ISIS propaganda achieves worldwide media coverage

Due to the absence of reporters in Islamic State’s territories for security reasons, many media outlets rely on the information and graphics the group releases on the Internet as a source for their knowledge about the group itself. Experts ask whether those outlets are being critical enough towards ISIS or involuntarily helping the group achieve its aims.

The Islamic State’s flag with the ‘shahada’ written on it, which is the declaration of faith of Muslims. It translates to “there is no God but one God and Muhammad is the prophet of God.” Photo: INDEPENDENT

“Without the media, terrorism would not exist,” says Jad Melki, the chairperson of communication arts at the Lebanese American University.

The Islamic State (ISIS), which has become one of the most radical Islamic terrorist groups to date, spreads most of its messages and aims through the Internet. Major media outlets rely on the group’s circulated content as a source of information for their news pieces about ISIS. Are they being critical enough is a question? Another is if media outlets blindly push the group’s agenda further? How long might this ‘phenomenon’ last?

Understanding the attacks is central to ISIS’s media scheme

Following the eruption of the civil war in Syria over five years ago, the Sunni militant group ISIS has made its way to become one of the most radical Islamic groups to date.

Europe has been a stage for many of the organisation’s attacks, with the latest being the Brussels attack, which occurred earlier this March. However, experts suggest that the main target of ISIS is France for many overlapping reasons.

“Firstly, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Secondly, France has been very active in opposing the Islamic State and partnering with the United States against Islamic fundamentalism,” says William Keylor, professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

“Thirdly, France is the most secular society in Europe with a very powerful sense of separation of religion and state. I think their refusal to allow Muslim women to wear the hijab, or the veil as we call it, is an example why Islamic militants hate France.”

Professor Keylor explains that most of the Muslim populations residing in the suburbs of France are dissatisfied with their lives due to economic difficulties, which has led them to get attracted to go to Syria and fight on behalf of the Islamic State. ISIS describes itself as a financially strong organization in their recruitment videos, which attracts the hopeless individuals to join the terrorist group.

The attacks in Brussels were intended for France, according to Professor Keylor. The perpetrators decided to pursue the attack in Brussels, prematurely; because they were worried they would not be able to carry the attacks in France.

“Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union as well the headquarters of Nato, so that probably contributed to the desire to attack Brussels as well,” Keylor adds.

Why is ISIS active in the media?

The group uses the media to achieve many of their aims. These include recruiting supporters, generating fear against their enemies, and asserting authority, in reference to a Lowy Institute analysis, which is an independent policy think tank based in Australia.

“Islamic State’s propaganda effort is central to its ability to recruit new members, intimidate its opponents, and promote its legitimacy as a state,” said Australian journalist Lauren Williams in the Lowy Institute analysis earlier this February.

ISIS has many media arms, which they use to spread their messages, with the most popular of them being their official magazine ‘Dabiq’ as well as the social media accounts led by their supporters.

The group publishes its magazine through the hidden web, however, other sources, such as media outlets and anti-extremist movements, as well as the ISIS supporters’ twitter users, spread it online so that many viewers can reach it.

According to Melki, each attack that ISIS executes is planned with a media strategy in mind to help them gain supporters afterwards.

Melki gives an example where ISIS circulated a video to threaten Russia with a graphic that read, “soon very soon, the blood will spill like an ocean” just two days ahead of the attacks in Paris during November, last year.

Right after the attacks, the group also released their 12th edition of the magazine Dabiq with news features praising and celebrating the attacks. Melki says that due to the flawless writing, the magazine must have been planned way ahead.

“ISIS uses the media to play on the grievances that many Arabs and Muslims hold, which were a result of Western colonialism in the Arab world, the discrimination against Arabs following 9/11, and the occupation of Palestine,” says Melki.

He explains that the group is both reminding people of these events, while offering a solution, which in their case, is the caliphate, a united Muslim state.

ISIS had a very strong communication strategy from the start, says Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, an expert on jihadism and political violence and research analyst at Carnegie Middle East Center, which is an independent policy research institute based in Beirut.

“ISIS is a 2.0 jihadist group that has a real know-how: they know how to use social media (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube) but also local radios, pamphlets and other magazines such as Dabiq. Each medium has a very specific objective,” says Yazbeck.

She gives the example of Dabiq as a magazine targeting a foreign audience since it is circulated in several languages such as English, Arabic, Russian and Urdu. The pamphlets, on the other hand, target a specific audience so they are written in a single language.

Cutting-edge graphics require funding

What distinguishes ISIS from previous Islamic fundamentalist groups is their ability to produce high quality videos and magazines. Since ISIS appeared, Experts have been skeptical about how the group gets funded to create its cutting edge material.

To Yazbeck, a large proportion of the group’s financial resources come from oil revenues since the coalition has been able to take control over several oil fields in Syria and Iraq, such as Deir-el-Zor, which is one of the richest oil reserves in Syria.

An example of that is when the group took control over Mosul, a city in Iraq, in 2014, where ISIS was able to produce and sell oil for low prices through Turkish borders, says Rabie Barakat, who is expert in media studies and editor of the opinion page at As-safir Newspaper, a leading Arabic-language daily based in Beirut.

“The latter uses oil refineries in addition to very basic techniques it has been able to develop (since many oil refineries have been bombed and have become dysfunctional) in order to extract oil and trade with it,” Barakat adds.

The group sells the oil through a black market to middlemen and criminal gangs. However, Yazbeck believes they have other sources of income such as the looting of banks and people. For example, ISIS looted millions of dollars from Mosul’s Central Bank during their takeover in 2014. Also, a large proportion of their income is paid by European governments, which pay ransom in exchange of the hostages ISIS kidnaps.

Professor Keylor, on the other hand, believes that the funding comes from within the organisation itself. There are other suspicions on whether they receive contributions from a wealthy supporter from Saudi Arabia, which is the birthplace of Islam, yet it is too difficult to trace whether this is true.

“They hold hostages and get ransom from those hostages and they do receive some contributions from sympathetic people abroad. Of course, there is this question of to what extent have citizens of Saudi Arabia supported ISIS. I don’t think we know the answer yet, but there is this suspicion, not that the Saudi government is involved in financially supporting ISIS, but rather that wealthy Saudi individuals, who share the Wahhabi [fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam] brand of Islam with ISIS are providing funds for the group,” Keylor says.

Western media vis-a-vis ISIS produced content

Mainstream media outlets are picking up ISIS produced content from the group’s own media platforms since they find it dangerous to send reporters to ISIS territories, which are seen as high-risk zones.

“The decision to use Islamic State-produced material is driven by the absence of ground reporters and the easy availability of high-quality broadcast material produced by Islamic State,” said Australian journalist Lauren Williams in the Lowy Institute analysis.

Yazbeck, the research analyst at Carnegie, believes the media sometimes gives ISIS too much attention, especially when they release information, which they haven’t double-checked. For example, everyday each news organisation writes at least one article about ISIS, and every time the group releases a video on the Internet, many of the media channels recirculate it even if it has gruesome imagery. She adds that the trend that the media is searching for is “sensationalism”, which ISIS provides through their videos of decapitation and massacres.

On the contrary, Western media outlets haven’t relied solely on the ISIS produced content, according to Barakat, opinion editor at As-safir. He believes that the media might have given the group attention previously, but he no longer sees it as the case now.

Professor Keylor thinks that ISIS is very adept at exploiting Western media because the outlets do not have any journalists reporting from ISIS territories, on the one hand. On the other hand, ISIS is a very closed organisation making it impossible for people to penetrate it and get news about it.

“I think that Western media doesn’t have a real connection to ISIS, they don’t have any people working there or any reporters accompanying ISIS. So, all they can do is rely on the information that comes from ISIS, which is not particularly reliable, but it is the only information they can get,” says Keylor.

The media must become more critical

The whole dilemma lies in whether the media should actually publish ISIS content or not, because by publishing their content, the media promote the group’s initiatives, says Yazbeck.

“By publishing their content, the media are indirectly promoting it and giving it (sometimes) more importance. Media and social media are used by ISIS to spread their word, attract to their cause and recruit people.”

That is why many experts believe that media outlets should have a responsibility to treat ISIS content more critically.

One way to do that, as Williams suggests, is to adopt better standards and practices to limit the appeal of ISIS propaganda while maintaining the public’s right to know.

Another method is through counter-messaging, which is a form of communication through using messages that oppose the propaganda within the same target audience.

For example, London-based anti-extremism organisation Quilliam Foundation launched a social media campaign last July including a counter-narrative YouTube clip directed to the Muslim population that may be vulnerable to Islamic State messaging.

The video dubbed #NotAnotherBrother tells the story of a British man who decides to join ISIS while his older brother speaks about the pain of his family due to his decision. It aims to show the cost of radicalisation in a broader sense.

Barakat, media studies expert, explains that television networks have to hold a big responsibility in minimizing harm to their audiences, be it social or psychological harm. This is sometimes a result of the gruesome videos ISIS produces.

“Television networks should refrain from broadcasting any material that could cause harm to their audiences. This harm could be psychological involving vulnerable people as well as social. The videos that ISIS propagates may cause both, as, in addition to the psychological effects they could have on families of victims and other vulnerable spectators, these videos fan the flames of sectarian conflict that ISIS thrives on.”

Is ISIS here to stay?

Whether ISIS will last for long is a matter of speculation. This will all depend on both ideological and military responses. According to Professor Keylor, the French government plays a role to improve the conditions of the Muslim population in France so that they are no longer intrigued by the idea of joining ISIS, as part of a long-term solution. However, short-term objectives are also needed and they pertain military responses fighting against the group.

Barakat explains that the ISIS ‘phenomenon’ will end once the major international players reach an agreement over the war in Syria, just how long that will take is still a mystery.

“ISIS will end as soon as an overarching agreement is reached regarding the war and the phase to follow in Syria. When the main international and regional players reach this agreement, it would be a matter of time before ISIS seizes to exist, at least as we now know it, i.e. as a non-state actor controlling massive territory. Yet even then, huge efforts should be made in order to achieve this goal. This will probably take time as well.”

Yazbeck, on the other hand, remains doubtful on whether destroying the group would be the last the world sees of terrorism.

“Even if we destroy ISIS military, we will not destroy the idea. Also, many fighters will die, some will maybe be jailed but others will “recycle” themselves, go underground, rebuild their networks and come back again.”

*Article originally written in May, 2016*