What ISIL’s English-language propaganda tells us about its goals

The group’s growing English-language propaganda seeks a more global audience and reveals its loftier ambitions

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) released an English-language video to YouTube late Thursday featuring recruits that the group claims hail from Britain and Australia.

In the 13-minute video, titled "There Is No Life Without Jihad," five young men holding guns extol the virtues of the fight and encourage other Westerners to join them on the ground.

"To all my brothers living in the West, I know how you feel. I used to live there. In the heart, you feel depressed," one man identified by the group as "Abu Bara al Hindi — from Britain" says to the camera. "... Feel the honor we are feeling. Feel the happiness we are feeling."

The video spread quickly over Twitter on Friday, shared by ISIL supporters with the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS. Earlier versions of the video have since been removed from YouTube for violating its terms of use, but it is quickly reposted by others and has already been translated into other languages, including Dutch.

Though ISIL has posted and translated a few videos into English in the past, its latest is part of a growing collection of English-language propaganda the group has released in recent weeks, timed to capitalize on the heightened international media attention the group is attracting from its military advances in Iraq.

Experts say ISIL's expanding array of slick English-language magazines, videos and infographics — which proliferate quickly and widely online in multiple languages and countries — is about more than recruitment. It also reveals how ISIL is trying to cast itself to a global audience as more than a formidable armed group with foreign recruits, but an organization capable of leading a state.

Owning the message

The first issue of Islamic State Report features an article on the religious education seminars that ISIL states it holds for imams.

As ISIL captured cities, energy assets and military hardware across Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, it also gained new ground online in May and June, launching its first-ever English-language magazines.

Both magazines, Islamic State News and Islamic State Report, are slick by most media standards. Their graphics are sharp, their captions catchy and their pull quotes Tweetable. The perfect grammar and English idioms even suggest the group has Western recruits helping make them.

But it’s the content that's most telling. In addition to showcasing ISIL's violent tactics and military victories against the Iraqi government, the magazines also tout services the group says it is providing to civilians.

For example, the first issue of Islamic State Report has an interview with the head of the group's "Office of Consumer Protection," which sounds surprisingly similar to the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"It's an office that's concerned with protecting shoppers by inspecting the goods being sold in shops, markets, shopping centers and wholesale outlets, discovering goods that are spoiled or not suitable for sale and taking those responsible to account," Abu Salih Al-Ansari said in the magazine.

The first issue of Islamic State Report features interviews with the leaders of ISIL's so-called Office of Consumer Protection.

According to Al-Ansari, the office employs 12 people, "including a specialized medical team," whose salaries are paid by ISIL. It even has a telephone number to call for the "Consumer Complaints Division."

"If the issue of complaint is verified, we seize harmful products or products that aren’t fit for consumption, we raise the issue to the Islamic legal court so it can order that the shop be closed down for a specified period, or for the owner to pay a fine," explained Abu Muhammad, the head of the division. "In some case, the penalty reaches the level of a prison sentence if the spoiled product has directly harmed the Muslims."

The cover of one issue of Islamic State News boasted that trade was "flourishing" under ISIL rule in Raqqa, a part of Syria held by the group. It was followed by photos of "fresh produce" lining the markets.

In its second issue of Islamic State News, ISIL boasted that trade was "flourishing under Islamic rule."

Another issue proclaimed ISIL was providing security to farmers whose livestock had been prone to theft and robbery before the group took over and implemented Sharia law.

Other issues emphasize aid distribution and visits to refugee camps.

"They've definitely learned that in order to maintain control over the long term, they need to provide actual governance to the local population, and they need to tell that story," said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation who studies the group.

Fishman points out that while ISIL's predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI, had recognized the need to demonstrate it could govern during the height of its strength in 2006 and 2007, ISI lacked the command and control structure to do so effectively and prioritized fighting on the ground instead. But with the safe haven ISIL has found in Syria in recent years, Fishman added, the group now has more of an ability to train recruits and implement services on the ground with the people best suited for each task, and it's eager to show that to the world.

Fishman cautioned that none of this means the group is any less brutal, but that ISIL is learning it "can't lead only by cutting off hands and beheading."

Whether that's sustainable for a group that's never before been able to demonstrate it can govern, he said, is unclear. 

Amplifying the message

Though the group's main media wing, I’tisaam Media Foundation, has actively shared online content in Arabic — including publishing annual reports for the last two years that track its attacks on the ground — the upsurge in English-language content, and how quickly and aggressively it is pushed out online, reflects the group's more aggressive bid for international attention.

In his research tracking ISIL online for the last year, J.M. Berger, author of “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam,” said he witnessed many of its supporters communicating in English. But the group's decision to start publishing magazines in English, he said, reflects its own recognition of that audience and the fact that it can get more international media coverage by doing so.

"These magazines are coming out in English first, and then they're getting translated into German and French and other languages for additional distribution," Berger explained. That exposure, he added, also helps attract new recruits and donors from other countries.

ISIL's English-language magazines encourages recruits to join the cause.

ISIL isn't the first group of its kind to publish digitally savvy online propaganda with global reach. Perhaps most well known is Inspire, the English-language magazine Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) began publishing in 2010. Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly told investigators last year that he learned how to create a pressure-cooker bomb from an early issue of the magazine. Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP's more local franchise in Yemen, has its own image-obsessed media wing, "Madad News Agency," which publishes videos and newsletters showcasing its role in the community.

But when it comes to decentralizing its media efforts, ISIL differs from the other organizations, according to Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy who studies documents the group publishes.

"Unlike its main rival in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is very centralized, [ISIL] has a huge and more broad base of individuals that are constantly online and helping push its material out," Zelin explained.

ISIL claimed it had executed 1,700 Iraqi air force recruits in Tikrit, sharing photos like this one, which quickly spread on Twitter.

These supporters have created their own apps, like this one that curates tweets from supporters of the group. And before it disappeared from Google and Facebook Tuesday, an Arabic-language Android app, which loosely translates to "The Dawn of Good Tidings," generated widespread media attention. With the click of a button, hundreds of Twitter accounts synced with the app would send out tweets complete with hashtags, slick graphics and catchy slogans championing the group.

ISIL supporters were also responsible for pushing out gruesome images earlier this week of what the group claimed was its slaughter of 1,700 Iraqi air force recruits in Tikrit.

Though human rights groups are still trying to verify the authenticity of the claim, and many of the original accounts that shared the photos have been suspended by Twitter, the images were all over the Internet and print publications within hours of being posted.

It's a digital prowess that Berger said ISIL's armed competitors have yet to achieve, but it hasn't been without pushback. The hashtag #No2ISIS, started by Iraqis who oppose ISIL, has been used in more than 21,000 tweets in the last three days. 

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