Slick media strategy may be backfiring

Slick media strategy may be backfiring
A man purported to be Islamic State captive Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh speaks in this still image from an undated video filmed from an undisclosed location made available on social media on February 3, 2015.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has once again grabbed world attention with its release of a video showing the horrific murder of a Jordanian air force pilot who was apparently burned alive.

The terrorist group, which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq and aims to set up a "cali- phate" across the Arab world, has lost none of its unique ability to attract publicity, inspire fear and remain one step ahead of its adversaries through a lethal combination of sheer brutality and a techno-savvy, shrewd media strategy.

To some extent, ISIS has benefited from developments in technology and the number of social media platforms that can be used for its propaganda. In contrast, Al-Qaeda had to rely on the tortuous procedures of producing video tapes of its leaders, then having these physically distributed.

ISIS proved adept not only at capitalising on existing technological opportunities, but also at devising a coherent and effective media strategy.

In 2013, the group established a network of Twitter supporters to spread its message across all platforms, allowing for the dissemination of propaganda and providing for an army of "trolls" who would challenge those seeking to contradict the idea of the Islamic State and its messages.

With these in place, ISIS began to show its real expertise, disseminating videos and other propaganda materials.

The Al Hayat media centre, probably based around the Syrian city of Raqqa, was established by ISIS as the focal point of this activity.

Staffed by fluent Arabic, English, French and German speakers, it has combined a high level of technological abilities with a talented editorial team, making use of drones and high-definition cameras to craft a highly polished message that the group's army of Internet social media users could then spread to the world.

Knowing that competence only adds to its attractiveness, ISIS has attempted to recruit highly skilled technicians and computer-literate individuals. Although it is unclear how many technicians work for ISIS, the frequency and quality of their multilingual output suggest that the team is both cohesive and large.

The murders of journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff as well as aid worker Alan Henning last August set the pattern for the horrific videos in which ISIS specialises: Dressed in orange jumpsuits, the captives were paraded on videos in a clear attempt to show an equivalence with the terrorist suspects the US holds at its Guantanamo Bay camp, and then beheaded.

Al Hayat's team releases via a satellite uplink videos that come complete with subtitles to increase their impact, as well as instructions on how they can be embedded into the websites of sympathisers. Despite numerous attempts to block this messaging, ISIS has always managed to find a way to get its message out.

In a perverse way, ISIS has been able to rally a number of disaffected Muslims to its cause through this imagery.

The question is whether this communications strategy is now beginning to backfire. The murder of pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh has triggered a huge backlash in Jordan and many Arab states, so a region ripe for ISIS recruitment may have now turned hostile.

ISIS may discover that, however slick its presentation may be, it cannot compensate for the vileness of its message. In short, ISIS may yet become the architect of its own destruction.

This article was first published on February 07, 2015.
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