ISIS and the Family Man
Cori E. Dauber
It is widely acknowledged that ISIS is enormously sophisticated in its use of Social Media.[i] It is also widely acknowledged that they have had great success recruiting fighters from around the globe.[ii] The problem is that there has been a tendency to assume, with no evidence, that the two phenomena are linked, and to make further assumptions about how they are linked. In fact, the intent behind the design of ISIS’ overall persuasive campaign, the production of the materials they distribute on Social Media, and how and where they distribute them, is of necessity a black box. Without interviews with those responsible for these materials (and for the most part without even any conclusive information about them,)[iii] we cannot know with certainty what it is they are trying to achieve with any specific propaganda product or set of products. Yet over and over again analysts in and out of government have made definitive statements about the purpose behind ISIS’ persuasive campaign. The assumption is that ISIS is recruiting the “disaffected” and “alienated,” both in the United States and Europe.[iv] They may be attractive to that group, but where is the evidence that their recruiting strategy is designed specifically to reach that population and that population only?
The fact they’re pulling in that demographic is certainly not proof they’re targeting that group (or only that group.) It is not clear, furthermore, that we are in a position to declare with any degree of certainty what percentage of those moving to areas controlled by ISIS are young and single. (“Disaffected and alienated” is not a category that has been defined in the discussion with any precision. It does not necessarily mean “young and single,” but it seems to imply that.[v]) For while it is easy to find fairly granular data on the countries of origin for those who have gone to ISIS, more detailed data is in short supply.[vi] Yet it seems likely that they have a campaign underway to recruit families, or at least family men. That would seem to require we reconsider our counter by factoring this into account, or have a discrete counter-campaign in parallel with that aspect of their campaign.
To build a persuasive campaign, the first and most basic steps are to know the audience to be reached, and the messages to be countered. Get those steps wrong, and you are building a messaging strategy that will either accomplish nothing or, worse, may promote the very messages you seek to counter. Thus it is worth asking: what if they produce distinct categories of recruitment materials? And what if the most graphic, violent images are completely irrelevant to a discrete, identifiable, and potentially important element of their recruiting effort? If that’s the case, then everything we’re doing to counter their efforts may be based on faulty assumptions, and may be doing more harm than good, at least as regards those ISIS is trying to recruit with persuasive materials other than images of graphic violence.[vii]
Missing in much of the analysis of ISIS product has been an in-depth assessment of the use of visual imagery, both of the imagery itself, and of the compositional elements of their materials, but both can have enormous impact on the overall effectiveness of a product that is largely visual in nature. What is desperately needed is empirical data regarding the way ISIS’ various target demographics might respond to the different (and competing) sets of visual images they are sending out, but absent that data it is not impossible to come to some conclusions about the design of their visual campaign.[viii] This paper focuses on visual material that has been posted by ISIS to You Tube. While this is worthwhile simply because other work has tended to look to other platforms (especially Twitter[ix]) there are real substantive benefits to such an analysis. First, looking at what is on You Tube provides the opportunity to examine longer, more elaborately produced materials. Second, if we are particularly concerned with efforts to recruit in Western countries, it makes sense that individuals from those countries are likely to seek out materials on general interest platforms, more likely to be in their own languages. Third, You Tube offers the opportunity to compare versions of the same video posted in different languages, to compare the way the same footage is used in different videos, the way videos are edited (or not) by different account-holders across time. It provides the broadest possible view of the use of moving images under the overall ISIS brand.
Several of the accounts looked at are stable, posting large numbers of videos over sustained periods of time.[x] Each of the accounts examined, although there is obviously no way to be certain, appear to be “collective” accounts, in other words, they seem to be posting material that is the work of multiple individuals. This seems a reasonable conclusion primarily because it is highly unlikely one person, no matter the quality of the technology or training at their disposal, would be able to push out the amount of material, of the quality being released, in the periods of time these accounts are doing so. There is also substantial overlap and commonality between both the actual material (that is, the footage and sometimes the introductory graphics used) and the visual perspective and aesthetic represented in these accounts. Often identical videos are posted and reposted by different accounts, sometimes with subtitles added so that additional language communities can better understand them, but with no other changes made to the content of the video. Sometimes new videos are created through a “cut and paste” technique, where footage that has previously been used is repurposed. But this is very different from the way previous groups have produced material, or the way “jihobbyists” have produced materials:[xi] there is very little “slippage” between the quality and the visual style between the original videos and the “remixes.” There is, though, no way to determine the relationship between those posting the videos (and the names attached to the accounts are typically obvious aliases) and who might have created them.
The work found in these accounts is extraordinarily professional. In fact, the propaganda videos being released associated with the ISIS brand[xii] are a generation ahead of anything being released by any other jihadist group – including the work ISIS’ predecessor groups, Al Queda in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq were producing -- up until this point.[xiii] While other groups have certainly released videos that may have been sophisticated in their use of visual imagery, or graphics, or may have been in some ways technically sophisticated, no one else has put out an entire body of work as sophisticated across every measure.
Many of the videos examined say “On Behalf Of” or “Dedicated To” ISIS in English incorporated into opening graphics (not as subtitles, but organic aspects of the graphics) even when the videos themselves are not in English unless they are subtitled, and they fly the ISIS flag throughout. Often the text accompanying the post will in some regard say AL HAYAT MEDIA CENTER, the name of ISIS’ official media distribution wing. Others begin with Al Hayat’s standard graphics, a computer generated animation of their logo, or have the logo “burned” onto the video itself. Thus, even if the body of work examined here is not actually the “official” ISIS corpus, it seems a reasonable assumption that an audience interested in following the group would interpret this material as reflecting the group’s message, and falling within the overall umbrella of their media output.
The goal here should be to reverse engineer two ways. First, what would most viewers take from the videos to be ISIS’ message? In that sense these videos are important to analyze even if they are not actually “official.” If the intended audience is possible recruits then if that audience looks at these videos as authentic representations of what ISIS has to say, the videos are important. Second, if the videos are in some way associated with the ISIS messaging machinery, then whether they are ever watched by anyone they become important markers for what it is ISIS wants the world – and most especially those they believe most open to their message – to believe about them. It is an aspect of the group that is worth incorporating into our understanding. As carefully produced as these videos are, nothing about them is accidental. Every frame has clearly been carefully considered.
Much of the focus on Twitter has been on network analysis – the number of tweets and retweets, who is tweeting and retweeting and so forth,[xiv] or has been purely descriptive of the content of the images. Key here is the need to assume that the producers of this material act with design. They are investing a great deal of time, energy, and talent -- extremely valuable resources -- presumably they must be doing so for specific reasons. We are ill served if we do not begin with the assumption that they know exactly what those reasons are, and that they pursue those reasons with skill and intelligence. In other words, in terms of their communication strategy and their approach to the design of persuasive materials, they are purposeful. What they have produced needs to be understood as, and studied as, a persuasive campaign.
To understand what it is they are attempting to accomplish in the construction of visual-dominant products such as You Tube videos, the starting point ought be the determination of the intended audience(s) for any given video. Obviously, there can never be certainty on such a question. But one can work backwards from content to make an estimate of what the producer was trying to accomplish with a video.
The Power of Images
This begs the question why one would care about their use of visuals at all. There is a vast body of literature studying the power of visual images from communication studies, mass communication and journalism, business and advertising, psychology, film studies and other disciplines, over a period of decades.[xv] This research has repeatedly demonstrated that visual images are in many contexts more powerful than words, whether written or aural. They tend to draw an audience’s attention more effectively, they are more accurately remembered (and for longer periods of time), and have a much more immediate and viscerally emotional impact. (And certainly work better on the young, the illiterate, and those who might not understand the language a video is narrated in, but who can follow the narrative if the visuals are clear enough.)
Like other terrorist groups, ISIS has put a great deal of effort into visual-dominant media. It would be a mistake to assess those campaigns based solely on the words that accompany the images. Indeed, as scholars have noted in other contexts, doing so will in fact lead to drawing mistaken conclusions regarding the way an audience would understand the words in any event.[xvi]
The image as a component of any persuasive campaign needs to be understood before examining the specifics of the ISIS videos. First and foremost, images are constructed. Visual images do not simply “happen” as a natural byproduct of a photograph being taken, allowing us to witness precisely what we would have seen if only we had been standing at the photographer’s elbow. Every photographic image reflects a series of choices, each of which shapes our understanding of the photograph’s subjects in ways that reflect the point of view of the photographer (producer, video maker, director, whoever creates the ultimate product we see). Images, no less than words, make arguments.
As one quick example, it is well known that photographing a subject from below makes it appear more imposing, authoritative, important. This is the favorite camera angle of official state photographers throughout history.[xvii] By the same token, photographing subjects from above makes them appear smaller, less threatening, often weaker and more vulnerable. The meaning of any given image is also not intrinsic to the image, nor is it static. Thus, the meaning will often not be universal across cultural contexts.[xviii] And meanings will often change over time.[xix]
Many of the compositional elements of an image, whether moving or still, contribute to the way it will be interpreted. The way the image is framed, or cropped, is important. Is it a close-up, or a wide-angle shot? The difference is enormous, not only in terms of the atmosphere created but because different information will be captured in the shot, creating a completely different sense of what actually happened.[xx] How an image is lit contributes to how it will be interpreted, to whether subjects look menacing or friendly, like victims or heroes.
There are an almost endless number of ways that editing contributes to the way an audience will interpret a particular video sequence.[xxi] And camera angles can be used in multiple ways to multiple effects, to shape the way a viewer understands the subject, the scene, the action, or the context.[xxii] The type of camera can also impact the audience’s understanding of what they are seeing, and can do so in ways so subtle that they are unaware it is happening at all, much less how it is happening. A hand held camera can be used to create a “first person” or subjective view, creating the illusion that the viewer is directly in the scene. In narrative film, this is used to create for the viewer the perspective of a particular character, but when used by terrorist groups it invites the viewer to literally imagine themselves in the scene, which, after all, is the whole point of recruiting materials.[xxiii] This is particularly important because while there is no empirical research, that I know of, on subjects viewing these videos, there is an existing body of research regarding the effects of this camera angle on audiences of sports coverage, arguably a reasonable proxy, and it is clear from those studies that this camera angle can have a profound impact on viewers.[xxiv] A camera attached to a commercial drone, on the other hand, gives the viewer a “God’s eye” perspective of a scene, and ISIS has used this as well.[xxv]
Special effects can also contribute to the way a viewer understands what they are seeing. Sometimes these effects dominate, are impossible to miss, become all that is focused on, as when a color filter is used to make the entire scene appear through a green, or red, tinge. At other times, they can be used with such subtlety that a viewer may not even necessarily think of what is happening on screen as a special effect: for example, the use of slow motion, particularly if the editor is adept at synching the action with sound. All of these compositional elements produce rhetorical effects just as much as the actual content of the visual imagery does.
The Visual Aesthetic of ISIS
Looking at You Tube videos associated with ISIS, I have intentionally here focused on those videos that did not get a warning for disturbing content. Despite all the discussion in the popular media of images of beheadings, of mass executions and other forms of graphic violence, this warning rarely appears on You Tube. Perhaps one in 50 videos or fewer had the warning. This platform is simply not being used as a primary venue for the display of graphic scenes of violence, and not because such videos are being taken down with great frequency (although that certainly does happen).[xxvi] That does not mean violence is absent from the videos posted: it is incorporated, but it is not graphic, and is typically highly stylized (for example appearing as part of rapid montages.[xxvii]) It is almost always a secondary theme. (There are, however, many videos of the aftermath of violence, where victorious ISIS fighters take the viewer on a tour of the battlefield, proudly showing off their war booty – with a particular emphasis on trucks and other vehicles – and government buildings, soon to be ceremonially destroyed.)[xxviii] Those videos can include graphic images of dead bodies.
Another set of videos show that ISIS is true to its beliefs, and appear to be pitched to recruiting those who might be thinking of joining other jihadist groups or perhaps are already in other jihadist groups.[xxix] They are appealing here to a presumed desire on the part of their audience to be utterly uncompromising, yet without focusing on the harsher or bloodier aspects of what that might mean. Thus, there are no videos showing, for example, the implementation of the harsher penalties of Sharia legal jurisprudence, despite extensive reporting that such penalties are being imposed in ISIS controlled areas.[xxx] There are multiple videos that show in great detail the destruction of what are labeled as Sufi shrines.[xxxi]
Arguments that Western nations are tolerant, have a place for all faiths, all creeds, and take democratic values and processes seriously, may not be the best way to respond to a recruiting campaign centered on the benefits of a state built precisely on the absence of all of those things. You cannot simply say, “here all belief systems are welcome and people of all faiths live together,” if you do not first defend a value system that acknowledges the validity of all faiths, and the idea that adherents of more than one faith have a right to exist with equal rights. These are people, after all, who proudly destroy ancient artifacts because of a Koranic commandment against “false idols,” despite the fact that no one has worshipped those gods for a millennia or two.[xxxii]
It is, of course, a key point in Islamist doctrine that the Muslim nation is one, that boundaries or borders that divide them are illegitimate. There is an entire set of videos, and of visual themes within videos, that speak to this concept, the idea that individual states within the Muslim world by definition need to be rejected, torn down, are false. Thus the images of the border between Iraq and Syria being literally bulldozed.[xxxiii] Videos show ISIS fighters ceremonially burning their passports.[xxxiv] Graphics and animations, meanwhile, show state borders on maps being turned to dust.[xxxv] And many (some are either reposts or use the same footage in slightly different ways) show the ISIS flag being raised, while state flags are torn down, thrown away, and flutter down into the street, flying off into the desert.[xxxvi] And it is a repeated visual theme that the Islamic State welcomes Muslims of every size, shape, color, and ethnicity: in the Islamic State, the Muslim nation is finally united as a single people – and by definition, all are welcome.[xxxvii] This message is also conveyed by the emphasis on producing videos subtitled in English, French, Dutch and German – or with no subtitles at all, simply allowing fighters from those countries to speak to potential recruits in their own native tongue, implicitly sending the message that they will be able to find a home in the Islamic State.[xxxviii] There are also slickly produced videos “introducing” the brothers from particular less well represented nationalities, which seem less about recruiting from these specific populations, particularly since this category of videos is inevitably subtitled, often in multiple languages, and more about making the point, again, that the Islamic State is a multiethnic idyll, where all are welcome as long as they are true Muslims.[xxxix] Western claims regarding “multiculturalism” are thus turned on their head: it is the Islamic State that is truly multicultural, truly color blind, where true equality is possible – but that ideal state can only be achieved in an Islamic society.[xl]
Material is frequently repurposed in these videos, whether from their own stock footage,[xli] or from other sources. In this they are no different from any other jihadist group – in the development of online propaganda these groups are determined digital scavengers, whether of material from jihadist or professional sources. But there are differences. No other group has managed to repurpose material while maintaining the consistency of its visual aesthetic and visual style. When they want to use older material, for example, rather than incorporate poor quality video – which is what every other jihadist group until now would have done[xlii] – they take the audio track only. Long before ISIS officially declared the “Islamic State,” for example, one of the earliest heavily produced videos uses this approach to suggest that Osama bin Laden and Anwar al Awlaki are giving the group posthumous support,[xliii] through the use of lengthy excerpts -- from the audio tracks of their earlier videos. By using references they made to an earlier iteration of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq, ISIS is able to make it sound as if the two are giving today’s group, or at least its actions, their explicit blessing, but without the downside of having older, lower quality video downgrade the quality of their own material and without having to deal with the issue of incorporating someone else’s visual style.
And, second, no other group is nearly as prolific in their use of video from the professional press. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they have a dedicated cell that does nothing but focus on pulling useful cuts from Western and Arabic networks.[xliv] Their use of professional media, both Western and Arabic, is also enormously sophisticated. They will pull clips from digital or television reports, or quotations from the print press, and incorporate them into their own materials, as long as the reports suggest they are winning[xlv] or are more of a threat to the West, more powerful, stronger, than Al Queda.[xlvi] The net result is a sharp turn away from the visual style common in the videos of other jihadi groups, and definitely in the videos of the “iihobbyists” – the “mashup” or “pro-sem” style.[xlvii] The result, when combined with the overall quality of the camera work and the crispness of the resolution[xlviii] is a unique and immediately identifiable visual style and aesthetic.
The other visual theme that repeats throughout a number of their videos is “proof” that life within ISIS controlled areas is good, and the people are happy and love the ISIS fighters. Thus, they are welcomed. Some of this is shown by their being literally welcomed, as people stand on the streets, waving, shouting, and so forth, as they drive into a town.[xlix] “Man in the street” interviews are used as a vehicle for people to talk about how well things are going under ISIS control, compared to their various troubles before.[l]
Another favorite visual theme is the convoy. Whether on foot, or by car or truck, the long (long, long) line is one of the shots used most often in these videos.[li] Obviously this image communicates the strength of ISIS, just in the simple fact of their numbers. But more than that it communicates that they are a group worth belonging to: many have already joined, making that commitment does not mean joining some vague or abstract ideology or theological position, but a concrete group of real people who are waiting to welcome the recruit.
Many of these themes can be found in the materials produced by other groups, though. Again and again what stands out in these videos, what makes it possible to identify an ISIS video as an ISIS video from the style and aesthetic, is its relative quality. This begins with the opening graphics package. Other jihadist groups have produced videos with graphics of equal technical quality.[lii] But what makes the graphics which accompany the ISIS videos appear so professional is not simply a matter of technical quality, but design. Graphics can be of technically high quality, but still be poorly designed – if it is too “busy” for example, the design itself becomes a distraction.[liii] Almost without exception, ISIS’ graphics are crisp, clean, they have a simple design which pulls the viewer’s attention directly to the intended message. Video or still images are often integrated organically into the animation.
The images themselves are uniformly sharp, clear, of high quality and resolution, the You Tube equivalent of HD.
To be sure, much of this material could well be consistent with a strategy designed to recruit the “disaffected and alienated.” The overall message of much of it could be understood as, “in the Islamic State you will find a place where you are welcome, where you fit, where you finally belong.” It is not my intention to suggest ISIS is making no investment in recruiting the “disaffected and alienated.” My point here is first, any analysis of the ISIS media output must include content – both imagery and composition – and second, since these are not the only videos being posted an analysis that concluded the “disaffected and alienated” alone were being targeted would be incomplete.
Family Life in the Islamic State
There is an entire body of videos calling to good Muslims to emigrate to the Islamic State based on the quality of life for families.[liv] Typically this argument is made implicitly; the explicit argument is that the quality of life overall in the Islamic State is high. Thus one short video simply follows shoppers through a market in Raqqa, the camera moving through the bustling crowd (of men and boys only,)[lv] coming to rest lovingly on bins full of ripe fruits and vegetables, so beautifully shot you can practically taste them. It is worth noting that no subtitles are necessary, because there is no narration – none is needed, the point is made clearly and effectively entirely through the visuals – making it useful for all the linguistic communities ISIS reaches out to, English, French, German, Dutch, as well as Arabic.[lvi] Other videos simply focus on how good life is in areas under ISIS control. One man, for example, is interviewed behind the counter of his meat shop. He explains how well organized things are, how it’s a good thing that there are regular inspections of shops like his to ensure the cleanliness and quality of the food, as the camera pans lovingly over the full bins available in the marketplace.[lvii]
There is a subset of videos specifically devoted to the quality of life for children. (Mainly, of course, male children – females are virtually absent from these videos unless they are barely older than toddlers.) Kids are always, and casually, playing with realistic looking guns.[lviii]
And, again, compared to the images of brutality and violence available on other platforms, some involving children (consider the widely discussed image of the son of an ISIS fighter holding aloft a decapitated head)[lix] the children here are shown shouting “Takbir!” (roughly, “shout it out loud”), laughing and giggling as they do, rewarded by ISIS fighters with ice cream and cotton candy.[lx] Obviously healthy, well-fed children are shown studying, speaking (presumably repeating the group’s message), and – smiling and happy – dressed in military uniforms.[lxi] A sizeable percentage of the video “introducing” the Kazakh brothers focuses on the quality of education they are able to give their sons in the Islamic State, as the camera is brought right into the classroom, for studies in the Koran, in the Arabic language – then in hand-to-hand combat and, finally, just like dad, in sniper school.[lxii]
The most explicit example of the message, by far, is the video, “Eid Greetings from the Land of Khilafah,”[lxiii] which runs just over 20 minutes. The first section shows a group of men and boys celebrating the end of Ramadan in mosque, ending with the hundreds present rising to their feet and shouting “the Islamic State will remain!” (4:30), an undeniably powerful image. As the crowd disperses, the viewer hears a nasheed sung in Arabic, subtitled in English, an ode to the benefits of the Islamic State, built on Islam, providing a place where people can live a life free of anything but Islam. Again, arguing that we in the West respect all faiths does not respond directly to a recruiting campaign built on the claim that the ideal state is one free of the corrupting influences of those who are not Muslims. Children mill about among the crowd of men, carrying guns (presumably toys) almost as large as they are. (Just as the words “peace and security” are sung.)
We move quickly (at 6:30) to the primary section of the video. This is divided into multiple parts, each part devoted to a different fighter from a different country. Each is introduced by a graphic in the font used in postcards found in hotel lobbies and airports around the United States, “Greetings From . . . Insert Location.” A sophisticated series of graphics in that font introduce each fighter by name, and specifies his country of origin. He is then interviewed (although the only voice heard is his, and he speaks directly to camera), making the case for why the viewer should emigrate, immediately, to the Islamic State. As each fighter speaks, smiling, joyful, the camera periodically pans behind him, so that the viewer can see the perfect day, the beautiful park where this is staged, and all the happy people -- fathers (no adult women are ever shown) out enjoying the holiday with their children. The entire video is subtitled in English, except when specific fighters speak in English.
First is the fighter from the UK who says, here we’re living under the Koran and the Sunnah, not under the Kufr (infidel) and oppression. This is why arguments about Western society being a place where all religions and creeds being welcome actually feed ISIS’ propaganda, which is based on the promise of a society free of any and all corrupting influences, pure, where only the Koran is the basis for law and social practice. The more we talk about how tolerant we are, the more we make their point unless we explicitly contest their point directly.
The Somali, by way of Finland, appears next, and presents perhaps the most important argument made: he specifically calls on all the Muslims of the West to “make hijrah [emigrate] with your families”(my emphasis) to the Islamic State, because “here you go for fighting, and afterwards you come back to your families. And if you get killed . . . then you’ll enter Jannah [paradise] and Allah will take care of the ones you’ve left behind.”[lxiv] (8:42-45) Jihad, then, is reframed as basically a commuter job: you go off to fight, you come home to the family. And when you go fight, you do so knowing that your family will be cared for and safe in an uncorrupted environment no matter what happens to you. Jihad, therefore, is not something the family man should (or can) refrain from anymore: this video is a direct recruiting appeal not to alienated and disaffected young men, but to family men – with their families.
The Tunisian who speaks next does so with his toddler on his shoulders, constantly adjusting the boy’s toy guns out of his face, as the camera periodically pans to show the fighter behind them, wearing a military-style vest, pushing his children on a swing set. The Tunisian congratulates all Muslims on the holiday and on the creation of the Caliphate, and encourages them to come, to participate in building this state. In the Islamic State it is possible for Muslims to live “with honor,” which is another way of saying that elsewhere, surrounded by non-Muslims, and living under other laws, they are by definition living without honor.
The Indonesian addresses specifically those still in Indonesia, and attracts a cluster of boys as he does. The Moroccan tells the viewer that hijrah is now an obligation, since there is now a state ruled by Sharia. The Belgian tells the viewer, “in my whole life I never felt like a Muslim as I do now, living among the Muslims, and under the shade of” the Caliphate. (14:33) In between each speaker, as we watch children at play on amusement park rides, the audio returns to the song, “we live without humiliation, a life of peace and security.” (my emphasis) The next speaker, who speaks in English, argues, “you have to be here to understand what I’m saying . . . please all who are believers, come.” (my emphasis) (16:20-25) Then a South African with a baby in his arms says, “my strong wish is I can see you all here.” (17:30) Move forward, he asks, so that we can be “one ummah, moving hand in hand.”
The whole crowd listens to singers – including a tiny boy, barely a toddler, given a microphone, who sings, “we come to slaughter you O Tawaghit of Tunis.” (18:54) They then sing together in honor of Abu Baghdadi, “terrorizer of the enemies.” It ends, as smiling children wave to the camera, with the graphic (in that same tourist font), “Wish You Were Here.”
Obviously, although beautifully produced, lit, and edited, this is just one video. I go through it in such detail because arguments made implicitly elsewhere in the ISIS corpus are here made explicit. And these arguments make clear how many of the arguments proposed for a Western counter-radicalization or counter-recruitment strategy may not work. If their position is, it is only in a truly Islamic state, governed only by Sharia law that a Muslim is not oppressed, then we have to tackle that argument head on. Merely repeating over and over that there is room for all faiths in our societies, and that we govern through fair, democratic systems, does not answer the vision they are painting of an Islamic idyll, where Muslims are empowered, free, living honorable lives, simply by virtue of not being corrupted by the influence of those who are not true believers and laws and legal systems other than Sharia. We are making arguments that will appeal only to those who are already on our side.
Why does this matter? First, there has been a good deal of discussion about what “the” Western counter-narrative ought be. In fact, what this analysis demonstrates is that there should not be a single counter-narrative, because there is not a singular ISIS narrative aimed at a singular demographic. There have to be multiple narratives from the West. However, materials produced for each counter-narrative ought be internally cohesive and coherent.
To counter an attempt to recruit the family man, there are any number of messages possible centering on the impact the decision to leave for the Islamic State will actually have on one’s family, whether those the recruit takes along – danger, exposure to violence, poor living and health conditions -- or those left behind, sadness, grief, and so on. The responses the Islamic State would make are entirely predictable: what matters ought not be this life, but the next. But as a rhetorical strategy, (in effect, that you shouldn’t care whether your children live or die, or what their quality of life is, that your parents aren’t “real” Muslims, so their grief at your departure should not matter to you, nor should how well they will get along without you), that depends upon their already having succeeded in recruiting the subject. Countering their message by focusing relentlessly on the impact of migration to the Islamic State on families could well work.
To be sure, this is speculative. The problem is that it is not supported with empirical data. But it has the benefit of being tailored to a specific strategy ISIS seems to be using. We have to recognize that they are making different arguments for different audiences and begin to do the same, or there is almost no chance of success.
Second, both the analysis of their materials, and the development of our own, cannot ignore the power of visuals, both the substance of the images, and the compositional elements used to present them. The Eid video is powerful because it shows one father after another, beautifully lit, smiling, with their happy children, surrounded by other happy fathers and children on a gorgeous day in a lovely park. Everything in that video seems to work as evidence for the claims made by the Islamic State that it is building an idyllic life for its people – who can deny the evidence of their own eyes? Any number of visual responses could work, but the point is responses must be predominately visual to work.
[i] Known variously as The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, or Iraq and Syria –also abbreviated to ISIS – the group itself, and its supporters, always used Iraq and Sham in their videos until they shortened it to “The Islamic State.”
[ii] The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified recently that approximately 20,000 foreign fighters had traveled to Syria to join the group, a number he called “unprecedented,” as it was more than had ever traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia. Jamie Crawford and Laurie Koran, “US officials: foreigners flock to fight for ISIS,” CNN.com, February 11, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/10/politics/isis-foreign-fighters-combat/
[iii] Michelle McPhee and Brian Ross, “Official: American May be Key in ISIS Social Media Blitz,” ABCNews.com, September 3, 2014, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2014/09/official-american-may-be-key-in-isis-social-media-blitz/ Patrick Kinglsey, “Who is behind Isis’ terrifying online propaganda operation?” The Guardian, June 23, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/23/who-behind-isis-propaganda-operation-iraq Richard Spencer, “The Man Arrested For Running the Top ISIS Twitter Account Is A Hawaiian-Shirt-Wearing Executive In India,” Business Insider, December 13, 2014 http://www.businessinsider.com/the-man-arrested-for-running-the-top-isis-twitter-account-is-a-hawaiian-shirt-wearing-executive-in-india-2014-12
[iv] See Eric Schmitt, “US is Trying to Counter ISIS’ Efforts to Lure Alienated Young Muslims,” New York Times, October 4, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/us/us-is-trying-to-counter-isiss-efforts-to-lure-alienated-young-muslims.html?_r=0 ; Jeffrey Fleishman, “ISIS and its increasingly sophisticated cinema of terror,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-ca-isis-video-horror-20150301-story.html#page=1 ; Margaret Brennan and Tucker Reals, “Kerry copters into nerve center of ISIS fight,” CBSNews.com, September 10, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/john-kerry-baghdad-meet-iraq-pm-haider-al-abadi-on-isis/ accessed February 26, 2015; Associated Press, “Fighting ISIS: Barack Obama holds summit against violent extremism,” CBCNews.com, February 18, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/m/touch/news/story/1.2961361 for examples of how common and casual this articulation has become.
[v] Indeed, it seems to further imply “without prospects,” which – at least anecdotally – would not describe any number of the younger Westerners who have gone to Syria to join ISIS.
[vi] The exception, of course, is the phenomena of young Western girls recruited to be “jihadi war brides,” which has been relatively carefully tracked. My point is that when you look at the available data on foreign fighters who have joined ISIS there is no data on whether they moved to Syria or Iraq on their own, or brought their family with them.
[vii] It is not entirely clear to me what the basis is for the assumption that the graphic images must be for purposes of recruiting, or how they are supposed to work for that purpose, since we are lacking in data. It seems equally likely they are intended for us – to shock, to horrify, to terrorize – and to rally those already committed. These images may be intended only for specific audiences, or may be meant to confirm and validate the choices already made post-radicalization. See Charlie Winter, “Islamic State Propaganda: Key Elements of the Group’s Messaging,” Terrorism Monitor 13, 12 (June 12, 2015) for a similar argument. Empirical research on this question is desperately needed. Perhaps it is available: if so I have not seen it in the open literature. I don’t doubt they gain benefit from the atrocity images. The question is what benefits, with what audiences. It is likely those images play a role in ISIS’ ability to gain the support of other already very extreme groups, such as Boko Haram. But that’s a different issue, and would call for different responses, than if the images were radicalizing and helping to recruit Westerners who were initially not radicalized, or not radicalized to the point of considering acts of violence or moving to Syria or Iraq, which are the points where radical views really become a problem for the larger society.
[viii] And obtaining such data has never been impossible: it would be easy to design, if somewhat challenging to carry out properly. The issue has always been funding.
[ix] See, for example, Thomas Elkjer Nissen, “Terror.com – IS’s Social Media Warfare in Syria and Iraq,” Contemporary Conflicts, 2, no. 2 (2014): https://pure.fak.dk/ws/files/5528185/Thomas_Elkjer_Nissen_Terror.com_ISs_Social_Media_Warfare_in_Syria_and_Iraq.pdf an excellent discussion of which platforms ISIS uses and for what likely reason, Heather Marie Vitale and James M. Keagle, “A Time to Tweet, as Well as A Time to Kill: ISIS’s Projection of Power in Iraq and Syria,” Defense Horizons, (October 2014): http://inss.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/defensehorizon/DH-77.pdf (although they do briefly discuss other platforms, and the content of video, they do not analyze visuals per se) or Rita Katz, “Follow ISIS on Twitter: A Special Report on the Use of Social Media by Jihadists,” Insite Blog, June 24, 2014, http://news.siteintelgroup.com/blog/index.php/entry/192-follow-isis-on-twitter-a-special-report-on-the-use-of-social-media-by-jihadists
[x] As you can tell from the notes, a large body of videos were posted by an account under the name, “Nasrun min Allah.” The account was taken down all at once last fall, although by the account holder or You Tube was never clear. There is a Twitter account under that name (with under 50 followers) that seems to by someone who speaks Dutch, as well as English and Arabic. Meanwhile, there is now another You Tube account up posting videos clearly from ISIS, but with the same “Nasrun min Allah” graphic at the beginning. There is, obviously, no way to know for sure if the two You Tube accounts are connected (although it seems very likely) or if they are linked to the Twitter account (although that seems highly probable, since most of the tweets from that account are links to the video postings on You Tube.) I am indebted to Sean Jarecki for assistance with this information.
[xi] This is the term coined by Jarrett Brachman. See Jarret M. Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 18-19.
[xii] Branding is as important to jihadist groups as it is in any other context. See Cori E. Dauber, “The Branding of Violent Jihadism,” in Carol K. Winkler and Dauber, eds., Visual Propaganda and Extremism in the Online Environment (Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press, July, 2014): 137-164
[xiii] The only individual video of similar quality was Al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula’s “The Beginning of the Rain”, Posted by TRAC Yemen, June 2, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZTJcYIWaWw accessed February 26, 2015, although the graphics used by Al Kataib News Network (ostensibly posting on behalf of Al Shabab) often rivaled anything done in the professional media. Unlike ISIS, and unlike “The Rain,” those graphics were attached to videos that were substantially weaker. I began tracking ISIS videos a little over a year ago, roughly March 2014.
[xiv] Which is certainly not to suggest such work is not important, much of it is extremely valuable. I would go so far as to describe some of it as elegant. See J.M. Berger, “How ISIS Games Twitter,” The Atlantic, June 16, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-iraq-twitter-social-media-strategy/372856/ or J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter census: Defining and Describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter,” Brookings, March 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2015/03/isis-twitter-census-berger-morgan
[xv] For a survey of this literature, see Cori E. Dauber and Carol K. Winkler, “Radical Visual Propaganda in the Online Environment: An Introduction,” in Winkler and Dauber, eds., Visual Propaganda: 1-30
[xvi] Doris Graber has written, “Purely verbal analyses not only miss the information contained in the pictures and nonverbal sounds, they even fail to interpret the verbal content appropriately because that content is modified by its combination with picture messages.” Doris A. Graber, “Content and Meaning, What’s It All About?” American Behavioral Scientist, 33, no. 2 (1980), p. 145. David S. Sorenson provides a sophisticated analysis of the types of arguments a counter-ISIS campaign might make, but it is completely detached from any assessment of how the visuals are driving ISIS propaganda, or how visuals might be used in the strategy he proposes, which seems to consist largely of scholars speaking to camera. If we put the visual interest of what ISIS is producing up against a series of videos of scholars explaining things, we’ve lost before we’ve begun. “Priming Strategic Communications: Countering the Appeal of ISIS,” Parameters, 44, no. 3 (Autumn 2014): http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/Parameters/issues/Autumn_2014/6_SorensonDavid_Priming%20Strategic%20Communications%20Countering%20the%20Appeal%20of%20ISIS.pdf
[xvii] It is no accident that in the now famous video where the ISIS leader speaks in mosque, he is filmed from below, not at a head-on angle, which would imply a degree of equality between viewer and subject. See “ISLAMIC STATE: ‘Amir ul Mumineem Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi [Khutbah],’” posted by WORLD ISLAMIC STATE, November 5, 2014, brackets in original title, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ix0xXjDasmA&list=PL10A2DdkD2iG6StJXtzwAc80T5Fg8tfol accessed May 23, 2015. Note that even relative to the resolution of most ISIS videos, which are extremely crisp and clear, this video stands out: their norm is far beyond anything any other terrorist or jihadist group produces, but this one is far beyond almost anything else available on You Tube, period.
[xviii] Consider the image of the Marine who climbed to the top of the Saddam statue in Baghdad in 2003 and proceeded to drape the statue’s face in an American flag. The image translated differently in the United States than it did in the Arab world. Or, more obviously, perhaps, consider the full range of atrocity images pushed out by ISIS. Presumably their people felt differently about the videotaped execution of the Jordanian pilot than the Jordanian public at large did.
[xix] Consider the iconic images of the Challenger crew the morning of launch, or the shuttle itself, in pieces. Initially those images were representations of heroic sacrifice in the cause of exploration. After the investigation into the cause of the explosion they became representations of tragic and unnecessary loss.
[xx] A Pulitzer prize winning photographer was fired recently for cropping out another photographer’s camera at the edge of an image. Doing so certainly cleaned up the shot, but it also artificially contributed to the sense that the image was “objective” that news photographers strive for. The presence of the camera was a reminder that there were reporters present, that someone had actually taken the image the viewer was looking at. Adam Weinstein, “Should the AP Really Have Fired this Pulitzer-Prize Winning Photographer?” Gawker.com, January 23, 2014, http://gawker.com/should-the-ap-really-have-fired-this-pulitzer-prize-war-1507309131
[xxi] Consider as a simple example the classic way a conversation is filmed in fictional material, showing the first character speaking filmed over the shoulder of the character who is being spoken to, then alternating that shot with that “listening” character then shown speaking, shot over the shoulder of the first character. Typically that sequence is edited into one seamless piece of video, though it obviously was not filmed that way. The parallel in news footage has the shot of the interviewer reacting to the voice of the interview subject seamlessly edited into the footage of the interview, again giving the appearance of a single uninterrupted sequence.
[xxii] Taken together the range of these choices is called “cinematography.” For a relatively short and easy to understand guide to many of the most commonly used options, see Mariano Prunes, Michael Raine, and Mary Ritch,“Part 3: Cinematography,” Yale Film Studies Film Analysis Web Site 2.0, n.d., http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/ accessed August 13, 2014. But, the point is made beautifully (and in only 6 minutes) in Aisha Harris, “A Gorgeous Video Tribute to Today’s Best Cinematographers,” Slate.com, April 1, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/04/01/cinematographers_montage_from_filmmaker_erick_lee_pays_gorgeous_tribute.html
[xxiii] ISIS uses this on a regular basis, but it is used to particularly powerful effect throughout the video, “AlHayat Media presents: Mujatweets episode 7,” Posted by أجلقبائلناد ا, July 22, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MUAx9atfR8 accessed February 22, 2015 where the camera angle places the viewer walking through a market in Raqqa, and invites them to imagine themselves there, actually walking through the market themselves – in other words, in the Islamic State.
[xxiv] For example, viewers watching college football reported greater arousal – at least if the play was “exciting” – when watching footage filmed using a subjective camera angle. R. Glenn Cummins, Justin R. Keene, and Brandon H. Nutting, “The Impact of Subjective Camera in Sports on Arousal and Enjoyment,” Mass Communication and Society 15, no. 1 (2012): 74-97. Critically, the sense of spatial presence that seems to be a key element of viewer’s enjoyment provided by this camera angle is linked to the degree of the viewer’s “fanship” – someone who is already a fan would enjoy the experience more, and the more of a fan, the greater the degree of enjoyment. R. Glenn Cummins, “The Effects of Subjective Camera and Fanship on Viewers’ Experience of Presence and Perception of Play in Sports Telecasts,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 37, no. 4 (2009): 374-396. Dr. Cummins agrees the parallel makes sense, that these materials “invite the illusion of participation,” particularly to the extent those viewing them are “already motivated consumers” of these videos. Phone conversation with author, June 19, 2015.
[xxv] See, for example, “Islamic Caliphate Balighu Mina Abu Bakr Salama Nasheed الدولة الإسلامية خلافة,” posted by Nasrun Min Allah, May 20, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpgqtcR12OY accessed May 23, 2015. The opening, where an animation of a “God’s eye” view of looking down from a very, very great distance, as if from a satellite, gives way to rapidly falling, then to the view taken from the drone, has been recycled. When they come up with an opening they like, they tend to use it “plug and play” style. Berger and Stern make a different point about the use of drone footage, they argue it is immediately clear and powerful at the symbolic level, because the “enemy’s most feared and hated weapon was now part of ISIS’s arsenal.” Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: Harper Collins Publishers), p. 110.
[xxvi] It is also the case that sometimes these videos will be removed after they have been posted, whether they include violent images or not, for violating You Tube’s terms of service. At the end of the day, they are all, after all, propaganda in support of a violent extremist group. (Sometimes they come down because an entire account has come down: when that happens it is not always clear whether that was done by You Tube or by the account holder.) It is my standard practice, whenever I see a video that might be of interest, if there is the slightest chance it might have some relevance down the road, to download it immediately so that I have a permanent copy stored just in case, typically in Mp4 format. Often when a video has been removed, it will eventually be reposted by a different account under a slightly different title, but there’s no way to know how long that will take or how difficult it will be to search it out. An unusually large number of the videos discussed in this paper were taken down just before I had finished writing, as I was in the final proofing stages, as if there might be a bot in play. If you are interested in any of the videos mentioned here but they are no longer available, try searching variations of the title. It should be noted that Stern and Berger make a strong argument that in fact taking this type of material down as aggressively as possible is an important strategy, (see Stern and Berger, State of Terror, esp. pps. 136-145), but their primary focus is Twitter and Facebook, text-dominant platforms, and their primary research interest is on “Big Data” types of network analysis, not visual-dominant qualitative methods, and not on the content of the material so much as on the relationship between accounts. Their argument, however, is for a “moderate middle ground,” not for trying to eliminate all such content from these platforms. See J.M. Berger, “Terrorists On Social Media: Arguments That Don’t Impress Me,” Intelwire, October 10, 2013, http://news.intelwire.com/2013/10/terrorists-on-social-media-arguments.html (They also argue specifically that You Tube has the capacity to do far more technologically than it appears to be doing, that it has the software, for example, to recognize the logos of terrorist groups and to prevent multiple uploads of videos that have already been flagged. Stern and Berger, State of Terror, p. 139. There is no question they are not using that software to prevent these videos from being put back up.)
[xxvii] Or as in “Islamic State IS Nasheed الدولة الإسلامية, “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJksQdBFQ4s posted by Nasrun min Allah, June 30, 2014, accessed July 2, 2014 where rockets, tanks, and individual fighters are all seen firing, but off into the distance – at what, or whom, is never clear, so that even though there are explosions, its never clear precisely what it is that’s being fired on or whether anything or anyone in particular has been hit. Indeed, it isn’t entirely clear who’s firing some of the rockets “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham Messages from the Land of the Odysseys 5 1 2,” Posted by globalmediafront (sic), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZu7_3DKpT4 October 15, 2013 uses some of the same footage of the tank firing, but places it in context, showing the battle plan being briefed to the fighters, but the battle itself is filmed only from a distance. The fighters, in the end, march towards the objective that has presumably been defeated by the rocket fire, but the objective itself is never shown on film. “Islamic State Of Iraq And Sham ISIS Saraya Dawlati Nasheed الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام” seems to be nothing more than a film of recruits learning to shoot set to a nasheed, or religiously themed chant. See “Islamic State Of Iraq And Sham ISIS Saraya Dawlati Nasheed الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4U4QoyYbbA posted by Nasrum min Allah, June 18, 2014, accessed June 19, 2014.
[xxviii] See “ISIS akhir sykes Picot,” posted by ISIS Berita Indonesia, August 14, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS-ID_IEGNw accessed February 22, 2014
[xxix] Some videos have jihadists testify against the group they say they previously belonged to – the Al Nusra Front – and explain why they shifted their allegiance at length, sometimes in fluent English. See “The Truth About Jabhat Al Nusra │ The Islamic State Of Iraq,” where the fighter describes why Al Nusra’s leaders are not to be trusted. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTfzORnBC9w From the opening graphics on, Al Nusra has been totally outclassed when it comes to the quality of videos being produced until very recently. Whether or not it’s the videos, ISIS is clearly having some success in this area. Greg Miller, “Fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates to join Islamic State, US Officials say,” Washington Post, August 9, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/fighters-abandoning-al-qaeda-affiliates-to-join-islamic-state-us-officials-say/2014/08/09/c5321d10-1f08-11e4-ae54-0cfe1f974f8a_story.html
[xxx] Just as an example, see, Morgan Winsor, “ISIS Beheads Cigarette Smokers: Islamic State Deems Smoking ‘Slow Suicide’ Under Sharia Law,” International Business Times, February 12, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/isis-beheads-cigarette-smokers-islamic-state-deems-smoking-slow-suicide-under-sharia-1815192 -- their own people may be executed on a regular basis, but, while they may be using those deaths for educational purposes internally, they do not use them for propaganda purposes externally. They are simply not treated in the same way for the most part as the executions of Western prisoners were.
[xxxi] See “ISIS Mujahideen Calls for Tawheed || ISIS calls for Islamic Monotheism by Destroying Shirk”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGQbNi7zSLU posted by Tawheed Dawah Islamic Center, November 19, 2013, accessed June 23, 2014 posted also as “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant || Destroying Sufi Shrines (Shirk) || A Call For Tawheed,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pY1gkb_zc4g posted by Tawheed Dawhah State, November 13, 2013 accessed June 13, 2014.” There are no subtitles, so its difficult for the non-Arabic speaker to be sure of the location involved, but see also, “The Islamic State in Libya presents "Removal of Shirk in the State of Tripoli" posted by Theinfo Islam, March 18, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0-204YaDs0 accessed May 22, 2015. The ISIS logo – the digital image of their flag “fluttering” – is visible burned into the corner of the video throughout. Although they were not the first to post such videos. Ansar al Dine beat them to the punch with videos extremely similar in theme and visual approach.
[xxxii] See Aaron Y. Zelin, “New video message from the Islamic State: ‘The Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice #1 – Wilayat Ninawa,” Jihadology.net, February 26, 2015, http://jihadology.net/2015/02/26/new-video-message-from-the-islamic-state-the-promotion-of-virtue-and-the-prevention-of-vice-1-wilayat-ninawa/ accessed February 27, 2015. This video, showing the destruction of priceless historical artifacts, received a great deal of media attention, and for good reason; its heartbreaking to watch. But no more so than the destruction of the Sufi shrines. Or, for that matter, the destruction done by Ansar al Dine (who, again, got there first) to Timbuktu. “Timbuktu shrines damaged by Mali Ansar Dine Islamists,” BBCNews Africa.com, June 30, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18657463
[xxxiii] “تحطيم حدود الخزي سايكس وبيكو// الدولة الإسلامية في العراق و الشام,” Posted by Elmostafa hamdaoui jamai, June 14, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5wCyJXX67o accessed February 22, 2015. See also, “ISIS akhir sykes Picot,” posted by ISIS Berita Indonesia, August 14, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS-ID_IEGNw accessed February 22, 2014, where an English speaking tour guide (identified as Chilean, although that is false) walks the viewer through the scene of a fight where ISIS has, we are told, taken and destroyed an Iraqi border post, in order to wipe out the border between Iraq and Syria – the first of many such borders to fall. (The 15 minute video is also an excellent example of those videos where ISIS displays war booty to the viewer.)
[xxxiv] “الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام تحطيم الحدو Islamic State Of Iraq Sham Breaking Down The Border”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptT_GSYrz_s&list=TLhcrypMgVKKxOy25fIG_Kc7tit23Vh-xJ&index=1 posted by Nasrum min Allah, April 13, 2014, accessed June 12, 2014
[xxxv] “Nasheed Islamic State Ummaty Qad Laha Fajrun,” Posted by sehide binti mucahide, September 15, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GttAf7aEbOo accessed February 22, 1015
[xxxvi] See “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66IbRNXaEk "For It Is Jihad That Gives Life" Islamic State Of Iraq And Sham - الدولة الاسلامية في العراق الشا,” Posted by Nasrun min Allah, May 5, 2014, and “Islamic State IS Nasheed الدولة الإسلامية,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJksQdBFQ4s posted by Nasrun min Allah, June 30, 2014. “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham : Raise the flag of Tawheed in Syria ᴴᴰ,” Posted by Abou Oussama, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN4_eBAG8PQ, February 2, 2014. It is difficult to imagine a way to more easily communicate the message, “we are the winners” in a short video than to show ISIS fighters ripping down a national flag, throwing it into the street, and triumphantly raising the ISIS flag over a particular location. Whether intentionally or not, the start of this footage is somewhat reminiscent of the iconic Iwo Jima shot, actually. The comparison is most obvious in “ISIS raises its flag in east Aleppo towns,” posted by SyriaDirect, January 16, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgyPGnwUqyY accessed March 21, 2014
[xxxvii] Just as one example, see the first 1:28 of “الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام تحطيم الحدو Islamic State Of Iraq Sham Breaking Down The Border,” where one smiling, beautifully lit face after another is lingered on, each a different age and race (all, obviously, male.) It’s no coincidence this segment is the set up for the portion of the video where fighters gather around a fire to ceremonially burn their passports.
[xxxviii] In “Mujatweets Episode Nr 1,” Posted by أبو خطاب الثوري, July 7, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivDeQCjLfxQ accessed February 22, 2015, for example, a German recruit sings a song in German (apparently one of the many songs of praise to al-Baghdadi) then laughs at his own singing in a charming, self-deprecating way. There is an entire series of “Mujatweets” videos, and although they cover a broad range of topics, they are extremely similar in style, quality, and approach – beginning with the very slick, fast moving graphics, (which are consistent across the series), the exceptional quality of the camera work and the high resolution of the imagery, and the fact that none is longer than 2 minutes. They are all reposted multiple times, in many languages, although for many that involves changing the language of the title the video is posted under only, as there are no words spoken, or none that have to be translated for the video’s meaning to be understood. (Notice that as they are posted and reposted, there is no consistency between account holders in how the titles of the videos are formatted.) While they are mentioned in Vitale and Keagle, “A Time to Tweet,” p. 10, I do not believe they were properly contextualized as part of the overall recruitment campaign – Vitale and Keagle make the same assumption about “disaffected youth,” and while their suggestions regarding the need to make the Department of State’s program faster, slicker, and more aggressive make good sense, they do not understand that the content of that program’s messages will have to be overhauled as well. “Jundallah nasheed,” on the other hand, provides Dutch subtitles to a nasheed song over stock footage and stock categories of footage, including cuts between contemporary truck convoys and fighting scenes and scenes of battles appearing to date from the time of the birth of Islam or the Crusades, a common visual metaphor used by many jihadi groups (although spiced up, in this case, by a shot of a cross, apparently in Jerusalem, taken down, replaced by a crescent, and dragged through the dirt.) “Haya Alal Jihad - Nasheed [Al-Hayat Media Center]” is a fast moving, extremely slick example of what can only be termed a jihadist music video, where the viewer is watching very, very quick cuts of scenes of fighting, while listening to a nasheed sung in either German or Dutch, where the graphics, beautifully integrated into the shots, are the English subtitles for the song’s words.
[xxxix] See for example “Bergabung dengan Barisan || Join the Ranks by Al-hayat media center || IS || الدولة الاسلامية, ,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pm5E7arpyqo Posted by Abu Hanifah, July 23, 2014 or “’Join the Ranks’ from the Islamic State,” posted by Syria Focus, July 23, 2014 (originally posted by Jihadology), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxsPR-_fYnk accessed May 23, 2015,which introduces the Indonesians. The subtitles are clearly organic, meaning they were part of the original video, and the camera angles make clear this was a sophisticated, carefully thought out production.
[xl] The same argument is made in textual terms in other places. See Bryan Preston, “Islamic State Brands Itself as a Unique Multi-Racial Melting Pot,” PJ Tatler, September 4, 2014, http://pjmedia.com/tatler/2014/09/04/islamic-state-brands-itself-as-a-unique-multi-racial-melting-pot/?singlepage=true
[xli] Some of this footage would be familiar to anyone following American network news, because they have become standard choices for “visual metaphors” for ISIS. For example, the footage of two rows of ISIS fighters, one in the black “ninja” uniform, one in white, marching in two rows, in unison, shot from below in slow motion. See “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham || Rebuilding Islamic Society || الدولة الاسلامية في العراق,”الشام, Posted by Tawheed Manhaj Salaf Manhaj, December 18, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fwmJONhXQg accessed May 14, 2013 as an example of this footage. Since it was designed by ISIS to make their fighters look as powerful and invincible as possible, it really might not be the best choice for Western news networks. It is, again, propaganda.
[xlii] See for example Aaron Zelin, “al-Malahim Media presents a new video message from al-Qa’idah in the Arabian Peninsula: ‘Muslim Caucasus: Backing and Support,’” Jihadology, March 6, 2015, http://jihadology.net/2015/03/06/al-mala%E1%B8%A5im-media-presents-a-new-video-message-from-al-qaidah-in-the-arabian-peninsula-muslim-caucasus-backing-and-support/ accessed March 10, 2015. This is after AQAP makes the huge leap in the production quality of their material, and you can see the quality of their material in this video, but they simply edit in the video they want to use from other sources without concern for its being substantially weaker than their own.
[xliii] See the very slickly produced, “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham _ Sheikh Osama bin Laden _ Im-1.” In it, when bin Laden speaks in Arabic, what he says is subtitled in English, when Awlaki speaks in English, his words are subtitled in Arabic. (The original seems to be gone, but a copy has been preserved – identical in content, but not nearly as high in resolution.) See “ISIS: Sheikh Osama bin Laden and Imam Anwar al Awlaki Establishing Khilafah,” TRAC Yemen, posted June 25, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGVoN5m4BRw accessed May 25, 2014. There is a virtually identical version produced not by Al Hayat Media, but by Al Hayat Deutschland, and in that version the graphics that are ordinarily in English in most Al Hayat productions are in German, and Awlaki’s words (only the Awlaki section is used) are subtitled in German only. “al-Hayat Deutschland - Shaikh Anwar al-Aulaqi - Die Etablierung des islamischen Staates Teil 1”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njt73bS8sjg posted by al Hayat Deutschland, May 14, 2014. And there is an identical version currently posted where Awlaki’s portion has been cut. See “Sheikh Osama bin Laden rh Islamic State of Iraq and Sham ISIS ISLAMIC STATE,” Posted by ali abdullah, February 13, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fQ56kmZsfU accessed February 22, 2015
[xliv] This is why President Obama’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast were so potentially damaging. The question is not whether Christians should be offended. The question is what the impact will be once those comments start to appear, as they inevitably will, in ISIS videos, as they will use the footage to make it appear the President of the United States is agreeing with their world view. Whether he was or not is simply irrelevant. American leaders (and opinion leaders) must be more mindful of how their words will be repurposed in enemy propaganda, because that they will be must be taken as a foregone conclusion.
[xlv] See, in particular, “The Resolve of the Defiant 360p,” posted by The Truth December 15, 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9O9xlK8FcJY accessed June 7, 2015 from 4:30 – 6:08. This video uses mostly cuts from Fox News, but I have seen them pull from Fox, CNN, BBC World News, BBC Arabic, France1, Vice News, Al Jazeera, and Al Arabiya. This, by the way, is an example of a video that is constantly taken down and reposted by various accounts.
[xlvi] See “True Mujahideen Islamic State Khilafah Caliphate الدولة الإسلامية, “ posted by Nasrun min Allah, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud7nssk4c2g June 29, 2014, accessed July 2, 2014 which incorporates the National Journal, Al Jazeera, France24, and Vice News, along with their own footage. It is one of the rare examples of ISIS materials showing uncovered adult females (although even covered adult women are fairly rare) as footage of women newscasters is left untouched, and it begins with a young woman who explains to camera, “militarily speaking, ISIS is the most successful jihadist group the world has ever seen . . . and they may be a bigger threat . . . than Al Queda.”
[xlvii] See Scott W. Ruston and Jeffry R. Halverson, “’Counter’ or ‘Alternative’: Contesting Video Narratives of Violent Islamist Extremism,” in Winkler and Dauber, eds., Visual Propaganda: 105-134
[xlviii] Footage pulled from the professional press will leave the logos of the networks visible, and will also “fuzz out” the resolution in contrast to the rest of the video, as clear visual cues demarcating those cuts from ISIS’ own material.
[xlix] See for example “Islamic State Of Iraq And Sham Ya Dawlat al Islam ISIS Nasheed الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام, “ posted by Nasrun min Allah http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJ0DBEp9eMs June 18, 2014 accessed June 23, 2014. These are often filmed not only in extremely high resolution, but also with very effective camera angles and editing. For example, “Islamic Caliphate الدولة الإسلامية خِلاف,” begins with a very lengthy segment that is in both slow motion and subjective camera angle, putting the viewer right into the scene.
[l] See for example “People of Syria Love Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) || Public Interview Reveals the Fact,” posted by Tawheed Dawah Islamic Center, November 19, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oua23MCCWVE accessed May 22, 2015
[li] See for example "Dawlat al Islam" The Islamic State Of Iraq And Sham ISIS - الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RX4LapDaK9M Posted by Nasrun min Allah, May 9, 2014, accessed May 14, 2014 primarily taken up with long truck convoys, or “Islamic State and Iraq and Sham Nasheed,” which is a nasheed sung to a video lasting one minute thirty eight seconds, where the only visual is a convoy snaking its way slowly up a curving road. Posted by Ali Erman ALKAN, February 26, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3CeEr9SW5g accessed May 23, 2015.
[lii] I have argued since their initial release that the videos produced by Al Kataib, the entity claiming to be releasing videos on behalf of Shabab, were beginning with graphics packages as good as anything being done by CNN or the BBC. But at the suggestion of one of my students I lined them up next to those of the BBC and the similarity is stunning: it isn’t just that the quality is comparable, they have clearly lifted their design aesthetic straight from the BBC in a clear attempt to present themselves as a legitimate competitor. The best examples of these videos are no longer up on You Tube.
[liii] Interestingly, sometimes the more the Al Hayat imprimatur is front and center the lower the design quality in this sense. I’m thinking, for example, of “al Hayat Media Center HMC ‘O Soldiers of Truth Go Forth,” Posted by الله أكبر, February 10, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TORU7EPTB5Q accessed February 22, 2015. The graphics, which bounce all over in time to the pounding beat, are, again, the English translation of the nasheed, but they are organic graphics, not subtitles. (And, of course, while they appear to be lower in quality based on some abstract standard, they may well be perfect for attracting young people used to music videos and video games. At least, if my students are any gauge, my argument about quality fell flat here.) In other videos, though, Al Hayat’s logo appears on a black background, in gold, in an effect that makes it look as if it is a drop of water – with audio to match -- gradually solidifying into the logo, which is in Arabic with the English words spelled out in a smaller font underneath: the result is immediately compelling. (And has the added impact of making a clear statement about professionalism, and thus, credibility.) The only other group I have seen produce a video where the design quality of the graphics matched the technical quality was Kavkaz Center, which was actually attached, at least on You Tube, to an extremely low quality video. The sound effects from ISIS are as sophisticated as the visuals, and will be taken up at a later date.
[liv] As I noted, Stern and Berger discuss this phenomena of family recruitment. There is clearly extensive work being done on the recruitment of women, whether that means teenagers or mothers with children. But there is very little discussion of the recruitment of family units. See Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Hoping to create a new society, the Islamic State recruits entire families,” Washington Post, December 24, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/hoping-to-create-a-new-homeland-the-islamic-state-recruits-entire-families/2014/12/24/dbffceec-8917-11e4-8ff4-fb93129c9c8b_story.html
[lv] One small girl is seen throughout the entire video. Traditional notions of what is “women’s work” have to get defined differently when you don’t let the women leave the house I guess.
[lvi] “AlHayat Media presents: Mujatweets episode 7,” July 22, 2014
[lvii] “AlHayat Media Center (HMC) Presents: Mujatweets Episode #3,” Posted by أناشيد إسلامية, June 11, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PMjjJLAUCU Accessed February 22, 2015
[lviii] See “Mujatweets Episode #5, Children of the Muhajireen from Bosnia,” Posted by John Jamie, December 3, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZ-bFHCx0jQ Accessed February 22, 2015. This particular “Episode” is also notable because it features a group of extremely fair-skinned, mostly blond children, with hair cuts that make them look like they’re about to be extras in a Hollywood movie about 1950s Indiana.
[lix] Hilary Whiteman, “’Radicalized’ father of Australian boy holding severed head has mental illness,” CNN.com, August 12, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/12/world/asia/australia-boy-severed-head-syria/ It is unclear why CNN felt the need to put the word “radicalized” in scare quotes. The guy did move to ISIS-controlled territory, and did post an image of his kid holding up a severed head.
[lx] “al-Hayat Media Center(HMC) Presents: Mujatweets Episode #2,” Posted by nsr asd, June 4, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tk-2CTHvqZw accessed February 22, 2015
[lxi] “Islamic Caliphate The Shari'ah of our Lord is Light Nasheed الدولة الإسلامية خلافة,” posted by Nasrun Min Allah,” March 15, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Qx5Vtnbwkk accessed May 21, 2015. Interestingly, children really should be seen and not heard, apparently, because although one child after another is shown speaking directly to camera, the audio track is a nasheed (a religious chant) so none of their voices is ever heard. (This is often done when ISIS fighters are shown on camera as well.) This video appears to be a compilation of short bits of footage from multiple ISIS videos, whatever could be pieced together that included images of children (boys.) Although they appear healthy, it should be noted that a number of the boys appear exhausted. “Nasheed " The Shari'ah of our lord is light" نشيد :" شريعة ربنا نور" الدولة الاسلامية”, posted by Foukoul Hani, October 24, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebPwvkOEA8s accessed June 11, 2015 is set to the exact same nasheed, and is also almost entirely composed of footage of happy healthy children, some only a few months old. (Although this second video seems to be made up of material shot specifically for this video, not made up of repurposed cuts.) These kids are mostly shown just arranged on blankets outside, as if on picnic blankets, and the most martial thing that happens is when some of the boys start to compete with one another doing push-ups towards the end. However, many of these kids are young girls, which puts it in stark contrast to most ISIS material.
[lxii] See “Download Video: Al-Hayat Media: Race Toward Good,” Khilafah Today, The Islamic State Media Supporter, http://khilafahtoday.blogspot.com/2015/05/download-video-al-hayat-media-race.html accessed June 6, 2015. The video has been removed from You Tube; I cannot vouch for the security of this website. See also Joanna Paraszczuk, “Kazakhstan Moves to Ban ‘Illegal’ IS Video Showing Training of Kazakh Children,” Under the Black Flag: Tracking Islamic State, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty November 25, 2014 http://www.rferl.org/content/kazakhstan-islamic-state-recruitment-children-syria/26709628.html I have spoken of the problem posed by these children, being raised in the Islamic State, when I have done briefings on these videos. Watching this video in particular makes clear this is something beyond radicalization. Stern and Berger discuss this issue, drawing a parallel between the “educational” system in the ISIS controlled territories and the psychological effects seen when other groups have used child soldiers. See Stern and Berger, State of Terror, pps: 210-215. They specifically mention this video (p. 92) and point out that one of the children featured was also seen in a later video – shooting two prisoners in the head. (p. 93) The only other source I have seen explicitly discuss the question of these children being raised inside the Islamic State, and the apparently very conscious program designed to completely desensitize them to amounts and levels of violence unimaginable in any normal society is Kate Brannen, “Children of the Caliphate,” Foreign Policy, October 24, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/10/24/children-of-the-caliphate/
[lxiii] “Eid Greetings from the Land of Khilafah,” Posted by Naz Brown, August 7, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nju-cygQ5_g accessed February 21, 2015 (The Al Hayat logo is burned onto the video, indicating it is an official ISIS product.)
[lxiv] As Berger and Stern point out, in a jihadist context the term is a loaded one, because it evokes Mohammad’s move from Mecca to Medina, and for “most Islamic extremists today, the concepts of hijra and jihad are intimately linked.” They make this point in a discussion of this video, the only other authors I’ve seen to take it up. Berger and Stern, State of Terror, p. 78.
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