November 21st, 2014
The Islamic State and Photography
Sam Powers is a social media analyst who has spent time working in private intelligence, focusing on the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations. For the past year, he has been monitoring the growing threat posed by The Islamic State (IS), tracking the group’s media strategy and outreach to Western audiences on social media. Before his career in intelligence and social media, Powers was a documentary filmmaker. Here, he considers the strategies and visual imagery of IS from a photographic standpoint.
As The Islamic State attempts to recruit new members, their use of photography and imagery has arguably become more advanced than any other terrorist group in history. The group’s most deliberate imagery, made with high-quality cameras and using editing techniques similar to major Western media outlets, has come under scrutiny by news agencies as well as the intelligence community for its ability to capture both jarring battle footage and the group’s quotidian activities. In fact, IS has created an entire industry comprised of private groups, staffed by journalists and former government employees, all of whom are dedicated to sifting through IS media releases and analyzing the message and effect on a predominantly Western audience.
IS runs various media offices, with its largest known as Al-Hayat (meaning life in Arabic). This outlet releases a slick, online multilingual magazine called Dabiq, named after a religiously significant Syrian town. Within the pages of this magazine and through official media handles on Twitter, IS presents its carefully choreographed vision to a global audience. As their reports attempt to mimic the production values of Western media outlets, IS sympathizers on Twitter grow at an alarming rate. Currently there are tens of thousands of Twitter users who either claim that they are fighting with IS or are sympathetic to the group’s mission.
The images that follow are sourced from these various media platforms as well as from IS supporters on Twitter. Many are screenshots from videos distributed by IS on hosting websites including JustPaste.it, a Polish website used for sharing large files. While the authenticity of these images cannot be independently verified, the mass dissemination of the photos in this article as well as their endorsement by known jihadist ideologues and media officials suggest that the images are genuine. The pictures are of high quality and capture everything from battle footage to IS efforts to maintain support amongst their constituency in Iraq and Syria.
Much IS imagery captures the mundane, often with the clear intention of attracting a Western audience. From rides in the back of tanks to images of local cuisine alongside Coca Cola or other comfort foods, these pictures show IS’s attempt to present jihad with a human face. Such images of daily life are usually of lower quality, clearly taken with devices like smart phones by fighters on the ground. They offer a distinctly different aesthetic when compared with the more sophisticated images taken with higher-quality DSLR cameras that appear in IS propaganda magazines.
Another prominent category of imagery surfacing on Twitter is personal images that evoke allegiance to IS and demonstrate a pledge of faith (Bayah in Arabic). These are often the first images displayed by a Twitter user once he becomes a member of IS. Established members often re-tweet images of new members pledging faith by holding up their index finger, an allusion to the tawhid, or the oneness of god. Unaware of what they are being asked to swear allegiance to, children of fighters are often pictured in the same position, sometimes brandishing automatic weapons.
Alongside pledges of faith, the use of images of dead brothers in arms, referred to by IS as “martyrs,” have become increasingly popular since the US-led coalition targeting the group began. These images are often placed alongside a fighter’s personal profile on Twitter to commemorate the dead and to encourage continued fighting against the West.
With carefully crafted magazines displaying how and why to join the jihad and video using advanced film techniques, IS has reached a large global audience. While the United States and other countries have attempted to counter the group’s vast media output, such efforts have not degraded IS’s ability to tap into the heart of a minority of susceptible young Muslims, from the West in particular, who are increasingly attempting to travel to Iraq and Syria to join the militant group. Some have argued that government alone cannot be the sole voice online against IS, particularly when dealing with sensitive topics of Islamic faith.
Efforts including the State Department’s Digital Outreach team (found on Twitter under the handle @DSDOTAR) lack IS’s propagandist’s production values and wide reach. For example, when compared to the tens of thousands of followers maintained by IS’s most well known sympathizers, referred to by some in the intelligence community as “power users,” @DSDOTAR maintains just over one thousand followers, many of whom appear to be IS fighters and sympathizers themselves who trail the handle, most likely to gain information on US government practices online.
While other initiatives, including the State Department’s (DOS) “Think Again Turn Away” (found on Twitter at @ThinkAgain_DOS), maintain a large following and emphasize that IS is a brutal, anti-Muslim organization, the government has been criticized for its use of imagery on social media. The image produced below highlights how DOS is attempting to apply a moral argument to delegitimize IS, while using jarring imagery to back up their statement. Some have argued that a US-sanctioned Twitter page, producing anti-IS imagery, merely serves as a beacon of attack for IS fighters themselves. As seen in the image below, IS fighters and sympathizers often use these government handles to make anti-US remarks and attempt to justify violence. With this in mind, it seems that those who want to counter IS’s sophisticated use of media and imaging to garner a following will need to create an equally seductive alternative narrative and take the fight to IS online.