ISIS’s online media and propaganda is a fairly major and rather strange operation. While for news broadcasts intended for an ultraconservative Islamist movement you might not expect idents that wouldn’t look out of place in a low budget action movie that is apparently their style. As you might expect for a terrorist organisation they have their fair share of generic videos of gun battles and intimidating men with gun sometimes the content is a little more absurd, take this image inciting fighters to kill for Samsung Galaxy Smartphones for example.
Despite the amateurish appearances behind every one of these strange images there is a deeper meaning. This image is a still from a video ISIS claims to depict Abu Mariya Al-Harari, the second in command of the Al-Nusra front telling his men to steal from killed ISIS fighters, the aim presumably being to ridicule ISIS’s Al-Qaeda backed rivals.
While you might think that the west is the primary outlet for the Islamic State’s vitriolic propaganda seemingly the propaganda is as much internal as it is external. Al-Nusra again is the primary target, with several press releases seemingly from the Islamic State itself declairing organisations such as Al-Nusra “Sahawat”,in their own words “Groups funded and sponsored by the disbeliever’s to eliminate the Mujahideen”.
Proving this point is obviously something they take very seriously, the webpage contained a huge number of links to their ‘evidence’, ranging from photos of al-Nusra atrocities to the accounts of former al-Nusra fighters detailing their “betrayal of the Mujahedeen,” .
This does say a lot about the attitudes of Islamic State in general, while the position of the west against ISIS is unquestionable the lack of resolve has left the people ISIS regard as ‘Sahawat’ as their primary opponent.
Al-Nusra is probably the most prominent of these groups, while once both arms of Al-Qaeda and under the command of its Shura Council ISIS and al-Nusra split in 2013 over a leadership dispute. Led by Al-Qaeda’s ‘emir’ Ayman al-Zawahiri the relatively small Al-Nusra front with only five-thousand members could not possibly hope to take on ISIS’s ~30,000 alone. However the split left them allied with the general opposition movement in Syria, who are over 200,000 strong.
The strength of their opponents has taken its toll on ISIS, while at their peak Mosul in Iraq was one of their strongholds Kurdish and Iraqi forces are now only days from liberating the city. While they still control huge areas of land in Iraq and Syria their grip is loosening.
Thus despite being the largest movement of its type to ISIS propaganda is essential to holding their position as the premier Jihadist movement. While disowned by al-Zawahiri who holds the command of Al-Qaeda is seen by many to be the true heirs of Al-Qaeda’s legacy and reputation. With their position being weakened discrediting the ‘sahawat’ is essential to sustain the flow of foreign volunteers as well as donations of arms and money to the movement.
While this usually takes the form of graphic execution and combat videos glorifying the mujahedeen recently their propaganda has changed. Instead of the mass execution videos that successfully routed the Iraqi army last summer they now also focus on the “state” itself.
Their previous style has not disappeared but articles are now appearing describing their governance and an idealistic picture of life within their “caliphate”. Primarily focused on ISIS’s capital in Raqqa ISIS’s own media emphasises the conservative Salafi/Wahhabi values of the state they wish to build.
The change in direction of their propaganda serves several purposes. Their Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has repeatedly stated that the Caliphate and its territory is not just for Iraqis and Syrians but “for all Muslims”. He wants to recruit not just fighters but citizens for his caliphate.
The law under ISIS is similarly brutal to the law in Saudi Arabia, while ISIS’s ‘judicial’ punishments may seem barbaric to us they are what many conservative Saudis may believe to be correct. But as al-Zawahiri warned in 2005 brutal battlefield massacres and beheadings lose “Muslim hearts and minds”.
On the other hand is already discontent with Saudi Arabia’s intervention against ISIS. With increased depiction of life in the caliphate as religiously orthodox and peaceful many Saudis may question why they are bombing their Sunni brothers when they could be bombing the Shia Iranians or the Israelis.