Behind the barbarism: Misreading online militant magazines

In focusing narrowly on ISIL’s barbarities, the media are missing crucial insights on the group’s evolution

November 18, 2014 2:00AM ET

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) recently released the fourth issue of its slick online magazine, Dabiq. The latest issue offers a mix of photo essays, reports on ISIL’s activities, political propaganda and strategic imperatives. The editors say their mission is to offer a forum for discussions on theological concepts such as hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war) and tawhid (monotheism).

While militant magazine publishing is not new, the practice has veritably exploded over the past few months. Al-Qaeda’s Inspire used to have a monopoly on the market. It published rants against Jews and instructions on how to make bombs — the sort of content one would expect from a group trying to live up to its fearful reputation for terrorism. But groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Taliban splinter factions are now taking their messages to the English-speaking public through online magazines.

With the arrival of Dabiq, the era of amateurish fearmongering via crudely produced publications appears to be over. The militants’ editorial mission is to seduce readers using a combination of political rhetoric, investigative reporting and creative visuals presented on a familiar journalistic medium. For example, as with TTP’s Azan, Dabiq takes visual cues from suavely produced online publications such as Vice and Adbusters, with dazzling graphics and arresting photography. Beyond their aesthetics, however, the magazines emphasize the groups’ political rather than theological motivations to justify their actions as responses to Western transgressions. Similar to the U.S.-based Crisis magazine, which describes itself as a “voice for the faithful Catholic laity,” the new militant magazines aim to provide a proselytizing perspective of the world, one not ordered along the secular separation of the political life from religious life. Cumulatively, these new militant publications offer unique insights into a quickly morphing militancy that understands the promises of the Internet era both for mass persuasion and propaganda war.

However, the Western media seem focused on justifying the war against the militants rather than gleaning insights from their messaging. Deconstructing the appeal of groups such as ISIL requires looking beyond their visible and admittedly grotesque acts of violence and closely scrutinizing their policies. The proliferating online magazines bear crucial cues about the militants’ strategies as they attempt to attract new members and normalize their violence in the eyes of readers.

Unfortunately, discussions about militant publications remain stuck on the unhelpful good-evil binary and an outright dismissal of the magazines without any meaningful analysis. For instance, in March, The Long War Journal belittled Inspire by critiquing its poor English and highlighting only the magazine’s feature on bomb-making instructions. Similarly, Mother Jones’ Jenna McLaughlin focused her recent review of Dabiq on ISIL’s barbarity under a screaming headline: “ISIS magazine promotes slavery, rape and murder of civilians in God’s name.” Headlines that were less inflammatory but had similar slants could be found in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and other outlets. This singular emphasis on the group’s evil deeds is a missed opportunity to interrogate the group’s evolution beyond parroting tedious, anti-Western condemnations. 

The proliferating militant magazines offer rare glimpses into the ascent of militancy, their appeal to Western youth and shifting political realities in the Muslim world.

Another oft-overlooked facet is the question of why militant groups have suddenly turned to open communication, abandoning the closely fostered mystery of militancy. Dabiq, Azan and other militant magazines now present themselves as open forums — receptive to dialogue and questioning. For example, at the end of Dabiq’s third issue, its editors asked readers for feedback as well as questions for ISIL’s Shura Council. Email addresses were provided. Similarly, at the launch of the Taliban’s latest publication, Ihlae-Khilafat, editor Abu Obaida al-Islamabadi reminded readers, “You can contact us for suggestions, questions, positive criticism and submission of articles.” These groups seem to understand that persuasion via dialogue is essential to propaganda and the sacrifice of mystery can help normalize their discourse before a large and diverse online audience.

The publications’ emphasis on political rather than religious discourse — as well as the actions of the United States and its allies — is also worth noting. Dabiq’s third issue features five major articles, all focusing on politics, U.S. foreign policy and ISIL’s territorial gains and massacres of enemies. The current issue of TTP’s Azan contains a special investigation on targeted killings carried out by U.S. security contractor Blackwater and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency, in the country. The 16-page report combines original information gleaned from a Taliban interrogation of an alleged target killer and reports from mainstream media sources on the existence of several Blackwater/ISI offices in Pakistan.

Another article from the same issue notes:

From 1945 until the end of the century, the United States has attempted to overthrow at least 40 foreign governments and crush more than 30 democratic movements struggling against oppressive regimes. In the process, the U.S. killed several million people and condemned several million more to a life of agony and despair.

Studies of radicalism and militancy have virtually ignored this shift in the militants’ strategic communication, with its focus on politics rather than theology. As author Arun Kundnani points out in his book “The Muslims Are Coming,” the Western presumption is that terrorism exists because there is either something inherent in Islamic theology or identity crises makes individual misfits prone to radicalization. In keeping with that old model, self-styled radicalization experts such as CNN’s Peter Bergen have insisted that the magazine is “not a new phenomenon,” mistaking its interspersion of religious sayings with political content for actual theology and declaring Dabiq “quite religious in tone” while ignoring its actual content.

In fact, much of the content in the militant magazines appears to be an effort to capitalize on the silence of Western interlocutors. By repeating statistics and images of dead women and children from the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, they seek to justify their violence as a counterbalance to U.S. and Western aggression. This narrative may not convince Western readers who are used to not questioning the normalized violence of the war on terrorism. But it serves to legitimize militant violence as simply a quid pro quo of acts of aggression, carried out only in response to the harms inflicted on Muslims by the United States.

Deracialized Islamic utopia

Another theme advanced by the new militant publications worth noting is the de-racialization and denationalization of Islam. For example, Dabiq emphasizes ISIL’s transcendence of differences in race, language and nationality. Photographs in the magazine’s current issue highlight the racial and national diversity of ISIL fighters. Several articles reiterate that conversion to Islam means automatic belonging to the caliphate and arrival in their lands automatically confers citizenship and a passport. Against the backdrop of strict immigration enforcement in the Western world, where refugees are put in detention centers and forced to return to hostile environments, ISIL claims to offer a refuge as long as the migrants embrace Islam.

Promises of inclusion and service provision accompany the call for recruits with pictures of street cleaning and free medical care added to substantiate the claim that ISIL territory is the caring community it purports to be.  To be clear, militant groups such as ISIL, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and their various affiliates and splinters have a grotesque agenda that includes rape, enslavement, carnage, genocide of minority groups and a host of other barbarities. However, in order to dissect the appeal of militant groups, we must interrogate both the illiberal aspects of ISIL’s barbarities and the successes they claim in these publications. 

In focusing narrowly on ISIL’s barbarities, Western media have prioritized beating the drum of war and justifying military intervention over their journalistic responsibilities. The media’s reductionist and good-versus-evil narrative misses crucial insights into how ISIL managed to recruit 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries to its ranks. Such understanding requires looking beyond the bogus claim that the militants’ political propaganda is a version of Islamic theology and instead questioning their claims about postracial and economically equal Islamic utopia. Toward that end, the proliferating militant magazines offer rare glimpses into the ascent of militancy, their appeal to Western youth and shifting political realities in the Muslim world.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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