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Since August 19 2014 and the broadcast of American James Foley murder at the hands of the Islamic State (Ackerman, 20 August 2014, The Guardian), Western media regularly feature grim videos where the Islamic State beheads individuals belonging to the groups it perceives as enemies and opposing its Caliphate. The gruesome, ghastly and shocking character of the videos and of the Islamic State, is then regularly emphasized by both media and Western governments.
Meanwhile, as the executioners are chosen among the foreign fighters having joined the Islamic State (e.g. Walker, 20 August 2014, The Independent; Botelho, 20 November 2014, CNN), the departure of Western youth to join and fight for the Caliphate is emphasized, and the IS propaganda is denounced. Yet, new research and media interviews (e.g. Lowen, 6 November 2014, BBC News; Maher, 6 November 2014, New Statesman), focusing on the reasons for which those young people join the IS do not particularly single out cruelty, wish to inflict pain, abhorrence of human rights or any violent feature as a cause for deciding to build a new life involving combatting, thus killing and risking being killed.
Could it thus be possible that there is more to the Islamic State’s propaganda than ghastly beheadings, and the core messages of fear and “calculated madness” pointed out by Brooking (21 August 2014, CFR)? Could something else also infuse the Islamic State’s propaganda? Could its message tell us something we need to understand, if we are ever to want to be able to fight the Caliphate victoriously?
As we aim at understanding the Caliphate better in the framework of a strategic foresight and warning that must be actionable, we shall start here exploring the Islamic State’s propaganda. We shall begin by reviewing military concepts related to propaganda and wondering if and how they can be applied to what the Islamic State is doing. Then, we shall identify main products and channels for the Islamic State’s Psyops as well as sources. This will lay the foundation for addressing, with the next post, themes and issues related to the content of the Islamic State’s strategic communication operations.
Propaganda, Psyops or Strategic Communication?
Besides the very often used “propaganda”, a wealth of terms is found in the specialized military literature: propaganda, strategic communication, psychological operations etc..* Thus, what are we talking about exactly? We should ideally use IS own terms, however, in the absence of such a body of documents, we shall notably use American material. The latter has first the advantage to be more or less used among allies, many of them part of the coalition against the Islamic State. Second, as the US-led coalition meets in the NATO headquarters, to discuss military strategy including how to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda and “to stem the flow of foreign fighters joining” IS (BBC News, 3 December 2014), developing from the starts a conceptual framework that can be directly understood by those fighting IS is crucial.
In general, we are here interested in “influence”, i.e. “the inherent understanding that all Diplomatic, Information, Military & Economic (DIME) activities have the potential to influence the behaviors and attitudes of specific groups.” (Steve Tatham, 2013: 8). Needless to say, this definition fully includes all “new” available media, such as social media and networks available on the World-Wide Web, through mobile phone or other infrastructure, potentially communication taking place outside the web but using cell phone, or other communication using non technological means, as well as cyber-security.
Coming back to our definition, in other words, when a group tries to wield influence, it applies “specific activities to a target audience to influence behaviors and attitudes.” Using this rather large definition allows us first to bridge what could be a dangerous divide between different “influence actions”, if the information component were to forget what the diplomatic, military or economic realm did, as interestingly emphasised by Paul Kamolnick (June 2014) in his Countering radicalization and recruitment to Al-Qaeda: fighting the war of deeds.
This definition also allows us to overcome the increasingly inconvenient divide that is made across domains in the West between what is foreign and what is domestic and that is most probably irrelevant if used stricto sensu as far as the Islamic State is concerned. For example, Murphy (2012) shows in the case of American history, that this divide is not a fatality but may evolve according to needs. He recalls how the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in 1917 tried to influence American opinion to support the American engagement in World War I (pp. 164-165).
Then, more specifically, we are interested in the information element of this larger influence, i.e. “any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly” (Ibid: 162), where we would need to substitute “a polity’s” instead of national, to accommodate any political form. According to Murphy (Ibid. fn 24), this definition was the definition of propaganda before the term propaganda, increasingly perceived as pejorative, became “any form of adversary communication, especially of a biased or misleading nature, designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly” (DOD Dictionary of Military Terms, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2014). Propaganda, now, is thus mainly used against adversaries, while allies only practice “Strategic Communications”, i.e. “focused U.S. Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of U.S. Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power” (U.S. JP 1-02, Tatham 2013: 9). We may replace the U.S. government by any other to have a rather flexible and usable definition.
It is supported by Information Operations, i.e. “the integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.” A primary capability of IO is called Psychological Operations (Psyops) in Europe and NATO (Tatham, 2013: 8), except in the US where it has become Military Information Support Operations (MISO). Psyops or MISO are defined as “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to the originator’s objectives” (US JP 3-13, Tatham, 2013: 8).
Considering the war the Islamic State is waging to establish the Caliphate and that war, Jihad, is at the very core of the Caliphate raison d’être (see our “Monitoring the War against the Islamic State…“, 2014 and “Scenarios: an Islamic Al-Sham?“, 2013), then both IOs and Psyops should be applicable to the Islamic State, as would be the old and new definition of propaganda. The former definition is, however, more interesting because, by not assuming the information transmitted is biased or untruthful – although it may also be – it will yield a better understanding of the Caliphate and thus allows for better SF&W and ultimately better responses.
We shall nevertheless have to wrestle with the difficulty brought about by the differentiation between foreign and domestic. First, this distinction may only be kept in the case of IS, if we find something similar to it, but according to the IS own definition of what is foreign and what is domestic. Second, in terms this time of answer, if IS conducts Psyops on our own territory, which it is obviously doing, but that we forbid ourselves to do “counter-Psyops” because of obsolete administrative divisions, instead delegating the conduct of those operations to, for example, exclusively “social-humanitarian” programs detached from the military and political understanding and context, then new challenges, to say the least, are most likely to quickly emerge.
As we can apply Psyops and related concept to the Islamic State, while, as seen, making sure we do it in a way that adapts to IS rather than trying to force IS operations within existing concepts, we shall also be able to apply existing techniques of analysis. Here we shall start classically with the Source, Content, Audience, Media and Effects (SCAME) approach (U.S. FM 3-05.302, Appendix D, 10/28/2005), however adapting it to IS and to means. Notably, it seems more logical to identify first media or channels as well as the products used then sources, as those will give us both our material as well as a way to identify it and thus will frame the overall analytical endeavour. We shall turn to content, audience and effects in the future.
The Islamic State Psyops products and channels
This list is likely to expand as our work and research progress and as events unfolds. Updates will thus be published when possible and necessary. As far as could be so far observed and gathered, the main products and channels used by the Islamic State to target and influence specific audiences are as follows.
Online visual media such as videos and photos
The quality of the videos disseminated by the Islamic State is recognised by all as professional (e.g. Mauro, 21 September 2014, The Clarion Project) and confirms a trend we had underlined as growing among the various Islamic groups fighting in Syria (Lavoix, “The rise of the Salafi-Nationalists“, January 2014), as also recently noted by Brooking (August 2014).
A famous example of such videos is the 55 minutes “Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun” released on 19 September 2014.
They are spread through twitter but also any other web-based support, from those specific to broadcasting videos to any website. It is necessary here to underline that despite the hunt after IS videos that is taking place on platforms such as Youtube or Vimeo, it is most likely that IS propaganda is here to perdure – short of extreme measures, assuming they are possible or desirable – as setting up a single page website where any file may be available has never been easier, and as the web counts more than 1,132,414,000 websites (2 December 2014 11:57 see Internet live stats for real-time count).
Audio and text messages
We find notably instances of audio messages for official statements, for example by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accompanied by transcript and translation (see Pieter van Ostaeyen, 13 November 2014, Pietervanostaeyen), or IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami, for example 17 April Audio and translated transcript Message (Pietervanostaeyen) or “Indeed Your Lord Is Ever Watchful” September 2014 translated text message (Worldanalysis.net).
It is most likely that local radios exist on the ground, if we believe the excellent database of identifiers and logos maintained by Jihad Intel.
The monthly magazine Dabiq
Warning: some pages of Dabiq show graphic and psychologically hard to face images, including some related to executions. It is however impossible not to consider such a crucial material, and not to link to it if analysis is to be done.
Dabiq’s first issue was published in 1435 Ramadan, Hijri or Islamic calendar, knowing that the first day of the lunar month of Ramadan of the year 1435 was 29 June 2014, i.e. when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) renamed itself as the Islamic State, and declared a Caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as his Caliph (Al Jazeera, 30 June 2014). It was actually released a few days later, on 5 July 2014 (Gambhir, August 2014). Among others, it is available through worldanalysis.net (see here for #1). Dabiq latest issue, #5 was published in 1436 Muharram or Oct-Nov 2014. According to Dabiq, it is thus named after an area,
“In the northern countryside of Halab (Aleppo) in Sham. This place was mentioned in a hadith describing some of the events of the Malahim (what is sometimes referred to as Armageddon in English). One of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders will take place near Dabiq.”
Follows then the text of the hadith, which is further explains in Dabiq #3. We find here clear eschatological (concerned with the end of time or end of the world, ‘eschatology‘, Merriam Webster) references, and more specifically Islamic eschatology references (see Furnish, 11 September 2014 in Counter-Jihad Report and MahdiWatch; Gambhir, Ibid.; Ryan, 1 August 2014, Jamestown Foundation).
Dabiq is disseminated through all channels as for the other products.
Use of social networks
IS Psysops uses all social networks and notably twitter to spread its messages. A report realised by Recorded Future (Staffan, 3 September 2014) for Skynews found out that more than 60 000 pro-IS sympathisers twitter accounts existed or had existed between May 2014 (Cheshire, 5 September 2014, Skynews) and August 2014 (the end period is not mentioned). Among those, only some are, most probably, “official” IS accounts. However, the pattern observed is indicative. An account is opened and spreads material or comments. If it is closed (manually as it is reported to Twitter), then, almost instantaneously, a near identical account is opened elsewhere, with a slightly different name. As noted above, we find a similar pattern for the use of various platforms such as videos and blogs or of single page websites.
Online fora and encrypted programs
Although being advertised on Dabiq, for example, see Issue 3 p. 41, fora using notably encryption program “Asrar El Moujahedeen” qualifies as a very specific form of Psyops. The target audience is obviously individuals who are either technologically aware or already enough influenced to be able to be guided through the initial steps by tech savvy Jihadis. Indeed, as explained in detail by Joseph Cox (January 2014, Vice), finding then using those fora is not immediate. That said, as a result, the communication and exchanges, including recruitment, made on these fora may also be perceived as shrouded in secrecy and part of an initiation process, two elements that may well add an attractive aura of media restricted to a selected few.
The Islamic State Psyops sources: major “official” media centers and sympathizers
Al-Furqan Media Foundation
Note: as much as possible, no direct link will be provided to videos of murders and executions, however the reference given should allow researchers to find the related evidence.
The Al-Furqan media foundation has been the media arm of, initially, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and thus has operated since at least November 2006, if we use the collection of Al-Furqan videos maintained by SITE (for the change from ISI to the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS), see “War in Syria, State of Play III: The Jihadis“, last updated Feb 2014).
Since 29 June 2014, and thus the announcement of the creation of the Islamic State and the Caliphate, it is the media center that has been producing and spreading the ghastly videos of the murders and beheadings: US James Foley (19 August 2014; see logo on video “A Message to America” available on military.com video center – warning: the graphic video autoplays), US Steven Sotloff (2 September 2014, video “A Second Message to America”, e.g. Drury, 2 September 2014, Daily Mail), UK David Haines (13 September 2014, see logo on still and video “”A Message to the Allies of America” available on Leaksource), UK Alan Henning (3 October 2014, see logo on still and video available on Leaksource), US Peter Kassig (16 November 2014, video “Although the disbelievers dislike it”, see still showing the Al-Furqan media logo).
It is also Al-Furqan that produces the tragic videos where John Cantlie is forced to speak, as shown by the logo (see still for example on a Tumblr blog, http://diary-of-a-muhajirah.tumblr.com/, that has not yet been stopped at the time of writing but will probably soon be).
Al-Hayat Media Center
The other major producer affiliated with IS is Al-Hayat Media Center, which besides videos also produced the official document related to the birth of the Caliphate (for the English version, “This is the promise of Allah“), as well as the magazine Dabiq (see Dabiq #1). At the end of December 2014, it started producing a new magazine with France as target audience, Dar al Islam (see here for 2 first issues).
Al-Hayat previously produced the Islamic State Report (Jihadology.net for issues #1 to #3) and the Islamic State News (Jihadology.net for issues #1 to #3), which combined into Dabiq, as underlined by Gambhir (Ibid., p. 2). Al-Hayat productions also show scenes of executions and murders, as well as deaths of IS fighters, but obviously focus on a message that is different compared with Al-Furqan’s.
According to Jihad Intel, “Al-Itisam Media is a media wing of the Islamic State, having produced many high-quality videos from Syria in particular entitled “Windows on the Land of Epic Battles.” Al-Itisam Media emerged in 2013 after the Islamic State of Iraq became the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
Al-Itisam also produced the first of the videos announcing the birth of the Caliphate on 29 June 2014: “Kasr al-Hudud ~ Breaking the Borders” (Pietervanostaeyen, 29 June 2014 – the second and third “This is the promise of Allah” were produced by Al-Hayat, for the third a translation is available in English, Russian, French and German produced by both Al-Hayat and Al-Furqan).
Besides the two official media centers presented above, we also have many non official but pro-IS sources, which create products. For example, French hostage Hervé Gourdel execution was filmed and realeased in a video mirroring Al-Furqan’s ways (24 September 2014, video “”A Message with Blood to the French Government,” see Site Intel Group, 24 September 2014).
We may wonder if those could be considered as quasi-sources. Indeed, they may help spread IS messages, notably where IS sources are not present but they may also be uncontrollable elements.
With the next post of the series we shall turn to content.
*Although it is not only very common, but also fashionable to believe that business-related activities such as marketing and products advertisement can be directly applied to political situations writ large, i.e. including wars and warfare, we shall not follow this trend, on the contrary, but walk in the footsteps of those who believe, such as Steve Tatham, that failing to understand the specificity of politics and war is one of the causes for many of the ills that beset Psyops in the Western world and in the U.S. in particular. As a result, we shall not use marketing sources.
Bibliography and sources[jetpack-related-posts]
Featured image: Still from the video “Although the disbelievers dislike it” Al-Furqan Media Foundation.
Ackerman, Spencer, “Obama: murder of James Foley ‘shocks the conscience of the entire world'”, 20 August 2014, The Guardian.
Botelho, Greg, “French authorities back off claim against man in ISIS beheadings video”, 20 November 2014, CNN.
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