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20 November 2015

The utopia of Isis: inside Islamic State’s propaganda war

Islamic State's cheerful media images seem incongruous to us in the West. But the group are committed to showing an "idealistic caliphate".

By Helen Lewis

The image is Instagram-worthy: handsome young men throw their arms around each other’s shoulders in an unselfconscious, brotherly gesture. There’s even that distinctive blur at the edges of the photo, drawing the eye more strongly to the men’s smiling faces.

Any echoes of the popular photo app are not accidental, because this is indeed an image designed to go viral. It appeared in Dabiq, a glossy magazine distributed by Isis, the terror group that has claimed responsibility for recent attacks in Paris and on a Russian plane.

For years, journalists have been bemused by the existence of Inspire, a forerunner of Dabiq distributed by al-Qaeda. It’s hard to imagine the nitty-gritty of magazine production being undertaken by terrorists, and there is something darkly comic about the idea of a “jihadi sub-editor” (that said, most subs do have deeply held beliefs, even if they are usually about the correct placement of commas). But there is a thriving tradition of jihadi magazines, including several targeted at women, published as PDF files to allow decentralised distribution across the globe.

The image, printed in an edition of Dabiq, is typically idealistic. Photo: Dabiq

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The Dabiq picture is captioned “Wala’ and bara’ [loyalty and disavowal] versus American racism”, a reference to an Islamic concept of friendship between Muslims. Professor Shahira Fahmy of the University of Arizona came across it during a year-long secondment to study Isis propaganda for Nato. Looking at Dabiq, she found that images promoting the idea of an “idealistic caliphate” far outnumbered photographs of killings and torture. Overall, she estimates that only 5 per cent of imagery produced and distributed by Isis is violent.

“What gets disseminated in media organisations could be considered a misrepresentation of the volume of the visual content that gets produced and disseminated by the organisation on a daily basis,” she told me by email from Riga in Latvia, where she is currently based. “These [idealistic] images might be more important in terms of branding the organisation and recruitment purposes than the images of violence that we regularly see in the news.”

Research by the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, supports this view. A recent report found that the propaganda Isis distributes in the Middle East often shows the group “administering its civilian population, cleaning the streets, fitting electricity pylons, fixing sewage systems, purifying water, collecting blood donations, providing health care and education”.
In other words, the same kind of thing your local council probably pushes through your letter box on a leaflet – and with the same aim: reassuring people that they are living under a plausible, functional authority. Don’t worry, Isis will unclog your drains. Isis will collect your rubbish.

Like the concept of jihadi sub-editors, this all seems very incongruous to us in the West. Our media depictions of terrorists almost always depict them as inhuman monsters, as nihilists, as members of a death cult; not the kind of people who would be interested in civil infrastructure. But part of the modernity of Isis is its high level of media literacy. Terror is only part of the movement’s communications strategy: it knows it must offer hope, too. Fahmy points to images showing serenity and repentance – “suggesting that any individual will always be embraced by the organisation and forgiven for past affiliations upon joining the ‘caliphate’” – alongside others promoting the idea of victimisation by the West, such as graphic photographs of children killed by drone strikes. Like British newspapers, the group also seized on the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy on the beach – as an illustration of the dangers of emigrating.

Fahmy notes that very little utopian Isis propaganda is seen in the West. Might we understand the group better if it was? The past few days have been filled with questions over Western media bias – for instance, the relative lack of attention given to bombings in Beirut – predicated on an acknowledgement of how much the media shape and reinforce public opinion.

Isis certainly believes in the power of the press. A recent blog boasted of having 15 media centres in a single province which disseminate CDs and audio files, and it has a large internet presence, too. It runs hashtag campaigns (such as #amessagefromIsistoUS) and an Arabic-language news app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which posts pro-Isis messages to users’ Twitter feeds. There is something oddly fitting that one of the very few foreign media organisations given access to Isis is Vice, the self-consciously edgy, gonzo, youth-focused online media giant. Vice’s 2014 documentary captured footage of jihadis snapping pictures of each other with smartphones – opening another front in the Isis propaganda war.

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror