Inside The ISIS Propaganda Machine: An Up-Close Look At A Militant Media Strategy

“I've grown used to IS ultraviolence, but this video was different. Different because, at my office desk, the place where I conduct all my research, I have a photograph of myself with my now-wife, dad and step-mum taken at that very same Palmyran theatre almost five years ago."

That’s a quote from Charlie Winter, Senior Researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, set up to address the unique challenges of citizenship, identity, and belonging in a globalized world.”

The reference is to a video ISIS released over the summer depicting a mass execution at Palmyra's Roman Theatre. The most chilling thing about this particular Islamic State murder montage: the executioners are all children. 

The clip represented yet another attempt on the group's part to one-up itself on the way to creating a vast catalogue of ultra-violent propaganda videos that have both shocked and captivated the Western public.

"Jihadi John" introduced the world to Islamic State's brand of barbarism by beheading Westerners on camera with a bowie knife. The brutality quickly escalated and before long, the group released footage of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage. After that, ISIS proceeded to bombard social media with a steady stream of increasingly cartoonish execution videos including one clip that depicts four men being packed into a Toyota Corolla which is then destroyed at close range with an RPG, and a particularly gruesome effort involving three gasoline-doused captives being hung upside down from a swingset before being set alight.

But Islamic State's media arm doesn't confine itself to producing real-life Quentin Tarantino clips. As we documented in "Austrian Economics Is Now Equivalent To Terrorism Thanks To Latest Islamic State 'Gold Standard' Propaganda Clip," the group's videos run the gamut from history lessons to proselytizing to recruitment drives. Indeed, Islamic State is exceptionally media savvy and the group's ability to attract fighters from all corners of the globe owes much to the propaganda arm. Just last week for instance, ISIS released an exceptionally well executed clip wherein the narrator touches on everything from geography, to racism, to veteran suicide rates before denouncing secularism and telling the US, Russia, and everyone else to "bring it on."

There are of course serious questions as to who exactly is responsible for the Hollywood specials that emanate from the Al Hayat media arm, and although he didn't discover any evidence that John McCain has a director's chair on ISIS sets or that the desert landscapes in the Jihadi John clips are in fact rendered on a green screen, Charlie Winter (quoted above) did manage to collect quite a bit of useful information about Islamic State propaganda in the course of conducting extensive research on how the group crafts its message.  

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From Fishing and Ultraviolence, by Charlie Winter, as originally published by BBC

We know that ideologically driven supporters of IS are attracted and gratified by its militaristic and ultraviolent propaganda, but what about the rest?

What about the thousands of civilian men, women and girls that leave their homes for the so-called IS caliphate?

for the entire 30 days of the month of Shawwal - which, according to IS's own calendar, began on 17 July and finished on 15 August - I spent two hours a day going through its Arabic-language support network on Twitter with a fine-tooth comb, navigating between its various forms of propaganda, using combinations of the group's countless designated hashtags as keys.

What I found was shocking, but not because of its brutality.

In just 30 days, IS's official propagandists created and disseminated 1,146 separate units of propaganda.

Photo essays, videos, audio statements, radio bulletins, text round-ups, magazines, posters, pamphlets, theological treatises - the list goes on.

Radio bulletins and text round-ups were released in six languages - Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, French and English. After grouping the different language versions of the same item together there were 892 units in total.

All of it was uniformly presented and incredibly well-executed, down to the finest details.

[..]

More often than not, it was the idea of utopia that was being stressed - social justice, economy, religious “purity” and the constant expansion of the “caliphate”.

Aside from these broad, superficial observations, the content was so voluminous and subject to change that there were no easy characterisations.

For example, on a relatively normal day, the 23rd of Shawwal, there was a total of 50 distinct pieces of propaganda.

[...]

Thirty two of the 50 showed off civilian activities - a plastering workshop in Mosul, newspapers being distributed in Fallujah, pavements laid in Tal'afar, telephone lines fixed in Qayara, cigarettes confiscated and burned in Sharqat, and even camels being herded in Bir al-Qasab.

From the offset, the lack of brutality was striking. I knew from past research that IS's brand went much further than shedding the blood of its enemies, but there was a complete absence of it in the first few days of Shawwal.

In retrospect, this makes sense.

Coming immediately after the holy month of Ramadan, Shawwal begins with a day of celebration, Eid al-Fitr.

Predictably, IS wanted to show this off.

The propagandists made great play of the alms-distribution among the needy in Syria and Libya, and spent a huge amount of time documenting celebratory prayers and the general “ambiences” of the festivities.

Kids played on fairground rides, toys and sweets were handed out among orphans, fighters at the front lines sang, drank tea and laughed together.

At one point, a programme was even produced by IS's official radio station, al-Bayan, in which “random” passers-by were quizzed about their Eid experiences (which were, of course, invariably euphoric).

Photo essays depicting melon agriculture, handicrafts and industry, wildlife, cigarette confiscations and street cleaning were disseminated on an almost like-for-like basis alongside sets of images showing balaclava-wearing IS fighters firing mortars into the distance, defiling large piles of dead “enemies” and gloating over booty.

Contrary to the countless reports that had emerged in July claiming that IS was toning down its brutality, the spectre of ultraviolence was never far off.

Only five days into Shawwal a video was released in which an pro-Assad soldier was shot in the back and cast off a cliff in Syria's Hama province.

Four days later footage emerged depicting the consecutive beheading of three “spies” in Iraq. And, shortly after that, a video showed a group of “enemies” of IS in Afghanistan being tied up and murdered - killed by the buried explosives they had been forced to sit on.

The further the month progressed, the clearer the motivations behind IS's killing became.

A warning was being sent out, but not to the international community. The intended target audience for these videos were the potential dissenters living in IS-held territories.

They were being told that they face a zero-sum game - stay on side, and enjoy the IS utopia, or assist the enemy and die in awful cruelty.

Not a single day passed without the immense cogs of the IS propaganda machine churning out another batch of releases. Consistently, the constituent parts of each batch meant little when taken in isolation.

However, taken together, they presented a comprehensive snapshot of life under the group with something for everyone.

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Yes, "something for everyone." Like grapes? Join the harvest in Raqqa. Enjoy a nice dip in the pool on days when the desert sun and sweltering heat are unbearable? Go for a swim with friends and family in Mosul. Are your kids bored? ISIS has bouncy castles for that. Need to blow off some steam? Just throw on your all black executioner garb, head up to a fog-covered mountain side on your matching horse, and execute some "spies."

There's much more in the full BBC article (linked above) but for those who want a still more granular look, Winter's research is the basis for a longer paper entitled "Documenting The Virtual 'Caliphate'." These are Winter's ten conclusions: 

  1. The volume of output produced by Islamic State far exceeds most estimates, which have been, until now, necessarily conservative. Disseminating an average of 38.2 unique propaganda events a day from all corners of the Islamic State ‘caliphate’, this is an exceptionally sophisticated information operation campaign, the success of which lies in the twin pillars of quantity and quality. Given this scale and dedication, negative measures like censorship are bound to fail.
  2. While there is broad consistency in the Islamic State narrative, it changes on a day-to-day basis according to on-the-ground prioritiesfor the group. Composed of 6 non-discrete parts – mercy, belonging, brutality, victimhood, war and utopia – the ‘caliphate’ brand is constantly shifting. 
  3. Constituting just 3.48% of the Shawwal dataset, the themes of mercy, belonging and brutality are dwarfed by the latter three narratives in terms of prominence. This is a marked shift from past propaganda norms and is indicative of changes in tactical outreach for Islamic State. 
  4. Over half of all the propaganda was focused on depicting civilian life in Islamic State-held territories. The spectre of ultraviolence was ever-present, but the preponderant focus on the ‘caliphate’ utopia demonstrates the priorities of the group’s media strategists. 
  5. Economic activity, social events, abundant wildlife, unwavering law and order, and pro-active, pristine ‘religious’ fervour form the foundations of Islamic State’s civilian appeal. In this way, the group attracts supporters based on ideological and political appeal.
  6. Besides civilian life, the propagandists go to great lengths to portray their military, variously depicting it in stasis or during offensives. There are few occasions upon which its defensive war is documented, something that makes sense given the need to perpetuate the aura of supremacy and momentum. 
  7. A large proportion of military-themed events is devoted to showing Islamic State’s war of attrition, with mortars and rockets being fired towards an unseen enemy. Given the locations from which many of these reports emerge, as well as the fact that the aftermath of such strikes is rarely, if ever documented, it is conceivable that these low-risk attacks are falsely choreographed to perpetuate a sense of Islamic State’s constantly being ‘on the offensive’.
  8. Islamic State still markets itself with brutality. However, the intended audiences for its ultraviolence are decidedly more regional than they have been in days gone by. Indeed, it seems that fostering international infamy is now secondary to intimidating its population, in order to discourage rebellion and dissent. Of course, this is very much subject to change. 
  9. The quantity, quality and variation of Islamic State propaganda in just one month far outweighs the quantity, quality and variation of any attempts, state or non-state, to challenge the group. All current efforts must be scaled up to achieve meaningful progress in this war. 
  10. The global desire to find a panacea counter-narrative to undermine the Islamic State brand is misplaced. Categorically, there is no such thing. Those engaged in the information war on the ‘caliphate’ must take a leaf out of the group’s own media strategy book and prioritise quantity, quality, variation, adaptability and differentiation. Most importantly, though, it must be based upon an alternative, not counter, narrative

Here's a look at some of the more granular data which breaks the propaganda output down by topic and medium: 

And here's a breakdown that shows which offices are the most prolific among what is apparently a sprawling network operating across the caliphate:

 

Before you ask, there were no statistics for the Langley office. 

Finally, here's Winter's effort to develop an org chart for the entire ISIS media production complex which he says spans at least a dozen countries:  

So for those looking to make sense of the myriad logos that appear at the beginning of the videos, the main production units are the al-Furqan, al-I’tisam and Ajnad Foundations and the al-Hayat Media Center. Al-Hayat produced last week's special effects-laden, four-minute extravaganza (mentioned above). 

Needless to say, it would be almost impossible to track who all is involved in the funding and dissemination of ISIS propaganda given the dizzying array of discrete production units shown above. We have little doubt that an investigation into each of the individual entities shown in the org chart would reveal some very interesting connections to state sponsors across the Sunni world.

Ultimately, we would agree with Winter that Islamic State's propaganda machine is probably more dangerous for its ability to paint a pleasant picture of life in the "caliphate" than for its capacity to shock the Western public with wanton displays of brutality.

That said, perhaps the larger question here is this: how is it that a movement with only 30,000 estimated fighters who have supposedly been the target of intense US airstrikes and counter-terrorism ops for 14 months is able to control and govern cities with populations that number in the millions virtually unimpeded? Remember, Saddam had around 400,000 troops and his army held up for about three weeks in the face of a "serious" effort by the US.