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The Islamic State: Use of Media

Threatening Israel
Violent Videos
Media Presence Declines


The Islamic State has released dozens of videos of their opponents being beheaded, tortured, or just plain shot in a ditch, and they have made pertinent use of social and world media to disseminate their message.  The IS militants make use of twitter, facebook, and other social media to get their messages across, including running "hashtag campaigns" on twitter.  According to experts, the Islamic State uses social media extremely effectively, moreso than some large companies, and puts a very large emphasis on their image in the media. 

An encrypted, anonymous messaging app known as Telegram became popular with jihadis during late 2015, allowing them to send messages to their followers that were untraceable. Telegram is a Russian application that has no restrictive content rules about what types of material can be sent out and no filters or monitors, allowing terror organizations to recruit, send out propaganda, and communicate with ease. Instructions for manufacturing explosives, tutorials for launching cyber attacks, complex battle plans, and calls for attack have all been disseminated through Telegram's messaging system. Telegram officially shut down 78 channels known to be used by ISIS fighters following global criticism in the wake of the November 13, 2015 Paris terror attacks.

The self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced in July 2015 that the group was to stop disseminating their trademark graphic execution videos. Instead he said, they should show the before and after of the execution, but should avoid the showing the actual act out of respect for, “Muslims and children’s feelings who may find these scenes grotesque.” (CS Monitor, July 22, 2015)

It was reported in January 2016 that Islamic State militants had given their recruits in foreign countries manuals, titled “Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen.” The manual is 58 pages, and includes instructions on blending in with local culture and attacking places that are likely to have the highest number of victims. So as to not bring suspiscion to themselves, recruits who read the manual are encouraged to not participate in prayer services, shave their beards, wear traditional Western clothing, use aftershave, and wear crosses around their necks.

A mobile phone application developed by the Islamic State's “Library of Zeal” department in order to teach children the alphabet and basic phrases with jihadist themes was launched in early May 2016. Included in the application are games for memorizing arabic letters and how they are written, as well as songs designed to teach children the Arabic alphabet. The volcabulary section of the app teaches the user the Arabic words for “gun,” “rocket,” “tank,” “bullet,” and others. The application is the first Islamic State mobile application directed strictly at children.

In the United States, tech giant Google began using it's targetted advertisement algorythms to dissuade potential ISIS recruits and show them anti-ISIS videos during late 2016. Google-owned tech incubator Jigsaw developed a program dubbed the “redirect method,” that places advertising and video results alongside specific search keywords that potential ISIS recruits are likely to use. In testing the system, Jigsaw saw a significantly higher “click-through” rate for the anti-ISIS advertisements (9%) than for standard advertisements on the web (2-3%). The “redirect method” developed by Jigsaw is based on education, and is not meant to lead to arrests or surveilance of individuals.

Leaders of the Islamic State advised their members in December 2016 against using internet-based chat applications such as Telegram and WhatsApp, claiming that the U.S.-backed coalition was using the internet-connected phones to track and kill ISIS commanders.

Rob Wainwright, the director of the European Police Office (Europol), announced at a security conference on May 4, 2017, that his agency had recently discovered ISIS militant activity online that indicated the organization was beginning to build it's own social network.  The ISIS-made social media platform is a response to increased attention from sites such as Google, Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, who have often removed the extremist group's propaganda material.  

Threatening Israel

Violent attacks rocked Israel in October 2015, with Palestinians incited by their leader's propaganda carrying out daily terror attacks against Jews during the “days of rage.” The Islamic State published anti-Israel propaganda videos about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the first time ever in response, praising these attacks and calling for more attacks against Jews and Israelis. The videos include archival footage of past attacks on Israel and were presented in the Islamic State's signature style, featuring brutal murders and interviews with fighters. Palestinians were also reminded of the significance of the al-Aqsa mosque in the videos, and are encouraged to take up arms to defend it. The propaganda arm of the Islamic State produced at least six of these videos during the second week of October 2015.

On October 23, 2015, the Islamic State released their first video completely in Hebrew, in which a man speaking perfect Hebrew with an Arabic accent threatens that “not one Jew will remain in Jerusalem.”

U.S. Special Envoy to the Counter-ISIS Coalition, Brett McGurk, stated during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 28, 2016, that Islamic State media had increasingly focused on Israel as a target in recent months. McGurk, a State Departmemt official, declared that Islamic State “media statements in recent months, as they suffer losses on the battlefield, have focused on Israel as a target.”

Violent Videos

James Foley was an American freelance journalist born on October 18, 1973.  With a passion for getting the raw story, Foley often found himself in sticky situations and had been captured previously.  He was captured in Libya in April 2011 and held for 44 days in a Libyan prison, after which he returned to Libya and was there to cover Muammar Gadaffi's capture.  Foley was in Syria doing freelance reporting on the Syrian civil war when he was abducted along with his translator on November 12, 2012.  After his captors demanded a payment of $132 million (USD) for his ransom, the United States launched a rescue operation based on intelligence that Foley and others were being held at a specific location.  The mission failed because the captors had allegedly moved the hostages from the location just hours prior. 

On August 19, 2014, the Islamic State uploaded a video to their youtube account of Foley's execution, titled "A message to America".  Although it was quickly taken down, the video and screenshots were circulated around the internet.  The video shows Foley in an orange jumpsuit with an IS fighter standing next to him.  Foley reads from a script about how his real killers are the US government, and then he is brutally beheaded.  The video does not show the specific moment of the beheading, appearing to be shot in multiple takes.  After Foley is killed, the camera pans over and it can be seen that IS has another hostage, identified as journalist Steven Sotloff.  The masked executioner explains that if US air strikes on ISIS do not cease, the other hostage will be killed as well.  This video was meant as a deliberate and personal threat against the United States, and President Obama asserted that the terrorists would pay the ultimate price for their actions, claiming that "justice will be done" against the murderers of James Foley.  The President said that the United States will "do what's necessary to go after those who harm Americans".  (Business Insider, August 26, 2014)

After a few days it was ascertained that Foley's executioner was a Kuwaiti born UK citizen named Mohammed Emwazi.  Emwazi graduated from the University of Westminster in London with a computer programming degree and comes from a wealthy family.  He is believed to have travelled to Syria around 2012.  One of Emwazi's close friends said to the Washington Post under condition of anonymity that “I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John. He was like a brother to me . . . I am sure it is him.”  (Reuters, February 26, 2015)

Steven Sotloff was executed in a video released by the Islamic State on September 2, 2014 after appearing in the background of the beheading video of James Foley.  Sotloff was a 31 year old American journalist who was captured in Syria in 2013, and had roots in Israel.  An American born Jew, after travelling to Israel in 2008 to pursue his undergraduate degree Sotloff became an Israeli citizen and began publishing articles for the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report, as well as Foreign Policy and Time Magazine.  Steven's freelance journalism work took him all around the Middle East, but he went missing on August 4, 2013, in Aleppo Syria and was held in Raqqa for a year. At the end of this execution video the brutal Islamic militants threatened to hand down the same fate to an unidentified at the time British man unless Western governments agree to cease their air-strikes and assaults against the Islamic State. It is speculated that this act of brutality was committed by the same masked executioner that appeared in the James Foley execution video, due to the fact that he has a similar British accent and states "I"m back, Obama" at the begining of the video. 

A third execution video was released on September 13, 2014, and shows the execution by beheading of the terrorists British prisoner from the previous video.  This prisoner identifies himself as British aid worker David Haines, who had been abducted in Syria 10 days after his arrival in early 2013 and had not been heard from since.  Haines was 44 years old and left behind a wife and 4 year old daughter in Croatia and a 17 year old daughter from a previous marriage in Scotland.  He was forced to read a script similar to Sotloff and Foley, in which his death was blamed on David Cameron and the British government.  Haines changed careers to be an aid worker, helping individuals in the Balkans, Libya, and South Sudan after a long stint as an engineer in Britain's Royal Air Force.  The executioner is believed to be the same one from the first two execution videos, as he has a similar British accent. The execution was reportedly a response to the British aiding of Kurdish fighters fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq.  At the end of the video the executioner shows another man to the camera and threatens to execute him in the next video.  The individual was identified as Alan Henning, who was a taxi driver from Britain who was abducted while working as a volunteer on an aid convoy in Syria. 

Extremists aligned with ISIS in Algeria released a video on September 24, 2014, of them beheading French hostage Herve Gourdel.  He was abducted on Sunday in response to France joining in on the US led airstrikes against ISIS, and was killed less than 72 hours later.  Gourdel was a 55 year old hiking and mountaineering guide from Nice, France, and was in Algeria for a hiking trip.  He had arrived just the previous day. 

On October 1, 2014 it was reported that Islamic State militants had beheaded 9 Kurdish soldiers that they had captured during intense clashes near the border between Syria and Turkey, in the Northern Syrian town of Kobani.  The individuals beheaded included 3 women.  After the executions, the militants paraded around the town with the severed heads and posted pictures online of the grotesque display. 

The Islamic State released a video online of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning on October 3, 2014, murdering him in the same fashion as James Foley, David Haines, and Steven Sotloff.  It is believed that the same executioner with a British accent carried out this execution as well.  Henning was an aid worker who was abducted in early 2014 while taking part in an aid convoy, delivering toys and supplies to Syrian children caught in the brutal crossfire of the civil war.  In Britain, Henning held a job as a taxi driver in Manchester.  In the weeks leading up to his execution, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda appealed to ISIS and asked them to release Alan Henning, stating that he was simply an aid worker and was genuinely attempting to better the situation of all Muslim individuals in the area.  A local commander of the ISIS affiliated group the Al-Nusra Front confronted the ISIS militants just days after Henning's abduction and informed the ISIS militants that he believed they had gone too far, and that Henning's abduction was counter productive to their strategy.  After Henning's execution the masked executioner threatens the life of an American hostage, Peter Edward Kassig.  Kassig is a former US Army Ranger from Indiana who started a non-profit organization Special Emergency Response and Assistance (Sera) in 2012 to provide assistance to the Syrian refugees.  He changed his name to Abdul-Raman Kassig and converted to Islam in captivity. 

An ISIS affiliated group in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt released a video on twitter of four individuals being murdered on October 6, 2014.  The video shows three men being beheaded, accused of collaborating and providing intelligence to Israel, and one man being shot to death after being accused of working with the Egyptian Army.  Before their execution the individuals called out to fellow "spies" to reveal themselves or face a similar fate. 

Peter Kassig was a 26 year old US citizen who was kidnapped on October 1, 2013, while travelling to the Syrian city of Dier al-Zor as an aid worker.  Kassig was beheaded by an Islamic State militant in a video released on Sunday November 16 on Islamic State twitter channels and jihadist websites.  His parents stated that he had a "love for the Syrian people and [a] desire to ease their suffering," and President Barack Obama praised Kassig's humanitarian efforts on his way back from the G20 Summit in Australia.  The individual who beheaded Kassig spoke with the same British accent and is believed to be the same person who carried out the beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning. The video differed from the other execution videos, in that this one was about 10 minutes longer and included propaganda as well as video of other beheadings in addition to Peter Kassig's (The LA Times, November 17, 2014). 

Two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State were displayed in a video released on January 20, 2015.  The militants demanded a $200 million ransom for the hostages, identified as Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, and stated that the Japanese government had 3 days to save their citizens. In this case the ransom was not an arbitrary amount, but is estimated to be the equivalent of the non-military aid that Tokyo pledged to countries affected by the Islamic State.  The Islamic State militants executed Haruna Yukawa in a video released on January 24, 2015.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly expressed his grief to the Yukawa family while at the same time assuring the people of Japan that the government was doing everything that they could to rescue the remaining hostage.  The video that showed Yukawa's execution did not include the "Jihadi John" ISIS fighter with a British accent.  The second Japanese hostage, Kenji Goto, was beheaded on January 30, 2015, in a video that was released by ISIS media accounts.  The executioner who speaks English with a British accent and has come to be known as "Jihadi John" carried out Goto's execution. 

Militants from the Islamic State carried out their first video execution by burning their victim to death in a video released on February 3, 2015.  The Jordanian pilot, 26 year old First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, was captured on December 24, 2014, after his F-16 went down in Northern Syria. Al-Kasabeh came from a wealthy and prominent tribe in Jordan, and the Jordanian government attempted for many weeks to negotiate al-Kasabeh's safe release.  During negotiations, Jordanian officials attempted to trade al-Kasabeh for Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman jailed in Jordan for her role in a 2005 bombing attack on Amman.  The Islamic State would not accept the trade however, and al-Kasabeh was burned alive in a cage in a video released on ISIS media accounts.  Apparently the video had been recorded over a month beforehand, and al-Kasabeh had been long dead during negotiations to secure his safe return home.  In response to the brutal murder of al-Kasabeh, Jordanian officials executed Sajida al-Rishawi along with another convicted terrorist on the morning of February 4, 2015. 

Militants affiliated with the Tripoli Province of Islamic State posted a video of them beheading 21 Egyptian Christians on an unidentified beach in Libya via the Islamic State's official media accounts on February 15, 2015.  The group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. The video is very well put together, similar to their other videos, and shows the Christians being marched wearing orange jumpsuits by ISIS fighters wearing black robes and facial coverings.  The black masked jihadis then behead all 21 victims after pushing them into the sand.  It is believed that these victims were migrant workers who had come from rural Egypt to find work in Libya, and were then abducted in two separate incidents. 

A nineteen year old Arab Israeli man was executed by a child soldier of the Islamic State in a video released via ISIS media accounts on March 10, 2015.  The victim, identified as Muhammad Mussallam, was accused in the video of being a spy for the Mossad.  Before his execution he spoke to the camera about being recruited and trained by the Mossad, and claimed that his father and brother had encouraged him to join.  Mussallam is seen in the video wearing a similar orange jumpsuit worn by captives in the previous videos. At the end of the video a young boy, no older than twelve, shoots Mussallam in the head while he kneels in front of the boy, execution style. Accompanying the young boy on camera was an older, French speaking jihadist who referred to the young boy as one of the “cubs of the caliphate.” 

Members of the IS affiliated Al-Nusra Front posted pictures on social media in early March 2015 of them holding bags of dried lentils, other food stuffs, and humanitarian supplies that were meant for the people of Syria.  The supplies, including guns and bullets, were stolen from the former stronghold of the U.S. backed Syrian rebel group Harakat Hazm. 

Three Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were beheaded by ISIS militants in a video released on March 19, 2015. The video clip was released during a time when most Kurds are celebrating the new year holiday. The black-clad executioners in the video spoke Kurdish, claiming that “To the Muslim Kurdish people: know that our war is not with you, rather it is with those who ventured into an alliance with the Safavids and crusaders to wage war on the Muslims.” (Reuters, March 20, 2015)

A video released through ISIS media accounts on April 19, 2015, shows the executions of two large groups of Ethiopian Christians in two different locations. To begin the video, an English-speaking executioner states “we are back again”. Neither the date nor the location of filming was readily available, but it is believed that the executed individuals belonged to the Ethiopian Church. (Sydney Morning Herald, April 19, 2015)

Militants from the group Sinai Province of the Islamic State released a video on the internet on August 5, 2015, showing 30 year old Croatian citizen Tomislav Salopek kneeling in sand next to a knife-wielding, masked Jihadi. Calmly reading a note in English, Salopek demanded the release of “Muslim women” held in Egyptian prisons, and stated that if the demand was not met he would be killed.

Abu Azrael, an Iraqi fighter affectionately dubbed “Iraq's Rambo,” was featured in a video posted online in which he sliced and mutilated the charred and dead body of a captured Islamic State fighter with a large sword. Azrael has become somewhat of a celebrity in Iraq during the campaign against ISIS, known for his rallying cry to reduce the jihadis “to flour.” In response, a video was posted on Islamic State social media accounts the following day showing the horrific execution by fire of four fighters associated with a unit backed by the Iraqi government.

In response to increased Russian involvement in the conflict, ISIS released a video threatening attacks in Russia and on Russian citizens abroad for the first time on November 23, 2015. The video was made in Russian, and ISIS fighters can be seen chanting, “soon, very soon, the blood will spill like an ocean.”

U.S. airstrikes killed the man known as Jihadi John, who had been featured in ISIS propaganda videos, in Raqqa on November 12, 2015.

A Russian "spy," who had been forced into the job by coercion and intimidation by Russian authorities after being arrested with drugs, was beheaded by a Russian member of ISIS in a video released by the organization on December 3, 2015. Magomed Khasiev was a 23 year old Russian college graduate who was orphaned at age 9. Khasiev was caught transporting drugs in February 2014, after which he agreed to spy on ISIS for the Russian government to avoid jailtime. While embedded with ISIS Khasiev contacted his handler with Russian intelligence services five times.

Videos were released by the Islamic State on January 25, 2016, showing nine perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks conducting training sessions and beheading “infidels” in the Middle East. The video was allegedly filmed in Raqqa, and also includes footage featuring locations in Paris that were attacked.

At least 16 Ethiopian Christians were executed in a video disseminated by the Islamic State in mid-May 2016. The individuals were divided into two groups who were then shot or beheaded. The same video included footage of 45 ISIS fighters who were buried alive after being caught fleeing battle.

Indonesian children as young as 8-years old were featured in ISIS propaganda videos released in May 2016, burning their Indonesian passports and firing weapons. The estimated 23 children aged 8-12 in the video speak fluent Indonesian to the camera, and are suspected to have been brought to ISIS territory with their parents.

The Islamic State's media arm claimed in September 2016 that the terror group had successfully carried out 729 suicide attacks, or “martyrdom operations,” during the first eight months of the year. Most of these suicide bombings, 59%, occured inside Iraq, while 37% terrorized Syria. The most frequent targets for these bombings were Iraqi security forces, who were hit 406 times, and the most popular method of attack was with vehicle-based explosive devices.

A video released by the Islamic State's media arm on September 20, 2016, allegedly shows a captured Russian intelligence agent. The man identified himself in the video as Captain Petrenko Ivgeniy Viktorovich, but fails to disclose where or how he was captured by the terrorist group. Viktorovich asks the Russian government to do whatever they can to secure his rescue, after reading a threatening script directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Breaking a year of silence, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a rallying cry to his supporters ahead of the U.S. backed Iraqi push for Mosul in November 2016. In a 32-minute audio message that features the first audio recording of al-Baghdadi since late 2015, the group's mysterious leader states that he is “confident of victory” in Mosul.

A propaganda clip specifically targetting China and Chinese jihadis was released by ISIS on March 1, 2017. The 30-minute video, which featured young Uighur men engaged in training and executing captives, constituted the group's first direct threat against China according to terrorism experts.  

The media arm of the Islamic State released a video threatening Iran for it's participation in the regional conflicts in March 2017.  In the video clip a masked fighter tells Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that ISIS will destroy your house like this, before gesturing behind him to rubble and ruins.  Multiple Shiite soldiers are beheaded in the video, as an Islamic State fighter proclaims that they will conquer Iran and restore it to the Sunni Muslim nation as it was before.  (Gaurdian, March 28, 2017)

A Russian-language video released by the media arm of the Islamic State on May 9, 2017, purported to show the decapitation of a man described as a Russian intelligence officer.  Russian officials denied that any Russian servicemember had been captured and killed by ISIS.  

Despite reports in early 2017 that he had been killed, on September 28, 2017, an undated audio recording was released of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi encouraging attacks on the West.  This was the first communication released from the group's secretive leader in almost a year.  During the 46-minute long recording al-Baghdadi makes references to recent events, including North Korea's missile tests over Japan and threats to Guam, and the capture of Mosul by coalition forces.  

On December 27, 2017, a video was released on official Islamic State media channels featuring a one-legged ISIS fighter identified as Abu Salih al-Amriki, speaking English with a New York accent.  The militant urges supporters in the United States to take advantage of lax U.S. gun laws and purchase weapons to carry out attacks.  

Media Presence Declines

The Islamic State's emphasis and presence on media waned during 2016, as the group struggled to hold territory against U.S., Russian, and Syrian airstrikes. More than 700 items were released through Islamic State official media channels in August 2015; a year later, in August 2016, that number had dropped to less than 200.

An analysis released by the Lawfare blog in January 2018 found that online ISIS propaganda from official channels had dropped off by more than 90% compared to Summer 2015, when ISIS propaganda production was at it's highest point.  The report's authors suggest that this is not just a drop-off, but a total collapse of the Islamic State's official media empire driven by territorial losses and weakening man-power.  Although the flow of official Islamic State Propaganda has largely been stopped, the group's online Caliphate remains as dangerous as ever with a global network of supporters who now create content and do not need a centralized organization or specific instructions to carry out attacks.  This has creates an issue for individuals fighting and tracking  ISIS, as the line between official and unofficial propaganda is being blurred.  

A new audio recording was released on August 23, 2018, featuring Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging his followers to continue their terror attacks on Western nations. This was the first audio recording featuring Baghdadi since September 2017. The terror leader made references to current political events such as tensions over an American pastor detained in Turkey and rebel forces surrender to Syrian President Assad.  

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