and initiate the consumers into jihadist ideology. The Arabic hashtags used are not limited to the “Islamic State” or “IS will remain and expand”, an early slogan crafted in the critical phase of the first half of 2014, as crafty supporters also use current trends, such as world sport events or global news items (even Apple key notes) in an attempt to reach a most diverse audience.
Like ants, IS has proven to act like a swarm and reconfigure their networks to maintain their ability to project influence on social media platforms. Even when several accounts are deleted, enough hard-core followers and plenty of supporters remain active to immediately promote both the current content as well as new IS accounts. Dissemination strategies in combination with the consistent and coherent (and mainly Arabic) IS content gives a grim outlook that IS is winning the Online Jihad against the West, as also noted by the New York Times.
No disconnect between online and offline
Because of the immense quantity of videos as well as the frequent “photo reports” from within the respective “provinces” of the “caliphate”, IS propaganda is overly present within social media channels.
(Non-Arab) foreign fighters are not only featured in the videos but can communicate directly with their friends and relatives in their country of origin by mobile phone. This non-Arabic input from inside the “caliphate” further enriches the overall output and allows the media tacticians to target milieus that had never been breached before inside western societies.
The visual culture and massive quantity of qualitative videos allow for the constant repetition and showcasing of doctrines that disparage non-believers and sanction the collective punishment of “apostates” (murtaddin) and Muslim “hypocrites” (munafiqin). This theological led discourse can be defined as “discursive guidance”; through the constant repetition of extremist-laden theological interpretation and its practical implementation, jihadi media consumers and participants are provided with a framework to become active and engaged in the jihadist ideology.
The al-Qaeda (AQ) ideology has provided the theoretical framework that IS employs and exercises. While AQ has been pledging for decades to erode the borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, IS was able to do so within few months – with proper tabloid styled reporting of the event for their electronic English language magazine “Dabiq” as well as several videos in Arabic, English, Spanish and other languages. One may thus argue, the AQ ideology cannot be separated from IS, rather, IS is the recent evolution thereof. With the consolidation of territory by IS within Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, local Arab traditions are subjected or forced to adapt to the application of its “state” ideology – based mainly on AQ ideologues and their rich theological corpus (mainly writings).
AQ propagates multi-layered theological and Islamic jurisprudential narratives advocated in writings and advertised in videos as “discursive guidance”. However, IS has the ability to re-enact and implement this “discursive guidance” within the Sunni landscape inside Arab countries and thus produce new audio-visual content to booster their messages and their self-proclaimed “state-” and “manhood”, based on the extremist understanding of acting “upon the Prophetic Methodology.”
*This research is funded by VOX-Pol, an FP-7 funded Project of the European Union.