ISIS’ Sinister Media Strategy, and How the West Is Fighting Back

Branding terrorism in the digital age

Here's an ugly truth: ISIS has a really effective brand strategy. Al Qaeda terrorists had a manifesto that claimed to represent the common man (the name means "The Base") and some grainy, boring video, but ISIS is going after the supervillain look as hard as it can.

It's got a scary acronym (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also referred to as ISIL and the less Twitter-friendly IS), a huge online presence and—not kidding—flashy "annual reports" since 2012.

The people attracted to the organization vary across metrics like cultural background, age and sex. Granted, the data is all anecdotal so far, but a pair of French girls were detained on suspicion of planning to join the group; a 19-year-old Colorado woman was arrested trying to board a flight to Turkey to meet her jihadist boyfriend; and NBC Nightly News scored an interview with a North Carolina man who'd been detained in Turkey and prevented from entering Syria. 

OK, the guy in the video above is fairly pathetic, but the U.S. Department of State is definitely taking him (and others like him) seriously. Government workers at the department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) have been putting together a propaganda push designed to counter ISIS' strategy, including trolling pro-ISIS Twitter users and pushing out an incredibly disturbing and sarcastic propaganda video on YouTube.

We asked the State Department where the footage from that video originated and got back a very interesting response via email (requests for a phone interview were ignored): "Footage for the video was taken primarily from ISIL propaganda videos, as well as from Iraqi news footage," an unnamed State Department official wrote. "The video footage of the ISIL fighters tossing bodies into a canyon was published by a Syrian opposition activist group called Masarat, which received footage ISIL never meant to be released."

CSCC's videos and tweets go out in a variety of languages, which is probably one reason its work is getting public attention only recently. The Center hopes, in its words, "to clearly demonstrate the hypocrisy of an organization claiming to defend Muslims, yet at the same time slaughtering Muslims, destroying their cultural patrimony and depleting their economic wealth." The video only had about 3,000 views in English before John Oliver did a long TV segment about it on Last Week Tonight this Sunday, but it tops 43,000 views in Arabic.

Isis Annual Report 2013

But ISIS' own Twitter strategy is complex, sophisticated and, of course, totally at odds with Twitter's own terms of service. The social network has tried again and again to shut down accounts associated with the group, but, in the manner of more benign groups like Anonymous that also occasionally run afoul of Twitter's terms of service, they pop back up almost immediately under any number of new accounts, exploiting the network's open-ended infrastructure. ISIS has also taken to threatening the tech company, saying that any one of its employees "should bear in mind and watch over himself because on his doorstep there might be a lone wolf assassin waiting." The social campaign seems to be run by a Westerner, an American-educated man of French extraction named Ahmad Abousamra, who made the FBI's Most Wanted list this year.

YouTube has the exact same problem whenever the group decides to publish new video of a grisly beheading; multiple accounts post the footage immediately and then repost it when the site takes the video down. Facebook is more or less immune to this kind of incursion; it's impossible to end up in a hashtag feed without being approved as a public group by the service, and most of the posts that show up are simply news stories.

Beyond social media, ISIS manages its appearance very carefully. Rather than try to distinguish itself from other groups, ISIS has adopted a black flag with the Shahada, the creed of Islam, on it. The words are emblazoned on jihadist flags across the world, from Russian militant group The Caucasus Emirate to the flags of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to Al-Shabaab, the group that claimed responsibility for shooting up a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last year. By themselves, the words aren't even controversial: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger." They're on the Saudi Arabian flag, too.

But that's part of the point: ISIS is branding itself not just as Muslim, but as Islam. Moderates have no place in ISIS' world, and so they're being told to go away or killed (those would be the murders the State Department emphasizes in the video discussed above).

And that, frankly, is a tougher sell to the Islamic world than many in the West imagine. LBC International (the privately owned Lebanese Broadcasting Company) takes a different approach to fighting terrorist ideology. It produces the Arabic-language Ktir Salbe Show, a sketch comedy series that frequently mocks ISIS, Al Qaeda and other militant groups. The show, which plays on government-run channels throughout the region (including Iraq's Al Iraqiya), features guys acting goofy, militants shooting themselves in the feet—or the face—and women showing plenty of leg (that last one is important, given the emphasis these violent groups place on chastity).

Ultimately, the best and most effective criticisms of violent militancy in the Arab world may come from within it. If there's one thing that's proved true in the marketing world over and over again, it's that the only way to get the public on your side is to know them as well as you can.