war on the rocks

More than Just Beheadings: How the Islamic State Sells Itself

October 15, 2015

Since the Islamic State took the Middle East by storm in summer 2014, the international community has looked on in horror at its growing capabilities and seemingly endless appetite for violence. After tearing through northern Iraq and Syria and attempting to exterminate the Yezidi population of Sinjar, the Islamic State then set about provoking the United States and its allies with a spate of gruesome killings. Adversary populations and governments have become captive audiences, unable to look away from the Islamic State’s ever-worsening execution videos: Khmer Rouge-style killings by firing squad, Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi’s infamous stream of beheadings, and mass decapitations of Syrian Arab Army soldiers. And that was just in the second half of 2014. More recently, the screens of our televisions and tablets have been filled with stories of prisoners strung upside down and burned to death, decapitated with explosives, and drowned in cages. With every video, the cinematography has improved; the shots became sharper and the story-board more nuanced.

This is instrumental violence, intended to demonstrate the group’s supremacy, satiate its hardest core of ideological supporters, and ensure ongoing attention from the international media. But the Islamic State’s brutality plays another, less obvious role. It derails mainstream understanding of the group and promotes damaging misconceptions in the discourse on radicalization and recruitment. Indeed, as a direct result of the unwavering media limelight shining on the group’s barbarity, confusion is rife surrounding the motivations of those thousands of foreign fighters who have left the West for the “caliphate.” Can they really be driven by a simple desire to rape, kill, and maim?

The answer is no. This I knew from past research. But to make the case even stronger, I created a comprehensive archive of all the Islamic State’s official messaging for the Islamic month of Shawwal, from July 17 to August 15. In just 30 days, its propagandists produced 1,146 separate “events” — videos, photos, news articles, magazines, radio bulletins, and even songs sung a cappella. I translated and analyzed each of these and compressed them into 892 items — 380 from Iraq, 301 from Syria, 141 from central outlets, 46 from Libya, four each from Afghanistan and Yemen, and two each from Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and West Africa. I then categorized the refined set to lend the database granularity.

What immediately became clear is what I, and most other serious Islamic State watchers, expected already: Its appeal is built upon much more than cleverly choreographed ultraviolence. To be sure, depictions of brutality featured in the Shawwal dataset, but not nearly as much as one would expect from the media coverage.

The Islamic State’s Appeal: By the Numbers

The Islamic State showed its “enemies” being executed in only 19 instances (2.13 percent). With a couple of exceptions — among them a Libyan “spy,” a group of pro-Taliban tribesmen, and a Croatian oil worker — it was overwhelmingly Syrians and Iraqis who were being slaughtered. In other words, the target audience was a whole lot more local than most observers have acknowledged.

There were an additional 331 separate military-themed events (37.12 percent). These depicted progress on the battlefield, training and preparation, war booty, and eulogies. The propagandists use these events to give the impression that they are advertising the entirety of the Islamic State’s military exploits. Upon closer inspection, however, they spend almost no time highlighting defensive operations. Why would they? Besides the obvious operational security risks, to do so would send exactly the wrong message — the group, whose motto is “remaining and expanding,” cannot be seen to be on the defensive.

The raison d’etre of military-themed propaganda is to send a message of triumphalism, not inferiority — the Islamic State’s army, the line goes, is ever-active, ever-expanding, and ever-professional. Moreover, martyrdom is to be revelled in. Glamorizing the military pursuits of the “caliphate” with careful branding sends a consistent, persuasive message of power. The sheer volume of these events also obscures some telling iniquities. For instance, nearly a quarter of all of military reports show rockets and mortars being shot at a named, but entirely unseen, enemy in areas of Syria and Iraq. Unlike other similar reports, which I classified as “operational” on account of their showing the fruits of these efforts, in these “attritional” reports, which are usually from areas in which there is markedly less fighting, the aftermath is never depicted. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the Islamic State is falsely rigging these low-risk, low-cost shots to lend itself an air of activity and dynamism. After all, propagandists don’t shy away from duplicity.

In 61 events (6.84 percent), which amounts to more than two per day, photo essays were circulated depicting the alleged aftermath of airstrikes — be they missiles from the coalition (the “Crusaders”), bombs from the Iraqis (the “Rafidis”), rockets from the Saudis (the “Salulis”), or barrel bombs from the Assad regime (the “Nusayris”). In each instance, dead or maimed children were paraded before the camera and the burnt-out remains of mosques and hospitals examined in minute detail.

The purpose of these essays — promoting the conspiracy of a “Global War on Sunni Islam” — is self-evident to anyone who has studied the jihadist movement. Like other groups before it, the Islamic State is seeking to drive home the realities of the “crimes” committed by the forces attacking it. By parading in graphic detail dead women, children, and old people, and instrumentalizing damage to infrastructure, the Islamic State does not just seek to justify its awful crimes, but its very existence. Maximizing on this, the group’s propagandists also implicitly link the bombs Assad drops on civilians with the precision weapons used by members of the U.S.-led coalition. The more the “enemies of Islam” are seen to converge, the better. Western policymakers considering an alliance with Assad should consider the consequences of reinforcing this narrative very carefully.

Just four items (0.45 percent) — three photo reports from Libya and one video from Iraq — focused on the idea of repentance, something that featured heavily in the run up to, and immediate aftermath of, the Islamic State’s June 2014 declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph. Showing these ceremonies was intended to send a message to potential enemy deserters that the Islamic State would welcome them with open arms and, in the second half of 2014 and early 2015, the mercy narrative featured prominently. Combined with the constant show-reel of Islamic State ultraviolence, the propagandists were seeking to present their adversaries with a choice — die horribly, or defect and sign up. During Shawwal, however, this “mercy” theme hardly figured at all, reflective of the fact that the group’s priorities have changed.

Only eight items (0.89 percent) prioritized the notion of belonging. Fighters were shown relaxing on the frontiers of the group’s territory, drinking tea, singing, and embracing each other rapturously. With this kind of content, the propagandists aimed to illustrate camaraderie and the promise of friendship for prospective recruits. To the marginalized, lonely, and vulnerable, this idea of being part of the collective can be very appealing. Again, the scarcity of the belonging narrative marked a change from bygone days, when the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center would pump out video after video of Western fighters boasting about how much fun they were having. Whether it is because traveling to Syria and Iraq has become markedly more difficult of late since Turkish officials began to take a more active stance against the passage of foreign jihadists across its borders, or for some other reason, belonging is far from the top of the media team’s priorities right now.

Well over 400 events (52.57 percent) — about 14 separate photo reports and one video each day — presented the “caliphate” as an Islamic utopia. These reports and videos gave an idealized, exhaustive picture of life under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s rule, featuring practically every facet of life. At once geared towards sustaining support inside the “caliphate”, attracting regional supporters driven more by socioeconomics than ideology, and keeping up utopian appearances, this content is circulated much more enthusiastically by the Islamic State’s Arab supporters than any other demographic and, contrary to “brutality” propaganda, it rarely goes viral among Western supporters and sympathisers. During Shawwal, the Islamic State “utopia” was branded with obvious images, such as children playing in the streets, functioning hospitals and dental clinics, markets bulging with fresh and imported goods, an abundance of sweet shops, welfare distribution, roads being swept, people taking public transportation, electricity pylons being mended, and, of course, people praying. There were also more bizarre photo essays of hosepipe factories, stonemasonry workshops, fishing trips, and even the confiscation of a shipment of spoiled eggs.

Adding it All Up

Through the constant circulation of imagery portraying the Islamic State’s euphoric civilian population, flourishing economy, efficient service provision, unwavering rule of law, and pristine implementation of religion, the propagandists tell a compelling story. In doing so, they sell to their sympathetic audiences a heavily refined, deeply idealized version of the Islamic State’s comprehensive “caliphate.”

All this material — which is both broadcast over the Internet and kept in constant view at “media points” in villages, towns, and cities held by the Islamic State from Libya to Afghanistan — confirms the fanciful dreams of potential recruits abroad and buoys support at home. The focus on positive messages is almost certainly intended to convince observers that security and happiness exist in a land where summary executions are a daily occurrence and basic human freedoms are non-existent. Of course, the utopia narrative is also the organization’s unique selling point. Other groups only talked about the caliphate. The Islamic State, on the other hand, claims to have established one, and this remains its chief way of poaching recruits and donors from rival jihadist groups.

As the Shawwal dataset vividly depicts, ultraviolence may well be the most infamous, far-reaching aspect of the Islamic State brand, but it is by no means the only one, let alone the most important. Until we recognize this crucial aspect of the Islamic State’s vast branding exercise, any attempt to undermine the group’s comprehensive message with counter-narratives is bound to flounder.


Charlie Winter is Quilliam’s Senior Researcher on Transnational Jihadism, where he specializes in terrorist propaganda and the translation and analysis of Arabic-language documents circulated among jihadists online, including, among other things, a 10,000-word manifesto from Islamic State’s Al-Khansaa’ Brigade, an essay on the strategic importance of the Libyan jihad, and a personal account of life for women in the “caliphate,” published by the pro-IS al-Wafaa’ Foundation. He has advised various governments on violent extremism policy in the MENA region and presented his research findings at UK Parliament and the Pentagon on a number of occasions. He makes regular appearances on national and international television and radio.