After doing research on ISIS and their media for some 16 months, I’ve recognized several notable things that I’d like to share.
First off, their reach on the Internet. WordPress, SendVid, YouTube, JustPaste.It, Twitter, Facebook, Trumblr, its everywhere. Often, when a big media release comes from one of their wilayah (providence) or their more central media centers, you’d see them once you look up certain hashtags on Twitter, or keywords into Google. You’d see links to join Telegram (messaging app) chats, follow certain Twitter accounts (until they’re taken down hours later), and subscribe to blogs. Even when they are taken down, however, it only takes minutes to set up a new account.
There was one point a few weeks ago where I was analyzing the independent media center Al-Nur, launched earlier this year by French ISIS supporters (not affiliated with the group), and within the span of a few weeks, they went through some 50 accounts, numbered 1-50. Usually, their lifespan is no more than a few days until they’re taken offline, only to pop up again a few minutes later and keep posting.
It’s the ISIS supporters that do most of the leg work here, even going so far as to set up language-specific blogs for certain audiences and translating material originally in Arabic into different; Hindu, Indonesian, French, German, Turkish, and English to name a few.
In one German blog, as a small case study, they even advertised for volunteer translators. “This is a small appeal”, the post said, “to those who have good speaking skills in Arabic, German, or English. Whoever, for the sake of god, wants to participate in our Da’wah (missionary) can report their contact information below in the comments section (the original word latterly means “comment field”).”
In the case of the big releases as mentioned earlier, posts with multiple links to watch and/or download the media would appear, often gathered into a “daily report”, showcasing everything released for that day (released in concordance with the Mosul time zone). Over the past few months, they’ve released compilations of all of the media for week into torrent files, allowing for easier access.
Second, their reach in terms of type of media, and let me tell you, its extensive. Below is a basic overview.
-Al-Furqan Media (main Arabic language media wing, a carry-over from Al-Queda in Iraq, mostly used for major video releases (often subtitled in various languages) and statements from ISIS’s spokesperson and “caliph”).
-Al-Itisam Media (minor media wing based in Syria started in 2013, last video made (as far as I know) in 2015)
-Ajnad Media (publishes vocal recitations of the Quran and Arabic-language nasheeds)
-Al-Naba (weekly Arabic newsletter with infographics, articles, and recent news)
-Maktabat Al-Himmah (publishing house that creates and distributes pamphlets, billboards, books, and recently, videos and Android/PC applications)
-Al-Bayan Radio (daily Arabic broadcast radio with daily news and various radio segments related to religious teaching and life under ISIS, daily reports are also broadcast in English, Turkish, Russian, and French)
-Al-Hayat Media (major foreign language (non-Arabic) media center that releases videos from tie to time (mostly in English), nasheed music videos, foreign language nasheeds, and four periodical magazines: Dabiq (English), Dar Al-Islam (French), Konstantiniyye (Turkish), Istok (Russian))
-Al-Furat Media (started out as a Russian language oriented media center, but later expanded into other languages (German, French, Indonesian, Turkish, Georgian, etc.)
-Al-Amaq News (news agency that publishes text reports and short videos)
-The Wilayah (these 34 ISIS wilayah are the main creator of content, as each providence media center releases its own videos, news segments, and picture albums)
Various media points have been created throughout ISIS territory, which usually consist of a stall/shack or mobile van that distributes printed materials, CDs and DVDs, and USB drives with ISIS media, along with a TV and sound system showcasing propaganda videos.
As you can see, they’ve done everything when it comes to media (their own radio station!). To put this into perspective, terrorism researcher Aaron Zelin wrote an article whose goal was to “examine, quantitatively and qualitatively, one week of [ISIS’s] official media releases”.
Within the sample week, there were 123 media releases, with 81% of them coming from Iraq and Syria, most of them in Arabic (a few in English, Russian, Kurdish, French, and Urdu), and most of them being online picture albums. Zelin further divided these media releases into several different themes: Military, Governance, Da’wa (religious outreach), Promotion of the “Caliphate”, and Attacking the Enemy.
And the final thing, the media attention that it’s been getting and what we could do about it. Most of the things that ISIS publish and create never hit media news, only to be garbled up by terrorism analysts and experts. The only big things on the news are the violence, the beheadings, etc. Rarely is anything else mentioned outside of the realm of academia, saved for its glossy and sharp production quality. Every piece of media, the videos mostly, have their own color palette, multiple camera angles, sound effects, title screens, soundtrack, plot, everything. What we are dealing with are terrorists who know Hollywood, who know how to communicate to their audience us in the way they know best: media.
It does them a service when we talk about them. We don’t limit their influence, rather, we spread it when we showcase their own media on our TVs and our computers. Yes, it has a purpose in the field of academia, to dissect and explore, to use against them. As one jihadist saying goes “half of the jihad (struggle) is media”. And ISIS is quite good at it. If we’re going to stop ISIS on an ideological and logistical front, (by that I primarily mean Muslim clerics and governments respectively) we have to step up our game, match their media output, even over achieve. Some bots on Twitter have literally drowned out ISIS-centric hashtags by spamming them with photos of sharks, kittens, photoshopped ISIS members in tutus, and even pictures from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. But it needs to go further. One of those challenges in fighting ISIS is creating a narrative that directly speaks to potential ISIS recruits and directs them towards to opposite of what ISIS is doing. They have the first half of the message down, the “don’t do this”, but they lack the other “do this instead” half.
Brendan Koerner suggested the following: “If the West really wants to destroy ISIS’s deceptive media halo, we need to take a page from them and foster our own forms of crowdsourced messages. First and foremost, Western nations must focus on broadcasting the stories of refugees, told in their own words—words that would strongly undermine the “remaining and expanding’ narrative that is so crucial to the ISIS’s identity. […] To make this possible, we must guarantee safety for them and their families, for ISIS is never shy about exacting retribution against those who reveal its flaws. The US should also give ISIS defectors, particularly those with American roots, a chance to share their unfiltered tales of disillusionment. […] Determining which returnees are truly no longer threats will be tricky, but deradicalization programs in Europe in particular are yielding data that can help us build the right psychological assessment tools.”
It’s time to do more than post memes.