ISIS Propaganda a Sophisticated Policy to Achieve Publicity and enhance Recruitment

ISIS Propaganda a Sophisticated Policy to Achieve Publicity and enhance Recruitment

Abstract: The main problem that this dissertation attempts to focus on is how the Islamic State could successfully recruit thousands of people from all around the world. Besides, this paper aims to discover why IS uses extreme brutality and why they attack Shia. Perhaps the most crucial aspect is how the Islamic State exploits each of its operations to serve their propaganda. This paper focuses on several aspects to achieve a better understanding of IS’s sophisticated propaganda and recruitment strategies. This dissertation, briefly, reviews the history of this organization, from its inception until now. The main purpose of this is to demonstrate how the group contrives to behave in such a way as to attract people. Additionally, this paper highlights the employment of propaganda focusing on those aspects that relate directly to the propaganda strategy, especially, the ploys that the Islamic State uses to entice people and the characteristics of its targeted audience. Finally, this dissertation comes to a conclusion that may assist to limit the activities of this terrorist organization by focusing on the religious side of IS propaganda. Such limitation may be achieved by disclosing, to people in general and IS followers in particular, that this terrorist group is abusing Islamic teaching to achieve its own political agenda.


AQI, Baghdadi, Brutality, ISIL, ISIS, Propaganda, Recruitment, the Islamic State, Zarqawi.





I would like to express my deepest appreciation to my adviser Professor Scott Lucas for his continuous support. His guidance helped me throughout the time of my research and writing of this dissertation. Without his guidance and persistent help this dissertation would not have been possible.



The Islamic State terrorist organization (IS) has become the most widely known terrorist group owing to its utilisation of advanced propaganda techniques that can reach audiences all around the world. This propaganda has been mainly used to attract new recruits. Recruitment may be considered the most significant aspect for any terrorist group to survive. IS propaganda is very sophisticated and cannot be understood without studying the group from its foundation. Studying the past and the present of this organization clearly shows that all its major events are well prepared and serve its propaganda needs. Moreover, it can be noticed that every major event is carefully exploited to attract a specific audience. The Islamic State network is capable of creating events that harmonize with its ideology to serve its propaganda. In addition, the Islamic State benefits from some events that are created by others by manipulating weaknesses and errors, in a professional way, to recruit more people. This paper will focus on IS propaganda and how this violent organization, almost always, exploits every event to serve its recruitment needs. This dissertation will show that the propaganda is mainly used for recruitment, but is also utilised for other purposes such as terrifying its enemy and for fundraising. In general, it can be said that every terrorist organization’s survival relies on its members, however, the question is how could IS recruit thousands of people from all around the world?

To answer this main question, it seems important to understand other related issues such as what are the main aims of IS and other Islamic terrorist groups as well as why IS uses extreme brutality. Why do they attack Shias? How does IS exploit others’ mistakes to recruit people? Perhaps the most crucial aspect is how do IS and its predecessors (JTJ, AQI, ISI) use every step or move to serve their propaganda. Studying IS from the beginning can demonstrate that there is a relation between its aim and its propaganda. For instance, the objective of the JTJ terrorist group was to topple the regime in Jordan to establish a pure Islamic State. For this aim, the founder of this group Abu Musab al-Zarqawi looked for Jordanian and Palestinian potential terrorists to recruit. However, when his group’s membership increased and contained multi-nationalities, he attempted to marginalize overthrowing the royal family in Jordan and focused only on establishing an Islamic State. This marginalization did not mean that Zarqawi abandoned his plan against his homeland, but rather that he hid it as a recruiting necessity. Although the actual leader of AQI after Zarqawi was an Egyptian called Abu Ayyub al-Masri, after AQI declared the creation of an Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) al-Masri appointed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its leader. It has been said that the character of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was fake, and it was invented by AQI to attract Iraqis to join their Islamic State which was supposedly led by one of their fellow citizens. Creating an event to serve the propaganda can be seen again in the announcement of the Caliphate which was aimed at recruiting Muslims from all around the world.

In general, this paper treats propaganda and recruitment as twins in IS policy which are employed in a very sophisticated way. This propaganda can serve other goals such as terrifying enemies as well as fundraising for recruitment purposes. At the same time, recruitment can be achieved by exploiting various aspects, such as Iraqi and Syrian politicians’ mistakes and other political circumstances, with the assistance of their propaganda. The Islamic State has exploited the mistake of the Americans when they withdrew, in 2011, before completely purging Iraq of ISI. Furthermore, Maliki’s sectarian policy was exploited by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The latter exploited the chaos in Iraq, as a result of these two factors, to recruit more members, where he succeeded to double their numbers in 2012. Al-Baghdadi, also, took advantage of the Arab Spring to extend his territories into Syria. Consequently, he announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant/Syria (ISIL/ISIS) and recruited more Iraqis and Syrians. IS propaganda and recruitment are served in every possible way. One propaganda strategy is to use extreme savagery such as beheading, execution, crucifying and suicidal attacks which have all assisted IS from Zarqawi’s days until now to attract people. Although the strategy of bin Laden to achieve his ultimate goal to establish an Islamic State relied on fighting the far enemy, particularly, the United States, Zarqawi violated his master’s strategy. Zarqawi attacked the near enemy, specifically Shias, for various reasons, the most significant being to attract Muslim Sunnis globally to join his group.

This paper will focus on several aspects to achieve a better understanding of IS’s sophisticated propaganda and recruitment strategies. First of all, it will, briefly, review the history of this terrorist organization, since its inception until now. The main purpose of this section is to demonstrate how the group carefully behaves to attract people. Moreover, this section aims to give a glance of how terrorist leaders determinedly adhere to their goals which decides their allegiance and leads to hostility. Moreover, it can be noted that propaganda and recruitment play a crucial role in this regard. The second part will discuss the organization’s terrorist activities to show how important attracting an audience is for IS, even if it is at the expense of civilians’ lives. This part will highlight the variety of enemies and brutal methods utilised to achieve increased popularity. The third section will focus on the usage of propaganda. This part will try to highlight various aspects that relate directly to the propaganda strategy, such as some of the tricks that IS uses to attract people and the characteristics of its targeted audience.

As this dissertation aims to highlight how the IS uses propaganda to achieve more publicity and enhance its recruitment, the methodology used will be exclusively qualitative. Hence, for better understanding, this paper has been divided into three sections to focus more on how IS exploits events to strengthen its propaganda. A weakness has been noticed in many literatures that discussed the Islamic State propaganda that they do not link the action with the propaganda. Consequently, this essay attempts to study the event and show how the IS uses a particular event in its advertisement. Moreover, it will study the propaganda and explain the hidden messages that IS attempts to send to its audiences. Additionally, this dissertation considers the theoretical explanation as a very significant assistant to analyse this issue. However, owing to the broad usage of propaganda by the Islamic State, this paper tends to use the theoretical explanation to show how IS follows scientific methods to attract potential recruits.



This dissertation originated from a need to explain how the Islamic State has used propaganda to achieve maximum publicity and enhance its recruitment. The methodology used was qualitative. Historical analysis was used to trace the sequence of events which lead to IS’s use of propaganda and the actors associated with those events. Content analysis was also used to closely examine the text of religious documents, the words of IS speeches and media releases. The data analysed came from the content of these speeches, religious documents, media releases and other research papers relating to this topic.  Hence, for better understanding, this paper has been divided into three sections with each section focusing in greater detail on how IS has exploited events to strengthen its propaganda. It was found that research literature on the use of IS propaganda failed to connect IS propaganda with its actions. Consequently, this dissertation has attempted to study some notable IS events and show how the Islamic State has used each particular event to advertise itself. Moreover, IS propaganda has been studied in depth and the underlying messages that IS have attempted to convey have been explained. Additionally, this dissertation has considered the use of communication theory as a very significant assistant to analyse this issue. Finally, owing to the broad usage of propaganda by the Islamic State, this paper has tended to use the theoretical explanation to show how IS follows scientific methods to attract potential recruits.

Literature Review:

It can be said that propaganda has played and continues to play a crucial role in the Islamic State policy, particularly in the area of recruitment. Propaganda, as defined by Doob (1935, p.89), as “the attempt to affect the personalities and to control the behaviour of individuals toward ends considered unscientific or of doubtful value in a society at a particular time”. It is apparent that propaganda can be based on falsehood or half lies designed to produce an emotional rather than a reasoned reaction to the information by the masses (Cull et al. 2003, p.39, and Chatterjee, 2010, p.89). Adolf Hitler was considered to be a keen advocate of propaganda and even remarked that “the bigger the lie, the greater its chance of being believed” (Cull et al. 2003, p.39). Bernays, (2004, p.8) has argued that the word propaganda is neither good nor bad but practice makes it so. Propaganda has been expressed in various ways, such as textually, verbally, and visually. However, a “picture speaks louder than words” (Bolt, 2012, p.108). Bolt, (2012, p.75) has affirmed that terrorist groups believe that visual images of violent deeds are not only persuasive but also that they go beyond the potential recruits to influence larger circles of constituencies. Recruitment can be viewed as an essential purpose of propaganda, in particular for the IS terrorist organization. For better understanding of why some people can be so readily recruited, it seems significant to search the Ideological content of the propaganda. Lee, (2011, p.213) has asserted that “ideology is the simplest explanation for terrorist recruitment and the closest to the professed motives of the terrorists themselves”.

As mentioned above, the ideology appears to be an essential aspect for every terrorist group. These groups need members to survive (Dyer & Tobey, 2015, p.14). It can be said that every major aspect or event, through the history of the Islamic State must serve its thirsty for new members and increased popularity. The history of this terrorist group began with the immigration of its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Afghanistan (Byman, 2015, p.116, and Weiss & Hassan, 2015, p.13) Byman, (ibid) focuses on Bin Laden’s aim of supporting Zarqawi so as to increase al-Qaeda’s followers in the Levant. Fisk, (2015, ‘110’) have argued that although bin Laden and Zarqawi shared the same ultimate goal, the latter focused more on his personal ambition which was to topple the royal family in Jordan. Fisk, (2015, ‘122’) has asserted that overthrowing the Jordanian regime was abandoned by Zarqawi when the majority of his recruits became none Jordanians. Even though there is a relationship between recruitment and aim at this early stage that could help to understand the group’s policy, neither Weiss & Hassan nor Fisk look at it from this perspective. However, it seems that fighting the Americans was the main purpose of establishing Zarqawi’s group Al-Tawheed wal Jihad (‘Monotheism and Jihad’) (Michael, 2007, p.341, Stern & Berger, 2015, p.13, Dyer & Tobey, 2015, pp.38-39, and Stakelbeck, 2015, p.27).

IS has exploited several other events to recruit people through its history. Zarqawi and his successors’ strategies of targeting Shias were adopted for propaganda and recruiting purposes (Fishman, 2006, p.23, and Byman, 2015, p.171). According to Lister, (2015, ‘192’), Zarqawi sought for an advantage from the chaos, hoping it would lead to him being self-appointed as the defender of the Sunni community. Byman (2015, p.181) has asserted that the sectarian crisis policy has been working in Syria where considerable number of Western fighters have joined the Islamic State to defend their Sunni fellows. Targeting Shias was one of various contentions between bin Laden and Zarqawi. While bin Laden thought that this policy would harm al-Qaeda popularity, Zarqawi used it as a tool to attract recruits (Glint, 2014, p.28). Byman, (2014, p.118) has stated that Al-Qaeda privately reminded Zarqawi that Algerian militants destroyed themselves by being extremely brutal with civilians.

Besides attacking Shias, the savagery that has been used by IS from the time of Zarqawi has played a crucial role in its propaganda and recruitment. The utilisation of violence is possibly the most significant strategy employed against its enemies both in combat and media battles (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.24). Lister, (2015, ‘625’) argues that the ruthlessness used by IS and represented in their media has made this group appear to be a feasible alternative for some people when facing repression, sectarianism, and foreign governmental influence. Consequently, the membership of the organization has increased with new recruits who, according to Fisk, (2015, ‘141’), were motivated by its offensive activities. Fisk (2015, ‘449’) has stated that uploading videos of its inhumane, ferocious attacks and executions that are produced in various languages has attracted international media attention and increased the group’s notoriety. One type of such brutality is beheading, which has been described by Stern & Berger, (2015, p.3) as “a form of marketing, manipulation, and recruitment, determined to bring the public display of savagery into our lives, trying to instil in us a state of terror”. Sekulow, (2014, p.98) has said that the dissemination of beheading images is a recruiting tool and IS attempts to increase the level of its ruthlessness because “it’s what its public wants”. IS cadres are trying, with their inhuman recorded beheadings strategy, to create shock and publicity (Byman, 2015, p.166). Lister, (2015, ‘74’) explains that the execution of journalists will guarantee that all media coverage of what is happening in IS territories will be harmonious with their policy, which will increase their popularity.

All the previously mentioned tactics such as events exploitation, brutality and attacking Shias are carefully used in the media to achieve the hoped for success. Bach, (2015, ‘2192’) has asserted that IS has one of the most advanced propaganda machines in the history of Islamic terrorist organizations, which is mainly used for recruiting aims. From the beginning, Zarqawi used the Internet to publicize his ideology in a way that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan had never done (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.22). Weiss & Hassan, (2015, p.31) have stated that “ISIS has dramatically improved on al-Zarqawi’s media savvy, employing its channel, and social media feeds for disseminating information.” IS uses social networks more than any other terrorist group; it creates hashtags on Twitter to distribute its messages amongst their followers (Glint, 2014, p.36). The Islamic State attempts to draw an idyllic picture of the life in its territories to attract people to join its terrorist organisation (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.89, and Stern & Berger, 2015, p.84). In general, it can be said that the propaganda tends to demonstrate a “utopian worldview” for recruiting more people (Gerges, 2015, p.342). IS has abandoned the old way of bin Laden when he spent hours facing a single camera talking to the audience (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.22, and Stakelbeck, 2015, p.7). Stakelbeck, (2015, p.120) describes how advanced IS multimedia has become, saying that IS features its videos with “special effects, slow-motion explosions, and all the trappings of Hollywood’s action flicks, including a teaser trailer posted online in the days before their release”. To summarize, it can be said that IS has been using professional propaganda to attract audiences everywhere, exploiting what is possible to achieve its goals.


Organization’s History:

The Islamic State terrorist group was declared an Islamic Caliphate in June 2014 (Stern and Berger, 2015, p.8), but its solid roots were laid down in 1999. In the summer of 1999, ISIL founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ahmad Fadl al-Nazal al-Khalayleh (Lister, 2015, ‘162’), met bin Laden for the first time. After this meeting, he established Jund al-Islam and Ansar al-Islam terrorist groups, which formed the core of al-Qaeda in Iraq (Sackelmore, 2014, p.10, and Weiss & Hassan, 2015, p.11). Weiss & Hassan have mentioned that after that meeting, al-Qaeda’s security chief, Saif al-Adel, was able to convince bin Laden that Al-Zarqawi would assist al-Qaeda in the Levant. According to this recommendation, al-Zarqawi was appointed to be in charge of a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan. In the same year (1999), Al-Zarqawi founded his own terrorist group and named it Jama’at al-Tawḥid wa-al-Jihad (The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad) (JTWJ) (Fishman, 2006, p.20, and Lincoln, 2014, ‘55’). According to Lister, (2015, ‘171’), Al-Zarqawi named the group Jund al-Sham but, within months, he changed its name to Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’ al-Jihad (JTWJ). Knight, (2014, ‘36’) has stated that the aim of establishing this group was to topple the royal family in Jordan because it was seen by Zarqawi to be functioning against the interests of Muslims. Some researchers argue that Al-Zarqawi’s purpose for creating his terrorist group was to have a very strong force that could be sent anywhere to participate in Jihad (Fisk, 2015, ‘120’). Consequently, Al-Zarqawi thought that his first aim was to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy that was ruling his home country. This goal may explain why Al-Zarqawi, according to Weiss and Hassan, (2015, p.13), mainly recruited Palestinians and Jordanians in his training camp in Afghanistan which he called Jund-al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant). This can be considered the first sign of the strong relation between the event and propaganda in AQI policy.

Before the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003, Zarqawi had prepared his terrorist group JTWJ, which was based in Biyara in the Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah (Lister, 2015, ‘180’). After the collapse of Saddam’s regime in 2003 and the American’s full control over Iraq, the conflict began to cover most of the country. The resistance to the Americans in the Sunni territories became more severe, and JTWJ was one of the toughest groups to defeat (Acun, 2014, p.2). These groups that resisted the Americans were not only religious in make-up, but some of them were nationalistic, and there was cooperation between Al-Zarqawi and many Ba’athist officers which significantly enhanced JTWJ and offered other and more sophisticated terrorist organization tactics (Knight, 2014, ‘109’ and Weiss & Hassan, 2015, p.27). The armed resistance led to the fall of many Sunni sites, such as, Fallujah, Samarra, Baquba, and Mosul, placing them in the hands of armed groups by the end of spring 2004 (Cockburn, 2015, ‘259’, and Weiss & Hassan, 2015, p.38).

The failure of the Americans to destroy the JTWJ group with their enormous force made Zarqawi very popular among jihadists around the world (Lincoln, 2014, ‘287’). However, Al-Zarqawi realized that the way he was acting was not enough to consider himself as the leader of the Iraqi insurgency, especially as there were many other insurgent groups (Fisk, 2015, ‘145’). Fisk explains Zarqawi’s concerns, saying that all these armed groups competed with the JTWJ to attract more recruits and donations. For this reason, he realized that he should join a very popular organization that could provide him the superiority he needed. Owing to these concerns, Zarqawi decided to affiliate himself with bin Laden. It can be noticed that the affiliation to bin Laden was to achieve great benefit, such as publicity and recruitment. According to Plebani (2014, p.6), Al-Zarqawi needed Osama bin Laden to assist him in earning the necessary legitimacy to attract the foreign fighters who entered Iraq in response to the rebellion’s invitation. Al-Zarqawi, who spent almost eighteen months of negotiations with bin Laden (Fisk, 2015, ‘154’) finally decided to take a crucial step. In late 2004, al-Zarqawi declared bayah (allegiance) to bin Laden and renamed his group Tanzim Qaedat alJihad fi Bilad Al Rafidayn, or al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (Stern and Berger, 2015, p.21 and Blackbourn, 2015, p.6). As a response to this allegiance, Bin Laden appointed him the leader of al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, granting Zarqawi the legitimacy he needed (River, 2014, p.19 and Fisk, 2015, ‘150’). This affiliation bestowed Zarqawi three significant issues; it granted him al-Qaeda prestige, gave him access to its funding, and increased his value among the armed groups in Iraq (Micallef, 2015, p.6 and Morell, 2015, p.308). Byman, (2015, p.166) explains this alliance saying that beside the prestige that Zarqawi achieved which enhanced his legitimacy, Bin Laden attained an affiliate in the most significant land of terrorism at a time when the Al-Qaeda core was on the ropes.

This affiliation to al-Qaeda paved the way to establish Al-Zarqawi’s dream state; however, there was a need to gather the armed insurgents under one leadership. This seems Al-Zawahiri’s idea, who, according to Stern and Berger, (2015, p.22), sent a letter to Zarqawi, on July 2005, emphasizing the importance of their ultimate goal to establish a caliphate, but prior to that various incremental aims needed to be achieved. In his letter, Zawahiri’s plan was to “establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq” (ibid, p.27). Zawahiri set three more targets for their branch in Iraq; to eliminate the American invaders from Iraq, to extend the terrorist operation to Iraq’s neighbouring countries, and to create a clash with Israel. As a response to this letter (Knight, 2014, ‘198’ and Micallef, 2015, p.10), in January 2006, AQI and five armed groups merged under an umbrella called the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) to unify all the Sunni groups in Iraq (River, 2014, pp.21-22, Sackelmore, 2014, p.17 and Daniel, 2014, p.5). Micallef, (2015, p.10) has pointed out that although this new organization consolidated Zarqawi’s position, the leader of this council was not him. The official leader of the MSC was Abdullah bin Rashid al-Baghdadi, a nom de guerre of Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al-Zawi. Micallef has asserted that according to the American authorities, Baghdadi never really existed. Furthermore, Sackelmore, (2014, p.19) has stated that al Zawi is the real name of Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, who became the leader of ISI in 2006. Weiss and Hassan, (2015, pp.24-25) have mentioned that Abdullah al-Janabi was the leader of the Mujahideen Shura Council, who wasn’t a Salafist, but rather a Sufi linked to al-Douri (the Vice President during Saddam’s time) and the Naqshbandi. Michael, (2007, p.348) has emphasized that the US government exaggerated the significance of Zarqawi to depict the insurgency as foreign-lead, thus weakening its indigenous support. From a theoretical point of view, this can be interpreted, as Cronin, (2006, p.27) has argued, that violent organizations find it very difficult to survive without popular support. According to this theoretical interpretation, it can be understood that Zarqawi gave up the leadership to attain more publicity amongst Iraqi people.

Shortly after the establishment of the Mujahideen Shura Council, the term of Islamic State was declared for the first time. Before the appearance of this new term, an important event occurred which was the demise of Zarqawi by an American airstrike, in June 2006 (Dyer and Tobey, 2015, p.39). The death of Abu -Musab, followed by appointing Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who was a well-known member of AQI, and also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, to be in charge of the leadership (Michael, 2007, p.348, Blackbourn, 2015, p.7, and Keller, 2015, ‘115’). In October 2006, Al-Masri declared the creation of an Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) (Dawlat Al-Iraq al-Islamiyah) and appointed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its leader (Micallef, 2015, p.8 and Sparks, 2015, ‘170’). Al-Masri was put in charge of ISI’s war ministry (River, 2014, p.24 and Fisk, 2015, ‘187’). In addition to the war minister, ISI’s cabinet of ministers had nine more ministers (Lincoln, 2014, ‘110’). Fisk, (2015, ‘325’) confirming what Micallef has stated that the character of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was fake and it was invented by AQI to attract Iraqis to join their Islamic state which was led by one of their fellow citizens. Fisk (2015, ‘188’) has argued that the creation of ISI was due to the disability of the AQI and MSC to achieve popular support, so this was an attempt by the group to rebrand and distance itself from the savagery of the Zarqawi era. Fishman, (2006, p.19) believes that Al-Masri did not do enough to demonstrate his future strategy after the death of Zarqawi, which was interpreted by the Americans as a sign of ISI instability. However, according to River, (2014, p.26), Al-Masri continued the strategy of Zarqawi, which was based on provoking violence to undermine the central government. Atwan, (2006, p.203) has argued that Al-Masri was more forward-thinking than Zarqawi who mainly focused on how to defeat his immediate enemies, while Al-Masri demonstrated more maturity by focusing on the future of his organization and the future of the country. Nevertheless, regardless of his strategy, ISI was suffering during Al-Masri’s leadership and many of its leaders and members were killed by Sunni tribes, the Americans or the Iraqi army (River, 2014, pp.23-24). River stated that “by early 2010, U.S. and Iraqi forces concluded that they had either picked up or killed 34 out of the top 42 al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders” (ibid). All these successes culminated in the killing of Al-Masri and Abdullah al Naima, who was the hired actor to play the role of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (River, 2014, p.25), in April 2010, by a joint US and Iraqi operation (Stern and Berger, 2015, p.33 and Keller, 2015, ‘121’). One of the theoretical explanations of the demise of terrorist groups is the military force and the repression of terrorist groups (Cronin, 2006, pp.30-31, and Jones & Libicki, 2008, p.35). Although Jones and Libicki have asserted that politics and policing are far more efficient to terminate these groups – 40 percent compared to only 7 percent using military force- the case in Iraq was to the contrary.

The demise of all these terrorist leaders was followed by various significant events that introduced a new era of ISI. One important issue was the declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a leader of ISI in May 2010 (Dyer and Tobey, 2015, p.40). Al-Baghdadi worked on rebuilding the popular support that had been lost under Al-Masri leadership, and started to enhance ISI’s strength (Friedland, 2014, p.7). The second crucial event that occurred during this period was the withdrawal of the last American troops from Iraq in December 2011 (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.20). The withdrawal left a huge vacuum that was filled by Iran which can be regarded as having mastered Iraq (Stone, 2014, p.10, and Blackbourn, 2015, p.18). This may have led to the Malki’s sectarianism that displeased Sunnis and made some of them consider some Baathists, and members of ISIL as liberators (ibid). The withdrawal of some of the Awakening members from cooperation with the central government coincided with the vacuum or vacancy in ISI leadership because of the capture or murder of most of its leaders (Lincoln, 2014, ‘148’). What happened to the Awakening can be understood from Cronin’s explanation, who has suggested that one cause of ending terrorism is “transition to another modus operandi” to raise funds (Cronin, 2006, p.31). It can be said that when some of the Awakening members lost their financial resource (salaries given by Iraqi State) their anger led them to quit and return to their old ways.

This critical circumstance provoked Al-Baghdadi to appoint many former officers from the military and intelligence before the American invasion. Lincoln, (2014, ‘147’) has stated that more than thirty percent of ISI 25 top leaders are composed of those officers. Patel, (2015, p.3) has argued that all or at least most of ISI commanders were from the Baath party, among those officers are Al-Baghdadi’s two deputies;  Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, and Abu Ali al-Anbari. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exploited the chaos in Iraq to regroup, strengthen his organization and to recruit more members, where he succeeded to double their numbers in 2012 (Fisk, 2015, ‘199’). The exploitation of the chaos in Iraq, in 2010, can be taken as an example of how this terrorist group has never missed any opportunity that may lead to increase its publicity and recruits. In addition, when the Syrian revolution started to shift to militarization, al-Baghdadi established Jabhat al-Nusra, in late 2011, which was officially declared in January 2012 (Cafarella, 2014, p.12, and Sackelmore, 2014, p.28). This new terrorist group has created tremendous enmity between al-Qaeda leaders. This hostility developed by Al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the renaissance of a caliphate renaming ISIS to be the Islamic State, on June 29, 2014, claiming himself as the caliph (Knight, 2014, ‘299’). As a caliphate that should rule all the Muslim lands, Al-Baghdadi assumed that Iraq and Syria were not enough, so in a message to his followers, he declared the expansion of his state to include Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Algeria (Dyer & Tobey, 2015, p.92). Nevertheless, the declaration of the caliphate by al-Baghdadi was to serve IS propaganda and recruitment that will be discussed in a next section.

To conclude this part, it can be said that the Islamic State since its conception in 1999 has been working to exploit every event.  For instance, Zarqawi’s declared goal was to topple the royal family in Jordan, and this goal may explain why Al-Zarqawi, mainly recruited Palestinians and Jordanians in his training camp in Afghanistan. This exploitation can be considered the first sign of the strong bond between the event and propaganda in IS policy. It seems paramount to say that the declared goal of JTWJ to overthrow the monarchy in Jordan was predominantly to recruit Jordanians. Moreover, it has been noted that there was cooperation between the Islamic State leaders (Al-Zarqawi and Al-Baghdadi) and many Ba’athist officers which significantly enhanced the group and provided more sophisticated tactics. Therefore, it can be truly said that for IS “the ends justify the means”. The same can be said about Al-Zarqawi’s affiliation to bin Laden which lead to substantial benefits in the areas of publicity and recruitment. Al-Zarqawi needed Osama bin Laden to assist him in earning the necessary legitimacy to attract the foreign fighters who entered Iraq in response to the rebellion’s invitation. After the demise of Zarqawi, ISI continued its old habit of exploiting events. For example, the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was followed by the appointment of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its leader. This step was to attract Iraqis to join their Islamic state that was led by one of their fellow citizens. Additionally, the Malki’s sectarianism that displeased Sunnis was used by Baghdadi to recruit them. The same can be understood from the announcement of the rebirth of the caliphate, and the selection of the Great Mosque in Mosul for Al-Baghdadi’s first public appearance. All of the aforementioned strategies were chosen for recruiting purposes.


Terrorist Activities:

The usage of atrocity can be explained by the psychological warfare of the Islamic State which is not only directed at its probable victims, but also at those it aims to control. According to Stern & Berger, (2015, p.209), IS globally attempts to blunt its followers’ empathy by inspiring them to participate in or watch brutal attacks. “Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy” (ibid). Over time, this can drive those who observe such scenes to have the desire to participate in this kind of savagery and harm other people (ibid, p.207). In other words, the frequent exposure to the violence may create and increase the desire to imitate these acts. Consequently, those who have the desire to practice the brutality so that such behaviour becomes addictive can be susceptible to the IS recruitment if they do not voluntarily offer themselves. Bower, (1984, p.190) has stated that researchers have found that watching savagery on television significantly increases the levels of aggression among children, and this exposure will affect their future. Various studies have shown that women like men are vulnerable to have the eagerness to perpetrate violent crime when they are exposed to brutal scenes in the media (Haridakis, 2007, pp.230-231). These scientific outcomes show that the exposure to violence in the media may build a desire inside some individuals to harm people and join a terrorist group for this purpose. The drawn conclusion of this relationship between the exposure and the desire may indicate that Zarqawi and his successors follow a scientific method to recruit people.

This brutality has been increasing over time and, as argued by Caruso & Schneider, (2013, p.686), terrorist organizations are seen to compete against each other with each one monitoring the results of previous terrorist operations. Consequently, terrorists in each team enhance their efforts by launching more destructive attacks. It is crucial to emphasize that causing more destruction will lead to more popularity which seems to be the trophy. Using the Contest Theory to understand the escalation of savagery in Iraq and Syria, drives this paper to consider IS terrorist group as a multiple network with each part of it being separate from the others. JTJ and AQI in the time of Zarqawi, ISI under the leadership of Abu Omar alBaghdadi, and ISIL/ISIS, IS, now, that has been led by Abu Bakr alBaghdadi appear to be in a competition. According to the Contest Theory, Abu Omar alBaghdadi seems to observe Zarqawi and try to outdo him by using more brutality that will serve their propaganda. The same can be said of Abu Bakr alBaghdadi, who monitored his predecessor and subsequently applied more ruthlessness. The tournament between these groups will lead the winner to achieve the prize of increased popularity. Caruso & Schneider, (2013, p.688) have pointed out that if a violent organization attacks a particular location resulting in many casualties this attack will be covered by the international media. As a result of this coverage, the reward comes in popularity and recruitment forms. As Rohner & Frey (2007, p.130) have argued, terrorist groups seem to exploit their violence as a strategy of communications, thus they intentionally choose their targets and times to achieve wider media coverage. Furthermore, Stewart‏ & Strathern (2002, p.17) have asserted that brutality usage may assist to achieve greater popularity. However, it is essential to realize that this achievement may be short lived and that in the long run it will negatively affect its perpetrators. In this regards, it can be said that Zarqawi and his successors would not find a means better than violence to attract an immediate audience. Nevertheless, the problem in this situation is that the mass media and the terrorists exploit each other to gain more popularity. This exploitation is not a new phenomenon but has been commented on by some researchers for a considerable period of time. Clutterbuck, (1982, p.166), for instance, has discussed this issue saying that the most crucial driver for the usage of brutality by terrorist groups is achieving more publicity. Clutterbuck further argues that the terrorists and the media fuel each other’s needs for popularity. The mass media are catalysed by the need to attract an audience to sell more advertising. Clutterbuck has also stated that non-commercial media networks publish terrorist groups’ savagery, because the journalists who produce successful programs or articles may increase their professional prospects (ibid). This argument can be applied for the Social Networks today whereby these platforms provide terrorist activists all the facilities they need to use their websites. Such platforms may help to entice more people who are looking for excitement to join terrorist groups.

IS and its predecessors use atrocity against random people and locations, but they also persist on using it against specific targets for various purposes. Savagery has been used against Shias since the collapse of the Saddam regime. Attacking Shias was a principal part of Zarqawi and his successors’ policies to recruit more people. Shias have been a main target for JTJ, ISI, ISIS and IS. However, the question is why the Islamic State and its predecessor terrorist groups have attacked those who are assumed to be Muslim brothers and fellow citizens. To answer this question, it can be said that Zarqawi and his successors’ strategy of attacking Shias has a declared reason and hidden purpose. The claimed reason for attacking Shias is either because they have collaborated with the invaders or because they are considered by AQI as non-Muslims. However, the hidden purpose of attacking this sect is to create a sectarian conflict that would hopefully drive Sunni populations to join these terrorist groups (Weiss & Hassan, 2015, p.18 and Morell, 2015, p.305). Byman, (2015, p.171) argues that sectarian conflict was very important to Zarqawi and not only assisted in strengthening his terrorist group, but has been very useful for the Islamic State Network. According to Byman, (2015, p117), Zarqawi attacked Shias; because he thought that Muslims cannot resist the invaders unless they annihilate the Shias whom Zarqawi describe as a “crafty and malicious scorpion”. It seems that when Zarqawi said that “Muslims” should eliminate Shias, it was as if he was implying that Shias are not Muslims. The belief that Shias are not Muslims is not a new idea coined by Zarqawi. It is an ancient belief that has been adopted by many Sunni Scholars for generations[1]. For instance, Ibn Taymiyyah has stated that Shias are the enemy of Islam (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.276). It is important to know that Ibn Taymiyyah, who died in 1328, is highly respected by all Sunnis. Ibn Taymiyyah’s teaching, fatwas, and books are well known and have been quoted by Muslim clerics since his time until now.

Two critical aspects should be taken into consideration when discussing the justification of killing Shia. The first one is that when some Sunni scholars discuss “takfir”, they do not point to a definite person and say he is an apostate or infidel, although there are some cases when they point to someone and say that he is not a Muslim. However, they mostly describe the infidel by his action with assurance to avoid mentioning his name. Moreover, they believe that everyone has the right to life regardless of their religion, ethnicity or colour. Consequently, no one can be attacked unless with permission from the Muslim ruler or an approved person. The second crucial issue that is used by IS to justify their terrorist operations against Shia civilians is the historical acts of Saladin. This justification is rejected because it is based on a measurement of corruption. Saladin was a Muslim ruler acknowledged by all Muslims during his time. The difference between using violence by a Muslim leader and individual such as bin Laden, Zarqawi, and Baghdadi is vast.  Saladin did not attack Shia civilians as Zarqawi and his successors have been doing. In fact, Saladin declared a traditional war against the Fatimid Shia state in Egypt, in 1171 (Hiro, 2002, p.21).

It seems important to point out that when Ibn Taymiyyah or Qaradawi issued strong fatwas against Shias, it did not mean that they were issuing a fatwa or implying a permission to kill Shia civilians. Regardless of their religions, Islam honours the life of human beings and prohibits the killing of innocent people. The Quran (5:32) says: “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely”. The Quran (2:190) makes it clear for those who look for the truth – “fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress, Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors”. Nikbay & Hancerli, (2007, p.57) highlight the meaning of transgression in this context saying it is “not to kill civilians, not to torture enemy warriors, to respect the dead bodies of the enemy, to meet basic needs of the enemy and to obey the rules of war”. With these verses and many others from the Quran and Hadith, ordinary Muslims does not need even to ask for fatwa about killing non-combatants because this issue has already been made very clear. Nevertheless, most of those who have been recruited into terrorist groups lack religious knowledge (Bach, 2015, ‘2224’) and are easily deceived by terrorist recruiters. The prohibition of any aggression against civilians in Islam may demonstrate how terrorist leaders, such as Zarqawi and Baghdadi, select and quote only those Quranic verses and Sunni scholars who serve their cause. This selectivity of religious texts is to present to their audiences half- truths which will strengthen their positions for recruiting purposes. At the same time, they hide the other truth that will reveal the falsity of their claims.

Before attacking Shia, IS’s extreme brutality had been directed toward various enemies. The major target for Zarqawi was his homeland Jordan. The question is why Al-Qaeda has stopped attacking Jordan after it was a primary target for Zarqawi. It appears that attacking Jordan is not a part of al Qaeda strategy; rather it was a personal goal of Zarqawi. This objective, therefore, deteriorated after the death of Zarqawi. Two reasons may stand behind the reluctance of al Qaeda to attack Jordan. One is that attacking the near enemy is against al Qaeda policy which may indicate that Zarqawi did not follow his masters’ policy; rather he had his own separate plans. Two is that there is no benefit to be gained from attacking this country. In contrast, the 2005 attacks had an extreme negative impact on AQI, and it led Jordanians to demonstrate against them. Based on this, Zarqawi did not wait long before implementing his agenda. The same year in which he founded his terrorist group, 1999, he attempted to attack Western tourists in Amman, Jordan, but he failed (Michael, 2007, p.356). However, after the American invasion of Iraq, his first successful major attack was in the summer of 2003 against the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad (Riedel, 2008, p.99). Instead of his failed plan to attack various targets in Amman, in April 2004, Zarqawi conducted three suicide operations on three hotels in Amman, in November 2005, killing sixty people (Michael, 2007, p.347). These attacks were the last terrorist operations perpetrated by Zarqawi against Jordan.  According to Weiss & Hassan, (2015, p.61), Zarqawi was terminated, a few months after these attacks, and the Jordanian intelligence played a crucial role in discovering his hideout. Worman & Gray, (2012, p.108) have stated that Jordan has entered a period of calm after the demise of Zarqawi. Due to the fact that the justification for activities is measured by the achievements only, after the Zarqawi period, ISI and its successors have tended not to perform any activities that would lead to losing the people’s support.

Instead of attacking Jordan, IS has shifted its focus toward Saudi Arabia. Although Saudi Arabia is considered as a near enemy in al Qaeda philosophy and should be avoided at this stage, IS appears to revoke this policy. By rejecting this strategy, the Islamic State shows that it has its own agenda that differs from al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it confirms that this terrorist group justifies its actions by the outcomes that are measured by the size of publicity it gains. It can be clearly seen that IS attempts to attack Saudi Arabia for various purposes. The nationalities of the Western victims indicate that they want revenge on their countries. They have attacked American, Canadian and Danish citizens whose countries are part of the coalition against IS in Iraq and Syria. Consequently, these attacks can be explained as a message to their governments to stop attacking IS. By attacking Shia, it appears clear that IS works to repeat the scenario of Iraq by creating a sectarian crisis to attract and recruit Sunni Saudis to join the group. However, destabilizing Saudi Arabia by this same means seems an unwise strategy. Sectarian conflict can be created in case of the absence or weakness of the central government. Byman, (2015, p.226) has stated that “the Iraqi government under Maliki was weak and corrupt and discriminated against the Sunni population”. As a result of his policy and his humiliation of his Sunni citizens, the Islamic State could rebuild itself and recruit more Iraqi people.

Searching for more popularity and in an attempt to attract people’s attention, in November 2014, al-Baghdadi released an audiotape calling for an attack on Saudi Arabia (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.31). In pursuit of this newly announced policy, a series of terrorist attacks were perpetrated in Saudi Arabia by some IS followers. However, Baghdadi, in his announced policy, has declared war against Saudi Arabia and attempted to create a sectarian conflict there. Through this policy, he hoped to recruit Saudi Sunnis adopting the same means as was used in Iraq but under entirely different circumstances. This indicates a failure in his recruiting plan. This does not mean that there are no sectarian complications in Saudi Arabia and various researchers have discussed this aspect. For instance, Gendron, (2010, p.488) says: “Sectarian tensions lie just below the surface of Saudi Arabian society”. However, even though this statement may be true, such tensions are unlikely to result in civil conflict due to different prevailing conditions and to the unsuitability of the IS strategy. To sum it up, this paper argues that it is almost certain to be true that sectarian and ethnic conflict cannot exist under a stable government (Oberschall, 1996, p.82, West, 1996, p.318, Kuburas, 2011, pp.50-51, Kaldor, 2013, p.57). Some explanations for attacking Saudi Arabia say that Baghdadi wants to attract AQAP members to join IS especially and that AQAP was established for this purpose (Lister, 2015, ’547’). This argument cannot be accepted because AQAP has moved to Yemen and has no existence in Saudi Arabia. There are only very few people who still have empathy for AQAP in Saudi Arabia. According to the New York Times, Gendron, (2010, p.493) has reported that a commander of Saudi Arabia’s main counterterrorism centre said they have killed or arrested all al Qaeda fighters, and the rest have escaped to Afghanistan or Yemen. One more possible explanation for the IS declaration of war against Saudi Arabia is that Baghdadi considers himself the caliph who should rule all the Muslim lands. For Baghdadi, Saudi Arabia is the most important part of these lands because it has the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and al-Madinah. It appears that Baghdadi assumes that if he can conquer these two holy places it will provide him the legitimacy he needs to be the leader of all Muslims around the world.


Media Management:

The effective use of media has been considered a crucial player in IS propaganda since Zarqawi’s time. In this regards, it seems significant to point out that before Zarqawi, bin Laden believed that ninety percent of the preparation for war was the effective use of the media (Byman, 2015, p.102). As Zawahiri has put it, “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media” (ibid, p.84). The terrorist activities can be viewed as meals that strengthen the body of IS, and the media can be shown as a respiratory system that assists the group to breathe. As a result of the importance of media in IS policy and to further its aims the Islamic State group has built a very sophisticated propaganda machine. Bernays, (2004, p.89) has stated that “the public is becoming aware of the methods that are being used to mould its opinions and habits.” Nonetheless, it seems that many people remain unaware that watching the brutality in IS propaganda may lead some of them to be addicted to these scenes to a level whereby they want to practice it themselves. This propaganda has become so advanced that it is difficult to be recognised or avoided by the general public.

Owing to this ideology of profound belief in propaganda, terrorist attacks, and brutal deeds are unhelpful if they do not reach audiences. As it has been previously mentioned, the purpose of violence is predominantly to achieve a political end. In criminology, attacking a victim is, essentially, the main target of the perpetrators, while in terrorism attacking a victim or target is not principally the terrorist organization’s main purpose. Chiefly, the attacks are used as a means to deliver a message to a particular side. However, without effective media tools, this message cannot reach audiences and achieve the intended aim. It has been said that terrorism flourishes on popularity, so it is possible that media coverage stimulates it (Crenshaw, 1991, p.73). The impact of the message can be measured by the effectiveness of the media and the amount and savagery of the content. In this regard, the IS group attempts to pay greater attention to this aspect to attract publicity and increase the number of recruits. For these two reasons, the Islamic State has built its propaganda on four main pillars which are – a clear strategy, rich content, directed message, and media tools. These four elements converge with each other into one combined unit. In addition, all these four parts appear to work as a monitoring and controlling chamber that draw the main line for the group’s movements. Commonly, in the public and private sectors, propaganda is used to serve the main strategy. However, IS’s method is devoted to serving the propaganda. In other words, behind every main act, whether it is a terrorist operation or a peaceful action there will be a directed message that is prepared for a distinct audience carrying a clear meaning. From a theoretical perspective, IS follows a scientific methodology to deliver its communication. In his communication model, Lasswell, (1948, p.37) has stated that “a convenient way to describe an act of communication is to answer the following questions: Who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect?” IS has been very concerned about answering these questions not only before sending a message but also before perpetrating an action. Observing IS propaganda can show that every message is well prepared to suit its audience. For instance, choosing the Grand Mosque in Mosul to give a sermon during Friday prayers by Baghdadi who declared himself head of Islamic caliphate conveys a significant message to Muslim recipients, but such significance may be lost on non-Muslims. In a similar way, choosing a Western convert to implement the death sentence on captives contains a clear message to the West in general (Micallef, 2015, p.89). On the other hand, the beheading of Western victims attracts multiple types of audiences who would readily understand the underlying message. It can be seen as a threat to the West while it can be viewed as an invitation to Muslims to join.

The Islamic State propaganda, which relies on four major components, appears to benefit considerably from Lasswell’s communication model. Who says what in IS propaganda indicates the content. IS has been using both words and deeds to convey its message, and it is a very precise message. To whom shows that the message should be directed at a particular audience, which is clearly what IS has been doing. With what effect relates to IS’s general aim to recruit people and so strive for maximum impact to achieve this aim. The Islamic State network uses various channels, such as Social Media, magazines, Internet websites and forums, TVs, and radios to deliver its message. The clear strategy is the first pillar of IS propaganda but has not been mentioned in Lasswell’s communication model. This clear strategy is the element that distinguishes IS from the public and private sectors. A clear strategy for the Islamic State is when the propaganda decides the act, not vice versa. For instance, attacking Shias is an action or an unyielding message for a clear strategy that aims to recruit Sunnis. The reason why propaganda has been given pre-eminence in IS ideology but subservience in the public and private sectors is that the action in the public and business sector is a target within itself, while the act of terrorism is not the goal. According to Crenshaw, (1981, p.379), “The victims or objects of terrorist attack have little intrinsic value to the terrorist group but represent a larger human audience whose reaction the terrorists seek”. When IS decapitates a Western journalist or attacks a Sunni mosque, it does not have a problem with the victims, rather it needs the echo of the attack for a propaganda purpose. In other words, when a firm establishes a commercial project, such as a supermarket, it serves this project and advertises it to achieve success. On the other hand, when a terrorist group prepares for a project, such as bombing the World Trade Centre, it wants this operation to serve its advertisement. For this purpose, killing more people will lead to more publicity.

Widespread killing, introducing more atrocity or publishing verbal communications that attract global attention are examples of the richness of the content. In Lasswell’s communication model, it is significant to decide what to say to the audience. IS believes in this theory, and they are assured that what to say affects what will be achieved. In some cases, the killing of one person will deliver the message. For instance, murdering one citizen sends a clear warning to anti-terrorism activists that governments are unable to protect them (Hudson, 1999, p.11). Furthermore, publishing a utopian image of life in the land that is governed by the Islamic State group is tempting to some people, especially women, and it may catalyse them to immigrate to the Levant land. According to the Guardian, a considerable amount of IS online propaganda has been submitted by British female members inside Syria. They tweet “pictures of food, restaurants and sunsets to present a positive image of the life awaiting young women” (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.89). This policy has been working successfully so that it has been estimated that 50 women from Britain have joined the Islamic State organization (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.84). The propaganda has been very seductive, especially the Baghdadi’s declaration of caliphate rebirth, to a level whereby some foreign fighters have immigrated to Syria accompanying their families (Byman, 2015, p.49). Moreover, these messages are very productive especially in the West where more than three thousand Western fighters have joined IS (River, 2014, p.43). Besides, some reports claim that around 32% of the 17000-19000 the Islamic State fighters come from European countries, (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.78). Stern & Berger have affirmed that there are fighters who come from the former Soviet republic, the Americas, and Australia. It can therefore be said that IS propaganda is very powerful as it is able to reach a considerable number of countries. According to recent statistical studies, foreign fighters from around ninety countries have joined IS (Lister, 2015, ‘722’).

These large numbers of foreign fighters have been attracted by the variety of misleading scenes that they have been exposed to every day. IS recruiters tend to disseminate idealized images of a luxurious life style that people enjoy in IS territories, such as beautiful sunsets, plentiful food, shopping centres so as to attract  people looking for better lives. While in a similar way, the Islamic State, frequently, publishes footage that shows workers busy building the essential infrastructure without hindrance (Culbertson, 2015, p.84). Culbertson has commented on these images saying that: although the life is profoundly opposite, these pictures are unquestionably dominant to a level it seems very hard to counter. Gerges, (2015, p.342) has affirmed that IS works to present itself in “a utopian worldview and a political project” as a leading power that can achieve victory and give salvation. However, the richness of the message content does not reflect the reality of life in the Levant now. In other words, IS uses what is called “WYSIWYG” (what you see is what you get) Culbertson, 2015, p.84). Although IS claims that it is an Islamic caliphate that apply the Sharia and follow the prophet’s teaching, they disregard such teaching if it is limiting to their actions. The prophet says: “he who takes up arms against us is none of us; and he who cheats us is none of us” (Muslim, 2007, p.69). According to this Hadith, the Islamic State abuses the teaching of Islam when it cheats audiences by portraying the Levant as a utopian state. Weiss & Hassan, (2015, p.173) have stated that many foreign fighters expect an idyllic lifestyle, but when they arrive in Syria and face the reality, their feelings start to change. This supports the notion that IS recruiters willingly lie and cheat when they create positive advertisements portraying lavish life styles to attract innocent people, knowingly disregarding  Islamic teaching.

However, not all those who join IS in Syria will be shocked by the life there and some people will try to adapt themselves to the new situation. Such people are predominantly used by IS to participate in the propaganda war. For instance, the Islamic State group employs Western recruits to compose the kind of messages that would most appeal to the Western mentality. These messages are intended to attract more young Western recruits. For example, according to Stakelbeck, (2015, p.171), a French man has appeared in IS advertisements, beside many of his fellow citizens, in an attempt to encourage others to come to Syria. In his message, the words were carefully chosen. He emphasized that he was French, a former paratrooper, and a white convert. Such personal information is essential to appeal to the subconscious of the audience so that it is more readily willing to accept the propaganda that will follow.  For example, the recruit went on to say that the French army is the army of tyrants while the Islamic State army is the opposite. Additionally, he assured that he is now fighting under the flag of Allah, instead of fighting under the French flag (ibid). It can be noticed here and in all other IS messages that each of them has two parts; the first part is to draw the audiences’ attention by various methods, such as perpetrating extreme brutality, white Western women enjoining their leisure in IS’s land, or a white convert highlighting his experience. The second part is the invitation to join IS either to immigrate if he can or to support the group ideologically and financially. In some cases after the recruit has been trained and fought with IS for several months, he may be requested to return home to conduct IS-related operations there (River, 2014, p.42, and Byman, 2015, p.58).

The main element of IS propaganda is that the content of the message should maintain a close relationship with the intended recipient. Analysing  IS words shows that there are some messages purposely prepared for Iraqis, other types are for Sunnis, some are for Westerners, as well as others which contain global messages. When Abo Baker Al-Baghdadi preached from the Mosul Great Mosque of al-Nuri, in June 2014, he had deliberately chosen that location. According to Weiss & Hassan, (2015, p.17), Al-Baghdadi attempted to imitate Saladin, who had done the same before he started his war against the Crusaders. The message here is obscure and cannot be read by every Muslim. It seems that the message has been sent exclusively to those who have full knowledge of Islamic history and is therefore meant to move their feeling towards the Islamic State. Saladin was a highly respected figure among Muslims and considered as one of the most famous leaders in Muslim History (Smith, 2011, p.64). One of the greatest of Saladin’s achievements was to return Jerusalem to Islamic sovereignty after ninety years of colonization by the Crusaders. At the present time, returning Jerusalem once again to the Muslims is their greatest wish. Thus, in his appearance in the Great Mosque, Al-Baghdadi seems to send a direct message to the subconscious of the Muslim elites to say that he is the new Saladin.

The declaration of the caliphate was itself a powerful message that marked the difference between the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Consequently, that significant declaration has resulted in more young Muslims affiliating themselves with IS (Lister, 2015, ‘334’). This declaration is a kind of subliminal advertisement whereby people involuntarily received the message and may have been persuaded by it. The effect of subliminal advertising influencing the choice and behaviour of people has been reported by Verwijmeren et al. (2013, p.1124). Rose, (1958, p.276) has also stated that a person may take a decision, such as to buy a certain commodity, without realizing the mechanism of persuasion which lead to this decision. This action may occur despite the person having previously decried these kinds of messages that drive them to do something without full awareness. As argued by Verwijmeren et al. (2013, p.1125), “People generally abhor the idea that they can be influenced without their knowledge, and more importantly, without being able to control it”. Consequently, those who are deeply engaged in the dream of regaining Jerusalem may find themselves affected by the image of al-Baghdadi in the Great Mosque. This significant image may eliminate any negative picture of this terrorist group, and makes one see al-Baghdadi as the new Saladin, who can transform their dream into reality. Furthermore, a major problem of IS preaching is that it can trick some audiences who are just curious about IS. According to Weiss & Hassan, (2015, p.174), “The majority of young people join ISIS after they listen to their preaching”. Statistics show that at least twenty new recruits join IS each day, and this number is increasing (Devins, 2015, ‘68’). It seems important to emphasize that everyone who is exposed to Khārijite’s ideology can be affected regardless of their knowledge or age. Ibn Hajar (1995, p.158) has stated that Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, who assassinated Ali ibn Abi Talib the fourth Muslim Caliph and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, was one of the most pious people in his time. Ibn Hajar has asserted that ibn Muljam had been affected by the Khārijite’s ideology before he killed Ali. Consequently, al-Baghdadi knows that his propaganda will attract some people, and IS should disseminate its intellectual message. Due to the vulnerability of people to the media, Muslim scholars constantly warn the public to avoid exposing themselves to such propaganda.

Additionally, IS propaganda sometimes relies on its enemies’ actions; exploiting or explaining some events in a way that will serve its agenda. These type of messages do not require much effort from IS media makers to create them. They simply need to observe their enemies’ actions or reactions and work to explain them to their selected audiences in a way that will lead them to rethink their ideas about them. For example, in August 2014, there was an announcement to form a new international coalition to combat IS (Weiss & Hassan, 2015, p.175). The reaction of IS was to announce that this was a war against all Muslims and especially against the new caliphate (ibid). The Islamic State Network, therefore, attempted to demonstrate that this war against terrorism was really a war against Islam and, in particular, against the rebirth of the caliphate. Thus, IS invited Muslims to examine the reality of the counterterrorism campaign. Byman, (2015, p.103) has emphasized that IS works to show people that it represents Islam, and any attack on it means an attack on Islam. Another underlying message here is that the Islamic State is the true representative of Islam, so those who want to defend Islam should defend IS. Similarly, al-Baghdadi has tried to represent himself as Saladin, so those who admire Saladin should follow al-Baghdadi. It can be said that IS tries to use every action in its message and reproduces it in a way that it can serve its propaganda. For example, IS works to benefit from Western security precautions and presents these precautions as discrimination against all Muslims. The Islamic State group exploits the suspicion shown by police and security forces toward Muslims to attain Islamic support. Besides, IS’s allegations can be better understood by Byman’s (2015, p.211) argument which has asserted that the American system has multiple voices which play into IS’s hands. For instance, when George W. Bush emphasized how welcome American Muslims are. “Many other American politicians and leading voices portrayed American Muslims as a fifth column who want to impose Islamic law in the United States and support Bin Laden”. Furthermore, Byman has mentioned that the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich compared the Muslims, who planned to build a mosque two blocks from the World Trade Centre, in 2010, to the Nazis (ibid, p.212). Unfortunately, such conduct reinforces the idea of open discrimination against the Muslim minority in the United States and consequently provides valuable material for IS recruiting purposes.

The way IS exploits media today demonstrates that they are professional and extremely more advanced when compared to the previous al-Qaeda phase. Stakelbeck, (2015, p.121) has argued that al-Qaeda propaganda has witnessed three stages. The first stage was during Bin Laden’s period when he addressed his long public speeches staring at one static camera before sending the videotape to a television network to be broadcast. The second stage was when al-Qaeda used the YouTube, Facebook and a full-colour, English-language magazine named Inspire. The most appealing face of this generation was the American-born Yemeni Anwar al-Awlaki. Currently, the Islamic State is leading the third generation. The comparison between the first two generations with the current stage is like the comparison between the outdated AOL and Google (ibid, p.123). Stakelbeck has stated that Dabiq magazine produced by the Islamic State is far superior to the Inspire magazine. The Islamic State propaganda has been extensively modified to suit the modern information age (Culbertson, 2015, p.75) While bin Laden in the first stage needed much time before his rhetoric reached the audience, IS in the third stage can deliver its message every second. It has been estimated that there are ninety IS tweets per minute, and about ninety thousand messages are sent every day (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.108, and Sekulow, 2014, p.98). Sekulow has assured that these messages catalyse around a thousand foreign fighters to answer al-Baghdadi’s call to come to Syria each month. In general, it can be said that Islamic State propaganda has revolutionised how terrorist organisations advertise their ideology. It is also important to note that this modern multimedia has been focusing on young Western Muslims (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.22).

To assure the efficient usage of media, in 2006, ISI established al-Furqan institution for Media Production (Glint, 2014, p.35). It was founded and managed by the Ministry of Information of the Islamic State in Iraq and handled the production of CDs, DVDs, and web related content (Brachman, 2009, p.133). Dabiq, the multi-languages magazine, was first published in mid-2014, to highlight the establishment of a legitimacy for IS and its ultimate goal of creating the caliphate and encouraging Muslims to immigrate to the area (Glint, 2014, p.36). These are two examples of the most infamous IS media tools. However, it can be said that IS has a formidable propaganda industry. The Islamic State terrorist group manages five official media institution: al-Furqan, al-Hayat, al-Medrar, Ajnad, and al-I’tisaamm. It has been affirmed by Stern & Berger, (2015, p.153) that al-I’tisaamm Media launched the first IS official Twitter account named @e3tasimo in October 2013. Moreover, IS has been supported by 14 unofficial media institutions, such as al-Bttar, al-Khilafah, al-Waad, Aamaq. In addition, IS has 19 media offices for each of its states in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, it has 8 offices for its states outside Iraq and Syria, such as the offices of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia. Beside all these institutions, IS has a radio station called al-Byan, and a digital library called Himmah. All these institutions are mainly responsible for producing videos, audios, and textual media pieces. When these pieces are ready, they are sent to those who are in charge of dissemination to spread them through various internet websites, forums, blogs and social media. These recruiting videos are so convincing that many affiliates may join to get the reward promised (Devins, 2015, ‘733’). The propaganda industry costs the Islamic State a considerable amount of money. The high cost is due to various aspects, such as hiring qualified employees and producing very high-quality films that demand very expensive equipment. For instance, In November 2014, the film of beheading the American aid worker Peter Kassig cost more than two hundred thousand dollars and took almost six hours of filming (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.7). These expensive films generate tremendous profits for IS and increase its publicity. For example, within two weeks after the dissemination of James Foley’s decapitation, about 28,000 new pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts were launched (ibid, p.119). It has been noted that the relationship between the use of social networks and joining the Islamic State is a positive correlation, the higher the posts, the greater the turnout and empathy. Moreover, Culbertson, (2015, p.79) has stated that the usage of social media has been very useful for IS propaganda to a level whereby many people immigrate to IS territories to fight and die for the Islamic State cause.

IS uses various Internet tools to publish its media material. Twitter, nowadays, is the “de facto voice” of the Islamic State (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.114). Observations show that while terrorist groups have been using Twitter since 2010 as a secondary means, IS can be considered as a massive consumer of this social platform. In some cases, the Islamic State, have exclusively disseminated information via Twitter, where it can quickly share its views globally and assist sympathizers in taking part in this process (Nik, 2014, ‘330’). As part of its attempts to exploit Twitter, IS creates applications that can automatically tweet and retweet its messages. Some applications, like the Dawn of Glad Tidings app, allow IS to tweet from the user’s personal accounts (Devins, 2015, ‘612’ and Stern & Berger, 2015, p.149). This application transmitted more than forty thousand tweets after IS conquered Mosul (Culbertson, 2015, p.79). In order to reach a wider audience, IS abuses some famous hashtags in Twitter such as #WorldCup2014, #WorldCup, #Brazil2014, and #RobinWilliams (after his death) to disseminate its messages (Sekulow, 2014, p.35, Stakelbeck, 2015, p116, and Byman, 2015, p.177). Stakelbeck, (2015, p.131) has described how powerful the IS propaganda strategy is saying that “nearly everyone in the United States has seen a tweet from ISIS”. The abuse of the social platform by exploiting popular hashtags the advertisements depicting brutality as well as the pressures that come from counterterrorism agencies have driven Twitter and other social networks to suspend IS accounts. Nevertheless, it is not an easy mission to stop IS from using the social media, because IS recreates new accounts every time Twitter terminates any of its accounts and continues posting (Glint, 2014, p.36). Besides tracing their accounts, it has been estimated that around 1100 pieces of gruesome content are removed from various social platforms every week because they contravene UK terror law (Sparks, 2015, ‘905’).

The Islamic State can create new accounts and regain its followers in a very short time. For instance, on 18 August 2015, al-Battar-media created a new account @battar_IS2 instead of its old account @AlBattar_IS that was blocked by Twitter. Amazingly, pro-IS users started to advertise the new account attracting more than 700 new followers within 24 hours. Another example is how IS  created @wa3tasimu instead of its official account @e3tasimo and within one month the new account accrued more than 18,000 followers (Stern & Berger, 2015, p.153).These are two examples of the friendly response to Twitter’s attempts to shut down IS accounts. However, there have also been hostile responses to these efforts whereby numerous threats have been made by Islamic State supporters. Some of these threats called for the murder of Twitter employees in San Francisco and Europe (Stakelbeck, 2015, p.119, and Devins, 2015, ‘708’). Besides these threats, and owing to Twitter’s strict policy against its terrorist activities, IS has hacked some official Twitter accounts. In January 2015, someone who claimed affiliation to IS hacked the US Military’s Twitter account and threatened that the IS fighters would exact revenge on American soldiers (Sparks, 2015, ‘295’). Furthermore, IS has started creating new accounts in other social media platforms (ibid). Examples of these alternative services are “JustPaste to publish battle summaries, SoundCloud to release audio reports, Instagram to share images and WhatsApp to spread graphics and videos” (ibid, p.115).



Propaganda plays an essential role in the Islamic State policy. This paper has shown that IS propaganda serves various purposes, but that recruitment has always been the principal focus. To demonstrate how significant propaganda and recruitment are in the Islamic State strategy, this paper was divided into three main sections. The first part gave prominence to the history of this terrorist group in order to illustrate how significant events in its history were deliberately manufactured to serve the organization’s propaganda and recruitment drive. In addition, it attempted to highlight the main historical events of the Islamic State since 1999 and draw a connection between some major events and subsequent propaganda. The second section of this paper focused on the terrorist activities in an attempt to disclose the messages behind some of these essential operations. This section has demonstrated that there are three significant aspects associated with these terrorist activities. The first issue is the level of brutality used. It was found that this plays a significant role in attracting international media coverage .The second aspect is the nature of the targeted people. For example, attacking Shia is a tactical move to recruit Sunni. The third element is that the place or country IS choose to attack indicates its significance for their propaganda. For instance, attacking Saudi Arabia in which the most holy Islamic sites are situated and conquering such sites is considered paramount for the Islamic State to achieve the legitimacy it needs and thereby recruit more followers.

The third section of this dissertation demonstrated how IS manages and manipulates the media to such an extent that it has become IS’s most fatal weapon. Furthermore, it has noted that IS uses a very sophisticated propaganda that relies on scientific methods of communication. Two crucial aspects are clearly noticeable in the Islamic State propaganda; the first is that they have been using very advanced techniques to achieve the highest level of temptation. This way of attracting followers is best explained through theoretical perspectives which in itself shows that IS has a sophisticated understanding of psychology which it exploits in its propaganda. Additionally, it has been observed that the Islamic State is keen to produce high-quality pieces of media that can attract wide audiences. In this regards, IS has reached a level whereby its films imitate the Hollywood way of filming. To tempt people everywhere, the Islamic State invests a considerable amount of money on media. Consequently, the sizeable expenditure which has been spent on IS propaganda can be counted as a significant point that makes the difference between the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

In addition to the sophisticated methods that IS has been employing to produce enticing messages, it can be said that the Islamic State tends to be a political organization rather than a religious group. In fact, the Islamic State propaganda shows that it follows a doctrine that differs from the Islamic Sharia. Although IS claims that it follows the Sharia, IS has never yielded to the Sharia teachings. In other words, it can be said that the Islamic State follows an opportunistic doctrine that focuses on how to benefit the group and increase its publicity. This paper has demonstrated, in various places, that there are no limits to IS ambitions, and it is capable of doing anything to attain its goals. However, significantly, three serious inaccuracies are transparent in IS policy that indicate that the Islamic State has been using religion to hide its political greed. The first illegal conduct is their over usage of violence which is against Sharia teachings, especially when they execute their victims in a prohibited manner. Additionally, killing innocent people is considered one of the greatest sins in Sharia. The Quran has affirmed that killing one man, without a right, equals killing all human beings, and whoever commits such action he will dwell in the hellfire forever. Moreover, attacking places of worship and civic buildings is considered a corruption and Allah hates those who corrupt.

The second critical mistake in their propaganda is shown in their way of deceiving audiences. Recruiters have portrayed the Levant in a utopian way to tempt people to join IS. However, these images do not describe the reality in the Levant and when recruits arrive many of them discover the bitter truth. Islamic Law does not allow deception under any circumstance, and the Islamic maxim says “who cheats us is none of us” .Consequently, the Islamic State does not follow the Islamic teachings in this regards. The third problem of IS strategy is that it appears that the Islamic State has accommodated the teaching of Machiavelli in his statement “the ends do justify the means”. This paper has demonstrated that IS will do anything to increase its publicity. This terrorist group will kill, torture, and use extreme brutality to serve their propaganda, despite these behaviors being rejected by Sharia. Instead of the statement “the ends do justify the means”, the Islamic jurisprudential maxim indicates that “whatsoever is built on falsehood is false”. According to this maxim, it can be said that most of the Islamic state operations that are perpetrated in the name of Islam do not have any relationship with the Sharia because these activities are prohibited in Islam.

To summarize, this paper assumes that the leaders of the Islamic State terrorist group, since its commencement, have a political goal that can be seen as the establishment of an independent state. Those leaders exploit Islam and have declared the adherence to it as their supreme end. The exploitation of religion is meant to attract people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a religious aim. After they had adjusted their goal, they set a policy to invite people to join them, because, as earlier mentioned, the recruits are the fuel of any terrorist organization. Consequently, they utilise propaganda for various purposes, but the most significant of these purposes has been for recruitment. The Islamic State understands that audiences differ and cannot be affected by the same type of propaganda. Therefore, IS has created a variety of propaganda some of which have been discussed earlier. For instance, the declared goal of establishing JTWJ was a bait to attract Jordanians. The sectarian conflict was to drive Sunnis to join them. The employment of savagery was to catalyse those brutal individuals who want to participate in violence. The declaration of the caliphate was to attain the empathy of those who are profoundly attached to the brilliant past of Muslims when they formed one nation ruled by the caliph. To sum it up, it seems that the Islamic State has its political goals, a prominent body that can gather people under one umbrella that is the organization itself. Consequently, this group needs to disseminate its beliefs by using various stratagems that heavily exploit propaganda.

In conclusion, it appears obvious that propaganda and recruitment are the most important aspects of the Islamic State policy and are rigorously maintained, regardless of any contrary religious instructions. Thus, this paper offers two recommendations for dealing with two different types of susceptible recruits. The first recommendation is to emphasize the significance of betraying the Islamic State through well-organized combating campaigns. These counterterrorism campaigns should focus on the religious side of IS propaganda and should disclose to people in general and IS followers in particular that this terrorist group is abusing Islamic teaching to achieve its own political agenda. An effective, informative and persuasive campaign may assist those who lack religious knowledge in the West, particularly new converts, to have a better understanding of Islamic beliefs and make more rational choices. The second recommendation is to confirm the need for further study for some Muslim societies where the majority of individuals have sufficient religious awareness but, despite this awareness, individuals remain vulnerable to IS recruitment or at least harbor certain empathies for this terrorist group. These two dimensions seem to indicate that a lack of religious understanding can be a cause for affiliation with a violent group, but it is not the only cause. It has been noted that extremism is rampant in some communities in spite of the availability of religious knowledge. This extremism provokes some individuals to respond to IS propaganda and immigrate to the Levant land whilst others remain in their homeland to become potential suicide bombers.



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[1] Some Shia scholars, especially the Twelver Shiism (Athnā‘ashariyyah or Imamiyyah ) use Takfir and believe that all Sunnis are infidels because they do not believe in their twelve Imams. Moreover, Some Shias consider most of the companions of the prophet Muhammed as apostates because they did not choose Ali as the first caliph. Consequently, these Shia scholars believe that anyone who does not reject the first three caliphs who had ruled before Ali is an apostate.