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36 D+C  e-Paper  December 2015 Online propaganda Countering the media strategy of ISIS Without digital media, the terror militia ISIS would be much weak- er. Some 7,000 Salafis currently live in Germany, and more than 700 have left to join forces with ISIS. The militia’s propaganda machine is aiming to attract many more. By Ute Schaeffer ISIS is waging battle on many fronts – with weapons and violence in Iraq and Syria, and with a media strategy focusing on the internet. The virtual world is proving to be effective for expanding ISIS influence. ISIS is propagating a clan- destine system of outreach that is designed to swell the ranks of its supporters by attracting new target groups. But what makes ISIS and its message so attractive? What draws supporters like 21-year-old Arid Uka to the group? Origi- nally from Kosovo, Uka lived in Frankfurt and temporarily worked at the Frankfurt Airport. He was not known to Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office or to Germa- ny’s domestic intelligence service (Verfas- sungsschutz). On 2 March 2011, Uka killed two peo- ple in the first successful terror attack on German soil that was motivated by Islam- ist ideology. It shocked Germany’s security agencies and left many wondering how this could have happened and why they hadn’t known about Uka beforehand. The answers were sobering: in a relatively short time span, the young man from Kos- ovo had been radicalised, sitting in front of his computer in Germany. Like many others, he had consumed the propaganda spread by radical Islamist preachers. It gave him a sense of community, belong- ing and like-mindedness, inviting him to withdraw into virtual reality. Online social networks offer a personal and intimate environment, and nowadays radicalisation often takes place online rather than in a mosque. New media are being used as effective weapons. They serve to intimidate, alienate, manipulate and recruit people. To develop social and political responses that effectively prevent this kind of radicalisation, we need to understand how the message propagated by ISIS works, and what makes it so appealing. ISIS narrative Al-Qaeda’s public relations campaigns and media efforts are dull, hard to under- stand and unsexy. Its leaders and fight- ers are well educated individuals as well as ideologists with a clear-cut message. Heroes seem unapproachable, and com- munication is a one-way street instead of a dialogue that encourages participation. ISIS’ approach is different, creating an attractive narrative with mass appeal. It can be adjusted to suit specific groups, addressing their cultural patterns as well as individual experiences and expecta- tions. While the ISIS narrative varies to some extent, its core message is clear: we are a community of heroes and equals. The community offers discipline and structure, and assignments promise adventure. This attractive narrative lays the groundwork for the group’s successful pub- lic relations campaigns. It spells out an ide- ology and legitimises ISIS and its agenda. Its modular, multimedia, bite-sized content is ideal for dissemination on social media. The stories have victims and villains, win- ners and losers. The clips use powerful images to convey simple storylines. Stories designed for western viewers show little bloodshed, while the narra- tive aimed at the Arab world is brutal and glorifies violence. In English-language content, ISIS spreads a clear message: “You live in an unjust society and you don’t stand a chance. Come join us and be somebody.” This kind of emotive story strikes chords with young people sitting in front of their computers in Belgium, Ger- many or Sweden. In ISIS battle zones, the narrative is adjusted to the specific regions and trans- ports different subtexts. ISIS portrays Saudi Arabia as not being sufficiently Muslim, for example, and claims that any shift towards a western lifestyle and cul- ture is a shift in the wrong direction. Fighting Shias is another key issue. Videos proudly depict ISIS successes, including prisoners being freed in the Syr- ian city of Idlib and kissing the hands and feet of ISIS fighters. ISIS does not limit its media activism to spreading its own messages, however; it also misuses stories taken from other news sources. The picture of the young Syrian boy named Aylan, who had been washed up dead on the Turkish coast, was circu- lated around the world. It was a shocking image, but it was ultimately a result of ISIS violence in Syria. Aylan was just one of the thousands of Syrians forced to flee the Syr- ian civil war – and Islamist terror. Dabiq, the ISIS online propaganda magazine, used the photograph as a warn- ing to all Syrians planning to leave the country. The magazine argued that Aylan’s death resulted from the dangerous “sin” of fleeing Muslim countries and land- ing in the hands of “infidel warmongers” in Europe where children faced the con- stant threat of homosexuality, drugs and alcohol. ISIS is in tune with the times, and the days of VHS and audio cassettes are long past. Today the organisation uses a wide range of media platforms, including al-Furqān Media which last year released over 160 videos, articles and other forms of media content. It is the organisation’s