The stark imagery of gory beheadings, crucifixions, and people being burned alive at the hands of ISIS terrorists have flooded social media websites in recent years, but the majority of the propaganda produced by the group depicts civilian life, according to a think tank.
While ISIS continues prominent efforts to glorify acts of violence, its most recent propaganda push shifts focus to prove it’s a genuine nation state.
A new report by the counter-extremist Quilliam Foundation departs from the media’s focus on ISIS’s frequent acts of brutality by stressing the importance of trying to understand the group’s confusing long-term strategy.
The terrorist group created more than 1,100 pieces of propaganda between July 17 and August 15 of this year, said the report. The pieces include photos, videos, audio statements, news bulletins, theological essays, and more.
On average, 38 individual pieces of propaganda are produced each day in an “unrivaled” operation stretching from West Africa to Afghanistan that works around the clock.
The group’s civilian output focused mainly on local services, religion, and economic activity. Among the languages used are Arabic, German, English, Russian, Kurdish, and French.
While violence was frequently depicted in photos—both against perceived enemies of the group and against citizens accused of crimes—more than half of the propaganda produced focused on ISIS’s idealized vision of life.
“They depicted Western foreign fighters sitting together on grassy hillocks and in children-filled parks, calling upon their fellow extremists to join them in the land of the ‘caliphate,'” reads the Quilliam report, authored by researcher Charlie Winter. “Many others emerged over the rest of the year, showing Arab supporters singing and drinking tea together during “istirahat” (breaks). And rapturously inviting their compatriots to join them at “ribat” (the frontier).”
This month, ISIS published photos of two new theme parks for young children, which some analysts claimed was an attempt to divert attention away from persistent strife that pervades ISIS territories. The children are seen apparently enjoying a series of rides, including spinning teacups, a Ferris wheel, and a miniature train ride. The parks are located in Fallujah, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, according to the activist group Raqqah is Being Slaughtered Silently.
The photos could be part of what Quilliam describes as ISIS’s “utopia narrative,” which is the most prominent theme. More than 52 percent of the pieces conveyed that theme above anything else.
Since ISIS took power in 2014, there have been questions about the legitimacy and credibility of its claims. It compensates by creating an image of life that appears to be going on as normal, according to Quilliam. It can also seen as an attempt to win over local populations in Syria and Iraq.
Haroro Ingram, a research fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra, said in a recent interview that Western powers are doing a poor job at countering ISIS propaganda.
“Western governments need to fight the urge to launch a counter-proselytizing campaign against IS (and other militant Islamist groups). At best, such efforts are likely to fail. After all, why should the adherents of a particular faith give any credibility to the ideological opinions of those outside of their faith?” he told the Musings on Iraq blog.
Specifically, the U.S.-led efforts to counter ISIS’s recruiting efforts has been insufficient, Ingram said.
“Western counter-narrative efforts against IS [ISIS] have generally been pretty poor. Like many, I thought the State Department’s sarcastic ‘Welcome to the “Islamic State” land’ video is a baffling example of counter-narrative messaging,” Ingram noted.
He suggests the United States and its allies should try again to challenge ISIS’s core message, which is its claim of “practically addressing the needs of Sunnis via appeals to pragmatic factors like security, stability and livelihood.”