Jihad PR

Around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th anarchists were great believers in the propaganda of the deed. Bombs, assassinations and so on were deeds which also acted as propaganda and promotion of the cause.

In reality the concept was old and the phrase was actually just a new way of framing actions. Similarly, over centuries rebels, fighters for freedom and defenders of the status quo fought over just how to frame the other sides’ actions. This was exemplified by the comment that one person’s terrorist was another’s freedom fighter as illustrated by the differing views of Nelson Mandela or the American Revolution.

IS and jihad propaganda is another illustration of the fact. To the West IS is simply another terrorist group which murders innocents, screens beheading videos and destroys historic sites. While all this is true it overlooks much more subtle IS propaganda which does much to explain how it recruits and maintains supporters.

The Economist (15 August 2015) reported that the “terrorists’ vicious message is surprisingly hard to rebut” referring to some analysis by Cori Dauber and Mark Robinson of University of North Carolina; Alberto Fernandez who used to run the State Department’s counterterrorism communications; Charlie Winter for the Quiilliam Foundation; and Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern studies.

Details of the analysis and findings can be found at:


http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/about/staff/charlie-winter/ and


Even though IS is probably trembling in fear that Tony Abbott is going to up Australia’s efforts to destroy them, and the Americans are believed to have killed some 15,000 IS fighters so far, IS still controls an area around the size of Britain; its forces have grown from 30,000 soldiers to around 70,000; some 20,000 foreigners have been recruited; and it has “franchises in half a dozen other countries from Afghanistan to Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia and Yemen” according to The Economist.

Dauber and Robinson point out the visual sophistication of IS images and the use of multiple cameras, different angles and intimate sounds. Fernandez says IS supporters have some 50,000 Twitter accounts with most of them being in Saudi Arabia followed by Syria, Iraq and…..the United States. Zelin looked at one week of IS publicity and propaganda and found 123 media releases in six languages with 24 of them being videos.

Zelin and Winter also found that much of the propaganda goes beyond violence and that other images may be more powerful. As The Economist says: “The savage imagery that many contain is calculated to shock and grab mainstream media attention.” But Winter says closer analysis reveals many more themes including “mercy, victimhood, belonging and Utopianism”. Much jihad PR had been about resistance but Winter points to what he calls “the propaganda of the winner” as exemplified by IS emphasis on the destruction of colonial boundaries. Zelin’s research showed that more than a third of IS propaganda output was not about war but instead was about the caliphate, Islamic virtues and featured lots of smiling children and loyal citizens.

All of this makes most of the West’s attempts to counteract the propaganda look pretty ineffectual. Moreover, bombing the Middle East has never been terribly successful. At the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society AGM recently the guest speaker, Barry Jones (more on his excellent talk about nuances in Australian history in another blog later), answered questions about a variety of topics – one of them the Middle East. He pointed out that no Western intervention in the Middle East in the past 100 years had been successful. Indeed, as the British discovered when they pioneered the widespread aerial bombing of civilian populations during their campaign in Iraq 80 odd years ago, bombing tends to be counterproductive. And as Bush, Blair and Howard discovered – if never admitting it – modern day bombing also has disastrous unintended consequences.

There can be no brief for IS. They are continuing the long history of murder, intolerance, violence and hatred all religious groups have practised over millennia. The Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Byzantium demonstrates Christian capacity to devastate co-religionists which mimics that of modern-day Muslims. Earlier Crusaders treated both Coptic Christians and Muslims in much the way IS treats its opponents. God’s instructions to the Israelites to massacre the Canaanites are merely a very early written record of what has been typical in religious history. Christian pogroms against Jews; Burmese Buddhists attacks on minorities in Myanmar; and extremist Hindu attacks on Muslims are just more examples of the violent history of the religious.

Equally, for all the horror of IS destruction of much of what was great in ancient human history, IS funding now comes as much from illegal sales of antiquities (carefully not destroyed) to people in the West as it does from oil sales.

Dauber, Robinson, Winter, Fernandez and Zelin make it clear that our current anti-IS propaganda efforts simply don’t start from understanding the problem. Instead we are magnifying the impact of the violent IS propaganda and largely ignoring the more subtle and much more invidious variety. But then some people Australians know all too well seem more interested in magnifying the threat than actually countering it.