Attractive brutality: why terrorist propaganda appeals to people
To the vast majority of people, ultra-violent jihadist propaganda is neither convincing nor appealing. Yet Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups seem to attract followers across the globe with gory materials showing graphic violence. The propaganda inspired thousands to leave everything behind for an uncertain life as foreign fighters in the war zones of Syria and Iraq, and pushed others into ‘sacrificing’ themselves in violent suicide attacks against civilians.
The study of the complex mechanisms of violent jihadist propaganda is a relatively new field, but in the two decades since 9/11 clear patterns have emerged. It turns out that pushing the right buttons and carefully targeting a mostly young audience primed for support to the jihadist cause makes even the most extreme content palatable.
Violent jhadist propaganda has always been a complex cocktail of messages. A lot of it is aimed at stirring up grievances linked to the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, but there is much more. Appealing to the right audience does a lot.
‘When IS or other groups release violent material, they aim at people who have already been primed’, says jihadism researcher Charlie Winter of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). ‘Its aimed at people who are already committed believers in the fact that there is meant to be a global conspiracy against islam.’
Carefully crafted victimhood
Conspiracy thinking and victimhood has always been a central theme in the narrative of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. It was one of the things recurring almost ad nauseam in much of the materials we collected during our year of on-line research into jihadi groups.
One main target of jihadi anger is what they often describe as the secular or ‘infidel’ regimes in the Middle East, which they accuse of inflicting injustices upon muslims. This resulted in many videos, magazines and other material containing imagery of civilians in the Middle East suffering bombings, torture of other violence at the hands of the Syrian and Iraqi armies.
‘It allows them to say ‘look this is what the crusader, nusayri, zionist conspiracy is imparting on normal muslims living in Iraq and Syria’
The jihadi narrative also, not surprisingly, plays heavily on perceived oppression and injustice by Western countries. Many of the materials we found purport to show muslims suffering Western military attacks in the Middle East. For jihadist groups that identify as Sunni, such as IS and Al-Qaeda, rival Shia groups also count as a source of such oppression, as do Israel, jewish people and basically anyone that does not agree with their religious interpretations.
That victimhood narrative is then carefully crafted into propaganda materials. ‘They would, for example, have camera people run to a bomb site even before the emergency services arrive, even before aid has been delivered, to people perhaps still buried under rubble, to make sure they get some good photographs of children dying or old people that are dying’, says Winter.
We found more bizarre versions of the victimhood narrative in a series of IS videos from 2016 featuring John Cantlie. The captive British journalist is seen in several pieces by Amaq and other IS media outlets, seemingly reporting on the suffering of ordinary citizens of Mosul under American airstrikes.
In one video, Cantlie talks about the disruption caused by the bombing of bridges in the Iraqi city, interviewing citizens complaining about the situation. As with all other videos featuring Cantlie, it remains unclear whether or not he made the videos under duress, and whether or not interviewees were forced into making statements.
Material of this kind is then ultimately engineered into a jihadi narrative that links directly to suicide bombings and gun and knife attacks.
‘It allows them to say ‘look this is what the crusader, nusayri, zionist conspiracy is imparting on normal muslims living in Iraq and Syria’, says Winter, mentioning the jihadi derogatory term for the Alawite sect of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
‘This victimhood stuff then also becomes a way for the Islamic State to justify its most extreme brutality.’
Ideologues of violence
Violent jihadist propaganda took off in the 1980s, when global terrorism emerged in Afghanistan. ‘Al-Qaeda has been important in that respect’, says Dutch jihadism researcher Pieter Nanninga of Groningen University.
The armed struggle of the mujahedeen against the Russian army was very soon supported by Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and culminated in violent targeting of civilians and Western interests. Tactics had fundamentally changed.
The attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 by bin Laden’s global terrorist outfit Al-Qaeda seemed to cement the modern doctrine of jihadist violence and the rationale for killing civilians in suicide attacks around the globe.
In the 2000s, that doctrine of violence was amplified by a number of ideologues and propaganda operatives, slowly pushing the boundaries of how much and which forms of violence were deemed ‘acceptable’.
Belgian jihadism reseracher Pieter Van Ostaeyen mentions the influential 2004 e-book The Management of Savagery. That pamphlet by the elusive jihadist ideologue Abu Bakr Naji called for weakening regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere in a war of attrition, driven by a sustained campaign of constant ultra-violent attacks.
Bakr Naji, who according to some accounts was the alter ego of one of Al-Qaeda’s propaganda chiefs in Iran and Pakistan, also called for the use of extreme violence to provoke attacks by western powers and to acquiesce local populations. Some direct evidence, as well as language used in issues of some of ISIS’ magazine, suggests that Bakr Naji’s writings have been instrumental in shaping the ideology of ISIS.
Another often quoted ideologue is Jordanian-Palestinian salafi-jihadist cleric Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, the mentor of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who was one of the key figures in the development of Al-Qaeda chapter Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which then morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and eventually into ISIS.
Al-Zarqawi came to notoriety with a series of brutal beheading videos in Iraq in 2004, including one showing the death of American radio engineer Nick Berg.
Al-Zarqawi is often quoted as the man who mainstreamed the use of extreme violence in propaganda. The first brutal beheading videos date back to right after 2001, but Al-Zarqawi came to notoriety with a series of brutal beheading videos in Iraq in 2004, including one showing the death of American radio engineer Nick Berg.
Al-Zarqawi’s violent insurgency campaign against Shia rivals and the American army in Iraq established AQI as an ever more violent heir to bin Laden’s global jihadist movement. Eventually, the use of violence even caused a rift between Al-Qaeda and the precursors of ISI.
That rift remains largely semantic when it comes to violence, however. ‘Al-Qaeda had an elabotare theological explanation for the fact that it will not target civilians that are not directly linked to its objectives’, says Pieter Nanninga. ‘That explanation is not accepted by ISIS.’
On the other side of the Atlantic, Yemeni American jihadist ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki contributed to the increasing push towards violence. He inspired a number of jihadist attacks in the early 2000s, up until the Boston Marathon bombing and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2015. Thousands of recordings of Al-Awlaki’s speeches remained available on-line until a few months ago, when YouTube decided to remove most of the content.
ISIS then added a layer utopia on top of the violence, propelling jihadist propaganda to a whole new level.
Northern bald ibis
Since its heyday in 2014-2015 ISIS schocked the world time and again with execution videos and materials condoning all manner of atrocities, from shootings to sexual slavery.
The Syrian war also provided the group with a limitless supply of some of the most graphic images of dead children and civilians in living memory, which they then juxtaposed with graphic imagery of opposing army soldiers and others being executed. That was just one way in which ISIS’ depictions of violence were unprecedented.
Another important body of violent material consists of battlefield scenes and propaganda aimed at showing the group’s military prowess. The ‘Flames of War’ series, for example, showed ISIS’ offensive to take Mosul. ‘Those videos was contained a string of executions, as if they were showing the Iraqi military what was coming’, says Belgian jihadism researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen. ‘It basically scared most of the Iraqi army into desertion.’
ISIS propaganda then exploded in the early years of the ‘caliphate’, taking it far beyond what other groups were doing. Holding territory in Iraq and Syria was a key factor, as it prompted prolific production of materials showing a living and working proto-state. In our own research we found video upon video of ISIS providing basic services such as healthcare, infrastructure works, agriculture and education. Raqqa apparently even had IS traffic policemen and its own currency.
Pieter Nanninga showed us a video featuring an Australian doctor taking care of war victims in a hospital, calling for doctors and medical personnel to immigrate to the caliphate, complete with a logo copied from the British National Health Service (NHS) converted into the islamic ‘INHS’.
ISIS’ desire to show off its utopian state led to more outlandish pieces of propaganda as well.
‘A photo report from July 2015 showed a conservation center in Palmyra for the northern bald ibis’, says Charlie Winter. ‘Apparently one of the rarest birds in the world. When it captured Palmyra, IS captured three of these northern bald ibises. They released images showing those birds being conserved, being looked after in eastern Syria. That was obviously an anomaly, but it’s not so strange in the grand scheme of things. IS was trying to show off an idealisation of life in its state.’
All the utopian propaganda we found during our reseach did nothing to abate the shock value of the extreme violence in IS’ propaganda. So we started looking at how people actually get primed for this stuff.
A good contigent of mainly young and male consumers of terrorist propaganda seems not to be deterred by the violence and seems to accept it as part and parcel of the ideology and messaging.
‘Groups like IS produce different media for different audiences’, says Nanninga. ‘In general, however, you could say that they target young people, mainly young men and young families, in an effort to get support for the ‘caliphate’’.
Some of the priming for violence and victimhood narratives seems to happen by consumption of a daily stream of news coverage from the Middle East. Some studies showed that young immigrants in Europe and young people in the Arabic speaking world get a lot of their news from Middle Eastern and North African news channels, which cover the wars in the region much more extensively than Western media. Add social media to the mix and many young people regularly receive images of suffering civilians in war zones.
The more graphic imagery is then greedily incorporated into jihadist propaganda.
Belgian-Palestinian jihad researcher Montasser Al De’emeh described how such ‘priming’ happened to himself. In his book de Jihadkaravaan (the caravan of Jihad) he recalls how he would regularly wake up to the tune of his father fuming over television coverage of Israeli violence against Palestinians. He called it his ‘daily hate’ session, after George Orwell’s book 1984, in which the population of an authoritarian state is forced to participate in mass hate rallies aimed at enemies of the authoritarian state.
‘They are capable of seeing Islamic State as a movement that avenges what they perceive as decades of violence inflicted on muslims.’
Regular doses of graphic imagery of suffering seem to make some youngsters with an interest in the Middle East more prone to accept extreme violence in retaliation. Al-De’emeh recalls how he saw one of Al-Zarqawi’s first beheading videos. He described feeling sickened by the sheer brutality of the violence, and vindicated at the same time because someone stood up against atrocities committed against civilians in the Middle East.
‘Maybe for some of those young people, violent images have become more normal’, says Nanninga. ‘They are capable of seeing Islamic State as a movement that avenges what they perceive as decades of violence inflicted on muslims. For those living in conflict areas in the Middle East, an ‘internal radicalisation’ may take place in which they are confronted with violence in their daily lives, desensitising them even further to violence and making them perhaps more acceptant of violent propaganda.’
When on top of that the violence is presented in a sleek package that relies heavily on an esthetic of video games, Hollywood and cyber-culture, the appeal becomes apparent.
Watching violent passages in propaganda remained taxing for our team, though.
This report was produced with support of the Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistiek.