Pre- The Conference talk

Next week I will attend and speak at The Conference 2016 here in Malmö, one of the world’s leading conferences on media, technology, culture and business. It gathers practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines as well as academic researchers who are interested in the continuously evolving and rapidly developing field of the creative industry. I have been kindly invited to give a talk under a session of extremist communication, in which I will present extracts of the the scope of narratives within ISIS messaging and propaganda. I will go beyond the media headlines of brutality and gruesome beheadings and tell a story about how completely opposite rhetorical appeals were implemented in the beginning of ISIS expansion and how they managed to get a historical influx of foreign fighters to the self-declared caliphate.

My hope is to show how ISIS ideological and mediated strategies differ from earlier and similar jihadist groups (especially AQI from which it derives) but also attempt to discuss how the current geographical setbacks for ISIS are reflected in their media strategies and shows a change of focus as the loss of important/strategic cities in the region is increasing. 

I deeply look forward to take part of The Conference and grateful to be able to convey my insights about ISIS – an organisation with an extreme and sophisticated propaganda and ideology that I have devoted several years to in order to comprehend.

Beyond cruelty, Beyond Syria

A piece of today. Of my professional life.
I get an alert from a colleague in US about a new video that has surfaced. It is supposedly portraying the group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki fighters having captured what they claim to be an Al-Quds (Palestinian pro-government militia) child soldier in Handarat near the city of Aleppo, and my colleague notifies me about the graphic nature of the video. But after having had to sit through almost the entire official material coming out of ISIS for the last 18 months, I don’t reflect much about the notification.
 
Now remember, in an increasingly expanding sphere of researchers, activists, journalists and think-tanks, with true knowledge about the media propaganda of armed violent groups and organisations in Syria, there is a need to stay updated and informed in order to keep up with the production and distribution of important knowledge concerning these issues that I basically devote my professional life to understand. Therefor it is natural for me to consume this material. Not because I want to, but because I have reached a position where I feel I have to in order to have professional opinions about it.
 
In any case, I sit down by the computer. The video is not yet “all over the internet”, but rather obscure and hard to find if you don’t know what you are doing. It surfaced this morning online and it will not take long until it is though. Unfortunately.
 
The link title suggest it is a matter of a beheading. Knowing that the group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki is not significantly affiliated with major/rich insurgency groups, atleast not to the extent of having a large media wing behind it continously producing media propaganda, I expect an amateur footage video, similar to other gruesome mobile-phone videos filmed by ISIS fighters on the field, which I have worked with before. Sometimes they show fire exchange, sometimes they show spontaneous beheadings or torture of captives. Having went through so much mediated violence, I believe I am prepared for yet another of these videos.
 
But I soon realise that I am not. The just surfaced video entails a shaky camera, filming men chanting next to a parked pick-up truck. On the back of the car I see some fighters sitting closely together. One of them has a young boy, looks about 10-12 years old, in his lap. The man is holding him on the forehead. The boy appears relatively calm, almost as if he doesn’t understand what is going on. He tries to communicate silently, moving his hand and whisper something, looking around for someone to notice him. The man’s grip around his forehead gets more firm. Another man yell to the boy. The chanting around the car continues. The position of the boy, and the way he is treated, reminds more of a stray animal than a combat enemy. In an already horrific context, this is even more chilling.
 
Off camera more men have now gathered and join the crowd. All of a sudden, the vehicle is emptied as all jump off and stands behind the car, next to the person filming. Except for the little boy and the man holding him, who ties the hands behind the boys back and push him down on the stomach. Standing on top of him, the man, who looks about 25 years old, proudly accepts the chant of the crowd. He doesn’t look angry. He doesn’t look convinced, something that I am used to see among executioners in these groups. He simply appears as believing he is naturally chosen for doing what he is about to do. And the chills now start in my body as I watch him proceed.
I am sorry to say this. But those of you who are yet to understand the cruelty and unimaginable horror taking place in Syria, and don’t want to know, you have the option of stop reading now. 
 
Because what unfolds is among the most horrific things I have ever seen. And as it includes a child victim, there is a special sense of fear shivering within me. The dehumanisation of the tiny little boy. The almost pornographic excitement in the eyes of the executioner. The demons leaving the boys body as he is brutally deprived of dignity and rest of his life. 
 
The man does not hesitate, not for a single moment, as he first makes the lying boy watch to his right where the huge knife has been placed. A few seconds go by. Then harshly lifts his head, picks up the knife and in the most brutal of ways, slowly behead the boy. It takes too many seconds. Painfully long seconds. The scream immediately stops. The ground beneath turns read. 
 
I turn my head. I cannot bear the sound. The images. The overwhelming disgust within me. What I see is unforgivable. It is something beyond cruelty and it is beyond what my soul could ever be prepared for.
 
The chants.
The celebrations.
And then, the silence.
 
The video is ended. I find myself crouching in the chair. Stiff and pale.
Did this just happen?
 
I regret to say, it did. And I regret to say it will happen again. In this world, where I sit in a chair and watch, while men, women and children over there are the ones who experience this. Yet I complain.
 
Slowly I gather myself. Process what I witnessed. Dealing with it as I have had to learn. And then I feel better.
 
But there are always things you wish you had not seen. But above all, and even more, prayed they never happened.
(BBC wrote about the video an hour ago here)

Livestream of ISIS branded violence? Never.

A few days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen gave a press conference about his recent work and was asked about the horrific events in relation to some of his pieces. He famously then called the attacks ”the biggest work of art there has ever been”. For this he received instant and harsh criticism, even if a more careful deconstruction of his longer answer revealed a far from simplified aesthetic and positive notion of the events. In any case, his insight is currently useful in any attempt to understand contemporary terrorism in general, and ISIS in particular.

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The spectacle that was 9/11 played out in front of a global audience through television news networks, reproduced through various visual media for years to come. The objectives for this theatrical strategy are not hard to grasp. Nor is it stretching to claim there is a dominant theory of present terrorism; a theory based on a carefully considered adaptation of our neo-liberalist mechanisms of western society. Mainly this focus on attention seeking with a good message, influencing people through promoting a certain feeling within its audience, and market a brand of its organization. The enterprise of violence and socially mediated terrorism of ISIS hold several of the features aligned with successful players on the financially profit-driven market of consumptionism and the wider trade of goods and services. Witnessing ISIS still rather unique packaging of barbarism and terror in a theatrical and sophisticated form, I believe suggests a need to more extensively use terms like ’commodification of violence’ to understand the endeavours of this particular group. By adapting to a terminology deriving from marketing and commodity culture, we can perhaps more adequately and efficiently approach the key mechanisms involved in ISIS greater aim to create an atmosphere of turmoil and horror, rather than focusing solely on military advancement in and around the Caliphate. ISIS uses modern technologies in line with any other enterprise to market itself and build a relation to its audience. The commodification and marketing of violence however deviate in some important aspects, especially when it comes to audience control and trending technologies.

The Message

A core principle in marketing is to have a good and strong message. And let’s be honest, they do. It is not simply about inspiring an alienated youth to join any random terrorist organization, a pursuit that usually requires living underground in obscured parts of the world and from time to time conducting attacks. No, there is a larger cause at play here. ISIS is attempting to rewrite history. A far more ambitious and existential goal than held by its predecessors. Their own history, as part of a Middle East which was divided by the west through the Sykes-Picot agreement after WW1 through which countries were divided and politically aligned with western nations through different forms of agreements, is the fundamental vision to realize. They certainly emphasize this in various strands of the propaganda (The End of Sykes Picot).

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To support this message when conveying it, they have a physical space (the Caliphate) and amplifiy that space through dimensions and narratives which uphold its mythical existence, including violence, belonging, brotherhood, religion etc. Compared to other groups, say Jabhat-Al Nusra, ISIS use of social media platforms to distribute messages are far more effective. Other groups try, use similar tactics, but have no real space, no coherent message but rather express ideological notions, justifications of operations and spread violence as a mean to separate themselves from other rivalry groups. In addition, ISIS hold the advantage of a significantly larger network of followers, hence also a larger network of carriers of their message. It is impossible, and not very smart to be honest, to generalize about global jihadists online, as recruits, supporters, central commands and core believers are not only vastly different in terms of individual preferences but also collectively fragmented in regards to group affiliations. In relation to this ISIS has managed to gather followers and function like a community and identity strengthening ‘help-desk’, 24/7, where followers easily find someone ot ask questions or advice, ideologically likeminded get together in groups in more or less closed chatrooms, talking about their common denominator, amplifying it and contribute to convey the strong message online. Social media platforms are, by nature, designed to be used by and attract likeminded, a fact that seemingly quite often has been neglected in terms of developing counter campaigns online (I wrote for instance about US State Department previous campaign Think Again Turn Away here).

Live or choreographed violence?

Now let’s consider a vital part of this message that ISIS embodies both physically and virtually and put it in relation to the technological strategies of enhancement: the mediated commodification of violence. We can, with advantage and in line with Stockhausen, define terrorist activities in the global network age as ’performance acts’, just as any other commodity being produced, sold to and used/consumed by an audience. In order to make the barbaric suicide attacks of graphic executions in videos accessible, various type of social media technologies are implemented, just as a firm trust on simple western news media logic to further spread the message. The grand spectacles of, let’s say the recent bombings in Baghdad and Istanbul, get a natural afterlife in both journalistic outlets and social media networks. By nature these type of attacks are spectacular to its form and also works well in selling news. The official execution videos, exhibiting orgies of graphic torture and murder, are choreographed, rehearsed and edited to promote a specific feeling among the audience and provoce a certain response from adversaries, hence strategically produced with a specific purpose.

But what about the random so-called ’inspired’ attacks carried out by minor cells or individuals? These manifestations of the influence and more or less ideological reach of ISIS share a far more uncontrollable relation to the mediation process. First of all they are more loosely connected to the organization itself and sometimes not at all aligned. Second, they are rarely part of the corpus of official propaganda but rather turn up in a more sociological form of media, created and distributed by followers. The mediated representations of these attacks are thereby harder to control for the organization, which means the preferred reading of audiences are equally fragile. And this is where it becomes interesting from the comparison to the marketing perspective earlier. Because one of the most prominent trends within branding and building a relation to the audience for companies and corporations today, is to use forms of live video streaming. Services like Facebook Live and Periscope are perhaps the most frequently used platforms, also by celebrities in their daily social media activities. This technological solution and platform is however yet to be a part of ISIS official communication strategy. So far no official operation has, to my knowledge, been broadcasted live through platforms like these. Why?

In a recent article in The Atlantic, the following is described:

”One evening this month, in the French town of Magnanville about 35 miles outside of Paris, Larossi Abballa, a 25-year-old Moroccan Frenchman, ambushed an off-duty police officer outside his home and stabbed him to death. He then broke into the house and murdered the officer’s wife with the same weapon. Minutes later he recorded himself live on Facebook with his phone, boasting of his deed and declaring his allegiance to ISIS. A police SWAT team stormed the house and fatally shot Abballa, but his image and voice lived on: ISIS’s Amaq news agency, which described Abballa as an “Islamic State fighter,” later uploaded to YouTube an edited version of the live video.”

 

Even if the attack itself wasn’t broadcasted, the example is still interesting and justifies the question of why the live mediation of the atrocities being carried out both by ISIS and in their name, are not implemented? Wouldn’t that be the perfect performance act for groups like ISIS?

No.

And I believe one of the most important factors behind this lies in the emphasis of audience control and branding. Live streaming of an attack or individual killing may generate more immediate shock reactions, but it has less of a long-term effect (dehumanizing victims, glorifying and justifying the violence) sought by atleast ISIS official central command. Live streaming creates a different relation to the audience in comparison to the choreographed brutality, the rehearsed and directed acts of violence that characterize the hundreds of videos that has been released as official productions of ISIS and its wilayat media wings. Killing must be produced as effortless and smooth, and a live streaming of this would not only risk to humanize victims, but also ruin the post-production advantages of editing and brushing the horrific images to control the response/effect on the audience. Along with obvious security reasons (a livestreamed killing may potentially and unintentionally reveal details of location and people) this seem to, atleast so far, been more important than the immediacy and uniquness of live killing. Everything about ISIS has up until today been characterized by strictness, control, portrayed strenth and determination. They will continue to minimise the risk of loosing that image.

Terrorism is sometimes described as mindless, senseless and irrational violence, which is totally a misconception. Of course there are exceptions throughout history, just as there are hard-defined acts of terror by individuals who later proven to have been more or less irrational. However there is no reason to believe that ISIS, no matter how desperate they are becoming on the battlefield, would loose the strong audience control in its messaging in the near future. They have developed their communication strategies for too long and they evidently still show ability to evaluate and resist certain trends and technologies for an immediate effect or attraction that would not serve their long-term purpose.

 

Reversal of mediated brutality

There are trajectories and trends in the media messaging of extremist groups emerging. Trends of use, narratives and purposes. Every day I work with and try to monitor these trends. Recently I have seen an interesting reversal of the strategies most closely connected to Al Qaeda and in particular ISIS. And even if there are more immediate and important human tragedies and brutality to consider, for a media scholar like myself it is of huge importance to also see how the operations and tactics in the conflict are communicated through various type of media platforms.

As the military interventions against mainly ISIS unfold in the region, local militias and resistance groups are advancing their geographical reach and succeed to obtain territories and cities previously under ISIS control, most recently the city of Palmyra. Much of the attention (as in mainstream western media) around this have focused on the symbolic loss for ISIS, the strategic win for militias and security forces fighting the brutal organization. But, a backdrop to all this, which for different reasons is not very well known (yet), is the strategic adoption of ISIS methodology from these groups who manage to win and fight them on the ground. As ISIS still is keen on mediating its entire machinery of military operations as well as deadly treatment of its prisoners, now this mediation tactic of exhibiting a position of strength is also played out by the opponent side. Videos and pictures have started to appear online showing Shiite militias and member of the Iraqi security forces killing and mutilating bodies of their ISIS fighters held captive or captured on the battlefield. Carefully should we approach this type of media material, and there are a great number of videos that are not genuine, but nevertheless they are significant in understanding where the role of media in contemporary conflict is heading. Here is just one example.

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Instagram later chose to delete this account where holders of the social media account requested its followers to vote about the fate of the captured ISIS member. It stated: “You can vote For (kill him or let him go) You have one houer to vote We will post his fate after one houer Tag your friends and take your right take your reveng from isis right now. Please we dont have the time just one houer so tag your friends,”
This particular incident has though been questioned in terms of its veracity, however it is not an isolated example. Nor is it solely done with a purpose of retaliation and post similar brutality, but an expression of an increasingly growing counter-propaganda strategy with a purpose to deconstruct the powerful narrative that ISIS has produced and disseminated for several years trying to manage its visibility and enforce a perception of a strong and ever expanding state.

It is without a doubt a frightening development where the actions of achieving this is mediated, involving global audiences and only escalates an already devastating conflict in the countries where ISIS have managed to establish provinces (wilayats). One would think that the media strategies of ISIS would be seen, tragic as it may sound, as unique. But also isolated examples of modern terrorism. Unfortunately, I fear their strategies are turning into mainstream even for those who oppose them.

Why our beloved children?

The role of children in contemporary islamist extremism is a topic of debate for different reasons. And rightly so. It is of great significance to include aspects of using children in psychological warfare, as children have a symbolic value and rhetorical appeal in extremist communication and propaganda. And there are several dimensions in which children tragically have been put in the spotlight when violent ideologies are turned from theory to practice and leaves nothing but grief and fear behind in its path.

The devastation escalates. Our hopes for any form of breathing space or even short-term resolution are put on hold. This week we have seen horrific suicide attacks in for instance Belgium, Iraq and Pakistan. These attacks share similarites and differences. Beyond them there are numerous others, especially in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria. Every attack is a tragedy in itself.

But there is something about this past week that strikes me. Something you don’t have to be a parent to relate to. And that is the fact that recent attacks seem to strategically target children or young people (like the bomb at a soccer stadium outside Baghdad a few days ago, and yesterdays devastating blast at a playground in Lahore).

We are witnessing an increase of targeting children in spectacular attacks, often carried out by suicide bombers. The psychological mechanisms behind these type of attacks is not for me to speculate on. However considering my knowledge and experiences of researching messaging and propaganda of groups within the global jihadist movement, there are evident links between the ideological warfare and the operations on the ground.

Children are victims. And sadly they play an important role no matter from which angle you observe. As I have written about before, they are increasingly depicted in propaganda underscoring and satisfying several narratives. They are symbols of a future. Symbols of purity. As several islamist terrorist groups are millenarian (in various degree) sharing apocalyptic visions and utopias, children become equal to survival for the group and its core ideas. For instance, they are portrayed in ISIS proapaganda both as happy and peaceful (as a way to attract women/mothers to join the Caliphate and be a part of building a future beyond the current conflict), and they are also portrayed in combat and training situations as well as at school studying, illustrating lojalty, determination and conviction as a mean to strengthen the overall notion that the Caliphate will be the stakeholder surviving the apocalyptic battle of our time. Young children have recently also been used as executioners in several brutal videos coming out os ISIS media industry.

Simultaneously, children are important symbolic targets when carrying out attacks against non-believers. Christians, shia muslims, opponent sunnis – it is of minor importance. As long as an attack gets both immediate attention and effect (fear, chaos, political reaction) and symbolic value (strength, mercyless, no future for adversaries) there are tragically several reasons why children and women are potentially high profile targets. So when the bomb blasted next to a plyground, full of Christian women and children celebrating Easter in Lahore yesterday, it was not only an attack from an islamist group trying to provoce the Pakistani government and spread fear. It was also a symbolic attack with religious connotations, targeting the most vulnerable and beloved of human beings; children.

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(AFP Photo/Arif Ali)

 

I wish I could say I believe these attacks were isolated.
I wish I could say that studying the messaging and propaganda of this groups gives me hope to believe children will not be targeted again.
I really wish I could.

But I can’t.

And that is an insight that no matter its importance for predicting which path current islamist extremism will follow, breaks my heart to realize.

I guess what we all can do is to spoil our children, in every way we can. Provide them with love and care.

And share thoughts to those who no longer have a child to spoil.

For what it’s worth?

I feel I need to write about this.

 

With an academic position, which includes responsibilities to communicate research to the general public, comes side-effects. Especially when working on sensitive and politically-charged issues like extremism and terrorism. There are numerous incidents when right-wing extremists have threatened journalists and academics writing about issues concerning racism and xenophobia. I have also recevied my fair share of hatred and comments from this side since I sometimes publicly express my personal views and fear of increased right-wing tendencies in contemporary Europe.

I am all for criticism. As academics we should be able to cope with our arguments being scrutinized and our endeavours being questioned. But recently my ability to handle another, and for myself a new, form of unwanted side-effect has been challenged.

Currently I write about islamist extremism and terrorist groups’ use of media propaganda. My purpose, both in my academic writings and when I talk about it in public, is to deconstruct the mediated world view of extremist groups and contribute with understanding and knowledge about how organizations like ISIS attempt to destabilize societies through fear and shock, using media propaganda as tool for promoting their criminal enterprise of violence. Especially after the Paris attacks a few months ago I have been asked to, and often accepted, appear in news interviews and different forms of media outlets, expressing my professional opinion on ISIS. This has been rewarding and without a doubt helped gain interest for my research.

However, since then and in particular during the last month, as I have also used this blog to write about my ongoing academic work, I have experienced a mounting sense of being surveilled. Of being targeted and of interest for individuals and organizations tied to a very radical and violent ideology. And without going into details, let’s just say it’s difficult to explain as many indications are not outspoken but simply creepy in the sense that for instance suspicious accounts start to appear as followers on my social networks. Not just a few, but many. Some initiate contact, some disappear after a few days, only to have new and similar accounts appear again. When entering their profiles I see more or less explicit connections to for instance ISIS ideology and propaganda (through logos and material they share). I also see same tendencies in the statistics on visits to my blog and when (around what topic I have chosen to write about).

And to be honest it is much easier to cope with explicit rants by right-wing supporters declaring my incompetence in more or less nice words, than to know how to handle this subtle and creeping sense of being checked. Espacially since I know how extremist organizations (including supporters and more loosely tied networks) have developed their social media presence and capabilities for several years. Maybe I am naive to enter this field of research, and trust me – I have often questioned why I do it. But I have always reached the conclusion that my work can help and function as a useful framework in combatting online strategies of groups like ISIS. Although, the personal experiences and my well-being are now poking the rational self to atleast talk about the above mentioned consecuences of not only working on this subject, but being visible and open with it.

 

I know I will get reactions by writing this post. Probably of negative nature mostly, saying I have only myself to blame of actively choosing to accept requests for interviews etc. But my purpose is simply to initiate a discussion on how others cope with these issues. And by others I refer to academics, journalists or similar professionals who also must handle this dilemma of working with sensitive topics, talking about it and then handle consequences of the privileged position of communicating insights and knowledge in the media. Because I feel I am now closing in on the line of self-censorship. A point where I carefully weigh every word I say or write as a researcher. And I believe this is a serious threat to academic freedom and in a larger context, our increasingly fragile freedom of speech.

Media convergence of islamist extremism

Since ISIS and other islamist terrorist organizations time and time again have proved to conduct atrocities and preach morality in total opposition to islam teachings, including trafficking, sex-slavery, killings, forced conversion etc, it seems as we are more or less past focusing on the religious framework in our understanding of islamist terrorist organizations. I believe it is vital to see beyond the religious and theological foundation of their messaging. Their strategy to use islam as false pretext is important, yes, however a wider understanding and a way to better prepare ideological responses would be to actually start treating them as forms of mediated enterprises of violence, and their virtual operations as socially mediated terrorism. One way of doing this is to approach the conjunctures and intersections between ISIS and groups like Boko Haram, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Al-Shabaab.

For different reasons I have started looking into how other islamist groups are being influenced by the now well known information operations and media strategies of ISIS, and in addition framing this towards a contemporary history of islamist extremist communications.

 

Boko Haram has since the mid 2000’s used media outlets to distribute not only awareness of their existence to the world but also attempted to deliver messages of ideology, purpose and methods for achieving it. Their leader, Abubakar Shekau, has had a prominent role in the media messaging for several years. Similarities to how Al-Qaeida used Osama Bin-Ladin in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks are evident. In simple video productions, a talking head showing the respective leader delivering a message looking straight into the camera and thereby, almost like a newsanchor, attempting to appeal for trust and reliability to what they are saying.

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But as time has gone by, new rules of engagement in the information operations of extremist groups have been set in motion. In recent posts of this blog I have showed screenshots from ISIS media propaganda, including emphasis on visual imagery and strategies to attract audiences. Without a doubt, when now looking at other islamist groups established in the MENA-region, there is an increased homogenization of visual strategies and imagery in the media propaganda and recruitment efforts for respective group. Boko Haram also now has its own media centre (Al-Urwah al-Wuthqa) and at present their media messaging is very similar to ISIS, atleast in terms of sophistication in production and editing techniques (content still varies). Here a screenshot from the video ”Harvest of Spies” coming out of Boko Haram media wing.

The most recent propaganda videos from Boko Haram have higher production values than in the past and other similarities to ISIS-produced videos.

One of the most important dimensions, which now goes for groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Jabhat Al-Nusra, is the management of turning fiction into reality. Encoding a message with strong connotations to fiction (ie video games, fiction films etc.) and using these identification markers of imagery, typography, camera angles, editing and so forth – there is a strong and visible will to get the audience to decode and read the message through the lens provided by the extremist organization behind it. ISIS is without a doubt a front-runner in this aspect given the now widespread media industry under their control (not only inside the Caliphate of Iraq/Syria but in regional provinces as well). But let’s look at how a rival group uses the same media tactic. Below, screenshots from a recent video posted by Jabhat Al-Nusra.

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The group that in many ways is most similar to ISIS, if we allow ourselves to rank ISIS at top in terms of production and postproduction value of media content, is Jabhat al-Nusra. Below is from yet another recent recruitment video, among other things showing a sophistication in lightning and mise-en-scéne.

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They have, as can be seen above, almost literally adopted the visual strategies of ISIS, who during the last year used for instance drones with camera attached as well as go-pro cameras on helmets and rifles, generating a blend of reality and fiction as these techniques are examples of something being grounded in both physical and digital worlds simultaneously. One of the first examples from ISIS was their use of video-games as simulating appeals to younger recruits.

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Al-Shabaab has shown a similar adaptation to ISIS media productions. Not necessarily to all narrative features within the videos, however there is an obvious relation to ISIS promotional efforts through media. Below is a capture-post for a video from the media wing Al-Katai’b Media contaning justification efforts for the Westgate attack in Kenya a few years back.

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This group has, in line with the rest, increased their media production during the last two years and now hold a steady stream of messaging through different channels. However they are still suffering from lack of professionalism in their productions, making them appear as less visionary and organized than other groups perhaps. Also, Al-Shabaab operates in a different context and with different objectives than for instance ISIS, making their efforts for global reach to potential recruits a minor aim in their messaging.

 

So, why does this matter? Well it raises questions surrounding how extremist communication and information operations reveal relations between these organizations and perhaps speaks about the future of contemporary extremism. As their media messaging and increasingly industrial production of not only media propaganda but interactive and social media strategies, are more technically invested in than ever before, expanding our attention to the interplay between different groups becomes even more important. Only the screenshots above reveal a form of media convergence. Not always outspoken through official cooperation or allegiances, but still a convergence of communications, strategies, propaganda messaging and targeting audiences. And one of the reasons why this is important to grasp, is that it might help us to direct attention and measures towards the conjunctions and intersections between them, contributing to obstruct the expansion of these groups and making their agendas to clash rather than harmonize.

 

The convergence of media strategies and visual imagery are currently echoing in the virtual space and discourse of global jihadism and ISIS has set the first tone. We must break the echo before the intersections flourish into an even more physical reality.

Are we enhancing IS narratives?

I sometimes get accused for contributing to extremist groups agenda when replicating their material, publishing screen-shots from their videos in my work. Even if I don’t necessarily agree, I understand the opinion. It is a valid discussion.

How can we (as in academics, journalists etc) when working within fields that require public communication and publishing, avoid being part of the overall strategy of IS or other groups seeking their ideology and messaging to be widely spread, their images to be shown and their message to be intepreted in a specific way?

In any text I write, in any lecture I give or in any public presentation I create – there are always ethical considerations about what I can and should show. I make these considerations for two sakes: a) for the audience not to be drawn towards emotional disgust but instead be given the opportunity to focus on my words, and b) for caring about broader potential consequences of what I communicate. But it is tricky.

For instance, who really cares about what I write, when I also post a picture like this?

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Emotions take over, cognitive schematas a drawn fast and minds are filled with prejudice, fear, shock and, let’s be honest, a vast amount of people also stereotype religion (islam) accordingly. So does it matter if I were to elaborate in an academic critical analysis of the use of children in this socially mediated terrorism after you have seen this image?
Does it matter if I say that this strategy is part of the widespread mediatized criminal enterprise of violence, communicated through channels around the world, rather than an expression of religiously justified activity? Does it matter if I say that the visual imagery is carefully constructed with the ambition to turn codes of well-known fiction into harsh reality and thereby enhancing our sense of fear whilst simultaniously strengthen ideologically likeminded, further dividing societies around the world in order to recruit more extensively?

I am convinced that for many the answer is no on all three questions. And why?

Well, I believe it has little to do with the sometimes stiff and rigourous academic way of writing. Rather it is a matter of an already established image of IS. An image that we all have participated in creating without being aware of it. When reporting on their activities, when publishing images straight from their propaganda industry, when sharing videos and posts in social media, when talking about them in a certain way and when simplifying the phenomena of contemporary extremism. Too often guided by misconceptions, lack of knowledge and prejudices.

Nevertheless.

Their propaganda is powerful. But it is mainly not due to their own networks. It has a potential of becoming even more powerful when replicated and distributed in a certain way through everyone from journalists, politicians, academics like myself and people in general with keen sharing-fingers moving the cursor over click-bait online.

Therefor it is so important that not only me, in a position of public speaker, make considerations of what and how to publish or communicate.

It must be made by everyone. With knowledge and awareness.

(I know it is provocative to publish the above picture considering the approach in this post, however I firmly believe it serves a purpose to illustrate the argument here. The screenshot is from an IS video from Feb 10, 2016).

PS. A few weeks ago I was asked to be a session speaker at The Conference 2016 . I happily accepted and last week the first 7 speakers for the August event were announced. Since then the number of visitors to my website has increased rapidly and I guess it just shows the interest for The Conference and hopefully the topic I will talk about, namely extremist communication. And I would like to welcome those of you who just reached my blog here for the first time and I look forward to meet some of you in August. DS

Killing bees with a sledgehammer?

So after about two months of intense work through a number of lectures, interviews and talks, for which I am grateful to have been invited to give, I notice that many of the continuing questions I receive currently are aimed at understanding not only how, but why IS still advances. Military experts seem to be in total agreement that the caliphate decreases geographically as coaliation forces and joint efforts on the ground are seizing control over strategically important cities. This is only partially true. In the main region yes, however IS expands its provincial reach by establishing affiliating bases in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and other mostly North African countries, but also in the far east towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is easy to be blinded by potential military success in Syria and Iraq, however it is an overestimation to say that current military efforts decrease the strength and spread of IS. That aside, the ideological and regional context are not only more worrying but at the same time also constitute the framework in which the true possibilities to engage and facilitate resistance exist. Reasons for this has an important historical outline.

Sunni vs. Shia context

IS takes a narrative point of departure in the treatment of sunni muslims in Iraq after the US invasion 2003. When removing the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein regime, the sunni minority in the country (which in comparison to shia muslims had been favoured the most by the regime and constituted about 20 % of the Iraqi population before the declaration of the caliphate) became politically marginalized. An insurgency grew from the dismantlement and former Baath Party members, leading generals etc in the former regime, became a strong part of this insurgency. Groups like Al-Quaida and above all IS absorbed this insurgency and politicized it in forms of seeking to build its state.

Two major dimensions must be regarded in this political, religious and weaponized project. First, the importance for IS to restore sunni political power in Baghdad after the war(different from Saddam Hussein as his politics were more secular and promoted Arab nationalism) and second, to unify Aleppo in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq under a joint rule of government. This unification is one of many endeavors by IS which can clearly be related to the islamic theology and history they are relying on. In addition, unification of that kind also constitutes a significant message of a vision needed to be sold to the sunni populations and tribes in these countries. By embedding this message in fear of ’kufr’ (non-believers) and a firm belief in the ’tawhid’ (the concept of monotheism and oneness with God) –  IS is to be perceived as the restorer of ”true” muslim faith and the great caliphate. So it’s a messianic vision with a strong political project underneath that in combination is not only powerful but also lethal in the increasingly tensed divisions between sunni and shia in these countries.

Speaking oh this division, what IS primarily has done over the years is to appeal to local sunni populations, playing on the concept of victimhood, mantling the role as defender of marginalized sunni groups in the region. The US left power in Baghdad to a shia minority and it didn’t take long for domestic and religious tensions to accelerate. In Syria, the Assad-regime continously tormented its citizens and still contributes widely to the deconstruction of Syria as we once knew it. So in the world of IS, there is an interplay between victimhood and strong aggression. These perpetual factors are intertwined and one cannot exist without the other.

The real enemy for IS, or primary might be a better word, seems to be the’rafik’ (their word for shia muslims) of Iraq. They are currently under the influence (and protection) of the Iranian revolutionary guard due to intense negotiations between the US and Iran, regarding operations in Iraq. One of the main figures in sunni islamist terrorism and Al-Quaida operations in Iraq after the US intervention 2003, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (dead 2006), early targeted the shia muslims as main enemies to destroy in order to have any possibilities to advance in the sunni jihadist project that later became IS. His approach and strategy to gain support from the sunni populations for Al-Quaida in Iraq was to strike against shia muslims in the most explicit way (burning their mosques, ruthless killing through religios motivations etc.) and make them retaliate. Because when an aggregated shia population were to do so, sunni muslims in the region would be empowered to join Al-Quaida in defending the sunni tradition and people of the (true) islam – a role now taken even further by IS.

The need for sunni awakening and cooperation

And today? Iranian, US and Syrian airstrikes bombing IS (self- proclaimed protectors of sunni islam and sunni muslims under their governing). Present foreign policies and military efforts of these coalition countries are increasingly playing in the hands of IS and also makes their messaging of victimhood and protectors against enemies and threats, more powerful for the sunni muslims in the region. Considering the historical context, this message is not hard to sell to ravaged and marginalized sunnis in fractioned countries. Many simply see an alliance between US, Iran, the Assad-regime in Syria and the shia-muslims in Iraq, Iran and other actors joining, and this makes the threat more evident, one-dimensional and enhances the image of IS as protectors, not villains, in the eyes of sunni groups and populations. I consider this to be the main reason for why there is no sunni insurgency within the ruled areas, rising against IS.

And let’s be honest. The only initial thing that truly and effectively can challenge the spread and further establishment of the IS caliphate, is to have sunni-muslims, regionally and internationally, to work together in a new joint rise (comparable to the Anbar Awakening in 2006 when roughly 30 tribes in the Anbar province stood up against Al-Quaida in Iraq) – something IS is determined to prevent from happening again and towards them. If acknowledging this, western states and policy makers are to engage in altering not only the political (military) strategies but also challenge the deeply rooted and continously growing belief among sunni muslims, that the US (and west in general) are out to get them.

Understanding the basis of IS, its core, background, vision, aim and especially strategies to achieve it expands our knowledge about these issues. Through it we can better prepare and execute the necessary ideological countering against islamic extremism. But by only advancing on a military front we can easily draw an analogy to hitting a nest of bees with a sledgehammer.

It just doesn’t work. No matter how hard you hit.

 

Women in IS media enterprise of violence

 

After the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year as well as the more recent mass-shooting in San Bernardino, California, much media attention has been given to the role of women in radicalization and processes of recruitment to the Islamic State (IS) and other radical islamist terrorist organizations. Reasons for this are primarily a result of the fact that women in different levels were involved in these attacks, which seem to have come as a surprise as it contradicts a norm of terrorists are equal to men (especially in islamist radical organizations). This post is about this misconception.

In a time of a rhetoric of war, followed by political decisions supporting the verbal strategy, a much needed interest for how women are recruited has almost been neglected. The obvious reason why would be that military operations, islamic terrorism and all the discourses surrounding these issues – are framed through a very male perspective and understood through the same lens. Yes, the vast majority of foreign fighters travelling to join IS, or for that matter other self-proclaimed jihadists operating in Iraq and Syria, are men. However, a crucial fact is that far more women than mainstream media highlights, have been and are travelling to join as well. Men and women are socially vulnerable for exposure of radical ideologies, but in somewhat different ways. Extremist organizations use these differences in their attempt to target potential recruits (and simultaniously play on and exploit the established gender roles of western society).

Is the Islamic State different than similar organizations in this matter? Yes. Several reports on the quantity and frequency of tweets coming from pro-ISIS accounts (some argue for around 100 000 tweets each day). A large part of these tweets seem to come from women, which totally reverse the way Al-Quaida or the Taliban regime work with women as a central part of the propaganda machinery. IS truly puts effort in trying to make women visible, not only in terms of media quantity, but also in qualitative terms in virtual and physical spaces. Let me give you some excerpts.

The fact that IS recruitment strategies reach beyond online engagement and above all focus on physical presence in communities and mosques around Europe, is especially important to consider when higlighting the attempt to reach out to women from mainly a younger generation. Female recruiters are commonly used as a mean to make contact with younger female muslims in diasporic communities, for instance by physically handing out leaflets on the streets of London. Since much of the radicalization processes aimed at women involve promises of a new and better life, a life in which they have a significant role to play, an honorable existence and prospects of a future to practice their faith without feeling alienated – it differs from how men are primarily being targeted. There are ideological positions given to men and women respectively (basically enhancing their function in the nationbuilding and the utopian future) and this type of differences in gender-based emphasis must be stressed before attempting to draw political lines for effecient countermeasures.

In the media productions coming out of IS, female representations are significantly different in comparison to how men (usually younger male fighters) are being framed. Women are primarily portrayed as core of the family and of the intimate spheres of life in the caliphate. Messaging reveals how belonging and unity around the notion of freedom to practice religion and faith (the opposite of life in alienated European countries characterized by polarization and islamophobic measures) are clearly being adressed. In these type of messages, IS certainly draws upon the notion of contemporary polarizing nodes and structural injustice in western countries (muslims/non-muslims, religious/atheists and also men/women) and thereby attempts to further divide and appeal to especially muslim womens desire to improve life.

But also, if we look at the actual storytelling in many of the produced videos and reports coming out of the media centers under IS, much evolves around younger male jihadists, their journey towards martyrdom, their preserverence for the cause and their heroic efforts for the caliphate. So there is an attractive adventurism and heroism attached to men in the strategic media messaging, with hopes of targeting potential female recruits. The glorification of male jihadist fighters is central in this matter and constitute a substantial part of the propaganda.

In addition to this, IS consider women to be essential for the state itself to function both now and in the future. At present women dominate tasks of collecting taxes, medical and caring duties and above all within the educational system. They are also targeted for raising children, establishing family structures and values and appear as equal to men in terms of importance, however with different tasks and obligations

 

Life for women under the ruling of IS, is though completely different.

 

Taking all these aspects into consideration, it is not surprising to find women as being key figures in attacks inspired by the enterprise of violence that is the Islamic State.