Since the 2001 September 11 attacks, I’ve had this image of terrorists. Maybe you have, too.
It’s an image that Americans saw in the weeks and months after U.S. troops stormed Afghanistan — ragtag groups of extremists hiding out in the wilderness plotting their next move in relative isolation, leaking a propaganda video every now and then.
But times have changed dramatically, especially since the world’s preeminent terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), came onto the world’s radar.
In fact, the Islamic State controls a sophisticated propaganda machine. This functions a lot like a media company: putting out its own magazine, using social media, and creating quality video content.
But first, a quick recap about ISIS
ISIS carried out scores of attacks in Iraq in 2014. It declared that it was establishing a “caliphate,” a state ruled by Islamic law, and demanded that Muslims around the globe move to territories they control and swear allegiance to their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Any non-Muslims living in ISIS-controlled areas are experiencing religious persecution. They’ve been ordered to convert, leave, or suffer the consequences.
ISIS now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. The group recently claimed responsibility for the November 13 attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded more than 300. The next day group members bragged about the attacks on Twitter, calling the French city “a capital of prostitution and obscenity.”
But as much as they hate the West, ISIS has absorbed our methods for building a brand and using digital media to its advantage.
ISIS is social media savvy
ISIS is able to distribute its messages on Twitter because the group’s members and supporters skirt Twitter’s rules by creating scores of new accounts and having supporters retweet their messages.
Some of these Twitter accounts spread promotional videos and make announcements when ISIS takes credit for an attack. Others try attracting new supporters. Before it was deleted, for example, the account @6Haqq functioned like a tourism brochure for the Islamic State. They had messages like “Come to the Islamic State” and “The Islamic State; Your Khilafah,” as reported by the Daily Dot. The account has since been deleted.
Twitter began cracking down on ISIS propaganda in 2014. Their terms and conditions ban violence and threats of terrorism. But ISIS persists. A quick search of #IslamicStateMedia, for example, still yields messages associated with the group.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, hacktivist group Anonymous promised to go to war with ISIS online.
One of Anonymous’ offshoot campaigns, #OPISIS, ferrets out ISIS-associated accounts and reports them so that Twitter will ban them. Thousands have been banned so far, the hacktivists said.
ISIS has its own media center and magazine
In May 2014, ISIS established a media organization, Al Hayat Media Center. A former German rapper who fought alongside ISIS in Syria is the suspected creator. His name is Deso Dogg or Abu Talha Al Almani, Vice reported.
This website is at jihadology.net and hosts a slew of media content, including the online version of the group’s English-language propaganda magazine, “Dabiq.” The magazine’s cover bears the moniker “Just Terror.” The images in these magazines are not for the faint of heart.
The most recent edition of the magazine claims to reveal how ISIS brought down a Russian jet over Sinai earlier this month. They claimed an improvised explosive device was hidden inside a can of Schweppes Gold pineapple juice. They include a photo. The magazine’s claims have not been independently verified.
The article said that “after resolving to bring down a plane belonging to a nation in the American-led Western coalition against ISIS, the target was changed to a Russian plane … A bomb was smuggled onto the airplane… This was to show the Russians and whoever allies with them that they will have no safety in the lands and airspace of the Muslims.”
The edition also refers to the attacks on Paris and claims that ISIS’ “eight knights brought Paris down on its knees.”
ISIS makes viral videos
Gone too are the days when terrorist groups had fuzzy, grainy video with echoing audio. Granted, some of ISIS’ videos are shitty, but many of them are slick, high-definition enterprises with the production value of western TV commercials. More importantly, the content is shocking. And shocking tends to go viral.
On November 18, for instance, the group released a video that threatens New York City. The video includes shots of Times Square and Herald Square intercut with visuals of someone assembling a bomb.
The video has music in the background and was obviously created for the purpose of inspiring potential recruits to join the cause or current supporters to keep the faith.
Even leaked videos with low production values are astounding. Take the ISIS video of a five-year-old boy from the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Syria, dressed as a jihadi. The video shows the boy being instructed to behead his teddy bear with a knife and taking a knife to its throat. The ISIS flag hangs on the wall behind him.
The ISIS brand shows no sign of stopping
ISIS, with its messages of fear and destruction, is one of the most despicable and dangerous groups on the planet. But I have to hand it to them.
They’ve created a brand.
They’ve learned to harness the power of the internet to create a story and spread it.
They’ve taken something deplorable and put it on the pages of a glossy magazine for all to see.
For that reason, battling them online, where they reach their audience and spread their hate-filled message, may prove as important as battling them on the ground.