Islamic State displays slick media outreach
NEW YORK — The extremists who have seized large parts of Syria and Iraq have riveted the world’s attention with their military prowess and unrestrained brutality. But Western intelligence services are also worried about their extraordinary command of seemingly less lethal weapons: cutting-edge videos, video shot from drones, and multilingual Twitter messages.
The Islamic State is using contemporary modes of messaging to recruit fighters, intimidate enemies, and promote its claim to have established a caliphate, a unified Muslim state run according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
If its bigotry and beheadings seem to come from a distant century, its use of media is up to the moment.Its propaganda has strikingly few calls for attacks on the West, even though its most notorious video, among Americans, released 12 days ago, revealed the beheading of American journalist James Foley, threatened another American hostage, and said that US attacks on the Islamic State “would result in the bloodshed” of Americans.
This diverged from nearly all of the Islamic State’s varied output, which promotes its paramount goal: the fight to secure and expand the Islamic state. Experts say that could change overnight, but for now it sharply distinguishes the Islamic State from Al Qaeda, which has long made attacks on the West its top priority.And while the Islamic State may be built on bloodshed, it seems intent on demonstrating the bureaucratic acumen of the state that it claims to be building.Its two annual reports so far are replete with a sort of jihadist-style bookkeeping, tracking statistics on everything from “cities taken over” and “knife murders” committed by Islamic State forces to “checkpoints set up” and even “apostates repented.”
Islamic State media frames its campaign in epochal terms, mounting a frontal assault on the national divisions and boundaries in the Middle East drawn by Western powers after World War I. These “crusader partitions” and their modern Arab leaders, the Islamic State argues in its English-language magazine, were a divide-and-conquer strategy intended to prevent Muslims from unifying “under one imam carrying the banner of truth.”
That sense of historical grievance is an old theme for Al Qaeda and more moderate Islamist groups.
The difference is that by capturing expansive territory and heavy weaponry, and flush with wealth from kidnappings, oil piracy, bank robbery, and extortion, the Islamic State claims to have taken a major first step toward righting what it sees as this modern-day wrong, creating a unified Muslim state that will subsume existing nations.
The Islamic State carefully tailors its recruiting pitch, sending starkly different messages to Muslims in the West and to those closer to home. But the image of unstoppable, implacable power animates all of its messaging.
The pitch is effective. The rebellion in Syria and Iraq has drawn as many as 2,000 Westerners, including 100 Americans, and thousands more from the Middle East and elsewhere, though some have returned home. Specialists think most of those remaining today are fighting with the Islamic State.
“The overriding point is that success breeds success,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former CIA analyst. “The perception of quick victories and territory and weapons and bases means they don’t need to try hard to recruit.”
For two decades, Nakhleh said, Osama bin Laden talked of reestablishing the caliphate, but he never claimed to have done it. “Young people look at ISIS and say, ‘By gosh, they’re doing it!’ They see the videos with fighters riding on big tanks. They see that ISIS has money,” he said, using an abbreviation for the Islamic State.
“They are very adept at targeting a young audience,” said John G. Horgan, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who has long studied terrorism. “There’s an urgency: ‘Be part of something that’s bigger than yourself and be part of it now.’”