ISIS – violence and brutality

Dissertation analysis:

ISIS has demonstrated the use of brutality in videos to a degree that has not been seen before in comparison to other terrorist groups when pushing forward terrorist propaganda and agenda. As discussed in Chapter 1, brutality is used to attract attention. In so called ‘terrorist-click bait’, ISIS has displayed its tenacity when trying to draw in new and larger crowds to its malicious content on the Internet platform. ISIS have disclosed videos that depict killings in tandem with radicalisation, pre-warned attacks, looting and Islamic punishments.

The aestheticization of violence that ISIS have shown in online uploads of videos exhibits the innovative use of film media merged with propaganda. Certainly, shows of Islamic undertones have been used in the videos, as there still seems to be some point to their brutality. Underlying sentiments that Muslims watching associate with their Deen and Islamic history have been employed for the specific reason of appealing to sympathizers and potential recruits.

Camera shots from different angles used in order to show numerous viewpoints of activities. Videos have included the use of ‘first person’ view, which has been the most popular perspective to play from in the gaming world as a first person shooter (Konnikova, 2013). What this sort of visual aspect offers is the three dimensionality of seeing what ISIS militants do, ranging from killings to visiting army sites after massacring opposing fighters. In one instance, the introduction of the video content began with a Western militant style formats as a mission debrief was directed by ISIS insurgents. In this, a projector displaying Google Maps showed the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq, specifically highlighting the Al-Anbar province in which their ‘mission’ would be conducted. Using commonplace navigation sites shows viewers technological Websites that they can relate to on a daily basis, despite the extreme setting of which they are being utilized for in terrorist activity. In another video shared virally by Western media after ISIS’ initial upload was the first person shooter experience of one terrorist who fought on the battlefield. In a Call of Duty inspired depiction, the recorder dies from a headshot and the event is captured. The incident was filmed on a GoPro camera again showing the utility technological devices have had in fanatical and dangerous settings; the first hand accounts of martyrdom redefined to allow viewers to have drastic vision of a raging war not so far away. The immersion of the viewers into a combat environment crafts a sense of already being there.

ISIS have not subscribed to the previous ways media was used by other terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda as they no longer need to spare captives in order to get their message across. Their public relations strategy is distinctly different from that of Old Terrorism as they do not face the consequence of having means of deliberating messages to the general public cut off if they fail to comply, as previous terrorist cells formerly did. The reason for this is that ISIS, like a large mass of Internet users, have the ability to directly control what is uploaded and to what audience they address.

The use of soundtrack music selection being that of Qu’Ran recitations with nasheeds and recitations is a consistent occurrence in videos uploaded by ISIS. Additionally, the combination of slow motion shots, rapid edits and ‘profile’ frames of fighters, their capabilities and how many people they have killed present a nature of aesthetic that appropriates Western media and Hollywood type film frames that stays in line with their agenda. Though short videos are still being uploaded, longer and more film styled content have been released by ISIS, which serve an intense sitting as some span fifty-five minute viewings such as the so-called ‘Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun’ documentary style video which followed after a ‘teaser trail’ of this was released online. The use of a narrator, graphics and insurgency footage show reoccurring trends in ISIS videos that were not used by terrorist groups to this extent even though they had the capacity to do so. Additionally, the ‘share now’ capability on social media sites makes it easier for viewers to further distribute propaganda via e-mail, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Twitter and ironically, even Google Plus, whose main servers allegedly will be programmed to direct Internet users to anti-radicalization pages made by NGOs when attempting to use the search engine to find ISIS content online.

On the other side of the media spectrum, ISIS also have TV show style episodes are uploaded as a video series called ‘Mujatweets’ (Becker, 2014). Contrary to the brutality shown, acts of hospitality are shown in these videos, varying from visiting injured IS militants to handing out sweets to children (ibid). ‘Mujatweets’, unlike violent execution videos released by the same media source, have no mention or playback of the barbarity that exists on the battlefields, instead showing the normalcy of life under the IS occupation or life as a militant or as a citizen living under their control as mujahideen. In this, we see the other side of card-stacking in their propaganda tactics online as these are wholly good displays of ISIS activities; a glaring differentiation to the mainstream ferocity the terrorist group is renowned for. Disparities between old and New Terrorism online have been emphasized as Al-Hayat have employed the use of multiple languages from different continents; offering free translations online for non-English speakers or people that do not have the same language as the several other language translations of videos and blogposts. The online presence IS present possesses a facet of kind helpfulness to readers who are linguistically excluded from understanding uploaded contents.

The use of lethality in videos and content uploaded to the Internet has given ISIS the trademark of being known for their ultraviolent means of execution. ISIS have continuously raised the stakes for what brutality in videos by terrorist organizations is known for. The immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a captured Jordanian pilot trapped in a cage, sparked widespread international outrage. The use of crowdsourcing before the punitive act was conducted made it morally worse as jokes and thoughts were merged together on Twitter to augment the grisly act that was al-Kasasbeh’s fate.  As ISIS supporters clambered in Twittersphere to offer ideas about how to execute the first lieutenant, the hashtag “WeAllWantToSlaughterMoaz” trended and was tweeted over 11,000 times (Vocativ, 2015).

Videos that are still accessible online today depict the gruesome nature of captives having their heads blown off with explosives, being slaughtered with blunt knives by child soldiers, scenes of groups of hostages drowned whilst chained to cages – the submersion shown in slow motion as close ups of the grimaces, final words and last gulping breaths are spotlighted for dramatic effect. The use of child soldiers in one video showed a perverse version of ‘hide and seek’ where they would run around in caves and buildings attempting to find captives, who they would shoot dead on site upon finding them. One captive was already laid in a grave before being killed by the child who found him. Another video exposed the punishment decreed to a teenager for allegedly being homosexual when ISIS militants threw him off a roof in front of a flock of local people. In the event that local people are present during executions, it is used as a tool for propaganda, a means of injecting some level of regularity about the punishments for reviewers; that those who do engage in jihad or are amongst militants see these as routine. In a simultaneous attempt to shock and galvanize Western audiences, the effects in Syria and Iraq are to not only boost morale but also to keep order; to keep fear mongering to a level where there exists direction in a way that coerces people to adhere to the whims and demands of the Islamic State. ISIS have in many ways raised the stakes for lethality used in videos. What is imperative to understand here is that these uses of brutality are not synonymous with Islamic rulings of punishments and deaths. As such, there exists an element of violent creativity that occurs in videos by the terrorist group, as they are not bound by mandates the Qu’Ran commands for punishments. It is the amplification of callous gore that truly separates and aggrandizes ISIS in the context of video content, to a level where other extremist groups have publicly addressed and shunned such activity. Terrorist specialist and psychologist John Horgan described ISIS video content as, “sadism at a clinical level” (Kavanaugh, 2015).

Picture and video content that ISIS have released onto the Internet to indicate possible attacks and create a pool of fear amongst numerous countries has been achieved through their uploads that depict notes with ISIS flags in front of recognizable tourist attractions and various continents. As part of their global campaign of terror, their bid to portray the solidarity that exists amongst supporters was shown in the Middle East – in nations such as Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen; in Europe, with wide online circulation of ISIS supporters in front of tourist attractions such as the London’s Big Ben, Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Rome’s Colosseum; and in numerous countries in Asia and states in the U.S.

Internet economic stability:

A ‘new analysis by the U.S. intelligence community gives confirmation to the fact that ISIS is now the richest terror group in the world’, which is predominantly owed to its “quasi-national financial capabilities through military success” (The Meir Emit Intelligence and Information Center, 2014: 151). Particular focus on how they have attained such wealth must be scrutinized. Aside from its involvement in the trafficking of heroin and its rich oil facilities, ISIS has found other asymmetric forms of money-making to keep their entity running. The Internet has been used as a vehicle for the commercial gain of the Islamic State, in order to ensure their financial sustainability as a terrorist group. In two ways ISIS profits both through the Internet and from the trade of it. Capitalising upon the sale of Internet, Syria has seen a surge of Internet Cafes open up. Filling past absence of the Internet, Al-Raqqa has been subject to the opening of hundreds of Internet Cafes as a direct cause of ISIS; the price of use at 100 Liras (Syrian currency) for 25 megabytes (FightIsis, 2015). It should be noted that this business is not purely for economic basis, but also serves to make Al-Raqqah the ‘Internet Hub’, or rather a satellite town. This is strategically important to ISIS as Raqqah has been under its terrorist occupation for several years, a city which is vastly understood to be the de-facto operational centre and capital of ISIS (Remnick: 2015).

ISIS utilizes the Internet by setting up Websites that sought to solicit funds online. ISIS terrorist cells have engaged in the use of the electronic crypto currency Bitcoins in cyber space. The advantage of this is that the caliphate has the ability to be anonymous and untraceable in their purchases of goods and services that exist both in the virtual world and ‘real life’ (Satti, 2014). The appeal of this online service is that this currency can be sent to more or less anyone that has Internet connection (ibid). It is this nexus that deepens ISIS’ online presence, not only on the Surface Web but also in the ‘Internet black market’ of the Dark Web. Bitcoins are decentralized and therefore, control over the digital currency is unregulated and in many ways, authorities and governments cannot stop ISIS from using this form of exchange as there exist issues of identification and intangibility. How ISIS have specifically used this is that the online currency has the ability to work across trans-national borders and Western ‘kafir’ governments are not able to track their monetary activities in this way. Putting ‘Dark Wallets’ to use terrorists to be attain another layer of secrecy, making traceability more strenuous for Western government.

Whilst funds can be elevated online as a direct contribution from sympathisers with terrorist groups like ISIS who wish to aid them financially but not fight on the front line with them abroad, ISIS has also created bonds with online criminal organizations who seek to evade governmental detection and continue cyber crimes. This is a convergence that has been conducted wholly on the Internet, as no formal coalition nor meet up is arranged. ISIS receives aid in this way as other terrorist groups before them have not (D’Alfanso, 2014).

Art loots and eBay:

The Islamic State have further extended their funds through efforts to sell art artefacts online. Here it is seen how physical goods stolen by ISIS in Iraq and Syria are being traded in a virtual capacity. The ‘antiquities division’ of ISIS portrays how the separate compartments of the terrorist groups have individual cells, but are bound by the Internet – their aims ranging from increasing profits to spreading propaganda online have one common denominator: their joint goal of sustaining the group’s strength. Antique marketing of relics and remnants of pre-Islamic history have been seen on open sale on eBay and Facebook, where auctions of coins, scrolls and statues that ISIS have stolen have been offered. A contradiction is presented in the sale of the archeologically extracted goods online as it directly opposes what they believe, which is that these artefacts are worthless. In the sale of them, they acknowledge and assign value to them (Mellen, 2016). ISIS selling art online could signal that they are simply exploiting online mediums further because use is easily accessible to buyers and sellers alike. ISIS’s ability to harness the expanding art market online shows their adaptability to spaces and facility to change its development for exploitative means. However illegitimately the terrorist group attained the art, the Internet has provided a means for them to monetize upon and just as other online services, they have not failed to take this opportunity. The Internet has acted as a substantial supplementary channel through which they can sustain themselves frugally.

The Tweeted Revolution

ISIS have commanded their online presence most widely on Twitter. With ideas and future attacks and commands of Internet connection first being spoken of on jihadi forums, once melded into a format and campaign they felt ready to release onto the Internet, ISIS would then host the movement onto Twitter in order to successfully instigate a “Twitter storm” (Stern and Berger, 2015: 156). In a coordinated manner, the Twitter system was rigged to their advantage as the facade of interest created by back and forth retweeting and distribution of the selected hashtag transitioned into actual momentum on the social media app as circulation of hashtags ISIS had pre-planned created a buzz and more importantly, ‘a growing base of support’ (ibid, 157). ISIS has in large superseded the technological activities of terrorist groups such as al-Nusra in cyberspace. It is due to their own intelligent concoction of schedules that allow room to calibrate efforts coupled with their tactical campaigns that have given ISIS visibility and dominance amongst other terrorist groups online. No longer are they in the shadows of their parent Al-Qaeda. The marketing of their ‘brand’ is not just to propel themselves into the limelight nor is it aimed to boost them to the top of the ladder in the public’s opinion over which terrorist group is the most dangerous or strongest. Having cut itself off and denounced Al-Qaeda, ISIS have made a theme of trying to be stronger in every aspect in comparison. In cyberspace, this leads to a direct competition between the two extremist groups as they rally for both online resources such as funding, first selection of potential recruits and support. Inward religious and internal struggles are present, as the two contend for legitimate claim over the ‘Global Jihad’ operation. The virtual fight on the Internet is in fact a fight for relevancy and survival in real-life (ibid: 191).

The Internet has created a rudimentary transformation for tactics of recruitment as the ‘brick and mortar’ physical aspect of recruitment and reaching out to the public no longer serves as the primary reason for the expansion of supporters and fighters. Questions curious members of the public or those who sought to join ISIS had, have been answered via Direct Message on Twitter, speaking on the voice call service Skype, forum threads, Facebook chats, Tumblr ask boxes and Ask.fm. On these websites and services, guidance and elucidation of what really goes on in the hostile regions has been provided. Not only have fighting members of the Islamic State delved into what life as a militant is like, females living under ISIS rule have also been used to reach out to other women (young and mature people alike) in a bid to try and get them to travel to join the ranks of the dissidents.

App haven and exploitation:

As certain telecommunication services have taken a vigorous stance to combat terrorism in the virtual realm, efforts to ban terrorist activities specifically targeting the Islamic State caliphate have been made by prohibiting them to use legitimate servers. ISIS have created and surmounted their own form of interaction amongst themselves in order to ensure networking cannot be cut off by lawful messenger services such as Whatsapp and Kik. By constructing their own apps, they have exploited the ability to have full control over the coding of their contact systems, despite using similar coding to replicate pre-existing messaging apps. Because of this, there are no external modifications made by Western technology agencies. Apps titled ‘Alrawi.apk’, ‘Nasher’ and ‘Amaq Agency’ are three of some apps ISIS have made and are using; their encryption coding also coordinated by the terrorist group. Despite Google Play and the Apple store having prohibited apps such as these being available to its online users, ISIS have been able to circumvent these by downloading the code online in order to acquire it onto a user’s handset or devices other than laptops and computers. The purpose of the apps has been similar to Internet use. Nevertheless, the possibility of having such apps in more compatible technologies such as smartphones and tablets that can be taken on journeys allows further integration into users lives. Due to this ‘on the go’ mode, users that have the application have been able to keep up to date with occurring news that ISIS directly release to them, including plans, reasoning for attacks and exclusive releases of video clips from the war zone. Despite the relatively lengthy means of acquiring the initial cypher, users that attain access to the app will have a more seamless connection with ISIS; news sharing occurring in real-time in order to, “To publish news of the Islamic State,” (Parsons, 2015), the propaganda being incorporated in an easier and more unified format and in more ways than one, the personalization of information relating to ISIS activities is incurred.

ISIS’s idea of making their own apps was instigated with the making of the ‘brainchild app’, dubbed Dawn of Glad Tidings (English translation of “Fajr Al-Basha’ir”), the first of its kind amongst the group: members and supports alike. A composite of news information sharing services and the modern ability to sync one app with another. In this application, Dawn of Glad Tidings had the function of syncing with Twitter and having the means of commanding the user’s Twitter account and tweet content endorsed by ISIS (Cyber and Jihad Lab, 2015). Again circling ISIS’s online stratagem: apps and social media link users to and fro, but always within a compound that entwines around ISIS’s potent media structure. Its media stretches to a wealth of different Interweb sources, but remain connected in some way. Its online websites are so heavily intertwined, detected and then deleted ISIS accounts can be cut off of some websites, but remain active in other capacities regardless of suspensions and deletion of accounts. The fundamental point is: ISIS will always remain operational and active online in some aptitude, and it is a matter of not if, but of when they will amass previous follower count and attention.

Social Media presence:

As Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger state in their book, ‘ISIS: The State of Terror’, ISIS has mastered a domain that no other terrorist group has been as successful in utilizing: “the burgeoning world of social media” (2015). Qualms about prior terrorist organizations having used similar or the exact same social media websites as ISIS have been made. Certainly, is it indisputable that Al Qaeda were amongst the first terrorist non-state actor groups to pioneer the use of information technology to pursue their interests. Additionally, terrorist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and Al Shabaab have used the Internet within the same or near time frames of ISIS activity. The disparities between other terrorist groups and ISIS in this arena can be explained twofold. Firstly, the sheer magnitude and amount of ISIS accounts seen online have never been seen before.  Secondly, the tactics ISIS have employed online have been distinctively unorthodox despite analogous goals compared with other terrorist groups: which is that of spreading propaganda and recruitment of sympathizers and supporters.

What is perhaps the most distinguishing component that ISIS possesses in the Internet arena is its strategy. Flooding other users with information did not go amiss, as spam and bots were propelled into the sphere to boost their propaganda messages. It is the thought process and calculation behind the structure of their online media that has set a precedent for other terrorist groups in this area. Nasser Balochi, one member of ISIS’s media team stated: “This is a war of ideologies as much as it a physical war. And just as the physical war must be fought on the battlefield, so too must the ideological war be fought in the media” (Stern and Berger: 2015, 147). ISIS have not shied away from social media, they have understood its power and its ability to reel in younger members of societies all around the world and because of this have made the Internet one of the most important feats that will strengthen the group.

A spokesman for social analytics, Dinah Aboleid, states that despite ISIS’s social media campaigns not necessarily equating to the actual power and number of members and supporters the group genuinely has, the extremist group has still been able to annex a vast amount of online space (Speri, 2014). Commandeering a highly focused marketing stance on their ‘brand’ of martyrdom and a utopian vision of what life under their rule is like, ISIS have been able to build an online community which is carefully constructed in a way that they can attract particular target demographics, continuously engaging these masses through directly contacting them and keeping them updated on current affairs (ibid).

In 2015, having grown impatient with the tedious nature of having the create new Twitter accounts post-ban, efforts to create a Facebook-like website were made when supporters of ISIS devised and launched the ‘CaliphateBook’ (Hamill, 2015). Adopting the layout of Facebook, whilst implementing hallmarks belonging to Twitter such as handles and the display of ‘trending’ themes and subjects, ISIS present further ways in which they can bypass Western governments online. Efforts to evade Western censorship and bans have been commonplace as ISIS have treaded in less popular social media grounds with the likes of Diaspora and the Russian website VK, both of which are less supervised websites who contest with Facebook’s dominance in social networking (ibid, 209). The unrelenting will of ISIS’s media forces online highlight several things: the terrorist group can evolve, adapt and rapidly adjust to the changing conditions on the Internet and the online war being waged against them by state actor governments who seek to banish them from the Interweb. This enables them to continuously recreate themselves through different forms of social media, but always strong hold their ideological beliefs.

The Internet has been a driver that has made diffusion of terrorist groups possible (ibid: 50), yes, however the unregulated services of the Internet have been readily available to terrorist organizations for decades, so why has it been ISIS that has truly mastered the capacity of online services? The availability of information was possible before the creation of the Interweb, thus, it is a myth to assume that the Internet has directly caused the proliferation of extremist violence. For example, blueprints for construction of bombs and explosives were obtainable before the Internet, though such documents are now more readily available. We cannot assume that it is singularly the rapidity of information that accrues more radical activity, rather it is how the specific terrorist group in question uses these gears and turn them into capabilities.

Networked Structure:

A focal point of discussion in the old and New terrorism debate is that of hierarchies versus networked structure, the latter consisting of ‘new wave’ phenomena. What we have seen with ISIS’s use of the Internet is supported by the notion that, “the transnational jihad fraternity is transforming into a hydra-headed network more difficult to fight than before” (Atran: 222, cited in Zichichi and Ragaini, 2004). The networked structure is widely dispersed in the online arena as there exist ‘a set of largely autonomous groups and cells’ (ibid), which seek to pursue one similar goal in the framework of ISIS. Zanini and J.A. Edwards define networked organizations down to three elements: first, co-ordination and communication in relationships of cells are asymmetric and do not fall under the horizontal frameworks of hierarchies, second, that the ‘internal networks’ also have connections with independent factions or persons in the outer bounds which are fused and exist, though not solely, on the ambitions of joint enterprise. Lastly, the bridge is affirmed by shared standards and principles, by which they form a basis of trust (2001: 31-32).

Despite being spatially disparate, the Interweb allows ISIS to sustain itself online on a mass scale without fear of real consequences, unless they live in countries where there are legal punishments that can be administered. ISIS members that live in the war zones do not care as such for these punishments however. Put simply, the only fatality that ISIS can incur is the literal one: being killed in the real world. The virtual world gives them the ability to regenerate, regroup and find new ways to elude the online policing of the Western world in cyberspace and social media. It is evident, given their zeal to come back, reconnect and restore impetus, that they have the means and willpower to do this unremittingly.

The scattered cells ISIS have in the online sphere have portrayed one fundamental point: the terrorist group is myopically adaptive (N. Shapiro, 2006:6). The networked formation of ISIS’s cells fits the benefit of having such an organization form as,” conditional on being de facto decentralized, an interconnected organization can achieve coordination between specialized cells, provided they have safe haven or secure communications channel for doing so” (ibid, 18-19). ISIS have been able to do this by establishing sound means of communication as the creation of apps and messaging services particular to the group’s needs have been hatched. This has not only helped secure the ‘glue’ of the nexus matrix, but it has been instrumental in the design and fruition of ploys to facilitate their pursuit of a ‘global jihad’. The terrorist activity chain allows ISIS’s network to have a level of fluidity which permits any able-bodied cell to conduct recruiting (also done via Dawah if they can display some Islamically religious competence), training others through the Internet, building groundwork for imminent attacks (both in real life or through premeditated Internet swarms), persuasion and propaganda and of course, communication amongst themselves. Hashemi’s synopsis of networked structures succinctly gives clarity on the formation of them, stating that the dissolution that occurs affects the decision-making process, and consequently permits cells to conduct individual initiatives (2012); it is because of this that is viable to assert that toppling ISIS online is impractical. What ISIS have successfully done with their networked structure is provide a means of operational cadre to all divisions. In the context of its online organization, every cell has the potential to play a vital role in the group’s sustainability – power and authority do not treacle down from the top as with the default setting of hierarchical models of modus operandi. What is fascinating is that in a sense, every supporter and members of ISIS online takes the role of ‘cadre’ as, in essence, if a cadre is an, “active members of the terrorist organization” (US Army Tradoc, 2007: 3-4), the position is admitted to whomever takes part in areas of financing the group, spreading propaganda and attempting to recruit through the Interweb. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the digital newspaper Rai-al Youm states that, “In the past, the leadership would produce and re- lease material; now, every jihadist is his or her own media outlet” (2015: 17), depicting the means in which the hierarchy is not applicable to ISIS as they no longer subscribe to traits of Old Terrorism (typically depicted by Al Qaeda). ISIS’s adoption of a “spider’s web” design model, that possesses an abundance of centers and perimeters has ensured its sturdiness in cyberspace, thus, aims to permanently derail the extremist group online have failed (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001).

As aforementioned, Al-Hayat is one of ISIS’s media centers. There exist two other media hubs in ISIS’s Internet web and they work alongside one another towards the shared goal of creating and disseminating propaganda. Al-Itisam is the other arm of ISIS propaganda machine, acting as the production institution of ISIS, creating and dispersing HD quality videos online. Additionally, it also distributes videos the other two constituents send them. Al-Furqan, created in 2006 and initially created for the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), currently serves and works under ISIS with the role of embouchure. Despite outwardly appearing as separate entities, all three fall under the same umbrella of media influence. They remain interlinked and as such, illuminate further formations within the make up of ISIS online. Two of these media centers exist in Syria; the other in Iraq. It is the connectivity of the Internet that binds them together despite geographic proximity. This lattice is further layered, as explained by one member of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Janabi, who aids ISIS by delivering translations of ISIS’s messages and additionally distributes them too when he states that:

“There are different types of ISIS divisions on social media: the ISIS official media account, which publishes all its video releases, ISIS province accounts, which publish live feed info and pictures, the ISIS mujahideen accounts, where fighters talk about their experience and daily life, and ISIS supporters, who counter Western, Shia, and tyrants’ propaganda and lies” (Speri, 2014)

We can see in this instance how ISIS’s media strategy is meticulously planned to form a web that makes it difficult to permanently halt the ‘digital caliphate’ they seek to create.

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