Who is behind Isis's terrifying online propaganda operation?

The extremist jihadist group leading the insurgency against the Iraqi
government is using apps, social media and even a feature-length movie
to intimidate enemies, recruit new followers and spread its message. And
its rivals – www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/23/jihadist-propaganda-go – are struggling to keep up




The Clanging of the Swords IV sounds like the latest in a series of
Hollywood action movies. It looks like one, too. A feature-length film
released online a few weeks ago, Swords IV includes a slow-motion bomb
sequence reminiscent of The Hurt Locker, aerial footage that nods to
Zero Dark Thirty, and scenes filmed through the crosshairs of a sniper
rifle that wouldn't look out of place in a first-person shoot-'em-up.But Hollywood this is not. Perhaps surprisingly, observers.france24.com/content/20140613-hollywood-fim-jihadi is the work of the www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/15/iraq-isis-arrest-jihad (www.theguardian.com/world/isis),
the extremist jihadist group that has led the insurgency against the
authoritarian Iraqi government in recent weeks, and which runs parts of
northern www.theguardian.com/world/syria.Isis
want the people living in the lands they now control to return to the
ultraconservative traditions that – they claim – the earliest Muslims
lived by. Yet this regressive goal is accompanied by a hypermodern
propaganda machine that sees Isis's sadistic attacks promoted by a
slick www.theguardian.com/media/social-media operation, a specially designed app – and well-made videos like The Clanging of the Swords IV.When Isis stormed www.theguardian.com/world/iraq's
second city of Mosul earlier this month, analysts say their propaganda
made the fighting easier. In wars gone by, advancing armies smoothed
their path with missiles. Isis did it with tweets and a movie.





Thousands of their Twitter followers www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-iraq-
– called the Dawn of Glad Tidings – that allows Isis to use their
accounts to send out centrally written updates. Released simultaneously,
the messages swamp social media, giving Isis a far larger online reach
than their own accounts would otherwise allow. The Dawn app pumps out
news of Isis advances, gory images, or frightening videos like Swords IV
– creating the impression of a rampant and unstoppable force.And
it works, Iraqis say. When Isis stormed Mosul, Iraqi soldiers fled
their posts, apparently aware that they would face a gruesome fate if
they were captured while on duty."The video was a message to
Isis's enemies," says Abu Bakr al-Janabi, an Isis supporter in Iraq who
claims to have knowledge of the group's media operations. "It's Isis
saying to them: look what will happen to you if you cross our path. And
it actually worked: a lot of soldiers deserted once they saw the black
banners of Isis."Zaid al-Ali, author of yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300187267,
a book about contemporary Iraq published earlier this year, says it
isn't clear how many people actually follow Isis on Twitter or Facebook.
"But the general impression Isis tries to convey of itself, this very
violent and determined force making huge advances in Syria and Iraq –
that trickles through to the local population," says al-Ali. "The image
that they convey of themselves has convinced people in many parts of
the country, and that [was] clearly a factor in encouraging people to
leave their posts as Isis was advancing."Isis and their followers
tried a similar approach with Baghdad. As fears rose of an Isis assault
on the Iraqi capital, Isis supporters stoked tensions by releasing a
slick Photoshopped image of an Isis militant in Baghdad, overlaid with
the words: "Baghdad, we are coming." As JM Berger, an expert on
extremism, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-iraq-:
"The volume of these tweets was enough to make any search for 'Baghdad'
on Twitter generate the image among its first results, which is
certainly one means of intimidating the city's residents."In
fact, Isis's use of social media is so slick that it has made the group
seem more powerful than it is. Coverage of its menacing online identity
may have both www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27945954 in Iraq's insurgency – and made opponents wrongly assume that Isis has all of Iraq within its grasp."The
fear about ISIS storming the capital is borne out of their social
media campaign, not reality," says the Guardian's Middle East
correspondent, Martin Chulov, who is currently stationed in Baghdad.
"They don't have the manpower to do that."Isis's media output is
not all barbaric. Much of its propaganda is frightening: Swords IV
showed Isis's captives literally digging their own graves, while on
Twitter Isis has posted images of a cold-blooded massacre of Iraqi
soldiers in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. But other Isis messaging
focuses on its social activity – photos of supporters bringing in the
harvest, or delivering food shipments. Members recently distributed an
earnest English-language newsletter – a well-designed PDF since deleted
from the internet – documenting the often dull details of their
community work.If Isis's work seems planned and professional,
that's because it is, says Abu Bakr al-Janabi, the Isis supporter in
Iraq. According to al-Janabi, Isis runs centralised Twitter accounts
that (when not banned by Twitter's management) tweet official statements
and news updates. Then there are provincial accounts "for each province
in which Isis is present – which publish a live feed about [local] Isis
operations."





The
Dawn app was built by members of Isis's Palestinian affiliate, in
consultation with leaders in Iraq and Syria, says al-Janabi. And the
wider group also harbours trained designers. "There are a lot of people
in Isis who are good at Adobe applications – InDesign, Photoshop, you
name it. There are people who have had a professional career in graphic
design, and [others] who are self-learnt."Swords IV was made by
professional film-makers, al-Janabi also claims – and independent
observers think he might be right. "The official Isis operation released
photos of them filming – and it's all on equipment that we use at
Vice," says Vice journalist Aris Roussinos, who https://news.vice.com/article/behead-first-ask-questions-lat
(warning: contains graphic images). "It's high-quality equipment that
they're actually very technically skilled at using, in a way that the
other rebels aren't. They're also really good at Photoshop."But
while parts of Isis's messaging are centralised and run by
professionals, its online strength is also derived from the
participation of a large swath of independent actors. First, there is
Isis's online fanclub: thousands of Isis supporters with no official
role within the group who boost its brand by retweeting its hashtags,
and translating its Arabic members' messages for potential sympathisers
in the west. Many of them make Photoshopped slogans to promote the group
– in fact, many of Isis's slick viral adverts come about this way,
claims al-Janabi. "The graphic design is mostly independent and done by
individuals. For example, that picture that said 'Baghdad, we are
coming' – nobody asked [its creators] to do it, but they did it anyway."And
then there are the Isis militants themselves. They tweet about their
experiences in the field, and publish their own private pictures –
sometimes gory images of severed heads, sometimes mundane snaps of food
and cats – often to appreciative audiences."My first time!"
writes one British jihadi underneath a Facebook photograph of his
bloodied hand – apparently after killing an opponent. "First of many,"
responds one friend. "Mabrook," says another: congratulations.Others
use their Instagram accounts to post well-polished pro-jihad slogans
that are aimed at, and seemingly appreciated by, a western viewership.
"You only die once," reads one image that attracted 72 likes on
Instagram. "Why not make it martyrdom?"It is this kind of social
media usage that points to the third goal of Isis's propaganda war.
While Isis's Twitter presence first and foremost serves to frighten its
enemies in Iraq and Syria, and to inform its members there, it may also
help Isis expand its brand among jihadis outside of the Middle East.
Nominally an offshoot of al-Qaida, Isis has been disowned by its parent
organisation. As a result, it is now in active competition with
al-Qaida's approved affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as
al-Qaida franchises across the world.Part of the purpose of Isis's social media activity "is definitely to scare people," says Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a fellow at www.meforum.org/,
a US think-tank. "But also it's to give Isis greater prominence in
wider media coverage. It becomes a kind of recruitment tool in the
competition with al-Qaida in terms of leading the global jihad brand,
and of winning the support of jihadis worldwide. In some ways they've
won the battle: most of the foreign fighters who go to Syria join Isis.
But around the world, it hasn't been definitively won one way or the
other. Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Libya tend to be pro-Isis. But
then you have the al-Qaida affiliates in Somalia which are clearly
siding with al-Qaida."Isis is by no means the only jihadist group
that uses the internet to its advantage. Jabhat al-Nusra also has a
network of provincial tweeters, apparently inspired by Isis. An
al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen recently released a video of their actions
that they edited to seem like a first-person shooting game. In Egypt,
the dominant terrorist threat – the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Beit al-Maqdis
(ABM) – regularly release videos explaining how they carried out
certain attacks, and their output is occasionally tinged with a sense
of humour. When Egypt's police claimed to have killed an ABM leader
this year, the group quickly released a photograph of the allegedly dead
man reading a report about his assassination.But analysts reckon
no other group has as sophisticated a grasp of social media as Isis.
Members of one of Isis's main Sunni rivals in Iraq – the Ba'ath
party-linked Naqshbandi – are more likely to upload their leaders'
speeches to YouTube, "and I don't think anybody pays any attention to
that stuff", says Zaid al-Ali, the author. Over the border in Syria,
Jabhat al-Nusra has a more nuanced approach, and may even have similar
numbers of online supporters. But when JM Berger analysed their
respective performances in February, he discovered that Isis-linked
hashtags received up to four times as many mentions as those promoting
Jabhat al-Nusra."Jabhat al-Nusra have been outclassed and
outcompeted by Isis on every level – on the battlefield, and in the
battle of media operations," concludes Vice's Aris Roussinos. "Either
they've got fewer resources – or they're less in tune with the modern
world in a way that Isis doesn't seem to be."