Ancient religious duty hybridised with pop-culture in an all-welcoming ‘established’ Islamic utopia are the key narratives of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) social media recruitment and propaganda campaign. Unlike previous organisations such as Al Qaeda, ISIL has a well developed understanding of who their audience and potential recruits are and exploit the globally accessible medium of social media to reach out to them 24hours a day. This paper aims to highlight the intricate understanding ISIL has of social media propaganda narratives and the necessity to continually remain in the spotlight. This will be explored through a look into the Western-media contribution to ISIL’s narrative and analyses of ISIL produced YouTube videos and Twitter exploitation. These areas will lead to identifying the narrative and methods employed to ensure potential recruits, sympathisers and global audiences remain hooked on their uncut supply of digital heroin. Lastly, the paper concludes that a multi-faith, well-informed strategic media campaign highlighting the justification of force, diplomacy between nations and education amongst communities, combined with punitive measures for those retransmitting the ISIL message online, is the multi-headed hydra required to triumph in the online battlefield. Introduction
Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL are not afforded the same time frames, ability or freedom in establishing a well-trained formidable force when compared to nation-states around the world. This results in an absolute requirement to recruit mass numbers quickly –in the battlefield and on foreign shores- whilst also drawing in already trained personnel in a variety of specialties. Their recruitment campaign is complicated however, by most governments having access and control of traditional media streams the public rely on, whilst also running an international counter-campaign.
Such complications were identified in 2005 by the then second-in-command of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, when he wrote to the Jordanian chapter’s leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq: “I say to you that we are in a battle and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our people.” Not 10 years later, ISIL formed seemingly overnight and has become the modern-day juggernaut of sophisticated, high-definition movies and smartphone re-transmission apps that see their narrative of persecution, brotherhood, Islamic-utopia and merciless vengeance against their western attackers’ reaching millions of people around the world. With such reach and ability to get their message into the hand of anyone with a smartphone, tablet or computer, history is diluted and morphed to reflect ISIL’s desired perception and own version of history that is then re-imagined and ‘relived’ in the current day. As Payne outlines in ‘Winning the Battle of Ideas’, “Facts are important, but perception and memory are more so.”
Western Media contributing to ISIL’s narrative
In ISIL videos, such as ‘Flames of War’, as well as through endless tweets, ISIL cleverly employs sound-bites from influential and powerful people around the world, whilst also repurposing high-quality western media and ‘gaming’ images and footage for their own messaging and recruitment. These efforts, coupled with global media’s almost complete reliance on ISIL produced reporting due to reluctance to send journalists to the battlegrounds, enable ISIL to portray the situation in their own light. This in turn gives weight or ‘proof’ via ‘reputable’ western media to their narrative of oppression and aggression from the non-Muslim world.
This is further fuelled by widely advertised campaign polices such as “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States…” as well as a distinct lack of reporting on Muslim deaths as a result of air strikes. A recent example of this was after French President, Francois Holland, ordered airstrikes on al Raqqa (ISIL’s claimed capital) after the November attacks in Paris. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported these airstrikes hit the National Hospital, al Noor mosque and resulted in a large number of civilian causalities. Whilst the commencement of the French offensive was given ample airtime, the death of Syrians as a result of these airstrikes was barely noted. This lack of news coverage or concern for the lives of Muslims again feeds into the Daesh narrative that pushes the issues of persecution and discrimination, driving the ancient wedge of Muslims against crusaders.
Another contribution ISIL exploits out of western media is legitimacy and the façade of the group being the most dangerous threat to the western world. Continual reference by media to ‘The Islamic State’, which is often then depicted on screen via a world map with established borders, are providing a normalisation of the words ‘Islamic State’ to the point of legitimacy, as if it does actually exists in the world. Couple this ‘established state’ with daily stories of the amount of terrain ‘captured’ by ISIL, and the media play directly into the narrative of having succeeded in creating an Islamic utopia by being a successful global force to be reckoned with.
As well as providing legitimacy, western media also plays into ISIL’s intent of generating fear amongst their opponents and rival sects as well as the narrative of being successful in achieving their objectives. The public’s insatiable appetite for ISIL-related activities drives the media to report daily on any horrific event or attack and link it immediately to ‘Islamic State’ influence. This creates the effect of them appearing as a vastly numerous army with the ability to infiltrate anywhere in the world. Such generated fear also plays a large part in the recruitment campaign when it comes to potential recruits choosing ‘a team’ to fight with in the region.
ISIL exploitation of Social Media platforms
In Anne Aly’s journal submission of Brothers, Believers, Brave Mujahideen: Focusing Attention on the Audience of Violent Jihadist Preachers, she cites a key analysis by Cordes from 1987. Cordes highlights the communiqué framework of Euro terrorists that remains a cornerstone in terrorist propaganda, and is well applied by ISIL today in the YouTube clips below. As paraphrased by Aly, Cordes states that terrorist communiqués are intended to reach four audiences:
1. “The government they intend to coerce (through threats of further action or retaliation);
2. The constituency—those the terrorists claim to represent to inform them about their purpose, engender support, or mobilise;
3. Members of like-minded groups in order to demonstrate solidarity;
4. The terrorists themselves—in this case, the message is auto propaganda, which restructures behaviour and provides self-exoneration”.
ISIL released video “Orlando Attack”
The video opens with a timestamp of 2001 as “the beginning of America’s war on terror”, with a voice over of George W. Bush speaking of retaliation for ‘9/11’, immediately linking this video to the U.S. government as the audience, whilst also painting them as the aggressor. This is followed by the statement that in 2011 “they (the U.S.) thought it was over”, again another voice over, however this time of Barrack Obama. This is potentially carried out as the set up for the ‘coercion’ of further action which is highlighted by another timestamp and title of 2016 “an Islamic State Fighter”, overlaid with imagery of a gun being fired through the words “homosexual nightclub”.
Within the first 50 seconds, ISIL has successfully touched on all of the above audiences in varying depths. The government is clearly targeted at the beginning as outlined above; however, one can also argue that they have covered the constituency in that they have informed them of their purpose – retaliate, infiltrate, attack and delegitimise western government whilst also highlighting the attack on a ‘homosexual nightclub’ reaching out to the like-minded who believe homosexuality to be a sin, which in turn, through Islamic belief, provides self-exoneration to the terrorist group themselves as they are carrying out the word of Allah. Lastly, the reference to the U.S. citizen-shooter as an ‘Islamic Fighter’ rather than a name, also offers up acceptance and an attractive title for those not quite willing to conduct hijrah to the ‘Islamic State’ but possibly willing to conduct attacks, which acts as a call to mobilise.
This thematic approach and associated narrative of: delegitimising the US government, painting the US as a war-monger and oppressor of all Muslims and conversely legitimising ISIL as a globally active and successful organisation that is standing up to the western tyrant around the world that even just one person can contribute to is continued throughout the video. The following timestamps provide just some examples:
Quotes are displayed on screen to depict US government weakness and instability (delegitimising) 1:08; “This is a tragic day – Obama”, “You have to step aside Obama – Trump”.
At 1:39 the narrative turns to legitimacy of ISIL by attempting to highlight the success of the attack and that it occurred on U.S. soil, ‘proving’ ISIL is a ‘real’ global force. The words “IN YOUR OWN LANDS” are emblazed across the screen with footage of the chaos unfolding on the streets with people running, emergency services present and sirens blaring, quickly followed by the message “Islamic State is remaining and expanding – BLOOD FOR BLOOD”, again touching on the coercion through retaliation communiqué whilst appearing as the one’s whom were struck first. This narrative is further pushed at 1:57 where footage of an Obama press conference is overlaid with the words “revenge for the Muslims” whilst Obama declares the attack as the most deadly shooting in American history – legitimacy through success and the attention of the government.
Between 2:15 – 2:55, the video is narrated in Arabic with English subtitles where the narrative of the U.S. attacking all ‘Muslims’ is pushed further. Multiple references such as, “the U.S. spearheading the war on Islam”, “U.S. warplanes bombing Muslims in the Middle East” and footage of civilians attempting to save others crushed under rubble from presumably what is meant to portray collateral damage from airstrikes is meant to evoke anger whilst engendering support and relaying the ‘why’ behind their cause.
At this point, the propagandists understand they have the attention of the viewer who is now enraged at this real/perceived injustice and wants to do something, so they provide the solution through accepted religious duty. From 3:00 onwards, the call for mobilisation as part of their ‘Muslim duty as foretold by Allah’ is passed and the solution of “if the unbelievers have shut the door of hijrah in your face, then it is time to open the door of jihad in theirs” is provided with the assurance and encouragement that even if you are not in the battlefield “the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here”.
Twitter offers ISIL a much better informed platform when targeting different socio-economic groups around the world. The control and local-knowledge that is given to the ‘re-transmitters’ of each message (tweet) allows ISIL to tap into what works for the demographic in that country with what is popular and what is ‘trending’ and mould their narrative around that. Twitter also allows a real-time propaganda spreading mechanism that ISIL is able to exploit at any opportune time that presents.
Fig 1. ISIL produced tweet from ‘the caliphate’
ISIL and related terrorist organisations are well documented to have utilised Twitter to distribute ‘fake news’ which is then often redistributed by mainstream media as legitimate news stories, The result in this can vary; however, in 2013, one such fake news tweet from the hacked Associated Press (AP) Twitter account stated “President Obama had been killed by two explosions at the white house” which resulted in the stock market plummeting within minutes. This is yet another example of ISIL’s agenda to coerce the government with their hold over social media.
At figure 1., an ISIL tweet from life within the ‘Islamic State’ reaches out to their foreign target audience in an attempt to show them that ‘the state’ is established with all the comforts of home including ‘selfies’, internet, m&m’s and a pistol also representing that you can have all this and still be a ‘warrior’. This tweet aims to target the disaffected youth in foreign countries that live their lives through social media and online; in that you can still have all of your needs met and have the stature of having a gun by your side. Whilst many see the gun as the most dangerous weapon in this image, the truth is ISIL’s greatest weapon is the mouse and laptop.
Whilst ISIL-borne YouTube videos have delivered acts of intolerance and barbarism, their Twitter exploitation is used primarily as one that takes western audience into account. The majority of tweets provide snapshots of an established and expanding state wherein infrastructure, health and education exist. Images of hospitals, cafes, fast-food stalls and kittens are used as bait to lure young women and men as well as professionals to the area. Figure 2 and 3 show tweets that attempt to resonate with a foreign target audience along the narrative that the Islamic State is not only established but progressing and can fulfill western desires.
Fig. 2. ISIL produced tweet of bakery in ‘the caliphate’
Fig. 3. ISIL tweet of fighters enjoying western food and soft drink in ‘the caliphate’
Twitter provides ISIL a means to tailor its messages to the intended audience whilst also spreading their message further through ‘hashtag campaigns’. This affords ISIL the ability to adapt its narrative depending on each nation’s demographic, yet maintain the overall message that life is not only being re-imagined but re-lived in this utopian state that is only fighting due to the aggression from the west. Conclusion:
The unrelenting social media battle that wages across the world on a 24 hour basis regularly takes backseat to the frontline updates in ‘the war of terror’; however, is one that if not given the same amount of firepower and subject matter expertise as ground warfare will be the deciding factor in today’s battle with modern terrorist organisations. ISIL continues to work on modern-historically proven methods of propaganda, maintaining a strict narrative reaching millions daily that can only be overcome through a counter-narrative of embracing at-risk individuals through empathy, education and community engagement. A transparent, mulit-sensory and inclusive government-sponsored program would offer bridging capital amongst the multi-cultural and globalised world of today that could engage at risk individuals before they are rapidly radicalised through social media of the 21st century.
Whilst the west continues a war of countering ISIL’s social media narrative, more effort would be best spent exploiting ISIL’s own atrocities of killing innocent civilians in attacks within their own Muslim community merely because of the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. This would not only combat the narrative of western crusader attacking the Muslim, but also expose the complete ignorant brutality of ISIL itself against people within their own ‘caliphate’. Should this begin to occur, the supporters and empathisers will start to dwindle and as history shows, once a cause has lost support or critical mass, defeat quickly follows.