At a Glance
Briefing Note: Fear and Attraction in ISIS Propaganda
16 Feb 2015
This briefing note looks at what can be learnt about the vision and strategy of ISIS from analysing their recent propaganda.
In the space of two weeks we have seen a spread of completely contrasting propaganda videos released by ISIS' al-Hayat Media Center. These perfectly demonstrate the two hallmarks of the group's rhetoric: the glorification of violence and the idolisation of life under the 'Islamic State'.
The 'final' video featuring John Cantlie makes a striking comparison with the previous week's film, showing the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh, as well as a film purporting to show the execution of up to 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. The latter two videos were designed to provoke fear (one listed the names of all the Jordanian pilots involved in the bombing mission), and massive retaliation from the Jordanian and Egyptian military. The Cantlie video on the other hand is carefully designed to familiarise and normalise life under the 'Islamic State', and is aimed squarely abroad at potential recruits and would-be lone attackers in western countries.
Despite its name, most of the 12-minute Cantlie video From Inside Halab is in fact filmed in the town of al-Bab in Aleppo Province. ISIS has relatively little influence in the city of Aleppo. One scene depicts the aftermath of a drone strike in the city of Aleppo and Cantlie refers to rescue workers as the "Islamic State fire department" when they in fact wear the uniform of the Syria Civil Defense.
Focus is on countering the "distorted" narrative of western media.
The video begins its idealised representation of life under ISIS by looking at education, responding to western fears about a 'lost generation' of children in Syria and Northern Iraq. ISIS proudly presents its education as solely male, based around study of the Quran, and freely admits that it is geared towards cultivating an ideologically indoctrinated generation of fighters.
Cantlie visits a sharia court, justifying harsh sharia punishments (including chopping off a hand in response to theft) in terms of their efficacy in deterring future crimes, whilst painting western law-making as situational, impermanent and capricious. Discussing the January 2015 Paris attacks, an interviewed French foreign fighter glorifies lone attackers in Europe, emphasising the equal value of these "wolves" with the jihadi who comes over to fight in Iraq and Syria.
Alongside this idealised depiction of life under the Islamic state, a central focus of the video is on countering the "distorted" narrative of western media, clearly seen as a threat by ISIS. The group claims to have roadside "media points" (a roadside shack with a printer and laptops), which provide people with printouts of ISIS-friendly news. This shows that their propaganda is not just tailored to an international audience through Dabiq and videos such as this one, but also has a distinctly local focus. This comes amid news last month of ISIS plans to launch a 24-hour news network to counter Western 'propaganda'.
The seventh issue of the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq, which emerged on 12 February 2015, continues to perpetuate these contrasting themes of fear and attraction in its rhetoric.
ISIS makes no secret of its desire to evoke fear.
ISIS makes no secret of its desire to evoke fear; Dabiq states that the group didn't need the $200 million ransom sought from Japan but had set out to "humiliate the arrogance of the Japanese government", whilst the stated aim of the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh was to "terrorise".
However, the group also displays an obvious fear of the power of alternative narratives to their own. The document is visibly reactive, responding not just to world events, including the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris, but also to what others have been saying about the group, including Islamic scholars questioning their theological legitimacy.
ISIS rhetoric is clearly damaged by theological assertions that Islam represents a peaceful faith. The Dabiq article 'Islam is the Religion of the Sword not Pacifism', directly responds to the "deviants claiming that Islam equals peace", a defensiveness also reflected in an article in the magazine titled 'Responding to the Doubts'. Meanwhile the near-universal condemnation of the burning of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh by Muslims, much of which drew upon examples from Islamic scripture and jurisprudence, was responded to by ISIS citing no less than six examples of punishment with fire from Hadith literature and the rightly-guided Caliphs.
Much of the rhetoric is directed at the 'endangered grayzone', the vast majority of Muslims who reject ISIS and their ' caliphate'. However the defensiveness of the propaganda would suggest that it was anything but 'endangered'. The condemnation from the Islamic community, even from fellow jihadis such as Jordanian Salafi Abu Sayyaf, has clearly concerned the group. ISIS' ability to attract may be being confronted by the counter narratives being spread against its harsh ideological interpretation, but the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh shows that their capacity to shock knows no bounds.
Sign up to receive the Roundup
Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.