How ISIS Games the Media as an Avenue for its Theatre of Terror

The manner in which the group reaches and radicalises young impressionable people around the world is a lesson in the power of communication

Explosions at Brussels airport in Belgium Tuesday. Credit: PTI

Explosions at Brussels airport in Belgium Tuesday. Credit: PTI

The attacks in Brussels on March 22, claimed by the ISIS terror group, has brought renewed attention to the group’s extended reach, far from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Similar worries were voiced in the aftermath of the San Bernardino and Paris attacks, and closer home with the arrests of 14 men earlier this year on charges of sympathising with the terror outfit. While the motives of such attacks are often open to speculation, it is important to find out who the perpetrators are and how they planned the attack.

As is increasingly evident from these attacks, ISIS is bringing into its fold impressionable young people from around the world. A January 2015 study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence estimated that 20,730 foreigners had joined the group. Although the majority of these recruits are from Middle Eastern nations, a substantial number are from Western Europe. How ISIS reaches and radicalises them is a lesson in the power of communication. The questioning of those detained in India helped explain to some extent how ISIS operatives approached, recruited and trained them, but crucially it also reinforced the group’s reliance on a solid communication strategy and its success gaming New Media avenues to disseminate its propaganda.

ISIS’s online presence is driven by the goal to “inspire or recruit people with borderline personalities” to join the group.

New Media and the theatre of terror

ISIS and other contemporary terrorists have increasingly turned to New Media as a means of generating a mass psychological impact on an audience that is more targeted and varied than that typically offered by traditional media. This is – with the Internet becoming a useful platform for the distribution of “uncensored and unfiltered” versions of events. Terror groups increasingly use social media networks – which are most popular with the youth – to establish a direct virtual connection with their target audience. An ongoing project, Monitoring Terror on the Internet, estimates that there are more than 10,000 active terrorist websites. This is indicative of the growing belief among militant groups that establishing a presence in cyberspace is perhaps as crucial in the long-term as any violent action on ground.

Where ISIS departs from the norm in terrorist usage of the web is how extensively and effectively it uses the medium. Social media has been a critical component of ISIS’s strategy. The group uses it to disseminate its violent agenda in a bid to instil fear in the territory it controls as well as among the perceived enemy, besides fundraising and recruiting those vulnerable enough to be drawn into the process of radicalisation. Its media strategy has been, “to recruit, radicalise and raise funds,” while making a spectacle of its conquests to garner greater attention.

This shock-and-awe strategy can be better understood through what Gabriel Weimann and Conrad Winn describe as the “theatre of terror,” a metaphor that examines modern terrorism as an attempt to communicate messages through the use of orchestrated violence.

Much like the effort that goes into producing a theatrical performance, acts of terrorism too require planning, precision and attention to detail. While the terrorists write the script and enact the drama, the theatre of terror is only made possible when the media provides the stage and the audience. For ISIS, the Internet in general and social media in particular have become an endless stage for its repeated performances of brutality. The Internet has expanded the group’s scope of operation, allowing it complete control over its communications by using the developed world’s own cyber infrastructure. Skilfully using the medium to display and distribute its well-planned and well-produced propaganda, ISIS has succeeded in building a sense of mystique around its operations. Its slickly-made videos are obvious reflections of the goal to reach a mass audience, but more importantly, they are rooted in the desire to put on a dramatic spectacle of terror to get mass attention.

Intimidation and persuasion

Despite only gaining worldwide prominence in June 2014 when it took control of Mosul, a large strategic city in northern Iraq, ISIS’s notoriety has magnified through its shock-and-awe modus operandi. The group has filmed and widely distributed videos of the brutal killings of civilians, soldiers, journalists and aid workers, as well as the pillaging and destruction of cultural heritage sites.

But who is the group targeting with such content? In ISIS’s case, the target audience can be categorised into two groups based on the response the content is designed to generate: (1) the group’s supporters and sympathisers, for whom the content is meant to be informational and inspirational, to encourage donations and recruitment; and (2) the perceived enemy (the West, regional governments that support the West and individuals who oppose ISIS’s motives) and people in the territory it controls, for whom the content is meant to intimidate and frighten, to project ISIS’s absolute brutality. Although the group has dedicated content intended for promotional and recruitment purposes, its infamous videos and social media campaigns aim to target both categories of the audience.

Grab from a video showing an ISIS man with two Japanese hostages. Credit: Twitter

Grab from a video showing an ISIS man with two Japanese hostages. Credit: Twitter

The on-camera killings are dramatic productions intended to elicit emotional responses from the viewers; the videos are meant to shock and frighten viewers, and to intimidate the enemy by projecting strength, savagery and a lack of mercy.

Besides repulsing and frightening the enemy, these theatrical displays of terror serve another purpose – to connect with existing and potential young supporters in a bid persuade them to join ISIS’s ranks. The videos are targeted at the plethora of youngsters who have grown up watching movies that bare the same aesthetics, and who thus likely view violence as cathartic and a just means to counter the enemy.

In 2014, with global attention turning towards its activities, ISIS recognised the potential to connect with a wider Western audience and launched the al-Hayat Media Centre to produce material in English and other European languages.

Al-Hayat publishes Dabiq, a digital English-language magazine, which is translated to other languages, including German and French. The high-production value magazine is a perfect accompaniment to the group’s ‘snuff films’, which boast modern-style moviemaking techniques, with clear narratives, multiple camera angles and polished editing, and are aggressively distributed across social media alongside other propaganda content.

Gaming Twitter

The most lucrative and unrestricted platform to connect with supporters and spread propaganda has been Twitter. A Brookings report on the group’s Twitter activity estimates that at least 46,000 accounts on the social networking site were used by ISIS supporters from September through December 2014, though not all were active simultaneously. Despite repeated attempts by Twitter to stymie ISIS’s propaganda and recruitment efforts by suspending accounts linked to the group, supporters and sympathisers have maintained tens of thousands of active accounts. The social networking site continues to remain at the forefront of the group’s social media offensive, with a reported 500 to 2000 hyperactive accounts tweeting ISIS related content at any given point, the report estimates.

ISIS has proved to be adept at navigating Twitter to maximum benefit, employing tested social media strategies and utilising software to amplify the distribution of its messages. For instance, its Arabic-language app, Dawn of Glad Tidings, was extremely successful with numerous people signing up for it. Although no longer active, the sheer volume of tweets sent out from the app during any particular time was enough to dominate online content and conversations. Similarly, social media conversations have also been manipulated by dedicated hashtag campaigns where ISIS supporters have repeatedly tweeted specific hashtags at certain points of day so that they may trend on the site, encouraging further dissemination, as was seen immediately after the Brussels attacks.

Milder content

But not all ISIS online propaganda content is violent. The group regularly shares arguably staged images of life in the territory it controls, depicting idyllic utopian scenes. Interestingly, it also seems to have tamped down the radical rhetoric. British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has been held captive by the group since November 2012, appears in many propaganda videos, most recently on March 19. The imagery is subtle and unlike ISIS’s usual propaganda videos, but as expected Cantlie is seen criticising Western foreign and hostage policy. In other videos, he is seen describing the situation in Mosul and other Syrian cities as being far more favourable than portrayed by the West. Similarly, an Australian doctor appeared in a propaganda video exalting the group’s health services and urging other Muslim health experts to join him.

ISIS’s move to include such non-violent content in its propaganda efforts points to a noticeable shift in the group’s media strategy. On-ground violent operations may help seize territory, but to secure popular support ISIS also needs to be seen as an altruistic group that can shun violence and take on a benevolent role when needed.

Ideological insurgency

To better understand ISIS’s social media strategy, its successes and its impact on how other terrorist groups use communication as a strategy, a holistic study is required. A thorough socio-cultural and psychological approach would help understand the motivations of not just the fighters on ground, but even of those who feel strong enough about a cause to access, view and share violent, barbaric content online, and who may even be inspired to join the group.

By virtue of the media-oriented strategy it has adopted, ISIS controls the information it extends to the audience, and thus has substantial control over how it is perceived. Although many news media organisations have been cautious in what content they reproduce, especially the snuff films, by reporting on the group and redistributing its images and videos they inadvertently partake in the status-conferral process. Indeed, incidents like the Brussels and Paris attacks, and San Bernardino are newsmakers – videos and images in the immediate aftermath of the attacks are repeatedly shared and transmitted via social and traditional media; images of perseverance and defiance in the face of terror also add to the narrative.

ISIS is waging an ideological insurgency as much as a territorial one. As it continues to lose ground in its bastion in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will likely step up efforts to remain relevant and win people over for its plans to establish a caliphate. Through the use of modern technologies to network, recruit, raise funds and spread psychological warfare, ISIS wants to one-up the West; by resorting to large-scale terrorist attacks, ISIS is bringing the insurgency to their turf.