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The propaganda of the IS

An assault on the Western psyche

München, 06/26/2015

Decapitations in slow motion, hypnotic soundtracks, positively viral dissemination rates: David Arn discusses Islamic State’s use of media and explains why their media offerings have grabbed so much attention.

Source: picture alliance / AP Photo

Islamic State documents its own grisly atrocities on videos and puts them on the net. To what purpose?
Arn: The IS employs a highly sophisticated media strategy. One of its aims is to intimidate opponents – in Western countries, but more particularly its local and regional adversaries. Before IS took control of the city of Mosul, they had confronted its defenders and the civilian population with gruesome images of barbaric executions, with the clear intention of breaking their will to resist. Since the rebellion in Syria began in 2011, these videos have also served as a means of appealing to potential sources of finance. From the very start, the IS has set itself apart from other jihadist groups by its far more professional approach to communications. The media also help them to recruit new supporters – although their impact in this sphere is disputed by some researchers.

How successful has this strategy been for the IS?
Arn: The IS owes a large part of its global impact to the coverage of its activities in international media. Its notoriety far exceeds both its strength on the ground and its regional influence, and has contributed considerably to its ability to expand the area under its control. Al Qaida used to send videos to al-Jazeera, which Western media picked up and disseminated further. The IS can circulate its videos and other material on the internet and be assured that Western media will seek it out and make it more widely available. It is a well thought-out strategy.

Which parts of its media strategy has IS borrowed from Al Qaida?
Arn: All the main components of the videos produced by the IS – close-ups of bomb attacks, the aspirational statements of suicide bombers, the visual language – were developed by Al Qaida. But Al Qaida did not want to alienate the Muslim world with insistently brutal imagery. The IS has used images of revolting cruelty from the very first, and presented it as dramatic and dynamic action. The technology has certainly advanced in the past decade, but IS also exploits it in much cleverer and focused ways than Al Qaida ever managed. In the presentation of violence, the IS productions are comparable to, and often more effective than, the typical Hollywood blockbuster: They may film explosions in slow motion or show the faces of those awaiting death in haunting close-ups. The films are designed to stir the emotions of their viewers. And the impact of such scenes of excruciating cruelty is intensified by sound-tracks featuring unaccompanied songs, or nasheeds, which have a strangely hypnotizing effect.

In other words, it is a form of brainwashing?
Arn: These melodies have a distancing, almost transcendental effect that is very difficult to describe. The ferocity of the imagery is counterpointed and – in a sense – mitigated by the harmonic character of the music.

So does IS have access to psychologists?
Arn: That’s a tough question to answer. The IS is not likely to approve of psychology as a modern medical discipline. But then the brains behind the movement are, for the most part, former members of the Iraqi secret service or security forces, and they know a lot about psychological warfare.

Images of the destruction of archaeological treasures and excavation sites by members of the IS have also appeared on Western media.
Arn: You may remember the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. The IS is fully aware of how sensitive Western public opinion is to scenes of cultural vandalism, which is why they record their demolition of historical treasures. These are objects of great significance not only for the cultural heritage of Iraq. They form part of a legacy that belongs to the whole world – a fact that is documented by the presence of such artefacts in Western museums. So the destruction of cultural heritage is a very deliberate assault on the psyche and identity of the West. It would have been more profitable to sell such things, and the IS in fact obtains much of its revenue from the sale of looted artefacts. The obliteration of such imagery also fits in with Salafist ideology, which rejects everything that does not conform to its narrow concept of Islam and seeks to destroy all material witnesses to other. Another aspect of this is that IS does not recognize the international borders in the areas where it operates. One of their propaganda films shows activists pulling down border posts on the boundary between Iraq and Syria – which was defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France in 1916 – as a symbol of their rejection of a territorial order imposed by Western colonial powers.

On the other hand, IS also scored a publicity coup with photographs of fighters fondling kittens, which also appeared on the internet. What was the point of that?
Arn: IS strategy is not based solely on scenes of violence and brutality. They also like to stage scenes from the “normal” life of their fighters – primarily to attract new recruits. The kitten photos also transport a reference to Abu Huraira, one of the Companions of the Prophet Mohammed, who is believed to have been a cat fancier. Up until a few months ago, Western recruits to the IS could post information about their experiences on Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, this is one of the central aspects of the IS media strategy: Its jihadists present themselves as members of a select religious community of brothers (and sisters), whose lives are not devoted entirely to fighting. On social media they talk a lot about their personal lives and describe their everyday routines as “normal” citizens of this Islamic State, who do not lack for creature comforts – Western fast food, for instance. This recourse to the level of the individual plays a crucial role in its global communications with supporters and sympathizers, as it provides for personal contact and dialog with the IS.

How is the production of these audiovisual media organized?
Arn: IS has a kind of Media Ministry that supervises the activities of four production companies. These firms define the basic storylines, and are equipped with top-of-the-line technology – high-resolution cameras, drones, state-of-the-art computers and the necessary software. At the executive level is a small group of people who have different functions. The al-Hayat agency, for instance, produces films and online magazines in several languages – English, French, Russian, Turkish, German – for an international audience. This is where Denis Cuspert, a German who was once a successful gangsta’ rapper, apparently plays a prominent role. In addition, each of IS’s 16 provinces has its own, largely independent media office that can produce its own content, although these are now more strictly controlled. They transmit material that depicts border clashes and executions, and have recently begun to focus on so-called hadd punishments, such as amputations for theft. But they also report on administrative advances, such as an IS health service, reliable and efficient sharia courts or “special offers” of cheap bread. The professionalism of IS’s media strategy has contributed greatly to the group’s success in jihadist circles, and the model has been adopted by new associates – such as Boko Haram.

And who is responsible for disseminating the videos?
Arn: IS uses several online platforms for this – but primarily so-called knights of the upload or fan boys. These are people scattered around the globe who move on the margins of jihadism without necessarily being official members. They communicate with genuine IS members and sympathizers, and distribute the material provided by them on various networks. There are tens of thousands of accounts, but probably nothing like as many people, involved. The international community is doing its best to control the distribution of jihadist propaganda on the net – Twitter, for instance, closes untold numbers of pro-IS accounts every week. But frankly, it is impossible to control its diffusion, because distributors can always open new accounts.

How does the IS reach its “Western” target group?
Arn: Most videos showing beheadings of Western hostages are made by al-Hayat, which also produces English-language propaganda films and several glossy magazines in Western languages. Their readers are invited to follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who left Mecca for Medina, by migrating to join the IS, or be ready to carry out IS’s orders where they live. There is even a travel guide with advice on what to take with you and how to avoid border controls – a kind of “Lonely Planet” for jihadists. As a rule, material intended for sympathizers in Western countries is less drastic than that addressed to Arabic audiences and draws on other strategies of persuasion.

Why these differences in content?
Arn: One reason may be that people in the Middle East have become accustomed to the constant presence of violence over the past several decades. In Arab media, scenes of everyday brutality are not censored to the same degree as in the West. And one thing that the West tends to ignore is that the IS makes every effort to justify its excesses by appealing to religious arguments. The brutality is incorporated into IS’s overall narrative, and is usually presented as a reaction to violence perpetrated by regional governments or as retaliation for American air attacks. And very often the emphasis is placed on – undoubtedly genuine – images of civilian victims. In the Arab context, oppression by Shiites – either the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq or the Alawite rulers of Syria – is cited as justification. In the international propaganda the general scenario of a fight against oppression and tyranny is more likely to be invoked, as it was during the “Arab Spring”. But this strategy doesn’t always work. The IS lost much of its support in Jordan when it murdered the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh.

In our eyes, its ideology is backward-looking, yet IS makes sophisticated use of modern media.
Arn: This is the central contradiction common to jihadists and Salafists generally. Al Qaida first showed how modern media could be used to invoke an allegedly exalted era of ancient glory. But then again, the idea of nostalgia for a primordial age is itself a modern phenomenon.

What is the appropriate response to IS’s use of media?
Arn: The case of Al Qaida has shown that efforts to counteract the impact of video material tend to make it more attractive. The firms that dominate the internet are now under a great deal of pressure to exert more control over the content they carry, especially in Israel and in North America. If, however, they accede to these demands, the whole idea of the freedom of the internet goes out the window. Ironically, when the Arab Spring began, social media were hailed as an inherently democratizing force. But few commentators considered the possibility that the violence that makes up so much of what the IS puts out might actually attract certain types of media user. I believe that the IS – indeed Salafism generally, particularly in Germany – can be seen as a new form of protest by the young. The more it is demonized, the more attractive it becomes for people who revel in the gross and the disgusting. Islamic State is one of the few movements that can still shock today’s liberal Western societies by breaking taboos. To defuse its potential to attract, the violence must be dissociated from the exhibitionist context in which it is presented. Its power as propaganda can only be offset by exposing the depravity of its content, by developing and presenting compelling ‘anti-narratives’. A strategy like the one adopted by the US government’s online program “Think Again – Turn Away” is far too tame to have an effect on people who are fascinated by violent videos.

And how should the press respond to the steady stream of imagery?
Arn: Perhaps one should just set one’s hopes in the phenomenon of media fatigue. At some point, the law of diminishing returns sets in, even in the context of shock and horror. Basically, one shouldn’t pay so much attention to the stuff. The IS has become so prominent internationally not so much because of its acts of violence, but because of their mode of presentation.

Interview: Nicola Holzapfel

Professor David ArnDr. des. David Arn heads the Research Group on Modern Arab Mass Media at LMU‘s Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies.