How the Islamic State Makes Sure You Pay Attention to It

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The Islamic State (IS) has played us. It’s been playing us for a long time now. Since it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June last year, the cogs of its propaganda machine have continually turned, cranking up hysteria across the world and ensuring it never appears far beyond the front pages of our newspapers. Every day, we read that IS militants have committed some new atrocity, be it a massacre, execution or use of child soldiers, and, every day, our cathartic fascination with it keeps its spectre burning brightly at the front of our minds.

This is not some unhappy coincidence. This is the fruit of the IS media machinery’s tireless efforts.

It started long before the fall of Mosul in June 2014, the point at which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (as it was then known) entered the world’s common lexicon. Before then, while it was a known player in the Syrian War, it had largely been overlooked by the international media.

However, in August, when tens of thousands of Yezidis were surrounded in Sinjar province, the jihadists’ manifold atrocities truly began to bear scrutiny from Western press. This was compounded when James Foley appeared before a camera on a hillock near the seat of the IS pseudo-state, Raqqa. Seeing an unarmed American photojournalist address his government and people before being decapitated by a British jihadist really caught the world’s imagination. Thus was secured IS propagandists’ featured space in the media.

After Foley, it was John Cantlie, another photojournalist. This time, he was playing “Foreign Correspondent” for IS, reporting variously from his cell, Kobane and, more recently, Mosul.

Besides this series of appearances, in the months that followed Foley’s execution more Westerners were executed – Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning. In November, a video emerged in which appeared the disembodied head of an American aid worker, Abdulrahman Kassig. In the same video, 22 Syrian Arab Army hostages were decapitated simultaneously.

More recently, while the world was still reeling from the Paris attacks, IS released another video. In this one, a Kazakh child who could not be more than 12 years old appears to shoot two men alleged to be Russian spies, killing each of them with a bullet in the back of the head. This came on the back of a series of pictures depicting Abu al-Hassan al-Shami, a young boy who killed himself in an IS VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) attack, and a photo report of men being thrown off a tower in Nineveh province for “committing an act of sodomy.”

More recently, after footage emerged showing the bodies of two Japanese hostages – Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto – who were, according to IS at least, killed after the fraudulent negotiations to secure their release had failed, the world was left in the dark about the fate of Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Many thought that the Jordanian Air Force pilot could be saved. Many thought that IS could be talked into his release. They were wrong. Even though Jordan offered to meet the group’s demand to release a jailed jihadist, IS published video footage showing al-Kasasbeh being burned alive in a cage. That the killing is believed to have taken place in early January indicates that, as was the case with the Japanese hostages, negotiations over the pilot’s fate were fraudulent from the beginning.

There’s no denying it, IS’s ability to repeatedly shock and horrify the world is unparalleled. However, outrage is no side effect of its media strategy. Rather, it is its principle aim. International horror is exactly what the IS propagandists want. To be sure, such a strategy is nothing new. Other jihadist groups have long sought to amplify the effects of their violence with media exposure, and the concept of “propaganda of the deed” was first identified as such with respect to 19th century anarchist terrorism. What are new, however, are three things: (1) IS’s desire to ensure its actions reverberate within a truly global audience; (2) its seemingly calibrated scheduling of acts of brutality, designed not only to attain widespread attention, but to sustain it; and (3) its leveraging of a highly developed organic media capacity to ensure that its acts are witnessed precisely how it wants.

Very deliberately, IS goes about formulating its propaganda in a manner that maximizes the international community’s abhorrence for its actions. Disgust is no by-product. There is a reason that the innumerable crimes carried out by the Assad regime have not appeared in the pages of our dailies for months now – Assad’s media team is not showing off about it. Likewise, while al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has had some limited attention of late, the atrocities regularly carried out in the name of its version of Shari’a rarely hit the Western headlines either. Hence, it makes sense that IS’s crimes are foremost in our minds: The group wills them to be so.

Why then? Why would IS actively go about galvanizing the international community’s anger at, and hatred for, its actions? Surely, increased scrutiny for its crimes and popularity for the military initiative aimed at destroying it are the opposite of what its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wants?

Wrong. In perpetuating its relevance and channelling its infamy, IS has managed to do something quite remarkable – knock al-Qaeda from its position as the global jihadist group most feared by the West. Indeed, this time last year, the group still tended to be considered a marginal runner up to al-Qaeda. Now, though, Western audiences are prepared to reflexively presume its responsibility for attacks it does not even claim itself, as became clear in the confusion that followed the January assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Al-Qaeda, even though it is more relevant than at any point in recent years following the Paris attacks that it somewhat ambiguously claimed, has been relegated to a secondary position in the global discourse on terrorism.

Both groups are battling for oxygen, but each is doing so in a very different way. While al-Qaeda’s various affiliates have lately become preoccupied with jihad against the “Near Enemy,” they seek continued relevance among Western audiences with the persistent threat of high-profile attacks against Western targets. IS has similarly encouraged attacks by radicalized supporters, but its own strategy to gain and maintain the West’s attention is primarily built on maximizing publicity of small-scale but grotesque acts of violence conducted in its own safe haven.

Positioning itself as the most feared purveyor of Islamist violence is not the only thing that motivates IS propagandists. Indeed, almost as much as IS craves ubiquitous Western media attention, it wants polarization in the region. Its propagandists seek to create and exaggerate cleavages between states and their people, as well as between communities within them. To be sure, this is a media strategy pursued by numerous terrorist groups, not least al-Qaeda. However, that this is the case makes it all the more troubling that much of the analysis following the immolation of al-Kasasbeh revolved around the misplaced belief that IS had gone too far. “Going too far” is essential to its intent to polarize.

So, IS actually got exactly what it wanted. The appalling atrocity committed against al-Kasasbeh and the false negotiations that led up to it brought Jordan to its knees. New lines were set, communal tensions frayed. Of course only time will tell, but a not unlikely objective for IS’s propagandists here could have been to push the tribes into taking retributive justice against Jordan’s many salafi-jihadists into their own hands, destabilizing the country even more. If this does turn out to be the case, it should not surprise – after all, this was the central motivation behind the exploitation and exacerbation by al-Qaeda in Iraq (IS’s predecessor) of Iraq’s sectarian fault lines in the 2000s, which was aimed at forcing the country into civil war.

It is paramount that we recognize that IS is using the media as a mechanism, a weapon, in its fight for ideological supremacy on the global jihadist spectrum. By remaining relevant, controversial and abhorrent, it is forcing al-Qaeda from the minds of Western populations and exaggerating its own menace. At the same time, it is degrading the fragile foundations of the region’s states, forcing communities against the state and each other and bringing ugly grievances to the surface. After all, while support for Jordan’s recently stepped-up anti-IS airstrikes is widespread, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unanimous: Many are openly – and angrily – critical of the state’s involvement in Syria and Iraq.

Of course, the above is not to say that IS’s manifold crimes should not be reported upon. On the contrary, it is imperative that they are brought to the attention of the rest of the world. However, they should not appear in our media at the expense of coverage of the atrocities committed by other regimes. Doing so only feeds its agenda and bolsters the jihadists’ binary “War on Islam” worldview. Nor should footage or screengrabs be used so liberally, for publicizing what happens just before the act is almost as bad as publicizing the act itself. Certainly, it is what IS propagandists want us to do.


Charlie Winter is a researcher and programs officer at Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank.