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ISIS' Propaganda Machine: Global Mediated Terrorism

May 13, 2024 at 9:30 am

ISIS' Propaganda Machine: Global Mediated Terrorism
  • Book Author(s): Ahmed Al-Rawi
  • Published Date: February 2024
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Hardback: 132 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1032615868

Ever since the territorial defeat of its self-described caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2019, ISIS (Daesh, to use its Arabic acronym) has seemingly receded as the preeminent threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, particularly amidst Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza. Nonetheless, beyond the region, Daesh persists as a formidable, albeit reduced threat, maintaining a presence in Africa, Afghanistan, Central Asia; it even has remnants in Iraq and Syria.

Crucially, its operations are still very visible in the digital realm. Despite being banned from Twitter, now X, in 2014, Daesh has managed adeptly to churn out propaganda, reinforcing the narrative of its “imagined nation-state”. This online persistence is the focus of Ahmed Al-Rawi’s latest publication, ISIS’ Propaganda Machine: Global Mediated Terrorism.

In his short but comprehensive analysis, Al-Rawi explores how Daesh leverages various media formats to disseminate its “hybrid version of Salafi Islam”. The book details the group’s strategic use of offline billboards, video games, educational apps and the Dark Web to reach its global audience.

Through a mixed-method research approach, Al-Rawi not only provides new insights into these media, but also highlights ISIS/Daesh’s continued adaptability and proficiency in media production, which he argues is akin to the operations of an international news organisation replete with “correspondents, copy editors and graphic designers.” This novel form of jihad, or e-jihad, writes Al-Rawi, saw “journalists regarded as jihadists” given that, according to Daesh, “media is considered a form of jihad.”

In the opening section on the use of billboards, we read how the same billboards were used across various far flung cities, located in different countries including Libya, Iraq and Syria. This in turn helped give an impression of the scope of Daesh’s imagined outreach.

Throughout the book, the point is driven home that, ironically, in its media vision, Daesh has replicated the state-building policies of secular totalitarian states in the region such as Baathist-era Iraq and present-day Syria. Ultimately, this is with mobilisation and propagating for the survival of the state in mind.

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How this is manifested online, more often than not in a decentralised manner, forms the crux of ISIS’ Propaganda Machine, with particular attention to how Daesh sympathisers and supporters engaged on social media prior to 2014, and have done since then on alternative media, “increasingly using non-US based platforms and sites.” The author’s in-depth focus on understudied areas such as educational apps, which he contends were primarily to “jihadize” the next generation, and the Dark Web, fills the gaps within the existing literature on media and terrorism. The case of video games for Daesh propaganda and recruiting young people is revealing.

While Al-Rawi’s extensive research is evident, the book’s approach to citations can feel overly meticulous at times. For example, the author mentions that YouTube is used to upload gaming content “because it is regarded as one of the most famous video platforms in the world,” with a cited reference for this well-known fact. This level of detail, while thorough, sometimes detracts from the flow of the discussion in such a compact text.

What the book does offer, though, is a convincing argument that Daesh, far from being extinct, is very much active on the Dark Web, making it the most stable presence for the group to continue disseminating its propaganda among its fringe following.

ISIS’ Propaganda Machine is therefore a vital resource for understanding the media strategies of modern terrorist organisations, and specifically how Daesh uses these in nation-state building, which the author notes is now predominantly a digital endeavour.

While the book focuses on this digital aspect, it also points out that much of the group’s current activities offline are concentrated in West Africa. This is far from the Middle Eastern heartland of the former caliphate and, notably, distant from the situation in Palestine, despite ISIS/Daesh’s declarations about defending Sunni Muslims.

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