Fishing and ultra-violence

The so-called Islamic State is known for its brutality. But it's also hooking people in far subtler ways.

BBC/October 6, 2015

By Charlie Winter

I’ve been researching propaganda issued by the so-called Islamic State for some time now - it’s part of my day job. On a normal day, I’m desensitised.

I recognise that what's before me is abhorrent but I rarely experience the full horror of what I'm exposed to.

However, on 4 July, one particular IS video caused my normal defence mechanisms to fail.

A group of teenage boys was lined up with 25 allegedly pro-Assad soldiers kneeling in front of them. The boys were pointing guns at the back of the soldiers' heads. The stage for this chilling execution was Palmyra's Roman Theatre.

As usual, I stopped the film before the act of killing itself.

I've grown used to IS ultraviolence, but this video was different.

Different because, at my office desk, the place where I conduct all my research, I have a photograph of myself with my now-wife, dad and step-mum taken at that very same Palmyran theatre almost five years ago.

At that time I was living in Syria, and they were some of the last people to visit me before I had to leave the country, which was rapidly descending into civil war.

Back then, I had no idea what was in store.

In the years since, I've kept my eyes firmly on Syria, researching the trajectory of its jihadist factions.

Routinely, I see places I visited and monuments I was in awe of brutalised by this awful war - whether it's the Aleppo citadel, Bosra's amphitheatre or the astoundingly well-preserved Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers.

Never, though, had I seen anything like IS's gloating execution video in Palmyra.

Never had the comparison of then and now been so stark.

In the days after the theatre video, I couldn't stop thinking about it, about those men being shot, the kids being used to shoot them. Even though I was pretty sure I knew why IS made it, I couldn't answer that question with complete, evidence-based certainty.

I decided that, on top of the research I had already done, I needed data to try to get inside the minds of the IS propagandists.

I wanted to submerge myself in their world to gauge who these videos are intended for, and what they say about how IS sees itself.

We know that ideologically driven supporters of IS are attracted and gratified by its militaristic and ultraviolent propaganda, but what about the rest?

What about the thousands of civilian men, women and girls that leave their homes for the so-called IS caliphate?

The first thing I did, knowing that this “submersion” would take a lot of time, was set some limitations. Instead of leaving it open-ended, I decided that I would take, initially at least, a one-month snapshot.

So, for the entire 30 days of the month of Shawwal - which, according to IS's own calendar, began on 17 July and finished on 15 August - I spent two hours a day going through its Arabic-language support network on Twitter with a fine-tooth comb, navigating between its various forms of propaganda, using combinations of the group's countless designated hashtags as keys.

What I found was shocking, but not because of its brutality.

In just 30 days, IS's official propagandists created and disseminated 1,146 separate units of propaganda.

Photo essays, videos, audio statements, radio bulletins, text round-ups, magazines, posters, pamphlets, theological treatises - the list goes on.

Radio bulletins and text round-ups were released in six languages - Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, French and English. After grouping the different language versions of the same item together there were 892 units in total.

All of it was uniformly presented and incredibly well-executed, down to the finest details.

I was expecting a lot, but never imagined there would be quite this much.

Interested to see what other experts would make of the sheer volume, I contacted Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, former director of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, the US State Department team dedicated to countering IS’s propaganda online.

He quickly responded, saying that, while it was “not a huge surprise” to him, it was “much more than [he] expected”.

This was an astonishing level of propaganda activity, unrivalled by any other non-state extremist movement, violent, or otherwise. I set about analysing the dataset in minute detail [2.6MB PDF].

Initially, the type of propaganda released during the 30 days of Shawwal looked familiar.

There were the features I had seen time and time again, such as the audio and written bulletins that summarise the previous days' military exploits. These emerge like clockwork on a day-to-day basis.

Then there was the usual cocktail of civilian life, military pursuits, victimisation, ultraviolence, instances of mercy and a hints at the camaraderie IS's foreign fighters enjoy - with different themes appearing more prominently on some days than others.

More often than not, it was the idea of utopia that was being stressed - social justice, economy, religious “purity” and the constant expansion of the “caliphate”.

On other days, though, military training figured more prominently, with videos and photo essays depicting the army training and parading, as well as carrying out military operations.

Aside from these broad, superficial observations, the content was so voluminous and subject to change that there were no easy characterisations.

For example, on a relatively normal day, the 23rd of Shawwal, there was a total of 50 distinct pieces of propaganda.

The photo reports and videos included depictions of an IS offensive in northern Syria and eulogies for the dead in Salahuddin.

The victimhood-themed photos showed the aftermath of “Crusader-Safavid airstrikes” in Iraq's Anbar and Kirkuk provinces.

Overwhelmingly, though, the propagandists were preoccupied with a carefully refined view of “normal” life.

Thirty two of the 50 showed off civilian activities - a plastering workshop in Mosul, newspapers being distributed in Fallujah, pavements laid in Tal'afar, telephone lines fixed in Qayara, cigarettes confiscated and burned in Sharqat, and even camels being herded in Bir al-Qasab.

The branding exercise is truly relentless. Specific themes and key narratives stood out - but it was only after the month was up that any trends could be properly discerned.

Recognising this, I found myself stumbling upon the secret of the IS media strategy - “produce, produce, produce”.

By creating so much content that it is literally impossible to keep a mental track of, IS's media men try to prevent us from understanding what they are doing.

They flood the internet with information to a point that it becomes impossible to decode the brand they are building.

They overawe and overwhelm their adversaries while at the same time luring the curious and vulnerable.

Equipped with the Shawwal dataset and the benefit of hindsight, though, I could get round this. The labyrinthine propaganda narrative could be picked apart.

I soon realised the project I began as a personal investigation into the mind of an IS propagandist had become something much, much more.

Once I had the refined archive in front of me, I set about picking out trends, patterns and anomalies.

From the offset, the lack of brutality was striking. I knew from past research that IS's brand went much further than shedding the blood of its enemies, but there was a complete absence of it in the first few days of Shawwal.

In retrospect, this makes sense.

Coming immediately after the holy month of Ramadan, Shawwal begins with a day of celebration, Eid al-Fitr.

Predictably, IS wanted to show this off. Its media team needed to demonstrate to their audiences, both within and without the so-called caliphate, that Eid “IS-style” was unmatched.

As such, the initial focus was fixed upon two central aspects of the IS utopia - the religion and social life of its “citizens”.

The propagandists made great play of the alms-distribution among the needy in Syria and Libya, and spent a huge amount of time documenting celebratory prayers and the general “ambiences” of the festivities.

Kids played on fairground rides, toys and sweets were handed out among orphans, fighters at the front lines sang, drank tea and laughed together.

At one point, a programme was even produced by IS's official radio station, al-Bayan, in which “random” passers-by were quizzed about their Eid experiences (which were, of course, invariably euphoric).

As the month progressed and Ramadan receded into the past, the preoccupation with adults praying and children playing began to be matched on a day-to-day basis with military-themed output.

Photo essays depicting melon agriculture, handicrafts and industry, wildlife, cigarette confiscations and street cleaning were disseminated on an almost like-for-like basis alongside sets of images showing balaclava-wearing IS fighters firing mortars into the distance, defiling large piles of dead “enemies” and gloating over booty.

As well as these carefully crafted photo essays (of which there were 696), 64 videos were released that zoomed in on various functions of the IS “state”.

They depicted themes ranging from marriage bureaux and public bakery administrations - to the relentless destruction of “idolatrous” sites by IS's religious police and the awful public punishments meted out to people accused of “religious crimes”.

In one, a man accused of being a homosexual is thrown off a roof then stoned by the crowd gathered around his body.

For every two videos on civilian life, there was another that focused on the military aspect of IS's operations.

New recruits training with sniper rifles, “martyrs” reading out their wills shortly before blowing themselves up, and enemy positions being attacked in carefully choreographed raids.

Amid this constant juxtaposition of civilian and military life, the propagandists continuously played upon the victimhood narrative.

They routinely paraded dead or maimed children, women and old people before cameras as they sought to maximise the political value of the collateral damage caused by enemy air strikes.

Whether they were depicting the aftermath of Syrian government airstrikes or those carried out by the international anti-IS coalition, the images in these reports were consistently horrific.

They were used to both legitimise the existence of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate and justify the innumerable crimes of its active members.

Contrary to the countless reports that had emerged in July claiming that IS was toning down its brutality, the spectre of ultraviolence was never far off.

Only five days into Shawwal a video was released in which an pro-Assad soldier was shot in the back and cast off a cliff in Syria's Hama province.

Four days later footage emerged depicting the consecutive beheading of three “spies” in Iraq. And, shortly after that, a video showed a group of “enemies” of IS in Afghanistan being tied up and murdered - killed by the buried explosives they had been forced to sit on.

The further the month progressed, the clearer the motivations behind IS's killing became.

A warning was being sent out, but not to the international community. The intended target audience for these videos were the potential dissenters living in IS-held territories.

They were being told that they face a zero-sum game - stay on side, and enjoy the IS utopia, or assist the enemy and die in awful cruelty.

Importantly, though, these warnings came sparingly - IS's propagandists want to scare and brutalise their audiences, but they don't want to desensitise them completely.

They clearly want - and need - to convey a more nuanced message than can be achieved with violence alone.

One thing that I wasn't expecting was that - in stark contrast to the norms that I had noted over the course of the inaugural year of the IS “caliphate” - very little time was devoted to conveying the ideas of mercy and belonging, both of which had once been a mainstay of IS's public diplomacy.

Only a couple of times did the propagandists seek to draw in foreign fighters with promises of camaraderie and friendship - primarily, the appeals made to new recruits were religious.

Likewise, only a tiny proportion of the month's output promised amnesty to repentant adversaries - policy that IS often boasts about. If nothing else, this is indicative of the propagandists tailoring their message to suit the central leadership's broader strategy.

Not a single day passed without the immense cogs of the IS propaganda machine churning out another batch of releases. Consistently, the constituent parts of each batch meant little when taken in isolation.

However, taken together, they presented a comprehensive snapshot of life under the group with something for everyone.

There were scenes of brutal punishments meted out to opponents to gratify supporters and intimidate enemies - videos of booming agriculture and industry to tempt those seeking economic prosperity - and images of unwavering implementation of amputations, stonings and beheadings to attract those seeking law and order.

Not to mention foreign ideology-driven jihadists bent on living under the most medieval interpretations of Sharia.

And with all that, beautiful landscapes and wildlife intended to impart a vision of paradise were depicted.

One thing is for sure, IS's caliphate brand is comprehensive.

Once I had assessed the dataset, I realised that this propaganda was not just buoying up the IS abroad - attracting new supporters, sustaining old sympathisers and drawing in donors - it was keeping it afloat at home, too.

Put yourself in the shoes of a normal civilian living in any of the many IS-held towns and villages.

You have no free access to the internet and, for those occasional moments that you do, there is an IS fighter breathing down your neck watching your every move.

There is no freedom of information under IS, no counter-narratives, no challenging information, nothing other than that “news” provided in droves by the IS propagandists and broadcast at the myriad makeshift media points across its territory.

In the pamphlets distributed from these points, the videos playing on their widescreen TVs and projectors, the statements and bulletins ringing from their speakers, there is only the propagandists' idealised image of the “caliphate” ringing out.

The audience is well and truly captive.

In a sense, this is happening online, too. I was doing it for research purposes but, for many IS supporters, propaganda is their only stream of news and information.

Social media is well known for its echo chambers, in which users end up self-selecting their own nuance-free virtual existence. When this dynamic is combined with an intoxicating propaganda output like that of IS, it becomes all the more potent.

Even though it is well within their capabilities to access other ideas, the group's online supporters rarely, if ever, go looking for them.

To all intents and purposes, they become addicts of the IS marketing model.

In July, I embarked on this project with the aim of achieving deeper insight into IS's propaganda strategy. But what emerged was something far more useful.

With a full view of its media output, even just for one month, I was able to dissect and evaluate the means by which the group projects itself, both within and without its borders.

Equipped with a continuation of this project, with the exact knowledge of what IS decision-makers want to project - and when they want to project it - perhaps those involved in the fight against IS could more effectively challenge its information monopoly.

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