The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has reportedly survived close to 4,500 air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition since it proclaimed itself as a “worldwide caliphate” in June last year. But the militant group remains a formidable fighting force and continues to lure foreign fighters through its masterful use of media tools.
Just on Thursday, the group released a 29-minutes propaganda film marking a year since its capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul – what the group considers the founding moment of the “caliphate.”
The group overran Mosul – a city of two million – on June 10, 2015, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Beyond its well-edited, subtitled, HD-quality films, and its notorious English-language magazine, Dabeq, ISIS has also been using another avenue to up its propaganda game: radio.
"We thank our listeners for tuning in and present the following Islamic State news bulletin." This is how listeners are greeted when they tune into “Al-Bayan” radio network, which kicked off in Mosul on April 7 in the Arabic, Kurdish, English, French and Russian languages.
Delivered by a smooth, American-accented male voice, a typical English-language newscast starts with “a glimpse of the main headlines” and is followed by updates from the various “wilayats” (Arabic for “states”) of ISIS and “martyr” operations by the “soldiers of the caliphate” against the “enemy.”
The professional tone of the anchor and sound quality of the broadcast prompted news outlets such as The Washington Post to liken it to the National Public Radio (NPR).
“The language is broadcast radio. It sounds like we are listening to the BBC,” Jasmine Opperman, a senior analyst for the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), told Al Arabiya News.
“They are diversifying their central message of success on the battlefield,” said Opperman.
“ISIS would not launch a propaganda campaign like this if it did not have a target audience in mind,” said Opperman.
ISIS’s use of media is an attempt to “promote its soft power,” William Youmans, a professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University, told Al Arabiya News.
“As ISIS seeks to become an established state, it knows it must seek legitimacy, and that it cannot just rule on violence, even if that is how it gains territory and represses people living under its rule,” Opperman said.
“In terms of its efficacy in recruiting foreign fighters, their media production must be somewhat effective as they continue to invest in it and are becoming more sophisticated,” he added.
Change in language
ISIS’ documentary-style films such as “Inside Halab,” which featured British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has been held captive for more than two years by ISIS, often highlight how life under the group’s rule is still functioning well with a “thriving economy.”
The films often focus on family life, social values and a broad range of topics such as schooling aiming to attract Western audiences.
“One of the common accusations of the west is that under Islamic State education will suffer, religious studies and changes to the curriculum don’t quite fit their image of progressive schooling. But here in Halab, these young men here are learning Qur’an recital and languages, and with any luck they will form the mujahideen for the next generation in this region,” Cantlie is heard saying in “Inside Halab.”
“ISIS has a big incentive to show itself as friendly to families and generous in welfare to undermine the images of its brutality. It would want to widen the tent of people it could attract,” explained Youmans.
Al Bayan’s newscasts, in contrast, sound a lot more serious and rather focus on updates from the battlefield. Even when announcing the name of a suicide bomber on the program, the news anchor tone remains calm – a departure from the usual “sensationalization” of ISIS “martyr” deaths usually witnessed in videos.
“There is a tension in ISIS media strategy,” said Youmans.:
“It wants on one hand to show that it is exciting to join and is winning battles, yet a group grounded in higher values, on the other. It seeks normalization and legitimacy, while also trying to be attractive as a sort of adventure for foreigners.”
“It is possible this reflects ISIS's media savvy. The people who work on media likely have a sense of how audience breaks down per each medium, and try to tailor the messages based on who they think they are more likely to get,” he added.
However, Opperman argued the newscasts “are nothing new to ISIS’ propaganda.”
The 24-hour updates on “the successes and gains” are an attempt by ISIS “to explain to the people in the caliphate to rest assured that ‘we are in control, we are making gains, we are not being defeated by any opposing force’,” said the analyst.
“The language is and has definitely changed but it is not an opposition at all to the existing propaganda campaign,” she added.
“It is supplementary to the propaganda campaign.”
“ISIS is focused on the perfect caliphate. A caliphate where we have a perfect life with children playing in the parks, we do have schools, we do have women walking with their husbands and the child so happy’,” she said.
“But ISIS has never fell back on showing its successes and brutality. Why not? Simply because, we need to keep in mind their ultimate goal, they are fighting a righteous cause,” said Opperman, adding that the groups built a logic behind the executions and human rights abuses they are doing.
“’We are doing these things to ensure that the Islamic Caliphate will be achieved and that the values we are putting on the table will be protected from sinners and believers’,” she said, explaining the group’s ideology.
“There is no contradiction. ISIS never hides behind or try to diminish their role in executions, their role in the punishment of the infidels,” she continued.
Although it is difficult to scale the outreach of Al-Bayan’s newscasts, since it is mainly circulated via social media sites and jihadi websites but experts agree that ISIS’ tech-savvy media productions have been key in its recruitment game.
An estimate of 1,000 foreign fighters are flocking into Syria and Iraq a month, according to a recent Foreign Policy report – to world leaders’ worry.
Speaking at a conference in Sydney on countering violent extremism, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called ISIS’ propaganda machine “a death cult.”
"Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: 'Submit or die’," Abbott said, using ISIS’ Arabic acronym.
"The declaration of a caliphate, preposterous though it seems, is a brazen claim to universal dominion. You can't negotiate with an entity like this; you can only fight it."