Terror Inc.: How the Islamic State became a branding behemoth

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Screen grab from Al Hayat Media Center.

When Robin Williams died last August, people around the world rushed online to mourn the loss of the actor. “Oh dear God. The wonderful Robin Williams has gone,” Bette Midler tweeted. “No words,” added a somber Billy Crystal. “Shame. I liked Jumanji,” tweeted one England-based Twitter user. “Good movie. Loved it as a kid,” replied an account with the handle @Mujahid4life.

“Mujahid,” for those unfamiliar, roughly translates to “jihadist warrior.” And this particular handle belonged to a 19-year-old British-born guy by the name of Abdullah, who happened to be both a supporter of the Islamic State and a big Robin Williams fan.

Abdullah’s opinion of the fallen star unleashed a torrent of blog posts, most of which marveled at the fact that a member of an organization that openly beheads its enemies could also have the emotional capacity to mourn a U.S. comedian on Twitter. But however surreal it was to watch Hollywood actors and terrorist sympathizers tangle online, those voyeuristic bloggers missed a larger point. That moment encapsulated a key pillar of the group’s now infamous social media fortress: Spreading extremist ideology doesn’t need to start with religious screeds and beheadings. It starts — as a social media 101 instructor might say — by simply taking part in the conversation.

It’s been less than a year since IS burst onto the stage, seizing large amounts of territory and shocking the world with its brutally violent tactics. During that time, the group has evolved into a highly sophisticated multimedia organization, boasting slick social media strategies that could give major corporate marketing teams a run for their money. IS knows how to package its extremist ideology in the form of well-produced videos, attractive graphics, polished magazines and strategic online posts. It’s also strikingly savvy at spreading them online, tailoring their presentation and message to media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Vine. The messages are hypercustomized in language, tone and content to reach as many people possible and ultimately go viral. As Marshall Sella recently wrote in Matter, IS is “an entire brand family, the equivalents of the Apple logo’s glow ... terrorism’s Coca-Cola.” There’s no need to hold an IS-stamped watch or baseball hat in your hands to face the truth: IS is a powerful and terrifying brand that we were not prepared to reckon with.

Screen grab from an Islamic State video released showing Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh being burnt alive (via Storyful)

How exactly did we go from the days of fuzzy, subtitled Osama bin Laden bootlegs to a Travel Channel-esque hub for propaganda and recruitment? As sophisticated as IS is at promoting its message on public platforms, it is deeply protective of its digital tradecraft. Here’s what we know:

Building a digital empire

IS runs all its communications through the official propaganda headquarters it launched in the spring of 2014, the Al-Hayat Media Center. This is where skilled, well-paid IS supporters work with high-tech equipment and the latest editing and design tools to produce recruitment films, propaganda materials like its glossy magazine Dabiq and its most famous product: gruesome torture videos.

Though this is the terrorist group’s central communications hub, its influence extends to about 20 other branches spread out along IS’ claimed territory, according to estimates by Daniel Cohen, a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies. Local offices are able to take cues from the main center, but they also have room to create location-specific content to more effectively communicate to the fighters in those areas. For example, supporters in France have access to Dar al Islam, IS’ French-language propaganda magazine. Aref Ali Nayed, the Libyan ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, put it well when he told the New York Times that “the Islamists have been very clever at rebranding. They have learned the franchising model from McDonald’s. They give you the methodology, standards and propaganda material.”

Sheer volume dictates that these centers cannot approve every piece of IS-related social media that floats through the digital ether. Rather than try to monitor each message from the community, the media centers offer jihadist soldiers guidelines on the types of messages they should post.

“From the beginning, [members of IS] started to send pictures from Twitter,” Cohen told Yahoo News. “They did it for purposeful recruitment. Instead of showing the fights, they’d show people sitting and eating pizza in their lockers. Or they’d show people watching TV together, playing PlayStation together. They are targeting a young audience and speaking to them in the same language, showing that it’s a pleasant place.”

Islamic State branding (via The Institute for National Security Studies)

It was perhaps the same genre of audience-based marketing that, in September, encouraged Western-based IS sympathizer Anjem Choudary to tweet a short listicle titled “10 Facts from the Islamic State that everyone should know.” (Number 7: “For every newly married couples are given 700usd as a gift.”)

The all-seeing Oz character who’s behind it has yet to be publicly identified. Senior IS leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani acts as Al-Hayat’s main spokesperson and public face. However, he’s not widely believed to also be the brains behind the operation.

“Usually the people up on the frontlines aren’t the strategist,” Cohen said. “Just like a McDonald’s ad campaign. Someone came up with the concept and the script. But they’re never the same person who stars in the commercial.”

How the gears turn

Al-Hayat’s most infamous work by far is “A Message to America,” the HD, scripted video that broadcast the beheading of American journalist James Foley. It was a despicable act that, as President Barack Obama said, shocked “the conscience of the entire world.” The video didn’t become famous, however, until it became impossible to ignore in your social feeds. And it made it to your social feeds, in part, via IS’ persistent and measured strategy of link-spamming.

As Gawker’s Sam Biddle recently wrote, “ISIS has nearly perfected the dissemination of violent propaganda, much as BuzzFeed has nearly perfected the dissemination of quizzes and videos.”

The dissemination starts with a few IS supporters’ social media accounts, and ends with the continuous posting and reposting of a link or video by as many people as possible. In the old days of al-Qaida, terrorists would gather its press material in password-protected Web forums, which would then act as a central location where terrorists could access and distribute the information individually. But these sites would often be spied on or shut down.

“It became very clear for ISIS that [the Web forum] was not exactly the ideal hub for distribution,” Laith Alkhouri, a director of terrorist activity tracking at deep-Web research firm Flashpoint Partners, told Yahoo News. “It wasn’t reaching the masses quick enough. They wanted to post something online that would reach CNN in minutes.”

That’s when IS turned to Twitter, a fluid, easy-to-use platform that’s famous for its brevity, immediacy and wide reach. If the Al-Hayat Media Center wants to distribute its latest missive, it calls on a loosely organized department of Internet-savvy supporters to post the link to their Twitter accounts. This league is cobbled together by people who aren’t qualified to fight but still believe in the jihadist cause. Sometimes that means the wife of an IS soldier living in Syria; other times it’s just some kid in a basement in New Zealand who’s interested in supporting the organization’s mission. Whoever they are, they post link after link after link on Twitter until the piece of content in question sinks its claws and goes viral. Working together, these supporters can generate up to 90,000 tweets and other social media interactions per day. This technique, according to Alkhouri, is very effective on sites like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

A militant Islamist fighter uses a mobile to film his fellow fighters taking part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. (REUTERS)

As American tech companies caught up with IS’ tactics, they began mass-deleting their accounts, erasing whatever extremist messages it directed at the public. But for committed IS supporters, wiping out an account is a mere hiccup in the mission. If Twitter deletes their accounts, for instance, they simply turn to one of the dozens more they’ve preemptively created under different pseudonyms, complete with a saved list of followers they had from the last handle. It’s the classic technique of Internet trolls who want to avoid being banned from the comments section for abuse. Alkhouri said he’s seen one individual’s Twitter accounts deleted and then rebooted more than 100 times.

In April 2014, IS’ Palestinian branch even developed an Android app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which connected to users’ Twitter accounts and posted pro-IS Tweets with popular hashtags and images to their personal feeds. Its engineers spaced out the automated postings, just enough so it wouldn’t set off Twitter’s spam-detecting algorithm. Thousands signed up, but the software was dismantled once it became too public.

“ISIS is utilizing an American corporation in distributing this terrorist propaganda that is extremely violent, and even crosses the limits [of what] al-Qaida would find acceptable,” Alkhouri said. “Twitter realized it needs to be proactive and amplify its campaign to find these accounts.”

But as larger tech companies crack down on IS’ presence on their networks, its supporters have wormed their way into a host of other, less surveilled online communication tools. The group has tried to establish its presence on the European social networking site Diaspora and the Russian Facebook equivalent VK (both of which eventually blocked it). It has also targeted discussion forums on Archive.org and messaging apps like Kik. It is the first terrorist organization to use Vine, which allowed it to automatically embed and loop videos in Twitter timelines. (Those supporters have even figured out that it takes longer for companies to flag a video if they post a six-second clip that only leads up to a beheading but doesn’t actually show it, according to Cohen.)

Screengrab from an Islamic State mobile communication application.

Where IS had been stymied on social media networks, the group has found uninterrupted success on sites like Askme.com and Ask.fm. On these Q&A-based forums, IS soldiers have live conversations with potential recruits about why they’ve chosen to fight for the cause, what life in the Islamic State is like and how you can join. Cohen himself has had conversations like these with self-proclaimed fighters and said they felt natural and personable. No copied-and-pasted instruction, just a blinking cursor at the other end of the screen.

“Ask.fm has been extremely imperative in connecting real fighters within ISIS,” Alkhouri said. “That’s really important in the recruitment business, because it creates this link between the group, the group’s fighters and the group’s supporters who are potential recruits in the future.”

On some occasions IS allows fighters on the ground to tweet out original footage from the battle lines — raw videos that aren’t professionally edited at the Al-Hayat headquarters, but nevertheless offer an authentic viewpoint of what fighting for the Islamic State is like. At least a dozen accounts on Twitter are actual IS fighters, with direct knowledge of their army’s advancement and position, according to research from Alkhouri’s team.

Country-sourced talent

IS shrewdly understands that to reach as wide an audience as possible, it needs to flood the zone with messages tailored to different demographic groups. It encourages its fighters to engage with potential recruits online and boasts a diverse contingent of spokespersons. It is methodical about translating recruitment material into different languages, including Russian, Bengali, Indonesian, Turkish, Uzbek and Albanian. And it targets different groups with the most demographically relevant media platform — an online magazine in German,an Instagram post in Arabic or a pamphlet in Urdu.

One recent example of this audience-targeting involves French fugitive Hayat Boumeddiene, the widow of the Parisian gunman who opened fire in a kosher supermarket following the Charlie Hebdo attack. With its French audience in mind, IS broke the news of Boumeddiene’s reappearance in Syria in a two-page Q&A in the second edition of Dar al Islam, the group’s French-language propaganda magazine. Just as Vanity Fair once put Ricky Martin on the cover of its Spanish-language edition to appeal to Latino readers, IS placed Boumeddiene in the appropriate market-segmented vertical to cater to its French (and increasingly female) following.

Similar forms of propaganda magazines are published in German and English, and mimic the trusted designs of First World countries’ publications. Its English-language rag, Dabiq, is filled with a color palette and fonts you might see on a new-media site like Vox, and complemented by photography depicting heroic warriors. Steven Heller, author of “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State,” a book about the propaganda of dictatorships, says the terrorist publication could “win awards.”

“They’re searching for legitimacy,” Heller told Yahoo News. “When you’re talking about a terrorist organization that’s doing such awful things to human beings, it’s difficult to think that somebody cared that much about a logo, an issue number, the illustrations, and the leg of the Q. It’s clear that there’s an art director and designers putting this together.”

Islamic State branding. (via The Institute for National Security Studies)

Sometimes IS establishes a feeling of legitimacy among its potential recruits via a good, old-fashioned crowdsourcing campaign. As Oren Segal, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, notes, IS recruiters are known to ask interested faraway foreigners to submit Photoshop projects, writing samples or photography. IS’ communications hub sometimes publishes these materials. Not only is it a good way to find people with sharp new-media skills, but the whole ritual is eerily similar to sweepstakes strategies that major companies use to build a positive brand image.

A counterstrategy

The U.S. and its allies are still struggling to contain the expansion of IS fighters on the ground in the Middle East. But experts like Segal, Cohen and Alkhouri all agree that, in order to defeat this terror organization, the United States must also find ways to blunt the group’s pervasive online narrative. That may require the Obama administration to partner more closely with America’s biggest tech organizations — a difficult task, after reports of spying from the National Security Agency have caused tech behemoths to be wary of government supervision. It could even mean rethinking certain countries’ free-speech protections in the realm of social media.

That counternarrative, as Segal noted, must be just as emotionally appealing.

“These videos of people killing themselves and joining terrorist groups around the world, they’re conveying a narrative of authenticity,” he said. “When we’re trying to come up with something that opposes that, how do we capture an authentic counternarrative that doesn’t look like ‘Say no to drugs’? We need something meaningful. At the end of the day, it’s a battle for hearts and minds.”

Fighting a ruthless, well-equipped, militarily shrewd terrorist force on the ground has proved to be a huge challenge to the United States and its allies. Battling a global army of extremists with prodigious social media skills in a constantly changing digital landscape may be even harder.

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Minnesota tries softer approach in battling Islamic State – by Liz Goodwin/Yahoo News

Obama’s ‘Crusades’ controversy highlights war on terrorism’s rhetorical minefield – by Olivier Knox/Yahoo News