The media plays a crucial role in contemporary conflicts because an image war is occurring alongside the military confrontation. The Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) sets a prime example for the usage of image as part of its fighting strategy, using various platforms to communicate its narrative. This study evaluates ISIS’s image front by analyzing its messages promoted through various online communication platforms: audio statements made by ISIS leaders, official videos, Dabiq and Rumiyah magazines, Islamic chants (nasheeds), and Amaq news reports. The findings indicate that ISIS uses messages strategically in an attempt to create and maintain its image as a powerful organization. The three main themes are power projection, violence, and Islamic religious messages (while different emphases are placed on various platforms). Most messages target Muslims, while others (usually threats) target the organization’s various enemies. It appears that ISIS invests considerable resources and efforts into promoting its narrative as part of the image war—projecting its power, based on religious arguments, on one hand, and demonizing and threatening its enemies on the other, using repeated themes, descriptions, metaphors, and visual images (videos, pictures, and infographics). The study’s analysis indicates that ISIS puts a lot of emphasis on the media/image aspects of its battle, and uses all of the tools in its tool box in an attempt to succeed in the image war, a central front in contemporary conflicts.
Image war, Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham, media strategy, online platforms, terror
In recent decades, armed conflicts have been fought simultaneously on several different fronts. An “image war” is occurring alongside the military confrontation since these conflicts are largely battles of ideas and not just of armed forces (Ayalon, Popovitch and Roger, 2013; Yarchi, 2016a). In this reality, media campaigns waged by political actors are just as important as military efforts.
One of the main goals of terrorists is to attract attention—the meaning of the word “terrorism” is the creation of fear, something that can only be done by drawing publicity to the terrorists’ actions.1 Therefore, the media play crucial roles in terrorist acts. Understanding the importance of publicity, many terror organizations take media considerations into account when planning their activities (Weimann & Winn, 1994). Technological developments, such as the rise of the Internet and social media, have improved the ability of terror organizations to promote their messages worldwide. Transmitting ideology over the Internet is convenient because the information published on the Internet does not have to go through journalists and editors, and terrorists can promote messages as they see fit (Weimann, 2006).
Perhaps more than any other violent non-state actor, the Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is aware of this change in the character of conflicts and understands how to use media technology to disseminate messages, as well as the power of the media in shaping perceptions. Since its Caliphate Declaration in the summer of 2014, the group has used “state-of-the-art videos, ground images shot from drones and multilingual Twitter messages” (Shane & Hubbard, 2014), and continuously uses different social media platforms to maximize the dissemination of its messages (Schmitt, 2015). In this article the concept of Image Warfare (Roger, 2013) is used to analyze ISIS’s media strategy across different platforms, over time and to different target audiences, addressing the importance of the media to ISIS’s military and political operations.
In line with the study’s goals, a qualitative content analysis is used—analyzing ISIS publications across different platforms (magazines, official videos, news reports, Islamic chants, and audio statements), from the time of ISIS’s Caliphate Declaration in June 2014 until December 2016, focusing on the similarities and differences between various platforms used by the organization, variation in its messages over time, and the target audiences of its media campaigns.
Terrorism and the media in the digital age
One of the political aims of terrorists is to attract attention, and mass media exposure serves as a central component in terrorist strategy (Galily, Yarchi & Tamir, 2015; Yarchi, Galily, & Tamir, 2015). Jenkins (1975) claimed that “Terrorist attacks are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press … Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims. Terrorism is a theatre” (p. 4).2 Many modern terror attacks are characterized by public displays of massive violence, with the aim of receiving a wider dissemination of their ideology and political goals through media coverage. Therefore, the media serves as a battleground in today’s conflicts.
Contemporary terror is inseparably connected to the modern media. Terrorists are interested in media coverage; their activities are intended to emphasize and promote their existence and their goals. Many terror organizations that have succeeded in understanding the media’s crucial role in placing issues on the public agenda have started basing their activities on media considerations (Weimann & Winn, 1994; Yarchi & Tsfati, 2009).
Technological developments, such as the rise of the Internet and smartphones, have altered the flow of information around the world and limited the ability to control it (Betz, 2008; Douglas, 2007). The Internet provides better tools for individuals and organizations, including terror organizations that wish to promote their messages. Using the Internet, especially in the Web 2.0 era, has enabled terrorists to disseminate information worldwide. It was not long ago that terrorists had to depend on journalists and editors to cover their actions to receive public attention. The usage of the Internet in general, and social media in particular, has released them from this dependency; they can now upload messages, images, and videos as they wish. Transmitting information and ideology while using the Internet is very convenient for terror organizations, as the information is not supervised, filtered, or censored. In addition, the dissemination of information is very easy; it can be done anywhere, at any time, and at a low cost (Conway, 2006; Qin, Zhou, Reid, Lai, & Chen, 2007; Weimann, 2006).
Weimann’s analysis revealed a trend of terrorists’ “migration” from the “traditional” use of websites to social media. These days, approximately 90% of terrorist activity on the Internet takes place using social networking tools (Weimann, 2016). Social media platforms allow terrorists to communicate directly with their supporters and recruit new members. While using social media they can interact, radicalize, teach, and even launch attacks. Various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and recently Telegram are used by terrorists to distribute their messages online and to different audiences (Stacey, 2018; Weimann, 2016). ISIS sets a prime example of how terrorists today take advantage of the World Wide Web to disseminate their messages. However, before describing the organization’s media strategy, we must better understand the battleground of their fight—the Image War.
Today’s conflicts and the Image War
Conflicts today are largely battles of ideas and narratives, alongside the battle of armed forces (Blum, 2013; Rabasa, 2011). During the past few decades, the character of conflicts has changed significantly as a result of two factors that have undergone dramatic transformation (Ayalon et al., 2016). The first factor is the level of disparity between the actors taking part in the conflict—the shift toward asymmetric conflicts in which states fight against non-state actors (Lind, 2004). The second is the amount of attention the conflicts receive via the media (traditional and new media); we receive news from around the world in general, and news about conflicts in particular, extensively and in real time (Betz, 2008; Douglas, 2007; Roger, 2013). This reality has affected the political actors involved in those conflicts, including terror organizations (Yarchi, 2016).
Conflicts today are being fought simultaneously on a few different fronts: military, diplomatic, media, and legal. Media coverage has an impact on the behavior of political actors, which in turn affects all other fronts. Thus, a major fighting arena today is the “image war” in the media, in which political actors compete over messages regarding the conflict they are involved in Ayalon et al. (2016), Ganor (2012). This image war, in which both state and non-state actors attempt to justify their ideas, beliefs, and actions, represents an important front in the comprehensive struggle between the different sides (van Evera, 2006). This is especially salient in asymmetric conflicts since, alongside the military confrontation, such conflicts are played out in the realm of communication (Archetti, 2010), and in such conflicts the media becomes a weapon of modern warfare (Kalb & Saivetz, 2007).
Roger (2013) referred to this phenomenon as the “weaponization of images,” noting that throughout history technological developments had an impact on the battlefield. In the present age, in which the media plays a significant role and can affect public opinion, political actors can use images as weapons. In an asymmetric conflict, the non-state actor is inferior in its military capabilities. Given that those political actors cannot gain success against the state by traditional military means, they turn to actions that grant them extensive media attention (Roger, 2013; Yarchi, 2016a). Since non-state actors are not bound by international law and other restraints that bind states, their manipulation of the media through the creation of newsworthy events, which can be extremely violent and brutal, empowers them in their struggle. Scholars have argued that the extensive media coverage those actors receive creates a “reverse asymmetry” effect by empowering the non-state actors and balancing, to some extent, the power equation between the different actors involved in the conflict (Ayalon et al., 2016; Ganor, 2012).
Terror organizations understand the significant role that images play in modern conflicts and try to use them to their advantage. Visual images in general, and videos in particular, have significant implication on the perceptions of political actors involved in the conflict (Gow & Michalski, 2008; O’Loughlin, 2011). These visual images serve as shortcuts to the understanding of situations, and shape the public’s views about the conflict and the actors involved in it (Gow & Michalski, 2008), since they make complicated situations easy to interpret (Gillespie, Gow, Hoskins, O’Loughlin, & žveržhanovski, 2010). Therefore, images (and especially visual images) play a significant role in today’s conflicts. Next, we will discuss the ways in which ISIS takes advantage of these images as a part of its media strategy.
ISIS and the media
ISIS is an Iraq-based salafi-jihadist organization that first gained international attention in the summer of 2014,but had been active for more than a decade before that (Byman, 2016). First founded in 1999 by al-Zarqawi under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (the group of pure monotheism and armed struggle), the group became known for its campaigns of suicide bombings against American forces and its attempt to ignite a sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq following the 2003 American invasion (Warrick, 2015). The organization changed his name a few times, while maintaining the same ideology: it was named al-Qa’ida in Iraq in 2004 (as part of Zarqawi’s alliance with Bin Laden), the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 (following Zarqawi’s death in an American airstrike), and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—ISIS (when its leader, al-Baghdadi, announced the organization’s expansion to Syria). The latest stage in its evolution occurred in the summer of 2014, when the organization conquered territories in northern Iraq and announced the re-establishment of the caliphate—presenting its actions as the fulfillment of “the promise of Allah” and al-Baghdadi as the leader of all Muslims. By declaring the establishment of the caliphate, ISIS claimed to have fulfilled jihadists’ long-desired aspiration and set itself apart from all other salafi-jihadist organizations. Following the declaration of the caliphate, the organization changed its name again, to the Islamic State.
The organization’s media strategy is a salient aspect of ISIS’s battle, as is evident in the timing, content, and amount of its publications. Part of the innovative nature of ISIS’s media use is its multiplatform and multilingual nature. In addition to an extensive presence on Twitter,3 ISIS also produces a vast amount of videos, online magazines, and other media products. A study that analyzed a snapshot of ISIS media productions during one week in April 2015 found that the group produced 123 media releases, posting on average 18 media releases per day (Zelin, 2015). A more recent study found that although Arabic was the dominant language used in official releases, ISIS media products also appeared in 28 other languages (Milton, 2016).
ISIS exhibits a strong desire and puts a lot of efforts into reaching a broad audience. While other salafi-jihadist organizations such as al-Qa’ida and al-Shabaab have also used strategic communication, the “Islamic State is set apart from rivals by the lengths to which it goes in glorifying information warfare. While other, similarly inclined organizations are likewise keen propagandists, none are as enthusiastic as the Islamic State” (Winter, 2017, p. 12). Thus, the image war has been a prominent aspect of ISIS’s activity, dating back to its earliest stages; as early as 2004–2005, ISIS’s “media wing” had posted leadership statements, verbal attacks against rivals, and was active on jihadist forums (Whiteside, 2016). ISIS documents captured by the US military show the organization’s emphasis on media strategy: as early as 2005, the group was reaching out to the population and working on “… (P)ublic awareness for the purpose of gaining support … according to a well-researched plan” (Milton, 2016, p. 3). Furthermore, there is an emphasis on quality production and diversity in terms of platforms used to publicize the group’s priorities and activities as a means of appealing to the public (Milton, 2016).
The importance of the media aspect in ISIS’s strategy is well presented in its official document, entitled Media Operative, You Are a Mujahid, Too. This document is “a piece of motivational literature intended to inspire the media operative in his (or her) work” (Winter, 2017, p. 9). The document stresses that working on promoting the organization’s messages via the media should be viewed as a form of fighting in the caliphate’s army:
To every media operative brother in the Islamic State, you should know and be convinced of the following fact, [that] the media is a jihad in the way of Allah [and that] you, with your media work, are therefore a mujahid. (Winter, 2017, p. 13)
Furthermore, the document offers rare insights into the ways in which ISIS constructs its strategic narrative, which is composed of three elements: a positive narrative on ISIS’s successes, counter-speech against ISIS’s critics and enemies, and weaponizing propaganda. The authors of the document assert that “media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs” and impart “the greatest impact on the spirits of His [Allah’s] enemies” (Winter, 2017, p. 18). If so, the image aspect is viewed as an important part of ISIS’s battle; it is a significant “component of its asymmetric arsenal” (Winter, 2017, p. 18).
Scholars argue that ISIS never posed an existential threat to any state but managed to project a threat on a global scale due to their affective usage of media—To a large extent, the organization owe their existence and durability to infrastructures of global communication technologies and their affordances (Semati & Szpunar, 2018). Various studies have dealt with ISIS recently, with some examining the media aspect. Most of these studies have focused on a specific platform, or target audience, and only a few have dealt with the organization’s messages. Studies have focused on Dabiq magazine, analyzing it as a strategic tool to promote messages to supporters (Gambhir, 2015), as part of ISIS’s attempt to radicalize its audience (Ingram, 2017), and the organization’s narrative (Yarchi, 2016b). Some have concentrated on ISIS’s videos, their brutality, and possible effects on viewers (Milton, 2016; Winter, 2015; Zelin, 2015), while others have looked at ISIS’s wide social media usage (Berger & Morgan, 2015; Weimann, 2016). With regard to ISIS’s messages, studies have found that the organization’s campaign tries to shape perceptions and polarize the support of audiences by presenting its benefits (security, stability, and livelihood) at the same time as denigrating its enemies (Ingram, 2016), while relying on Islamic religious messages to do so (Pelletier, Lundmark, Gardner, Ligon, & Kilinc, 2016). It appears that while ISIS’s media use is widely noted, it remains poorly understood. This study aims to fill the gap within the existing literature in the field and widen our understanding of ISIS’s media use. It does this by looking at a wide scope of ISIS’s online media products—including videos, online magazines, audio statements, news reports, and Islamic chants (nasheeds) over time—with the goal of analyzing the organization’s image front. If so, the study’s research question is: how does ISIS use various media products, platforms, and messages as part of the organizations’ Image War?
In keeping with the research goals, a qualitative content analysis was employed, examining ISIS’s publications across different platforms between its Caliphate Declaration in June 2014 and December 2016, focusing on similarities and differences between various online platforms used by the organization, variation in its messages over time, and its target audiences. The platforms used in the analysis are audio statements made by the organization’s leaders, official videos, Dabiq and Rumiyah magazines, Islamic chants (nasheeds), and Amaq news reports. The selection of these platforms was done in an attempt to provide us with a wide understanding of the organization’s publications, while adding new platforms to those that were used in previous studies (as presented above), and based on accessibility. The analysis was conducted by four coders (three of them are native Arab speakers) that had undergone training, and showed high levels of agreement.
The study’s qualitative analysis includes a sample (N = 204 media products) of the organization’s publications: 13 audio statements by the organization’s leaders were analyzed: ISIS’s Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; ISIS’s official spokesmen, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani (killed in August 2016), and Abu Hasan al-Muhajir (all the audio statements that were made public since June 2014). In terms of videos, after identifying 1102 videos the organization had published between June 2014 and December 2016 (using the Jihadology.net archive), a random sample of 120 videos was analyzed. As for magazine articles, during the time frame of the analysis the organization published 15 issues of its first magazine, Dabiq (July 2014–August 2016); and four issues of its latest magazine, Rumiyah (September 2016–December 2016). In total, 202 articles were published (161 in Dabiq and 41 in Rumiyah). A random sample of 32 articles was analyzed (25 from Dabiq and seven from Rumiyah). Nasheeds are Islamic chants that the organization often publishes. After identifying 74 nasheeds published by the organization, a random sample of 12 of them was analyzed. Regarding news reports, Amaq is the official news agency of the caliphate. Amaq publishes its reports on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app favored by ISIS. Given the fact that the data for this article were collected only from open sources, I did not have access to ISIS channels on Telegram, which limited my ability to collect the full scope of Amaq reports. I had manually collected all Amaq reports that appeared on Twitter between November 2016 and February 2017 (N = 27 reports). Although it is not the full scope of Amaq’s publications, it should provide us with a good indication of the type of content published by Amaq.
While analyzing ISIS messages, an attempt was made to identify the differences and repeated patterns. To learn about the organization’s media strategy, the following major elements were examined; main themes and messages—in a preliminary analysis, a few major themes of the organization were identified, and all messages from the various platforms were analyzed according to those themes:4 Violence and fighting—focusing on violent actions conducted by the organizations’ fighters and “battels” they were involved in; military power/deterrence—focusing on presenting the organizations’ military capabilities; Islamic religious messages—focusing on messages with religious bases; governance—focusing on the organization’s function as a state; and life under the Islamic state—focusing on the good life of those who live under the Islamic state. Target audience—does the message focus on a specific event/s or provides a wider point of view? How does the organization present itself and its members, and how does it present its enemies? In addition, a special emphasis was placed on the organization’s usage of images (both visual and verbal).
This section presents the study’s finding regarding ISIS’s messages in the various communication platforms, beginning with the analysis of the organization leaders’ statements, followed by videos, magazines, news reports, and Islamic chants.
Leaders’ audio statements
The audio statements made by the organization’s leaders (which can be seen as speeches) provide us with a wide perspective on ISIS’s narrative and world view, since these are messages coming directly from ISIS leaders and their format allows them to promote many messages to various audiences.
The analysis found that three main themes are salient in statements made by al-Baghdadi, al-‘Adnani, and al-Muhajir (June 2014–December 2016): fighting and violence, power projection, and Islamic religious messages. While these three themes are presented over time, differences can be seen in the messages they are trying to project (which can be explained by the circumstances ISIS is dealing with). The first statements, made in the summer of 2014, dealt with the establishment of the caliphate and presented it as the fulfillment of the promise of Allah. During that time there were direct calls for Muslims to join the Islamic State. In addition, there is an emphasis on the quality of life of people under ISIS’s rule, as part of the attempt to recruit more members and establish its legitimacy. At a later stage (since the beginning of 2015), the statements promoted the organization’s achievements on one hand (stating that ISIS “can never be defeated”), and threatening their enemies on the other. Recently (since mid-2015, and in a more salient way during 2016), during a time period in which ISIS had lost territory, the message had changed. Under those circumstances, the leaders claimed that they may lose specific battles, or lose a territory, but their victory is assured by Allah—they need to be patient and hold on while facing those challenges. Other messages that are prominent across the three stages are the representation of ISIS as the only defender of true Islam and a call for all Muslims to join them (either by immigrating to the Islamic state or at a later stage conducting Jihad, wherever they are—“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European … or any other disbeliever … then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be”), and threatening messages directed at the organization’s enemies.
These statements target various audiences. All Muslims (especially Sunnis), who are seen as potential supporters; supporters and fighters; jihadists around the world; and various enemies, including crusaders, Jews, disbelievers, and infidels. Within ISIS fighters we can see messages that target specific groups and shape the organization’s global message in a way that especially fits them. The leaders’ statements as a platform provide its followers with a wide perspective on the organization, its ideology, and goals.
ISIS as an organization is presented as determined, powerful, and getting stronger (even in times of military failures), fighting the war of all Muslims, and as undefeated. The organization’s fighters are presented as virtuous, strong, and successful—“the lions of the Caliphate.” Generally, ISIS’s fight is presented as an existential battle between good and evil—“the camp of faith and the camp of disbelief.” Its enemies are presented as weak, defeated, and evil (metaphors such as “dogs” and “mules” are used to describe it). All enemies of Allah, as ISIS defines them, are presented as the organization’s enemies; in addition to Muslim apostates, ISIS mentions different countries as its enemy (including Arab and Muslim states), such as the United States (the most salient enemy), Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab nations that cooperate with the West. The organization threatens its enemies in various ways, claiming that they will be destroyed. Here are some examples of the threats presented in the leaders’ statements: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women”; “it will be led to its death, grave, and destruction”; “You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms … we will strike you in your homeland.”
The leaders’ statements are prominent aspect of ISIS’s image war. Although it is not a visual platform, the leaders present a clear and decisive image of the organization through the usage of salient themes and metaphors; this image projects power while basing it on religious elements, and poses a threat to its enemies.
What comes to many people’s minds when they think of ISIS videos is the beheading videos of Western journalists; this presents ISIS’s brutality with the aim of spreading fear. The study’s analysis presents a more complex reality that promotes various messages beyond violence in ISIS’s videos, although violence and warfare are the most salient messages in the organization’s narrative as it appears in their videos.
In terms of themes, as expected, violence and warfare (about 57%, with extreme violence—such as beheadings appearing in about 19% of the videos) and power and deterrence (about 20%) are the most prominent messages in ISIS’s videos. Surprisingly, two-thirds of the videos analyzed do not contain Muslim religious messages, and this was the main theme in only 5% of all videos. Unlike other platforms examined in the study’s analysis, in the videos, religious messages are not that salient. Since the summer of 2016, the usage of religious messages is more salient. Other themes that receive attention in the videos were life under the Islamic State—that is, presenting the “good life” under ISIS rule (salient in about 8% of the videos)—and governance—presenting the ways in which the organization leads the Islamic State (in about 6% of the videos).
As for the target audience, most of the videos analyzed (roughly 63%) targeted ISIS members and supporters; here too, specific groups within the organization’s supporters being targeted in some videos. No differences were found over time in terms of target audience. In its initial stages, most videos were targeting supporters or potential supporters (during that time period, the famous beheading videos were released, with the aim of spreading fear worldwide); at a later stage, (mostly during 2015) a more diverse target audience can be found—in addition to supporters, messages target Muslim disbelievers, Arab nations, and mixed audiences. More recently (since the summer of 2016), ISIS has reverted to mostly targeting supporters. These findings can be explained according to the development stages of the organization and the circumstances it is dealing with. ISIS initially wanted to spread its ideology among potential supporters, while terrorizing and spreading fear. Next, after they had received recognition, they moved to target various audiences. The decline of the ISIS is also reflected—it appears that it felt the need to empower its members and supporters and went back to putting more effort into messages that target them.
Most videos (over 60%) deal with a specific event, such as a specific battle, attack, or training. Even the videos that tend to provide viewers with a wider prospective tend to relate to events.
An interesting finding relates to the prominent ways in which the organization presents itself; 74% of the videos contain information about ISIS and 98% show the organization’s symbols or flag. ISIS is presented as victorious, as the stronger and superior side that justly fights sinners, as dedicated to Jihad, and caring for its people. Its fighters are presented as motivated, courageous, fearless, and skilled in their military capabilities. The representation of their enemies is also a salient topic in ISIS’s videos, while 57% of the sampled videos deal with the enemy. Beyond the mention of its enemies (Muslim disbelievers, countries, and leaders), ISIS tends to humiliate its enemies (especially in the execution videos, but not only), while emphasizing that it will have zero tolerance for those who oppose ISIS and its goals. The enemy is presented as weak, coward, lying, sinful, and, most of all, as the losing side.
As the most visual media platform, videos are among the most prominent aspects of the Image War, and ISIS uses them frequently to promote its narrative, while trying to empower the organization and undermine its enemies. The representation of powerful, fearless, and cruel fighters, alongside many symbolic acts that tend to repeat themselves (the roles of good/bad, the clothing, and the placement of the bodies in the execution videos; or the empowerment of its fighters and the use of flags) emphasizes the importance the organization places on the image aspect of its battle. These findings, and especially the organization’s death spectacle, can be seen in the context of horror as presented in Chouliaraki and Kissas’ (2018) examination of ISIS death videos. They argue that these videos should be examined in the context of horror, as it is experienced by the distant spectators as such. In these videos, they argue, ISIS combines Western with Islamic esthetic practices and secular with religious moral claims, while redefining grief (and those who are worthy of grief), and brings the presentation of savaged bodies to the public stage, turning the pursuit of death into the new norm of heroic subjectivity.
Magazines—Dabiq and Rumiyah
Since ISIS’s Caliphate Declaration, it has been publishing magazines in various languages. The study’s analysis is based on a random sample of articles published in English in the 15 issues of the first magazine (Dabiq) and four issues of ISIS’s latest magazine (Rumiyah). This platform, due to its nature (many pages of written text alongside pictures and infographics) allows the organization to promote various messages in different ways. The presentation of Dabiq will be followed by an analysis of Rumiyah and a summary of both.
The first issue of Dabiq was published on 5 July 2014, only a few days after the Caliphate Declaration, again emphasizing the importance of the media in the ISIS strategy. The findings regarding the first four issues of the magazine (July–October 2014) reveal that, initially, the main focus was to present ISIS’s power and deterrence, presenting the Caliphate Declaration as a world-changing event of historical proportion and the dawn of a new historical era. Through stories and visual images incorporated alongside the text, the organization presents itself as powerful, emphasizes its military capabilities and success, and calls Muslims to join the ISIS and fight for its cause. Other themes, such as violence (in the form of stories of their beheaded victims, or threats), religious messages, and a representation of the good life under ISIS rule (in an attempt to convince potential supporters to join them), appear alongside the power projection messages—the main focus of these issues. At a later stage (Issues 5–9, November 2014–May 2015), there is a mixture of messages—many articles focus on religious messaging, while others keep focusing on power projection (with some emphasis on violence). Since the 10th issue (July 2015) the main focus has been on Islamic religious messages, alongside messages of violence and power—all with the aim of recruiting supporters and fighters (including direct calls to join ISIS).
Most Dabiq articles target ISIS’s supporters, potential supporters, and fighters. Throughout the magazine, the focus is on empowering supporters and fighters and recruiting more supporters. Interestingly, some of the focus is placed specifically on women, teaching them about their role in Jihad (supporting and encouraging their husbands to be active in ISIS, and leaving them if they are apostates who cannot be convinced to act according to the words of Allah). Other messages, mostly threats, target the organization’s enemies—apostates within the Muslim nations, Western countries (mostly the United States), and Arab leaders and states. It appears that through the magazine platform, ISIS provides a wider prospective of its ideology, emphasizing its world views, while sometimes focusing on specific events or individuals.
The issue of the representation of the organization and its fighters receives extensive attention in Dabiq articles, in line with the emphasis on power projection. ISIS presents itself as successful, powerful, united, and posing a threat to all of those who are not willing to accept its religious views. Fighters are presented as pious believers who are wise, courageous, and fearless and fighting for the return of the dignity of the Muslim people—the restoration of the “Ummah’s glory.” ISIS members are presented as a family in which all the fighters are brothers, equal to each other, and united in their faith. In line with its image projection as a caring family, the organization emphasizes that it takes care of its own people, their wellbeing, and security. These messages correspond with the attempt to recruit new members and fighters. Many metaphors are used to describe ISIS fighters, including “Islamic State’s knights” and “Lions of Allah.” As for the representation of the enemy, as mentioned, ISIS presents various enemies—all the enemies of Allah are perceived as ISIS’s enemies. Western forces are presented as crusaders who (together with the Jews) are responsible for the suffering of Muslims. The fact that the West (and mostly the United States) sees ISIS as a threat is presented as an achievement (as evident in the “words of our enemies” section of the magazine). Since many of the messages target Muslim audiences, a lot of attention is given to apostates within the Muslim world (Kufr). The enemy is presented as weak, broken, defeated, foolish, and not caring for its own people.
Overall, Dabiq’s goal is to create a powerful image for ISIS that is aimed at recruiting support among Muslims and enhancing the sense of threat among its enemies. This is evident in both the articles and in the pictures and other images that are presented alongside the texts.
ISIS’s second magazine, Rumiyah, was first published in September 2016. According to the analysis, the main theme of Rumiyah articles is Islamic religious messages. This is the main message in many articles, but also a salient issue in articles focusing on other themes—such as governance or violence. Through these religious texts, the organization teaches its supporters and fighters how they should act in various circumstances and justifies ISIS’ actions. For example, articles deal specifically with the days of Ramadan or tell a courageous story of a fighter and his loyalty to Allah, all with the aim of preaching to the organization’s followers. Other themes that receive attention in the magazine are violence—in a specific call for ISIS followers to go out and conduct attacks against their enemies (in one example, there is an explanation that includes visual descriptions of how to conduct a stabbing attack); and governance—in which it presents the high standards of the services it provides to the people living under its rule.
In terms of target audience, the stories mostly target supporters and fighters, but some have messages aimed at disbelievers—criticizing their actions and promising revenge. For the most part, the articles present a wider perspective on the organization’s reality, not focusing on specific events. There are situations in which, through the representation of a specific story about a fighter or an event, the article presents a wider perspective about ISIS and its goals. Similar to other platforms, ISIS presents itself as powerful and successful, and its actions as just, as it follows the ways of Allah. Its fighters are presented as courageous, strong, and persistent. In line with the heavy usage of religious messages, the main accusations against its enemies are based on religion—enemies are presented as infidels (kufr). As in many of Rumiyah’s stories, the enemy is a Muslim who does not act according to ISIS’s preaching. The images that ISIS is trying to transmit are promoted through the stories and the pictures and other type of images that are presented in Rumiyah.
Overall, it appears that the magazines’ platform allows ISIS to promote its narrative in a salient way. The findings indicate a shift from an emphasis on power projection to more religious-based messages, which fits changes in the fighting circumstances of the organization, but the fact that a magazine issue contains various articles over many pages enables ISIS to transmit a lot of information to its readers. In terms of using images as weapons, the organization uses its magazines to empower itself and to attract potential supporters on one hand, while presenting a threat to its enemies on the other.
The analysis of nasheeds, the Islamic chants the organization tends to publish, reveals that the main theme of this platform is Islamic religious messages, targeting fighters, supporters, and potential supporters. Furthermore, unlike the other platforms presented above, ISIS’s nasheeds target only Muslim audiences. Many nasheeds do not contain any other messages, but those religious messages, in the form of recitations of Qur’anic suras (chapters). That is the predominant theme of those chants over time (since the summer of 2014). Most nasheeds that contain more than religious messages also target supporters, and deal with power projection, violence, and ISIS’s state as an Islamic utopia (the good life under the organization’s rule), on top of the religious context.
In line with the character of this platform, the messages deal with a wide perspective of the organization’s view and do not focus on specific events. As for the representation of the organization and its enemies, the topic appears in less than half of the nasheeds analyzed (as most focus on religious messaging, thus indirectly portraying ISIS as a pure Islamic entity). Here too, the organization presents its fighters as victorious, powerful, cruel, and just. Different metaphors are used to present the fighters, such as “lions of courage” and “soldiers of Allah.” Enemies are presented as fearful, defeated, and humiliated infidels using metaphors such as “pigs and apes.”
Although chants are less visual than the other platforms examined in the analysis, usage of images and metaphors in ISIS’s nasheeds can be found. The representation of their fighters as “soldiers of Allah”—courageous, powerful, and undefeated—and that of their enemies as weak, fearful, and defeated helps the audience draw the picture of the battle in the listeners’ minds. The messages contain many visual descriptions that assist in the creation of the organization’s image, such as, “We have filled the roads with red blood,” “the knights of war and lions of Allah,” “Its soldiers are lions, strong in their jihad,” “The fire of our army precedes the dust,” and “We have cut off the spy’s head, we have burnt an army of Taghut [literally meaning ‘tyrants,’ ISIS’s term for secular Arab rulers].”
Amaq’s news reports
The Amaq News Agency is not officially a part of ISIS’s Central Media Office, but it functions as the official news agency of the caliphate. Amaq has sources within ISIS, making it, in the words of Callimachi, The New York Times’s ISIS correspondent, “a must-read every time a bomb goes off.” Its reports try to appear objective, reporting on “breaking news” about the fighting between ISIS forces and the Syrian regime, and on terror attacks carried out by the organization.
Amaq’s reports are very different than all the other platforms analyzed above. The reports are brief and informative, similar to those of news agencies. The reports present information about specific events; most of the statements examined (about 78%) were very short, delivering “Breaking News” (the longer reports include a picture or infographic). In terms of themes, the reports can be seen as a power projection of ISIS. Interestingly, some reports included claims of responsibility for ISIS’s attacks (such as the terror attacks in Berlin, Istanbul, and Pakistan). Most reports were in English (about 66%)—aiming to transmit the information to foreign media outlets. Amaq’s reports do not deal with the representation of ISIS or its enemies, as would be expected from an “objective” news agency.
Amaq’s news reports are an important part of the image war in two ways. The first is the fact that the reports are structured like those of Western news agencies, in an attempt to be covered by international media outlets, which again shows ISIS’s emphasis on the media aspects of its battle. In addition, some of Amaq’s news reports include infographics, which are perceived as one of the most visual ways to present arguments, and are often used by media outlets in their framing process. ISIS also uses infographics in its magazines, but more saliently in Amaq’s reports. Adelman (2018), in her study of ISIS infographics, argues that it is a technique used by Western media—especially in the context of the War on Terror, which was adopted by ISIS in an attempt to promote their narrative (again using Western media practices to their advantage). Figure 1 provides an example of an infographic published by Amaq, summarizing ISIS’s attacks during November 2016—other than information, the image projects the organization as powerful.
Figure 1. Amaq infographic.
In sum, ISIS uses various platforms and media products to promote its messages. Table 1 summarizes the analysis of those platforms.
Table 1. summary of the organization’s media products.
Across the different platforms and products, it appears that messages dealing with the organization’s power projection are the most salient, while religious-based messages are also frequent. The messages are compatible to the organization’s main target audience—supporters, potential supporters, and fighters. In terms of the image war, the main focus of this study, it is interesting to see that image plays a crucial role in the organization’s media strategy, and appears in both the visual and verbal/textual media products. Through the usage of visual images (such as videos, pictures, and infographics) and textual tactics (such as metaphors and repetitions) the organization attempts to project its powerful image and affect its target audiences.
If so, and especially over time, ISIS’s messages are focusing more on Hard Power aspects (violence, power projection, etc.), and target mostly their supporters—in line with the circumstances and the fact that the organization is in decline. These findings correspond with those of Winter’s (2018) study, which exhibits differences in the organization’s messages over time, and claim that although it had internationalized its operations, the brand of ISIS actually contracted to become markedly less globalized, focusing on their supporters as their main audience.
The media plays a crucial role in contemporary conflicts, since an image war is occurring alongside the military confrontation. Each side involved in the conflict tries to promote its own messages in an attempt to raise public awareness and support, which are important elements in political actors’ ability to achieve their goals (Ayalon et al., 2016; Roger, 2013). The ISIS sets a prime example for its usage of information as part of its fighting strategy—the organization glorifies image warfare, generating public awareness and support among Muslims, using various media platforms (Milton, 2016), and presenting its media operatives as fighters since they are dealing with an important fighting arena (Winter, 2017). Similar to previous studies, the study’s analysis found direct references to publicity in ISIS’s messages, presenting the “media war” as a central battlefield.
The study’s analysis reveals that ISIS strategically uses messaging on various platforms in an attempt to create and maintain its image as a powerful organization. The three main themes are power projection, violence, and Islamic religious messages, each of which is promoted differently on various platforms. While leaders’ statements combine between the three, most videos promote violence, the magazines and many of the news reports deal significantly with power projection, and the nasheeds with religious messages. ISIS leaders’ statements, magazines, and nasheeds provide a wider perspective on the organization and its world view, while videos and news reports deal with specific events in a more salient way. In terms of target audiences, most messages are aimed at Muslims (supporters, fighters, and potential supporters), while the leaders’ statements, videos, and magazines also include messages (usually threats) targeting the organization’s various enemies. Interestingly, the study’s findings indicate that ISIS uses glocal messaging (mainly in the leaders’ statements, videos, and magazines) to promote its global narrative with emphasis directed at a specific local group (such as fighters in a specific area). These findings correspond with Ingram’s (2016) analysis, claiming that this glocal messaging aims to mobilize supporters.
The evidence suggests that ISIS invests considerable resources and efforts into promoting its messages in the image war. As the analysis has shown, ISIS uses various platforms to disseminate its narrative—power projection of the organization and its fighters, while basing its ideology on religious arguments and demonizing and threatening its enemies, using repeated themes, descriptions, metaphors, and visual images (videos, pictures, and infographics). The study’s findings reveal that the organization does not focus its image war only on the more visual platforms (such as videos or magazines), but through the usage of verbal descriptions and many metaphors it uses all communication outlets (including the more verbal once, such as audio statements or chants) to promote its image to both supporters and enemies.
In today’s information flow, even for terror organizations that are not bound by many international restrictions, image projection cannot be totally separated from reality. In terms of changes over time, the study’s findings indicate that when ISIS is on the decline, its narrative changes—the messages mostly target supporters, become more religious, and statements like “can never be defeated” are replaced by messages claiming that they may lose in some battles, but their victory is assured by Allah. It appears that while ISIS still tries to project a powerful image, it understands that it cannot ignore reality. These findings correspond with those of Winter’s (2018), which argues that changes in ISIS’s media outputs fit the geopolitical circumstances. In his longitudinal examination of the organizations’ media products, Winter presents a decrease in the volume of media production, and a shift from issues of utopianism and state-building to warfare and denial, as the organization loses its power and territory.
This study deals with ISIS’s online messages,5 distributed mainly through social media due to the easy and fast promotion of uncensored content worldwide. It appears that ISIS fully understands these channels and uses them in a sophisticated way—as is evident in its use of hashtags (e.g. #AllEyesonISIS). The web enables ISIS to target specific audiences and makes the radicalization process shorter and more efficient (Berger, 2014; Weimann, 2006, 2016).
The study’s analysis of ISIS media usage reveals that the organization puts a lot of emphasis on the media/image aspects of its battle, and uses all the tools in its tool box in an attempt to succeed in the image war. Since today’s conflicts are as much battles of images and perceptions as they are of military power, countries wishing to defeat ISIS will have to find a sophisticated way to counter its messages and create an alternative narrative.
Schmid and Jongman (1988) and Weinberg et al. (2004), who had examined various academic definitions of terrorism, had found many components in those definitions that are related to the publicity/ image aspects of terrorism, such as causing fear, psychological impact, and publicity.
A lot has changed since Jenkins’s (1975) observation, so he later modified his position and argued that “many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 119).
In March 2015, there were estimated to be at least 46,000 Twitter accounts used by ISIS supporters (Berger & Morgan, 2015).
These themes were identified while reading the organizations’ publications, and were validated by studies conducted by scholars in the field (such as Winter, 2015, 2018).
More information regarding other, more traditional forms of ISIS communication can be found in Milton (2016).
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Moran Yarchi is a senior lecturer at the Sammy Ofer School of Communications, and the Head of the Public Diplomacy program, at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel. Her main area of research is political communication, especially the media’s coverage of conflicts and public diplomacy.