Wiktor Pastucha & Aleksandra Spychalska look at the extreme ways in which Islamic State uses modern communication technologies to promote its propaganda and facilitate its plans of genocide.
The issue of using propaganda as a tool that supports the crime of genocide has been a subject of studies before – mostly in regard to Third Reich and the genocide in Rwanda. These propaganda campaigns are designed to identify the enemy, to convince the society that this enemy poses a great danger and it needs to be destroyed, and finally to persuade the ‘audience’ to support the extermination. However, it has never been noted in history that an organization so freely calling for genocide had such broad range of means of propaganda at its disposal as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has. ISIS summons its followers to understand Jihad as a battle with the ‘infidels’, which ought to be continued until the time that Islam remains the only religion standing. While the grounds for their policy of genocide is the concept of Jihad, the tools used are pure propaganda and a meticulously built ‘brand’. ISIS, out of all terrorist organisations, was the first to use modern communication technologies (social media, the internet) so consistently and on such a wide scale to promote its activities. It has become clear that the Islamic State creates and communicates its image consciously and effectively to facilitate its plans of genocide. In order to fulfil these plans, it uses these new communication technologies on a scale never witnessed before.
The issue of religious fundamentalism and its negative consequences still proves to be a prevailing topic. The activities of Boko Haram, Al-Shahab, Al-Quaeda or ISIS pose a serious threat to international security. Each of these organizations has a similar background and shares a similar view of the world; each of them is based on the same ideology and uses similar tools to reach their goals. Yet, it is the Islamic State that is the most successful in military actions, conquering new territories, actively developing its terrorist network worldwide, and recruitment of the greatest number of fighters from the West. It also has achieved significant economic accomplishments.
One of the means to reach its goals is through the policy of genocide. ISIS summons its followers to Jihad with the understanding that above all, their battle with the infidels, ought to be continued until the time, when Islam remains the only religion left standing (M. Sadowski, 2013). To ISIS fighters ‘Jihad’ means armed expansion of the Muslim community – over those of the ‘infidels’. Those who reject Islam and will not succumb to the Muslim rule are simply not worthy of living. ‘The Infidels’ are typically from the Christians, Jewish, Yazidis or Coptic faiths but also includes Muslims who deviate from practicing Islam as dictated by the Caliphate. Such understanding of Jihad is dictated by the self-appointed Caliph, – Abu Bakr al Bagdhadi. This form of ‘Holy War’ lies thus in fact in the fundaments of the genocide intent. The Islamic State (currently only on conquered territories) commits mass murders and executions, rapes, women trafficking, mutilations. This has been outlined in report stemming from investigations conducted by the United Nations (2015) where by it collected witness’ testimony and documented the discovery of mass graves in Iraq and Syria. ISIS leaders also call their supporters to also kill ‘infidels’ in every other country abroad with clear intention of wiping them out off the map of the future Caliphate. While the grounds for the policy of genocide is through the concept of Jihad, the tools used in the process are through propaganda and a meticulously built brand.
“such campaigns were limited to state traditional media, while now IS can use the internet and new communication technologies on a global scale with no regard for borders”
Using propaganda and conscious brand building to assist genocide has been seen before – mostly with regard to Third Reich and in the before and aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. Most scholars (D. Yanagizava-Drott, 2014; V. Klemperer, 1983; M. Lower & T. Hauschildt, 2014) have pointed towards a clear connection between using means of propaganda and the effectiveness of execution of genocide. The propaganda campaigns are designed to identify the enemy, to convince the society (‘brand audience’), that this enemy poses a great danger and it needs to be destroyed and finally to persuade the ‘audience’ to support the extermination (in case of Rwanda the Hutu propaganda successfully motivated regular people to take part in slaughter). However, it has never been noted in history that an organization so freely agitating for genocide had such broad range of means of propaganda at its disposal. Most often such campaigns were limited to state traditional media, while now IS can use the internet and new communication technologies on a global scale with no regard for borders. So far there have been only single articles mentioning this issue written, majority of which were of journalistic or popular science nature. In this paper, the authors aimed to present the issue of propaganda campaigns via new communication technologies and role of building the brand of the Islamic State in order to fulfill the plan of genocide.
We as authors are of the opinion, that the professional and consciously ran propaganda, understood as Brand Communication, is the crucial factor, which has determined the effectiveness of the Islamic State. We believe it has driven an expressive and clear Brand Image. It has as a resource, a distinct brand known across the world, that directly and indirectly influences the execution of its Jihadist goals and postulates of ISIS. It facilitates not only the recruitment of fighters or the building of a network in the Western countries, but also in military actions including psychological warfare tactics such as Christians living in neighboring countries leave their households in panic on a first sight of a black flag on their streets. Even by having no previous contact with the organization – such is it’s effectiveness in the communication of terror. ISIS, out of all terrorist organizations, was the first to effectively use social media and the internet in a consistent and wide scale way to promote its activities. Based on our analysis, it becomes clear, that the Islamic State creates its image consciously. It culls the tactical know-how from the world of business and effectively uses propaganda to facilitate its plans of genocide using modern communication technologies on a scale never witnessed before.
The Islamic State utilizes knowledge gained and gathered within consumer and commercial markets, using research, brand analysis, to pursue its genocidal intentions. We found that what differentiates ISIS from all of the other terrorist groups and what can be one of the reasons why they are so successful, is the consistently developed and constructed organizational brand based on it its brand DNA and brand communication model. In the orthodox brand research, Brand Communication is understood as a verbal and visual presentation of certain meanings to the specific group of receivers via media or other channels. (M. Fleischer, 2003). Moving on to understand the term ‘propaganda’, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, propaganda has three basic meanings and can be thus defined as: 1. Ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc., 2. The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person, 3. Ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also a public action having such an effect. Authors recognize that all of communication activities run by Islamic State have propaganda intent. That is why there is no need for differentiate these two terms – they will be used interchangeably in this article.
In our study on using propaganda in order to support the policy of genocide, the authors based their research on the model of the crime proposed by Gregory Stanton (G. Stanton, 2013). By analyzing genocides that occur in XXth and XXIth century, Stanton formulated ten stages of the crime, which are: classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial. According to Stanton’s model, the initial stages precede the other ones, at the same time not finishing in the wake of the following ones. To the opposite, to illustrate, with the start of the process of organization, the level of dehumanization of the persecuted group increases (Stanton, 1996). Stanton’s model is crucial for transnational system of genocide prevention and punishment, since the identification of each stage would enable international community the effective containment of the crime.
ISIS’s Brand Communication
ISIS communication is very well planned, professionally executed and used as a strategic asset by the organization. Active communication with massive media reach (according to data form Brand24 even 1/7th every internet users are getting information about IS activities on daily basis) result in lingering influx of new volunteers, donators and supporters. Acting on such scale is possible only through holistic approach to brand communication and usage of various channels based on clear strategy. Numerous communication channels are actively used and professionally ran by ISIS. According to authors’ research, the most important ones are: social media, branded gadgets, magazines, news and PR agencies, advertisements, movies, TV and radio and brand ambassadors.
ISIS activities in social media includes creating and running official profiles on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat and even creating own Facebook – 5elaphabook (closed after few days), but mostly it consist in supporters and members of organization activity in this channel. Due to this fragmentation, it is extremely difficult to react and ban all of ISIS profile. What is even more important, communication itself is in this way more natural and can be properly adjusted to the audience. Since the communication is on “one on one” level (not “brand – customer”) it enables ISIS to create real relationship with receivers of their message.
Branded Gadgets is one of the most interesting channel used by organization. T-Shirts, toys or “IS starter kits” created by Al-Hayat Media Center increase brand awareness and help to build and maintain relationship with supporters that cannot join ISIS in person. Gadgets are distributed by internet shops or can be purchased at numerous markets, for instance in Turkey.
Another crucial communication channel widely used by Islamic State refers to information policy. Islamic State created four news and PR agencies including Al-Hayat Media Center, which are responsible for public relations activities of organization (P. Cockburn, 2015). There are also two major magazines published by ISIS and distributed globally: ‘Dabiq’- main propaganda tube, the high quality magazine about Caliphate, available online and via Amazon; and ‘ISIS Report’- the publication similar to corporate ‘Wall Street-reports’ that includes information about its activities, performance and future plans.
Al-Hayat Media Center is also responsible for creating set of fairly professional advertisements (Ads of Radio Stations, movies, magazines, etc.) and production of propaganda movies – including short clips (introducing organization, statements of its members and ostentatious decapitations) and full-length movies (for instance ‘Flames of War’ presenting honorable and courageous mudjahadines destroy ‘infidels’ army).
Traditional media are not dominant in ISIS communication, but the organization uses radio and TV in the process. There are three internet radio stations (in English, French and Arabic) and media coverage about ISIS is regularly occurred in, for instance, Al-Jazeera.
Finally, the channel that is frequently neglected, but indicates high supporters’ loyalty, are brand ambassadors. ISIS is believed to create global net of its supporters – lately there have been arrests of its members in Spain, Turkey, USA or UK.
Even though organization is using such various set of channels, it is able to create vivid and coherent Brand Image throughout each of them, so it should be concluded, that ISIS Brand Strategy is defined and implemented.
2. Brand’s Language
Brand’s language is one the main means, by which organizations express their personality. ‘Tone of voice’ can shape relationships that build brand recognition with the audience, connotes brand with certain meanings and create new ones. Brand language can also create a whole society around the brand and help supporters recognize and be loyal to each other.
The language analysis conducted by authors was based on ‘Dabiq’ issues – ISIS’s main propaganda tube- due to the fact, that those publications present the clearest version of IS’s language narrative. During this analysis, word frequency and word concordance were examined. The language of ISIS is based on religion fundament. This is mirrored in word frequency (the biggest group of words appeal to Islam), but also in imperative and judgmental overtone, typical to religious languages. The Islamic State orders its supporters exactly what to do, and how to do it- it doesn’t leave any room for interpretation. Also noticeable is the vivid separation of “us” and “them” and extreme polarization. When it comes to describing the Caliphate, used words are mostly positive or neutral. When IS introduce the oppositional side, the set of words used is by far more pejorative.
Another group of words used appeals to military contexts – the warfare and fighting that need to be won in order to save the Caliphate. One of the most interesting sets of words refers to the paradise that Caliphate is, and community of brothers that was created around it. Usage of words as “brotherhood”, “amongst”, “numerous”, “families” not only suggests that land of ISIS is great place to be, but also shows that a lot of people have already joined it. This attempt to create a feeling of familiar choice is fairly common when it comes to ISIS communication. It creates delusion, that if that so many people think of it as a paradise – it must be true. To enhance this feeling, Islamic State is using storytelling and human stories of people, who converted to Islam. To make the narrative more believable as information, the first hand account ‘he said’ approach is used so that the listener can identify with it.
3. Communication Dualism – The Hero Archetype
This vivid separation of “us” and “them” is visible throughout ISIS communication. Islamic State is building separate, but coherent brand image in these groups. When it comes to building its image inside “our” group – ISIS is presented as the organization that defends Muslims and creates a paradise world – the Caliphate. The propaganda presents it as a land of brotherhood, happiness, heroes, justice and peace. In ‘Dabiq’, pictures from hospitals with caring doctors and nurses, pictures of playgrounds with laughing children eating ice cream may be found. In the propagandist movie – “Greetings from land of Aid” – ISIS warriors spin a tale about the wonderful life in the caliphate, a place where the Prophet’s idea of Ummah finally becomes a reality. They have little children in one arm, and machine gun in the other. Small children are yelling the name of God and describing graphically what to do with enemies.
Communication directed to enemies group on the other hand, shows destructive, fearless army of Allah that brings certain death. This message is also aimed to “our” group – it shows what would happen if ISIS supporters were to have doubts.
Examination of ISIS communication brings authors to the conclusion that the ISIS brand could be described as being the closest to the Hero/Warrior brand archetype (M. Mark, 2001). ‘Hero’ wants to prove his worth through courageous acts and improving the world and is driven by ego and honor. He is unforgiving for enemies and protective of his people. That vivid division is noticeable throughout whole ISIS communication system.
Propaganda in the Service of Genocide
It is crucial to outline first, what the crime of genocide actually is, since the term itself is very often misused. The whole legal concept of the crime was created by the Polish lawyer of Jewish origins Raphael Lemkin (R. Lemkin, 2008). Lemkin was also the main architect of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the UN in 1948- the basic element of the international system of penalization of the crime. According to article 2 of the Convention, ‘genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group’. The main element that constitutes the crime and distinguishes it from the war crimes or crimes against humanity therefore is the intent to destroy certain protected- religious, national, ethnic or racial- group (special intent, so called dolus specialis). The special intent means that perpetrators are killing individual not because of their individual characteristic or personal connection with them, but because the victims are the members of certain persecuted group, that should be destroyed.
Genocide is a process, it never happens overnight. The crime is always carefully prepared and planned (R. Lemkin, 2008). It also the crime, in which propaganda plays crucial role. The future perpetrators need to run people’s hearts and minds, have power over their souls, and make them believe in genocidal purpose. The Islamic State activities are designed to achieve that goal. ISIS warriors and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Bagdhahdi himself noted tat the caliphate’s warriors should, ‘fight them infidels (sic) until there is no more strife’. ISIS calls its supporters to fight with infidels in Iraq and Syria, or if they don’t have such possibility, in their own countries, including the call to genocide. This all results in more and more brutal terrorists attacks on innocent civilians be it in France, Denmark, Turkey or Tunis. Propaganda is the crucial tool in this context. Strong brand and active communication help ISIS gather more and more loyal supporters and proceed through the next stages of the crime, as established by Stanton (2013): classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.
Stages of the Crime
According to the above-mentioned model, first phase of the crime is a classification. It’s natural for human to distinguish and classify objects and humans. As Stanton (1998) pointed out, ‘all cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality.
In the case of the Islamic State this division is simple and vivid. The line is drawn between the Caliphate, not generally the Muslim world as such, because Muslims that don’t believe or practice in the so-called ‘proper’ way- such as Shia’s- or are not radical enough, are automatically excluded from the group of ‘us’ versus ‘the others’- the rest of the world. This line is fairly clear – fairly black and white.
The next stage after classification is symbolization. It is also natural social process that occurs in every society – created categories needs to be named. According to Stanton (1998) society puts name to the group, attribute to them some special characteristics or signs. Sometimes physical characteristics – skin color or nose shape – may become the symbols for classifications. Other symbols, like customary dress or facial scars are socially imposed onto individual members of the group by the larger collective group. In the case of Islamic State, the language of symbolization is very judgmental it therefore builds strict separation even on naming level. ISIS tends to distinguish three main categories of enemies; three main categories that constitute the group of ‘them’.
First, there are ‘crusaders’ – so ‘infidels’ like Christian or Jews, Western Countries, USA and its allies. This designation is strictly referring to historical events from XI and XII century and therefore suggests that ‘crusaders’ are still planning to subjugate the whole Muslim world.
Second group is composed from the ‘apostates’ – Muslims that do not support the Caliphate. Semantic of this term is also strongly pejorative and suggests that those Muslims betrayed Prophet and abandoned their religion. It is crucial since, according to Quran, those, who abandoned Islam and become apostates, should be punished with death penalty. Therefore, the way in, which not radical enough Muslim are described, may impose serious consequences.
The third group symbolized in IS communication is the Yazidis – a Kurdish religious community whose syncretic religion is linked to Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions. Yazidis are also the most persecuted group. Unlike Christians or Jews, they are not considered as ‘People of the Book’ – they are seen as polytheists and Satanists.
Next phase is discrimination. During this stage, ‘a dominant group uses law, custom, and political power to deny the rights of other groups. The powerless group may not be accorded full civil rights, voting rights, or even citizenship’ (Stanton, 2013). As an example, the ISIS’s dhimma policy may be shown. On conquered territories, the Islamic States forces non-believers to conclude the dhimma contract and pay special tax- Jizya. Such discriminative policy is supported and justified by Muslim theologians on the ground of the sharia law on the one hand, and propaganda on the other (K. Philips Erb, 2014).
In the case of Islamic State, the main enemies – Western Countries and apostates that support them – are presented as spoiled shirk, without any moral values.
As it was mentioned before, classification and symbolization are fundamental operations in all cultures. However, they become steps of genocide when combined with the next phase from Stanton model (1998)- dehumanization/demonization. In this stage future perpetrators of the crime try to persuade other members of the “us” group, that enemies are less than human, so they are not worth living. According to Stanton (1998), ‘denial of the humanity of others is the step that permits killing with impunity. The universal human abhorrence of murder of members of one’s own group is overcome by treating the victims as less than human’. To the members of prosecuted groups offensive epithets are ascribed. On the one hand, using demonization, perpetrators builds the ‘besieged fortress syndrome’ in order to show that enemies are extremely dangerous. The ‘them’ group needs to be destroyed- otherwise it eventually destroys ‘us’.
In the case of Islamic State, the main enemies – Western Countries and apostates that support them – are presented as spoiled shirk, without any moral values. They are cold-blooded murderers that attack innocent children in Syria. As an example pictures of children’s bodies burned in bombing runs conducted by US forces in one of the ‘Dabiq’s may be presented. ISIS’s propaganda also threatens, that ‘crusaders’ and their ‘allies’ should be pursue to their destruction and that the aim of the caliphate is subordinating them to the whole Muslim world.
Dehumanization can be also clearly seen in the language used by Islamic State’s media. Yazidis are picked as ‘devil worshippers’, ‘Satanists’ or ‘devil creed’. In her testimony, one of the ISIS victims stated: ‘He told us that Taus Malik — one of seven angels to whom the Yazidis pray — is not God. He said that Taus Malik is the devil and that because you worship the devil, you belong to us. We can sell you and use you as we see fit.’(cited as in R. Callimanchi, 2015). According to the one of the articles from Dabiq (issue no 9): ‘We (ISIS fighters-authors’ note) have indeed raided and captured the kafirah (non-believers) women and drove them like sheep by the edge of the sword.’
Consequences of this stage are far beyond propaganda. According to official fatwa, Yazidi woman can and should be sexually abused, because they are less than human. As it was pointed out, ‘Unbelieving [women] who were captured and brought into the abode of Islam are permissible to us.’(cited as in A. Smith, 2014) ‘Infidels’ are described as a ‘cancer’, as stealthy enemies that deserve only to be destroyed or become slaves. One of the ways, in which sociopathic perpetrators express denial of humanity towards their victims, is through body mutilation. This is also the case of the Islamic State.
“Genocide does not happen overnight. Perpetrators need to build organizational frameworks in order to make the crime possible.”
Genocide does not happen overnight. Perpetrators need to build organizational frameworks in order to make the crime possible. As Stanton (1998) points out, ‘the social organization of genocide varies by culture. It reached its most mechanized, bureaucratic form in the Nazi death camps. But it is always organized, whether by the Nazi SS or the Rwandan ‘Interahamwe’. In case of ISIS this organization staging includes for example the ‘Constitution’ of the Caliphate, the creation of IS branding (the white logo on the black background or flag, etc.), starting an active communication network, the building of an economic basis in the background, and the development and sustainment of global recruitment or military training for warriors or Jihaidists.
During next stage, polarization, organization need to strengthen the group by eliminating mellow parties inside and in this way inflame the conflict so there’s no other solution than confrontation possible. According to Genocide Watch Co-Founder, (Stanton, 1998), ‘Genocide proceeds in a downward cycle of killings until, like a whirlpool, it reaches the vortex of mass murder. Killings by one group may provoke revenge killings by the other. Such massacres are aimed at polarization, the systematic elimination of moderates who would slow the cycle.’ The Islamic State focuses on fighting with moderate leaders. Once again, ISIS propaganda uses judgmental and pejorative sets of words to describe these groups (“hypocrites”, “traitors”, ect.). The exemplification of this stage in IS communication could be the cover of 8th issue of the ‘Dabiq’ magazine. The cover alludes to terrorist attack perpetrated in Charlie Hebdo newspaper office and the reaction of certain Muslim leaders. It shows them with palate ‘Je Suis Charlie with short sentence as a comment: ‘From Hypocrisy to Apostasy’. Moreover, ISIS matches their words with action- on the conquered territories in Syria or Iraq, less radical leaders are immediately killed.
During next stages – preparation and persecution – the crime is directly prearranged. Lists of victims are created, houses of the future victims are marked (for example ISIS marked Christian homes in Mosul), the stage of execution is designed (the ancient amphitheater in Palmira was a set stage for executions performed by IS) and the men are separated from women and children. Preparation also includes expropriation of the property of the victims. It may include concentration: herding of the victims into ghettos, stadiums, or churches.
The culmination point of the Stanton genocide model is extermination. According to Stanton (1998), ‘it is considered extermination, rather than murder, because the victims are not considered human. […] Because they are not considered persons, their bodies are mutilated, buried in mass graves or burned like garbage’. In case of ISIS like never before, extermination is not hidden- moreover it’s proudly presented and used as a part of the brand communication.
The last stage according to Stanton (1998) is denial – the perpetrators hide the crime. ‘Every genocide is followed by denial. The mass graves are dug up and hidden. The historical records are burned, or closed to historians. Even during the genocide, those committing the crimes dismiss reports as propaganda’. Using the crime and extermination as a tool in communication process is one of the characteristics of ISIS propaganda. At this point it’s hard to determine if this stage would ever appear in case of ISIS genocide, while the pictures of decapitated victims are proudly presented throughout every Islamic State communication channel. Such pride may arise due to strong belief in righteousness of ISIS path and goal but also could appear after the extermination stage is over.
The technological revolution that started on the cusp of the 20th and 21st century brought a boom of new technologies, the development of the internet media, social media, mass internet access and the subsequent democratization of information. As a result, traditional media have decreased in influence. As the world is now a global village, it is no longer required to broadcast an expensively made program by major television channel or radio station, to reach millions. It has become much simpler and cheaper to message a single viewer, to have it concentrated directly at him or her, you can even describe this as intimate, all of which makes it that much more convincing and attractive and a powerful tool in the hands of professionals willing to use it for the purposes of propaganda.
The Islamic State is using technology very skillfully – the daily social media range of the entry ‘ISIS’ reaches, according to the internet data monitoring via Brand24, 720 million – no other propagandist in history has had such access to the global society. Social Media Monitoring has reported an increasing proportion of positive comments accorded to ISIS following each attack. For example after attack in Tunis the number of positive comments about ISIS in monitored social media doubled the negative-ones. Accordingly, we can conclude that the wider public opinion support of actions undertaken by or on behalf of the Islamic State is higher than most may think, and that the propaganda of ‘brand’ ISIS is extremely effective and has an impact on a global scale.
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