The precise composition of the ISIS media team was unknown (or more accurately, it was the subject of conflicting reports with uncertain sourcing), but some elements became clear over time. Many regional hubs where ISIS operated had their own media departments, including Raqqa and Deir Ez-zoor in Syria, and Diyala, Saladin, Mosul, and Kirkuk in Iraq. Their Twitter accounts routinely published photos, videos, and text updates about ISIS activities, creating a remarkably robust (if carefully manipulated) record of ISIS’s activities.
A number of Westerners were involved in the media project. In May 2014, ISIS debuted an outlet dedicated to disseminating material in English and European languages. The Al Hayat (Arabic for “Life”) Media Center ramped up at a critical time for ISIS, just weeks before the dramatic military offensive and caliphate proclamation that would put it on the front pages. Al Hayat translated ISIS’s Arabic propaganda into English, including The Clanging of the Swords Part 4, but it also produced original content that revealed the complexity of the organization’s media strategy.
In May and June, Al Hayat rolled out multiple English-language magazines, some of which recycled content from social media, and others that included original reporting from areas ISIS controlled. The stories included coverage of battles but also devoted many pages to ISIS’s efforts to govern, such as the execution of a “sorcerer” and religious training for imams. One issue spotlighted ISIS’s consumer protection bureau in Raqqa, which held merchants responsible for the quality of goods they sold.
More issues of the magazines came out in quick succession, seven issues by mid-June. After their initial release in English, most of the issues were also distributed in French and German editions.
The publications continued to present the society that ISIS was building, including reports on agriculture and the ISIS police force. One issue was devoted to the dramatic capture of Mosul in early June. Concurrently, another spotlighted the violent side of ISIS, with page after page of graphic images showing the execution of criminals and prisoners, some with their brains splattered on the ground, others cut to pieces.
The strange dichotomy of ultraviolence and civil order was echoed throughout ISIS’s many streams of propaganda. Although the image was to some extent contrived, the overall package represented something new and different in the world of jihadism. ISIS was projecting its vision of a comprehensive society that went beyond the nihilistic destruction associated with the jihadist movement. This society, ISIS argued, existed in the here and now, and the organization approached the project with clear enthusiasm. The concept of governing had been circulating through Al Qaeda for years, and its affiliates in Mali and Yemen had both made efforts to seize territory and build out social services. But neither had been able to hold its ground for long. Furthermore, they seemed uninterested in the work based on its own merits, acting instead out of a cynically manipulative impulse.
“Try to win them over through the conveniences of life and by taking care of their daily needs like food, electricity and water,” the emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (in Yemen) wrote to the emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (in North Africa). “Providing these necessities will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours.”
Unlike its counterparts in Yemen and North Africa, ISIS seemed to relish providing services, rather than simply seeing it as a PR strategy (although the sustainability of these efforts was an open question). When it took control of an area, ISIS wasted no time outfitting police cars, ambulances, and bureaucracies with its ubiquitous black flag emblem. ISIS put traffic cops at intersections; in addition to its law enforcement and consumer protection bureau, it opened a complaints desk and nursing homes. Its members radiated enthusiasm for these projects.
AQAP had also advised AQIM to refrain from immediately instituting the jihadists’ harsh interpretation of Islamic law. “You can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray,” one letter stated. ISIS had other ideas. Not only did it implement a draconian regime of crime and punishment, which its members believed to be divinely ordained, but it celebrated and painstakingly documented the process in its propaganda, publicizing everything from the destruction of cigarettes and drug stashes to the amputation of thieves’ hands “under the supervision of trained doctors” to the genocidal extermination and enslavement of Iraqi minorities.
In many ways, the combination of elements was unprecedented. Nazi Germany, whose parallels in propaganda and brutality often invited comparisons to ISIS, had produced masterful propaganda while carrying out a painstakingly documented program of genocide, but these were separate efforts. Its propaganda did not celebrate the genocide; rather it served to justify an imperative to act in the name of national and racial purity without sharing the gruesome reality. The Nazis did not broadcast their atrocities to the world. In stark contrast, ISIS presented its vision of a demented utopia in which children played with severed heads and ran laughing down streets lined with mangled bodies instead of trees. A seemingly endless procession of atrocities was captured in photographs and videos, and distributed through both official and unofficial channels on social media.
To some extent, the shocking violence seen in these messages owed a debt to The Management of Savagery, the jihadist tract that heavily influenced ISIS’s strategy across multiple fronts. That text describes the necessity of violence, in all its “crudeness and coarseness,” in order to awaken potential recruits to the reality of the jihadis’ war and to intimidate enemies by showing the price they would pay for their involvement. But, it says, “we find that every stage of our battle needs methods that are soft and the like in order to counterbalance that (violence) so that the situation will be in good order.”
While much of the propaganda was intended for a Western audience, it also served audiences in Syria and Iraq, where for many, sectarian hatred equaled or trumped dreams of caliphate building. In its publications and in countless videos, ISIS extolled the virtues of killing the rafidah (a derogatory term for Shia Muslims) and the nusayri (a derogatory term for Alawites, members of a sect of Shi’a Islam practiced by members of the Syrian regime). ISIS videos documented the grisly killing of unarmed Shi’a prisoners by the hundreds, compared to the relative handful of Westerners who captured the attention of the media.
Away from the cameras, the blood flowed even more freely, with reports of thousands of sectarian killings, often of unarmed prisoners.
Jessica Stern is a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University, and a member of Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and law. J.M. Berger is a non-resident scholar at the Brookings Institution.