by Andrin Hauri. He graduated from the University of Lausanne with a Master’s Degree in Political Science and holds a Diploma of Advanced Studies in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the University of Basel.
Unlike other terror regimes in history, he Islamic State (IS) does not try to keep the brutal aspects of its reign a secret. Instead, it purposefully deploys the depiction of its terror as tool for its own ends. It uses its distinctly modern propaganda machinery to broadcast not only its ideology and successes but also its barbarity to all who are willing to listen. With this brutal and potentially seductive sales message, IS is able to infiltrate all social strata. Indeed, no terrorist group has ever placed so much emphasis on propaganda, nor used it to such great effect. In the last part of this series of articles, the author argues that the extensive and professional use of propaganda is the fourth key factor for IS’ success.IS propaganda has several key attributes: The overwhelming majority of it is visual, such as online picture galleries and videos with added music heavily loaded with religious references and symbolism . Most media content is published in Arabic, with only a comparatively small number of products produced in other languages, such as English, French, German, Russian, Indonesian, and Urdu (Karen Krüger, “Die IS-Jugend: Generation Dschihad“, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22.11.2015). To provide the latter, the terror group takes full advantage of the linguistic skills of its foreign recruits, who produce specific content relevant for the domestic context of their home countries. A large part of the propaganda campaign takes place online and, in doing so, demonstrates a high level of technical skill, using social media services like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram in ways that make the media appearances of other terror groups look outdated. Through these mediums, IS can deliver its view of events in Iraq and Syria instantly and simultaneously to an audience of millions worldwide. Social media offers the additional advantage that, after gaining their attention, IS recruiters can directly reach out to individuals in order to recruit them (James Glassman, “Time to whip ISIS on the Internet, Part 1: The secret of the terrorist group’s success“, TechPolicyDaily, 20.08.2015).
While online propaganda is important in terms of reaching an audience beyond Iraq and Syria, IS also engages in face-to-face, offline media operations among the local population in the caliphate, which has only irregular access to the Internet. To reach them, the terror group runs its own al-Bayan Radio Station, distributes printed pamphlets and wall posters, and organises viewing parties for propaganda videos. It has set up media points in various towns from which CDs/DVDs, USB sticks, or printed materials are handed out to locals (Aaron Y. Zelin, “Picture or It Didn’t Happen: A Snapshot of the Islamic State’s Official Media Output“, Perspectives on Terrorism Volume 9 Issue 4, 2015, p. 86). Thereby, the terror group tries to manipulate those areas of society which are difficult to access through other means: households, women, and rural areas. Offline propaganda is much more numerous than the IS’ flagship productions in the virtual world and focuses more on events that are locally relevant.
Such a vast distribution network generates enormous demand for new media content, and the IS propaganda apparatus has to satisfy this demand day after day. High quality productions take a long time to be made, however, and cannot be released in the high frequency needed. Furthermore, such occasional, mass-marketed propaganda content for an international audience has little relevance for local communities and is unsuitable for satisfying the information need of thousands of young Arab-speaking IS supporters in the Middle East. To fill that gap, the terror group has created a provincial media strategy: Teams of media operatives are designated to each of IS’ provinces and follow all activities both on and off the battlefield at a local level. The content produced is usually in Arabic, of lower quality, and less ambitious then the productions for a global audience. In contrast to al-Qaʼida, IS’ propaganda also lets the audience hear from ordinary foot soldiers and not only IS leadership. This significantly increases the output of the propaganda apparatus and opens IS up to a whole new target audience not primarily interested in long religious monologues by studied leaders like Osama Bin Laden. With such an extensive correspondent network, IS can produce dozens of media releases every day and appear to be active and relevant in a wider variety of locations than is actually the case. IS’ sophisticated propaganda apparatus disseminates two key types of message: a peaceful message and a message of strength. In contrast to what is often assumed, depictions of violence constitute only a small fraction of the overall propaganda output of IS. Much more numerous are productions with appealing and harmonious content. Western media mainly thematises the grotesque acts of violence perpetrated by IS, whereas in the regional context the peaceful message tends to receive much more attention. (Tyler Golson, “Islamic State’s Local Propaganda Key to Understanding Appeal“, World Politics Review, 18.05.2015).
The Peaceful Message
The peaceful message distributed by IS propaganda consists of three, interrelated key components (Zelin, p.90-93). Firstly, that IS is a pious group, following the only “true Islam”. Secondly, that IS is building a functioning, religious state in Iraq and Syria, based on Islamic rules. Thirdly, that the caliphate is a paradise to live in for all “true Muslims”. By bundling all three together, IS is attempting to appeal to its core Arab constituency through religiousness, accomplishment, and routine.
One way in which the IS media arm promotes its own interpretation of Islam and educates supporters in the “proper”, i.e. IS’ way of practicing Islam, is by publishing texts about religious issues. This religious propaganda is mainly communicated through billboards or printed pamphlets and less so by electronic media. The media arm also regularly highlights IS’ moral policing activities to show that it holds up its precepts and swiftly punishes any violation.
For the second component of its peaceful propaganda message, IS represents itself as being engaged in a successful project of state-building. The message being spread is that on the ruins of Iraq and Syria, two states created by Western powers in the early twentieth century, IS has established a new and powerful Sunni Islamist state, governed and guided by a stern interpretation of sharia. In contrast to the central governments in Baghdad and Damascus, this new state provides relative security, religious guidance, and all essential public services to its population. This message is appealing, as it capitalises on the unfulfilled promises and expectations of weak states to their populations. In the propaganda conveying this state-building element, IS is depicted as fulfilling mundane communal tasks like fixing potholes, repairing streetlights, or setting up a permanent famer’s market in Mosul (see also part two of the article series and Golson). By carefully underlining achievements in the area of public services, IS is portrayed as a competent and prudent administrator of the territory it controls.The third element of the peaceful IS propaganda message is the promotion of the caliphate as a place in which ordinary Muslims can work and live happy lives with their families while the war continues. This is mainly achieved by showing scenes of “normality” within the caliphate: farmed fields, busy markets, and smiling people simply enjoying the stability and security on offer. By providing sugar-coated pictures from Raqqa and Mosul of a functioning state with a traditional, pious society, IS seeks to capture the imagination of consumers of its propaganda by offering them an alternative lifestyle to the one sold by western consumerism, in a society with traditional roles for men and women (Zelin, p.92f).
IS arguably pursues two main aims with this propaganda message. On the one hand, IS gains support from local communities by making its provision of stately services and security to people that have felt marginalised and neglected for years known. This gives the IS leadership legitimacy and the caliphate at least some semblance of being an actual state (Jonathan Githens-Mazer, “To Defeat Daesh Start with Their Strategy“, RUSI, 06.07.2015). On the other hand, by depicting the caliphate as a functioning state, IS intends to lure Muslims who are not primarily interested in waging violent jihad or achieving martyrdom to their territory. These usually young people are often toying with the idea of emigrating to the caliphate for other, pseudo-altruistic reasons. IS is in desperate need of young, educated professionals and their families; simply attracting fighters to their cause is insufficient in terms of building up and running the caliphate. Women and families give IS stability and serve as cornerstone of the new state.
The peaceful propaganda message is especially tempting to impressionable young Muslim men and women around the globe, who feel socially and politically marginalised in their countries of origin and are looking for a sense of belonging and purpose as Muslim citizens (Katherine Brown, “Analysis: Why are Western women joining Islamic State?“, BBC Online, 06.10.2014). They genuinely believe that IS represents a new utopian experiment in state-building and they want to become part of the re-establishment of the caliphate. This is a powerful narrative in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which left many Muslims disillusioned and hopeless, especially among younger generations. IS propaganda seizes this opportunity by offering these people a new state to which they can emigrate with their families, with the promise of employment and a new purpose in life.
The Message of Strength
The second message IS’ propaganda machinery disseminates is one of its own strength. It does this by portraying itself as always taking the initiative and being constantly on the march to the next victory. Whereas al-Qaʼida propaganda used the message “Islam is under attack” as a rallying cry for its supporters, IS has turned this around to convey the message that “Islam is on the attack” (Glassman). The message of weakness, of being the underdog, has been transformed into one of power, of being the actor who calls the shots. To this end, the IS media arm releases a constant stream of footage from its alleged successes on the battlefield. The language used is always offensive and active in nature. Thereby, IS is trying to convey the image of a strong, dynamic state on an equal footing with its stately enemies, which it will ultimately subdue as prophesised.
The other way IS propaganda brings this message across is by dehumanising and humiliating its enemies. It begins with the derogatory language IS uses to describe its foes, ranging from “atheists” to “apostates”, “soldiers of the tyrant”, and worse (Zelin, p.91). Attacks from the enemy are either portrayed as brutal violence against “ordinary Muslims” or as senseless destruction of civilian infrastructure in the caliphate.
Finally, the humiliation of the enemy and the inversion of power relations are particularly important elements in this kind of propaganda. The key way in which this is done is through the carefully choreographed and edited execution videos, for which IS has gained such notoriety. It is often argued that the abhorrent violence shown in these videos indicates some sort of psychological disorder or sadism that does not serve any real purpose. From this point of view, it is difficult to understand why they resonate effectively among ordinary members of Muslim communities around the globe.
Such an analysis, however, falls short in fully taking into account the underlying message of IS’ strength through the humiliation of its enemies. These videos are much more than filmed executions. In fact, they are well planned and much elaborated “performances of violence deliberately scripted to humiliate the victims”.
The humiliation and ultimate execution of prisoners inverses the prevalent power relations. By extension, the humiliation of the victims becomes the retaliatory humiliation of their countries of origin, ethnicity, or religion. Thus, impotence is being imposed upon those who have humiliated Islam in IS’ eyes – be that Kurds, Westerners, Christians, or Shiites. This resonates with Sunni Muslim communities around the world given their experience of external domination and perceived powerlessness over the last 100 years. The disappointing outcome of the Arab Spring has further deepened these sentiments.
The perceived patterns of powerlessness are not only historic in nature, but are also reproduced in the daily lives of many Muslims: high unemployment rates in Muslim countries impair the ability of men to marry or support a family, while Muslim communities in the West experience political, economic, and social marginalisation, and even open rejection or hostility. Given this background, it is perhaps unsurprising that the IS propaganda message of strength falls on fertile ground in certain parts of the Muslim community, especially among young, uneducated men. (Roxanne L. Euben, “How Violent ISIS Videos Help Mobilize New Recruits“, DefenseOne, 13.08.2015)
Thus, besides the obvious reasons behind this propaganda message of strength – sowing terror among enemies, forcing obedience among the local population, and creating order through deterrence – it also serves at least two more purposes.
Firstly, it serves as a tool for IS to recruit both veteran jihadists and angry young Muslims in general. It does this by attaching its cause to a range of local grievances of Muslim communities, beyond its fight in Iraq and Syria, and thereby taps into a much larger pool of potential recruits (Daniel Byman, “ISIS‘ Big Mistake“, Foreign Affairs, 15.11.2015). From Russian brutality in Chechnya to the Western intervention in Afghanistan and the struggle of the Palestinian people for a home land, the message of returning Islam to its “lost grandeur” by force lures individuals to the caliphate with the prospect of waging violent jihad within the framework of a greater cause. Combined with references to the end times, this struggle occurring in the very places mentioned in the prophecies is a big selling point for jihadists, who want to participate in the final battles of the apocalypse (William McCants, “How ISIL Out-Terrorized Bin Laden“, POLITICO Magazine, 19.08.2015) .
Secondly, the violence in IS propaganda also has a polarising effect on the Muslim and non-Muslim audience. It forces the viewer to choose a side and thus splits the world into two camps (Steven Metz, “Understanding the Enemy: Inside the Mind of the Islamic State“, World Politics Review, 21.11.2014). Only those ideologically attracted to IS and its beliefs find such violence and brutality morally acceptable. As a result, IS sympathisers become increasingly alienated from their previous peer groups, making them more open to radicalisation. However, for the rest of society the violence in IS propaganda, combined with the increasing number of terror attacks against civilian targets outside the Middle East, fuels an atmosphere of resentment and Islamophobia. By vilifying ordinary Muslims in the eyes of the general public, IS intentionally adds further stigmatisation to the social and political marginalisation already felt by Muslim citizens in many societies with a Muslim minority. Consequently, Muslims feel even more rejected, potentially making them more receptive to IS ideology. State and popular pushbacks against Muslim populations allow IS to argue that the world adamantly hates Muslims, no matter what they do or where they live. The rise of social movements such as Reclaim Australia, and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA) in western societies bears witness to the success of this strategy. In this atmosphere of diffuse fears, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise in both Europe and the United States . For IS, the declared end game of this strategy is to provoke hostilities, and ultimately a civil war, between Muslims and the rest of society, particularly within Europe (Robert Fisk, “We still haven’t grasped that this is war without frontiers“, The Independent, 21.11.2015).
The current success of IS appears to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The terror group takes strategic decisions that under other, “normal” historic circumstances would lead to quick and certain defeat for the insurgency. However, there is currently nothing “normal” about the complex situation in the Middle East. Be it the advancing alienation of Sunni citizens from Baghdad and Damascus, the ever heightening sectarian tensions, or the disappointing outcome of the Arab Spring, each seems to benefit the advancement of the terror group. Given the present constellation in the region, IS has managed to turn strategies that under other circumstances would have guaranteed certain doom into factors enabling its current success: relying on the continuous recruitment of supporters, including foreign recruits, the declaration of the caliphate, the internal as well as external use of terror, and the creation and use of a sophisticated propaganda apparatus. In order for IS to be brought to a comprehensive and definite end, each factor has to be tackled through a concerted and collective effort by as many relevant actors as possible. The way in which IS is confronted and eventually defeated will in turn decide what is in store for the region subsequently: a lasting political solution or an endless stream of successive jihadist groups feeding off the misery and despair of the impotent and disenfranchised parts of the population. In order to avoid the latter, it will be necessary to adopt a multi-pronged approach which not only puts a military end to the terror group, but also addresses the underlying social, political, and confessional issues in the region, which formed the fertile grounds that enabled the rise of IS in the first place. To do so will be a long, winding, and stony road. A swift solution cannot be expected. In the Middle East, certainly, no one is holding their breath.
Don’t miss the last parts of the article series: Key factor one – the continuous recruitment; key factor two – the caliphate; key factor three – the deployment of various forms of terror as strategic tools.
 Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder, “Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 9, Issue 4, 2015, p. 109; Aaron Y. Zelin, “Picture or It Didn’t Happen: A Snapshot of the Islamic State’s Official Media Output“, Perspectives on Terrorism Volume 9 Issue 4, 2015, p. 89.
 Eric Lichtbau, “Crimes Against Muslim Americans and Mosques Rise Sharply“, The New York Times, 17.12.2015); Oliver Wright, “Paris attacks: Women targeted as hate crime against British Muslims soars following terrorist atrocity“, The Independent, 22.11.2015.