WASHINGTON – The extremists who have seized large parts of Syria and Iraq have riveted the world’s attention with their military prowess and unrestrained brutality. But Western intelligence services are also worried about their extraordinary command of seemingly less lethal weapons: cutting-edge videos, video shot from drones and multilingual Twitter messages.
The Islamic State is using every contemporary mode of messaging to recruit fighters, intimidate enemies and promote its claim to have established a caliphate, a unified Muslim state run according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law. If its bigotry and beheadings seem to come from a distant century, its use of media is up to the moment.
A review of its prodigious output in print and online reveals a number of surprises. Islamic State propaganda, for instance, has strikingly few calls for attacks on the West, even though its most notorious video, among Americans, released 12 days ago, showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley, threatened another American hostage, and said that U.S. attacks on the Islamic State “would result in the bloodshed” of Americans. This diverged from nearly all of the Islamic State’s varied output, which promotes its paramount goal: the fight to secure and expand the Islamic state. Experts say that could change overnight, but for now it sharply distinguishes the Islamic State from al-Qaida, which has long made attacks on the West its top priority.
And while the Islamic State may be built on bloodshed, it seems intent on demonstrating the bureaucratic acumen of the state that it claims to be building. Its two annual reports so far are replete with a sort of jihadist-style bookkeeping, tracking statistics on everything from “cities taken over” and “knife murders” committed by Islamic State forces to “checkpoints set up” and even “apostates repented.”
Islamic State media frames its campaign in epochal terms, mounting a frontal assault on the national divisions and boundaries in the Middle East drawn by Western powers after World War I. These “Crusader partitions” and their modern Arab leaders, the Islamic State argues in its English-language magazine, were a divide-and-conquer strategy intended to prevent Muslims from unifying “under one imam carrying the banner of truth.”
That sense of historical grievance is an old theme for al-Qaida and more moderate Islamist groups. The difference is that by capturing expansive territory and heavy weaponry, and flush with wealth from kidnappings, oil piracy, bank robbery and extortion, the Islamic State claims to have taken a major first step toward righting what it sees as this ancient wrong, creating a unified Muslim state that will subsume existing nations.
The Islamic State carefully tailors its recruiting pitch, sending starkly different messages to Muslims in the West and to those closer to home. But the image of unstoppable, implacable power animates all of its messaging.
The pitch is effective. The militant rebellion in Syria and Iraq has drawn as many as 2,000 Westerners, including perhaps 100 Americans, and many thousands more from the Middle East and elsewhere, though some have returned home. Experts believe most of those remaining today are fighting with the Islamic State.
“The overriding point is that success breeds success,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former CIA analyst. “The perception of quick victories and territory and weapons and bases means they don’t need to try hard to recruit.”
For two decades, Nakhleh said, Osama bin Laden talked about re-establishing the caliphate, but he never claimed to have done it.
“Young people look at ISIS and say, ‘By gosh, they’re doing it!’ They see the videos with fighters riding on big tanks. They see that ISIS has money,” he said, using a former abbreviation for the Islamic State.
Before the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, other factions fighting in Syria were attracting European recruits, said Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist from Vienna University. “But since the fall of Mosul, nearly everyone is going to” the Islamic State, he said.
In the evolution of modern jihadist propaganda, bin Laden, addressing a single static camera with long-winded rhetoric in highly formal Arabic, represented the first generation. (His videos had to be smuggled to Al-Jazeera or another television network to be aired.) The most prominent figure of the second generation was the YouTube star Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, who addressed Westerners in colloquial English, had a blog and Facebook page and helped produce a full-color, English-language magazine called Inspire.
The Islamic State is online jihad 3.0. Dozens of Twitter accounts spread its message, and it has posted some major speeches in seven languages. Its videos borrow from Madison Avenue and Hollywood, from combat video games and cable television dramas, and its sensational dispatches are echoed and amplified on social media. When its accounts are blocked, new ones appear immediately. It also uses services like JustPaste to publish battle summaries, SoundCloud to release audio reports, Instagram to share images and WhatsApp to spread graphics and videos.
“They are very adept at targeting a young audience,” said John G. Horgan, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who has long studied terrorism. “There’s an urgency: ‘Be part of something that’s bigger than yourself and be part of it now. ’ ” Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global,” said the Islamic State had so far consistently focused on what militants call “the near enemy” – leaders of Muslim countries like Bashar Assad of Syria – and not “the far enemy” of the United States and Europe.
“The struggle against the Americans and the Israelis is distant, not a priority,” he said. “It has to await liberation at home.”
One polished Islamic State video features a Canadian recruit named Andre Poulin urging North American Muslims to follow him – and even to bring their families.
In another English-language video pitch, a British fighter identified as Brother Abu Bara al-Hindi poses the call to jihad as a test for comfortable Westerners.
“Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you’ve got, the big car, the family?” he asks. Despite such luxuries, he says, “Living in the West, I know how you feel – in the heart you feel depressed.” The Prophet Muhammad, he declares, said, “The cure for depression is jihad.”
The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications has stepped up its efforts to counter Islamic State propaganda, publishing a steady stream of Islamic State horror tales on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #ThinkAgainTurnAway.
For now, it seems an uphill climb. Last week, an Islamic State fighter calling himself Abu Turaab wrote on Twitter, “For those who want to come but are facing obstacles, be patient and keep the desire for Jihad alive within you always.”
The State Department account replied, “ISIS recruits’ 2 choices: commit atrocities & die as criminals, get nabbed and waste lives in prison.” As of Friday, Abu Turaab’s comment had been named as a “favorite” 32 times. The count for the State Department’s response: Zero.