Marketing ISIS: Turning terror into tweets
Since its inception in 2010, the Islamic State (ISIS) has relied on an effective marketing strategy, rivalling that of any successful advertising agency. In the manner of global business powerhouses, ISIS has developed a strong brand and put in place a communications strategy carefully adapted to its target market: the Muslim world.
Its savvy manipulation of social media also provided recognition and notoriety for its militants, encouraging acts of barbaric savagery and suicide operations that have become ISIS hallmarks, as in the June 26th attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait.
That spasm of bloodshed included a beheading, the mass shooting of tourists on a beach and the suicide bombing of a mosque. Hundreds of people were killed, maimed or wounded. That does not sound like something anyone can sell, but ISIS has.
ISIS has found a way to sell the unsellable. It has found a market that few understood was there. ISIS, like any other brand, relies on easily recognisable icons to propagate its message. Everyone who has witnessed on social media images of ISIS beheadings or its symbol, the black flag, will immediately recognise even a glimpse of it.
This is because icons are powerful and emotional: think of Coca-Cola’s logo. ISIS has chosen a symbol known to all, in this case the Islamic declaration of faith, and placed it on black flag.
In its beheading videos, ISIS relies heavily on powerful colours: black balaclavas for the executioners and orange jumpsuits for the victims.
On the face of it, ISIS has linked its brand with a compelling narrative, restoration of the Islamic caliphate that ended in 1924 with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and that has once again seemingly been restored by God under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who claims descent from the Prophet Mohammad.
ISIS’s approach to communications is highly sophisticated and shows the significant resources dedicated by the group to its high-tech media centre, which issues magazines and slick videos showing torture and execution in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt.
“ISIS is applying a high level of creativity aiming at terrorising people,” observed Nisreen Sadek, a communications expert and producer in Dubai. “Their videos are highly technical and produced with the style of Hollywood movies, entailing the use of several cameras and people with expertise, something that’s very difficult to achieve in a theatre of war.”
ISIS also produces Dabiq, a glossy propaganda magazine that features the organisation’s ideology and successes as well as stories about its fighters. This online content is generally uploaded to hosting services and disseminated by supporters on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and uses clever hashtags.
A recent Brookings Institution Twitter census estimated that in September-December 2014 “at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time”. The study said each ISIS supporter has an average of 1,000 followers, a figure considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user.
ISIS-supporting accounts were also considerably more active than non-supporting users, according to the study. It observed that much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of “hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume”.
These users understand and speak the language of ISIS’s target audience, young Muslims and possible converts generally aged between 20 and 30 who feel marginalised and alienated, whether they live in Arab countries or the West.
By resorting to poster boys for brutality such as the infamous “Jihadi John”, who appeared in the videoed beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, ISIS has been able to appeal to a new generation, an essential element of its ambitious expansionist plans. “Jihadi John”, the nickname of British national Mohammed Emwazi, is now a celebrity figure in extremist circles.
ISIS has also sought to show jihadists in a more personable way. Abu Hamza al-Britani, a 21-year-old Londoner of Pakistani origin was depicted being teased in 2014 about his insatiable appetite by his fellow ISIS militants. Besides his love of junk food and sweets, Abu Hamza’s favourite topic of conversation is the pet kitten he left behind to go for jihad.
By using such figures, ISIS has attracted a large pool of youngsters who, once indoctrinated, can be used to spread the ISIS message.
In her book What Terrorists Want: Understanding The Enemy, Containing The Threat, Irish political scientist Louise Richardson states that terrorists seek revenge, reaction and renown. ISIS publicising its jihadists’ acts of war and victorious military offensives achieves exactly that.