The 13th edition of Dabiq, the official magazine of the militant group ISIS, dated 1437 Rabi’ al-Akhir to coincide with the Islamic calendar, provides a slick glimpse into their mass recruitment strategy.
A Hollywood-style advertisement says “Just Terror” with images of ISIS members with their names below, as if being billed as actors. The Parisian skyline is identifiable by the Eiffel Tower in the background. “Let Paris be a lesson for those nations that wish to take heed” is the tagline.
The magazine mimics Western popular culture in both style and content. Top 10 lists of videos appear throughout with names like “1. Let Them Find the Harshness in You” and “2. Repelling an Attack by the Apostate Afghani Army.” Below that is a Twitter hashtag in Arabic, for those who can’t get enough ISIS.
The Clarion Project, a think tank that describes itself as an “organization dedicated to educating both policy makers and the public about the growing phenomenon of Islamic extremism,” reproduces Dabiq for the general public to read.
Michael Enright, host of CBC’s Sunday Edition, says in one of his audio essays that journalists must guard against playing into ISIS’s hands by broadcasting their message and inadvertently assisting recruitment. This is of heightened importance when dealing with an organization that puts such effort into propaganda and recruitment through social media.
“Whatever else it might be, ISIS is a master at marketing its murderous products of beheadings, crucifixions, burnings and stonings,” said Enright in January 2016. “They are very good practitioners of the public relations art. The purposes of the video are to terrify and to recruit, which raises the uncomfortable question for journalists – are we aiding and abetting the propaganda interests of the terrorists?”
Ryan Mauro, National Security Analyst at the Clarion Project, says this question “is something we’ve discussed extensively within the Clarion Project,” coming to the conclusion that the positives of making ISIS propaganda available outweigh the negatives.
“Ignorance is not something to be desired and having this out there allows people to become educated about ISIS,” says Mauro of Clarion’s ultimate decision to make complete, unedited issues of Dabiq available on its website. “Extremists who are interested in this type of propaganda are going to find it pretty quickly.
“If ISIS can gain access to it, then those that are threatened by ISIS should also have access to it,” he says. “It’s actually better for it to be on our website where people can learn the truth about ISIS and their ideology, rather than just getting the magazine and being only exposed to that point of view.”
Mauro says ISIS supporters have expressed outrage with Clarion publishing their magazine on social media. They particularly objected to their propaganda being “presented in a bias manner,” he says with a hint of laughter. “If it upsets ISIS supporters online, then I think we’re doing something right.”
Loretta Napoleoni, author of The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East, says Western media outlets played an integral role in the rise of ISIS by offering uncritical coverage of the Syrian rebels at the beginning of the country’s civil war.
“It was terrible,” she says of international media coverage of ISIS in the group’s initial days. “They didn’t know ISIS existed until (ISIS) let the world know. The traditional media was forced to play catch-up,” which allowed the extremists to frame the discussion of their conquests.
“Clearly, the media took the side of the rebels without understanding the relationship between ISIS and the rebels and how easy it was for fighters to move from one rebel group to another,” says Napoleoni. Most outlets were caught up in the illusion that the rebels would bring liberal democracy to Syria and all would be well, without concern for who these rebel groups are and what they want to replace Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship with.
The root of the problem, she says, is that most mainstream media outlets don’t have reporters on the ground in Syria, so they must rely on information from parties to the conflict that have an axe to grind – whether it’s the Kurds, the various rebel groups, or the Iraqi and Syrian governments. In other words, the international media was taken for a ride by the various factions.
“Most newspapers, even big newspapers, don’t have the money and insurance to send people who are well prepared,” says Napoleoni. “That’s the fundamental difference between coverage of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Syria and it’s a huge problem.”
Emerson Brooking, an independent analyst with the New America Foundation, a nonprofit “dedicated to the renewal of American politics, prosperity and purpose in the Digital Age,” has written extensively about ISIS and says the media unwittingly served as the group’s mouthpiece in its early days simply by broadcasting its propaganda.
“It’s not that hard for them to orchestrate propaganda which can then be really amplified by Western media coverage,” Brooking says. Specifically, he’s referring to the execution films the group released in August 2014, when it first began conquering Iraqi territory and executing Westerners, including photographer James Foley.
Napoleoni concurs. “The media has become an amplifier for ISIS propaganda all through June 2014 to the present,” then major outlets realized the beheading videos were being used as a recruitment tool, but by then “ISIS had achieved its goal.” It was a case of too little too late.
The videos were initially striking, Brookings says, because they were much higher quality than the low-budget snuff films produced by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group from which ISIS splintered.
ISIS maintained the propaganda structure, beginning with a diatribe against the West before launching into the execution.
But what resonated was that they “cut the screen to black right when they started the execution,” Brooking says, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks. “The overall shortness and crispness of the videos meant that they were engineered to be linked to and even broadcast on Western television,” fitting neatly into nightly newscasts.
“ISIS has no compunction about showing violence on screen. The fact that they didn’t in these cases shows that it was a conscious choice, likely with the intent to increase the overall spread of these videos,” says Brooking.
“That’s one of the problems that we face,” says Mauro. “Terrorists, and they’ve said this, view the media as a weapon. They don’t just carry out the attack for the sake of eliminating whatever target they have. It’s about the media coverage of their attack. It’s a force multiplier.”
So what’s a journalist to do? “The way you counter that, and the way I’ve countered that in my own media appearances, is that when you cover something that ISIS does include relevant, broader information that is not helpful to ISIS,” Mauro says.
“You give the context. Instead of just reporting on an ISIS bombing that was successful, you should also inform the audience in that same segment of the areas where ISIS isn’t as successful – such as the territories it’s losing in Iraq and the defections. It’s not biased reporting, it’s just more complete, comprehensive reporting.”
Toronto Star global affairs reporter Olivia Ward, who has abundant experience writing about ISIS, says media outlets can’t help but cover the group’s atrocities, so reporters must ensure they’re doing it responsibly. “If something occurs, it might be the horrific attacks in Paris –and then again in Brussels – you simply cannot ignore that as any media organization. You can’t sit here and say ‘we hate what they’re doing, so we’re not going to mention it.’
“When you are reporting it you can make it very clear that you’re doing it form the point of view of what kind of havoc they’re causing,” says Ward. “Cover the things the public needs to know, but don’t go overboard with it.”
The major, overarching piece of advice Mauro has for journalists is to keep themselves from being used as unwitting pawns. “Don’t let ISIS write your headlines for you,” he says. “Be aware that ISIS and other terrorist groups are envisioning a headline when they commit terrorist acts. You have to ask yourself ‘am I writing the headline they sought to create with their attack?’”
Mauro also says reporters should familiarize themselves with the primary source documents – the propaganda, precisely – to know what they’re up against. “In order to educate yourself and your audience about why this is happening and what motivates ISIS, you have to read magazines like Dabiq to understand the context of why they’re carrying out the bombings and what their strategy is, because they will tell you,” he says.
“That’s an argument in favour of hosting these magazines, because it’s critical that people see this not as acts of random violence or the acts of a few crazy people. This is a very detailed, multi-layered ideology and along with the strategy will tell you exactly what they’re doing and why.”
A lot of ISIS’ success in terms of recruitment is attributable to the advance of technology in recent years. The Carter Center, a human rights organization founded by President Carter, says Islamist extremists “have employed advanced social media strategies to recruit youth for their activities.”
Not only have video production values increased, but the means of disseminating propaganda have made it easier than ever to attract recruits. The Internet gave jihadist groups a worldwide grasp with the proliferation of social media. “Now they have the power through Twitter and other platforms to reach a worldwide audience much faster,” Brooking says.
The Center says unnamed “U.S. security organizations estimate that 30,000 citizens from 100 countries have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, including more than 3,000 Europeans and 100 Americans.” The numbers are undoubtedly higher if recruits to ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates across the Middle East are taken into account.
“To diminish this trend, radicalization of these youth needs to be understood fully, paying special attention to not only the political and the religious appeals that provide the foundation for the discourse used by ISIS recruiters, but also to how social media strategies have been employed to influence public opinion,” the Center urges.
ISIS “was the first (terrorist) organization to exploit social media, but in 2005 there was no social media,” says Napoleoni, referring to when ISIS was still known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. “They were very good at it, but they were also the only ones. I’m pretty sure in the future we’ll see other organizations do the same with social media.
“We can’t really compare it” to other phenomena, she continues. “Social media is something that has evolved recently. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future and how technology will evolve.”
“Western dissemination of ISIS propaganda slowed after it became clear after the first couple video releases that they were being used by ISIS,” says Brookings, echoing Napoleoni.
“Even shortly after the Foley release, some of the most traditional media outlets had a conversation about the need to stop broadcasting still images of Foley right before he was killed. The difference is you can Google for that video and find it in seconds, because someone’s going to make money off of it.”
Fortunately, Brookings says the “social media giants” have in recent years done a good job of shutting down extremist-affiliated accounts. “Three years ago, if you logged onto Twitter, you could find official handles for several notable terror groups. Al-Shabaab, primarily based in Kenya, is an example. They had an official English spokesperson on Twitter, as did the Taliban.”
Napoleoni says she “wouldn’t say (ISIS) were exceptional at using social media, as many other people have said,” but that they were the innovators who inspired other extremist groups that had been around longer, like al-Shabaab and the Taliban, to move online.
“The basic Twitter ethos was all content should be heard and judged, but they changed tune when their administrators started realizing their platform was being used very aggressively as a propaganda to sometimes generate real fear among people living in an area under threat from a terror group,” Brookings says. “They have since steadily clamped down on this sort of content, claiming to have eliminated some 150,000 ISIS accounts.”
But those who carelessly disseminate propaganda for financial gain remain. “The simple answer, at least for now,” says Brookings “is that if you live in a liberal democracy, there’s nothing you can do about it aside from emphasizing as much as possible basic norms of respect for victims families and discouraging some enterprising website administrators from being mouthpieces for a group that would kill everyone if they had the opportunity.”
Ward urges reporters not to lose sight of the humanitarian implications of ISIS’s actions in the areas they occupy. Many Westerners often assume, “What affects us is important and what doesn’t affect us isn’t that important,” but this by necessity loses sight of the bigger picture.
“Try and keep your mind on the world situation – what is really threatening people and where it is threatening people and what are the roots of those matters.”
For Ward, a sense of proportion is key. “Although Daesh/Islamic State is a very dangerous terrorist group, on a scale of how dangerous they are to the world at the moment, they’re really down the scale,” she says. “One could make the case that climate change, which is incremental, is much more dangerous to the fate of the world than this group.”
Daesh or Islamic State: What’s in a Name?
The Toronto Star waded into a semantic controversy when it decided to refer to the militant group the Islamic State as “Daesh” – its name in Arabic. They had initially referred to them as ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – while others refer to them as ISIL – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
“They did it because the group itself doesn’t like that name, Daesh, apparently because it has all different sorts of associations,” says Olivia Ward, one of the Star’s foreign affairs reporters. “Calling them Islamic State,” or any of that name’s offshoots, “implies that they’re an internationally recognized state,” which they aren’t.
Ward thinks her editors made the right call. “It always grated on me whenever I wrote about them and called them Islamic State,” because “I thought there are all sorts of little enclaves in different parts of the world that like to think of themselves as a state, but we never describe them as states because they aren’t.
“But this group, who’s a horrible terrorist group gets to be described as a state continually, “ says Ward. What makes them special?
Author and journalist Loretta Napoleoni begs to differ.
“Daesh means ‘the state’ anyway, so it’s not such a big deal,” she says, but having a number of different names for them plays to the group’s advantage by causing confusion. “There are all these different names and it’s playing in their favour, because we aren’t clearly defining the enemy,” says Napoleoni.
“It’s more of a legitimation to call it ‘the state’,” she says. “I don’t see this negative element at all. It’s a gimmick.”
She provides the example of the Irish Republican Army. They were called the IRA without any controversy. No one suggested calling them the Republican Army of Ireland, or anything but their official moniker.
Overall, Napoleoni says there are much more pressing concerns with ISIS/Daesh than what to call the organization.
“Calling it Daesh is just another way of avoiding other issues,” like how to defeat them, she says. “By not granting their name, it’s almost like saying they don’t exist.”