UQx MEDI059 The Islamic State – Part I
KAEMPF: The Islamic State, or ISIS, which
emerged in 2014, admittedly is not the first
non-state military actor to have used media
as a soft power weapon.
But it needs to be credited with taking its
use to an entirely new and historically unprecedented
level, and in the process both professionalised
and revolutionised such practices.
ISIS, therefore, provides an important case
of the emancipatory potential of the digital
new media revolution for irregulars, rebels
The level of professional human resources,
finances and technical equipment made available
provides a strong indication that the Islamic
State believes that media warfare is equal
in importance to its military operations.
ISIS operates one central media committee
that consists of several professional sub-divisions,
such as ‘Al-Furqan’ or ‘Al-Itisam’,
that produce and disseminate online media
Each sub-division is responsible for its own
visual material and news production, but concentrates
on different target groups and themes, such
as recruitment, social welfare, rule of law,
religious activities, and even military warfare.
These sub-divisions are largely staffed with
professional web and graphic designers, tech-savvy
journalists, filmmakers, and PR specialists
who are all highly immersed in a digital environment.
Beyond these centralised committees, ISIS
also generates a large amount of media content
through its military forces on the ground
and through sympathisers across the globe.
Social media platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo,
Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Snapchat have
been its principal media outlets.
It operates a number of jihadist websites
that are mirrored across different platforms.
It also produces high-quality feature-length
films, designs custom-made apps for Android
phones, and uses innovative swarming strategies
in an attempt to snowball its messages through
the virtual mediascape.
Analysts believe the quality and scope of
its online engagement makes ISIS stand out
from the crowd of other non military groups,
past and present.
By 2016, ISIS was using social media far more
extensively – some would even argue more
effectively – than any other non-state armed
To give a few examples:
Thousands of ISIS Twitter followers installed
a custom-built android app, called ‘Dawn
of Glad Tidings’, which allowed ISIS to
enter and use their accounts and address books
to send out centrally written updates.
Released simultaneously, these messages swamp
social media through a snowballing effect
and thereby allow ISIS a far larger online
reach than their own accounts would otherwise
Similar swarming techniques have been used
by creating virtual armies of Twitter-bots
designed to boost the propaganda efforts remotely.
Their function is to post the same content
several times accompanied with the most popular
hashtags (such as #worldcup2014), in order
to reach the broadest public possible.
This has generated the impression of a burgeoning,
large, and extremely popular movement.
Recently, its designers have produced an ISIS-themed
first person shooter video game.
Ripped off from the highly popular ‘Grand
Theft Auto’ franchise, the video game is
freely downloadable and tasks players with
shooting police and blowing up military convoys.
Its feature length films, produced by the
media sub-division ‘Al-Furqan’, are of
cinematic quality, complete with graphics,
animations, slow-motion, echoing jihadist
hymns in the background and replete with Arab
and English subtitles.
These examples are far from comprehensive.
But they serve to illustrate the tech-savviness,
professionalism, and expert knowledge that
ISIS is willing to invest.
And they are strong indicators of the strategic
importance ISIS leadership is attaching to
digital media platforms as an integral part
of its warfare.
And that should not surprise us: In the eyes
of the ISIS leadership, battle operations
on the ground can no longer be separated from
the virtual combat in cyberspace.
There are multiple strategic purposes behind
Different channels and platforms are being
used to address and reach different audiences.
Much of its propaganda, shown in the Western
media, is frightening because it directly
conveys systematic and deliberate violations
of Human Rights and laws of war:
For instance, in one of their propaganda videos,
‘Swords IV’, ISIS’s captives are shown
digging their own graves before being executed.
Another such video showed the intentional
destruction of ancient cultural artifacts
including entire temples and museums; another
showed the burning alive of the captured Jordanian
pilot or the public beheading of Western journalists,
while on Twitter ISIS has posted images of
a cold-blooded massacre of Iraqi soldiers.
At the same time, other ISIS messaging, less
conveyed by Western media, focuses on its
social activity – photos of supporters bringing
in the harvest, delivering food shipments,
or providing security in occupied towns.
Members recently distributed an earnest English-language
newsletter documenting the often dull details
of their community work.
One series of video clips called ‘Mujatweets’,
released by the ISIS’ media arm on YouTube,
portrays a number of ISIS militants as they
engage in noble activities such as visiting
an injured fighter at the hospital or distributing
candies to some children.
What this means is that, even though the most
gruesome footage of atrocities has gained
most traction in Western media, ISIS media
contents are far more diverse and are systematically
shaped according to the target they are designed
When speaking to the Western public, for instance,
tactics such as organised hashtag campaigns
like #AllEyesOnISIS or the hijacking of trending
hashtags like #WorldCup2014 are frequently
used to increase the visibility of the group.
Yet the message differs, whether the goal
is to intimidate or to inspire.
If it is meant to intimidate, material is
generally limited to photos of mutilated bodies
and videos of hostage executions.
If it is meant to inspire, potential recruits
are presented with a more humane side of the
The media content changes once more as the
target shifts from an international audience
to the local population.
English is replaced by Arabic, with graphic
pictures being integrated with images showing
administrative services being efficiently
run under the Islamic State – a clear warning
to ISIS opponents but also a promise of a
peaceful life for those who remain faithful.
Professionalism and systematic media customisation
are unique in the jihadist universe.
Yes, other groups before ISIS have been early
adopters of new technology; yes, other groups
have used media for similar purposes.
But ISIS has amped it up like none before.
They have taken it to a new level that is