Click to Watch in HD: The Model, Theory, & Aesthetics of Islamic State Media

By now, the Islamic State’s (IS) deft command of media is well recognized. The group, previously known as ISIS or ISILI, began receiving widespread attention for its publicity campaign in the summer of 2014. In June, the group established the al-Hayat Media Center, a production agency aimed at reaching Western audiences. Shortly thereafter, the new center released its first video titled, “There Is No Life Without Jihad.”1 The video is a thirteen minute plus production featuring three Western jihadists who urge devout Muslims worldwide to join and fight for the Islamic State. The video is long, somewhat overproduced, and absolutely gorgeous. Since then, the Islamic State has released countless texts, videos, and images that display increasing technical and strategic proficiency in what some have termed, “The Jihadi War of Ideas.”2

Two weeks later, the group proclaimed itself a caliphate, revealing the strategic timing in the foundation of al-Hayat. The Islamic State seeks exactly what its name purports: to establish and expand the caliphate. In order to demonstrate legitimacy as such, the Islamic State requires an extensive media plan to project an image of stability, strength, and active expansion, or “offensive jihad,”3 and the establishment of a new media center points to the Islamic State’s intimate understanding of this. The content of major IS media productions explicitly constructs this image by portraying a high-powered military force that is in active conflict with its enemies, and this more aggressive content is complemented by depictions of social and political stability, economic prosperity, and just governance. Less explicitly, but perhaps more importantly, control of and proficiency in media production and dissemination is itself coded as synonymous with power.

This focused attention on the role of mass media by an extremist group is not new. The Islamic State shared deep ties with al-Qaeda, beginning as a localized branch once known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq.”4 As such, its recognition of the power of media is informed deeply by al-Qaeda’s own emphasis on mass media, both distributed by Western sources and generated internally. However, the glossy, highly produced graphics and videos published by the Islamic State indicate that its understanding of media has expanded and diverged from its foundations. Moreover, the immense quantity and direct-to-viewer distribution model indicates that this is an altogether new phenomenon in extremist media and even the field of propaganda. This is not the single take, 4:3 aspect ratio, al-Qaeda video of the early 2000’s. This is not even its Inspire magazine of the early 2010’s. This is a top-down industry of production with a comprehensive strategy, realized vision, and unified message: we are here, we are strong, and we are coming for you. This is Islamic State Media.


I: “Don’t hear about us. Hear from from us.”5?

Development & Distribution Models

Since July of 2014, the Islamic State has released hundreds of videos,II innumerable images, and a multilingual digital magazine, issued monthly.6 Beginning in 2013, it has even published an annual report, al-Naba, broadcasting statistics of the group’s activities and successes, complete with an attractive and useful at-a-glance infographic.7 Though the open distribution of this material creates an impression of transparency, reliable information detailing the internal workings of the Islamic State—much less its media production—is difficult to find. The group is not exactly keen on broadcasting its military or governmental structures, nor is it about to lift the veil on its prolific media operation. Consequently, little is definitively known about the group’s media production infrastructure. But by piecing together content released by the Islamic State, the unknown aspects of its production and distribution models can be conjectured.

The Islamic State claims three major media centers. Each is separately branded with its own logo, but it is unclear exactly how the responsibilities of each differ. It is entirely possible that the branding exists to create an illusion of a more expansive media network than is actually in place. A progenitor of the Islamic State established the al-Furqan Institute for Media Production late in 2006. Al-Furqan has released videos in both English and Arabic and is most infamous for the recent “Jihadi John” decapitation videos of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, American aid worker Peter Kassig, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, and Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. It is also responsible, at least in part, for the “Lend Me Your Ears,” series, featuring captured British war photographer, John Cantlie. The I’tisaam Media Foundation was established in 2013, and it is considered to be the principal media center.8 It is responsible for producing the IS annual reports, a Twitter app, and much of the Arabic-language content; however, in the months leading up to establishment of al-Ha- yat, it published English-language content as well.9 The al-Hayat Media Center was established in June of 2014, and of the three, it has received the most attention by far. This is because it creates the most English-language material of any of the branches, is explicitly aimed at Westerners, and publishes some of the most intensely branded content. Al-Hayat is responsible for the monthly magazine, Dabiq, the later Cantlie videos, and a feature-length film, titled Flames of War.

It is likely, though unconfirmed, that the three media centers are somewhat centralized. Access to the internet does not appear to be particularly obstructed, so there would be little need to decentralize, and a primary hub might benefit from economies of scale including the cost of infrastructure and the opportunity to share expertise. In addition, the presence of both a central aesthetic and cohesive message, as well as an apparent ability to pass on projects, suggest that the centers cooperate closely. At the very least, these details indicate strong central roles akin to artistic and creative directors. Decentralized media offices spread throughout IS wilayats, or governorates, also publish content on a daily basis in support of a broader media campaign. This media is generally far less involved or polished but simply dwarfs the three major media centers in terms of discrete quantity. The majority of high-level production, however, originates from the three media centers, which can effectively be assumed to be one centralized agency.

In terms of the process of production, some network of photographers must be in place, based on the geographic reach covered by the images and videos. There are even occasional and accidental appearances of differently outfitted cameramen in some IS videos, suggesting that they might be purposefully deployed. The exact roles and organization of these photographers is unknown, but the abundance of combat footage, particularly in the film Flames of War, suggests high levels of coordination in the field. The equipment and software used is also near or approaching the industry standard, at least in the independent film world. That the videos are in high-definition 1080p is overemphasized as an indicator; most mobile phones produced today will shoot in 1080p. What is actually indicative is the evident use of interchangeable lenses, stabilization rigs, and particularly, ultra slow-motion cameras. The Islamic State’s command of photography, however, is far overhyped. It is certainly proficient in production, but it is not at the level of, “something you’d see on ESPN,” as one expert commented.10 Angles are sometimes clumsy, footage is often over-exposed, and color correction is atrocious, though improving. To overstate technical mastery is somewhat of a distraction from the larger picture: the Islamic State has assembled an industrially sized production network that can nimbly turn around astounding amounts of content at a moderate to high level of production.

After the media is gathered from the field, the process of post-production is much the same as anywhere. Media is edited, exported, and finally, distributed—the easy part. The Islamic State’s method of distribution is basically Twitter.11 The production center uploads new content to one of several free hosting platforms, including,,, or an old-fashioned web forum of al-Qaeda’s day. Several members of a logistics team on the ground in Iraq or Syria then begin posting the download link to Twitter, and their job is to keep the link circulating even as their accounts are actively shut down.12 It is then up to IS fanboys13 to download the video and spread the link, and there is no shortage of accounts to do so. One study estimates that up to 90,000 Twitter accounts are in support of the Islamic State.14 Of course, not all of these accounts are actively re-posting links, but it only takes a handful to a few dozen to garner considerable attention. From there, the media is picked up by more conventional outlets, and it more or less spread itself.

Except that it has never been done before, this model does not appear particularly sophisticated because at its root, it is not. To its credit, the Islamic State is still among the first to harness new media, and it is also strategically gaming it. The I’tisaam Media Foundation released a now dismantled Arabic only Android app that, once downloaded, automatically posted tweets from the Islamic State through the user’s personal Twitter account.15 Translated from Arabic as “The Dawn of Glad Tidings,” it not only guaranteed an almost constant social media presence, but it also posted at wide enough intervals to narrowly avoid Twitter’s spam detection algorithms.16 Furthermore, the Islamic State strategically controls the rate at which content is posted such that each major release can have its own time in the spotlight. One Twitter fanboy even complained to the Islamic State when there were too many big and small releases in a single day. @ ShamiWitness tweets: “#IS needs to restrict the content ,duration and frequency of video released by its Wilayat media offices.” The logistics team will also “hijack” temporally relevant hashtags to reach an even broader audience.17 For instance, the group tagged some of their tweets #WorldCup during soccer games, infamously placing the image of decapitated head in front of soccer fans worldwide with the text, “This is our football, it’s made of skin.”18

This is a distinctly new enterprise in publicity that is entirely up-to-the-minute, the scope of which was previously simply unattainable. Never before has digital camera technology been good enough and inexpensive enough to implement the Islamic State’s vast network of eyes on the ground. Never before has the internet been fast enough nor cloud storage cheap enough to produce and distribute high quality content at such a breakneck pace. And never before has there been a generation as widely saturated and practiced in image creation. The Islamic State has capitalized on each of these developments to create an unprecedented, direct-to-viewer publicity model. In combination with its willful prioritization of mass media to spread a unified message, the Islamic State has created a network that is not only unprecedented in scope, but also requires a new theoretical model altogether.


II. A New Management of Savagery?

Theories of Propaganda & Mass Communication

The Islamic State’s media strategy originates with al-Qaeda as much as the group itself. Osama Bin Laden himself emphasized the revolutionary power of mass media, writing in a letter to Emir Al-Momineen: “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90% of the total preparation for the battles.”19 It is also apparent that al-Qaeda has had a considered model in place as early as 2004. Al-Qaeda draws heavily upon the writings of Abu Bakr Naji, the pen name for a jihadist scholar, and principally upon his work, The Management of Savagery. The web-released book is just short of a manifesto produced specifically to provide al-Qaeda and jihadists around the world a theoretical model, with practical applications, for waging jihad. The book describes a complete strategy in service of re-establishing a caliphate, but it foregrounds the role of mass media as a tool utilized by superpowers and jihadists alike. As proposed, the media strategy outlines a three-prong approach: to win support among Muslims, to project an image of amplified power, and to disrupt what Naji refers to as the Western “media halo,”III which is the projection of an image of not just overwhelming, but total power.?

The impact of this document on IS media strategy is acknowledged by analysts,IV and its influence is quite visible in the content itself. The Islamic State actively seeks to recruit, to amplify an image of power, and to tarnish the image of the Western world as invincible.V However, al-Qaeda promotes attacks directly on the West in hopes of dismantling apostate regimes propped up by Western governments; whereas, the Islamic State seeks to actively establish and expand the caliphate.21 This fundamental difference means that the Islamic State needs to demonstrate legitimacy beyond an inflated image of strength, and this necessity results in a dramatically evolved strategy within the framework outlined by The Management of Savagery. In contrast, al-Qaeda’s approach to media stays closer to the theoretical text, and as a result, is fairly passive. Strategies rely largely on controlling what information the established media infrastructure can access. Manipulating media depictions in this way, though light in terms of resources, is difficult and unreliable at best. And Naji’s only explicit tactic is exaggerating the use of force, like using more militants and explosives than necessary for any given operation. For a decentralized and often disparate organization like al-Qaeda, that’s okay—the fire of jihad can always burn within each member of the network. But for the Islamic State, there are tangible parameters of statehood that must be fulfilled. Without them, it is nothing, and no one is coming to the rescue. The Islamic State projects legitimacy both by broadcasting the supposed actualization of its state to the world and by controlling an extensive media network previously only associated with universally recognized, highly powerful entities.

To date, the Islamic State counts over 20,000 foreign fighters among its ranks, several thousand of whom are known to be Westerners,22 but the degree to which IS propaganda has had an impact on these statistics is unknown. The Islamic State’s call to arms reaches beyond the scope of propaganda when some Muslims believe that, “to die without pledging allegiance is to die jahil (ignorant) and therefore to die a ‘death of disbelief.’”23 Additionally, recent writing has speculated that film propaganda is essentially ineffective at substantively influencing public opinion24 and at best, can only reinforce already held opinions.25 However, this perspective does not account for the rise of new media and digital landscapes.26 In a field that is rapidly evolving, the sparse discourse that exists is left lacking a model to account for it. Contemporary writing often only documents these changes, failing to propose substantive frameworks for analysis. Even strong theoretical essays frequently make this kind of comment: “This well-wrought argument simply does not hold water in the age of digital video and new-media propaganda. The flow of information is incalculably faster today, and viewers are far more sophisticated.”27 These things are true but hardly even point in a new direction, much less travel in it. In order to move forward, IS media must be considered as “open,” postmodern texts28 and analyzed with the most recent modern mass communication models.

Twentieth-century propaganda models typically focus on medium and message crafting, assuming a high degree of control over distribution. This concept, of sending the right message to the right audience, is increasingly obsolete since it is now impossible to perfectly implement, given nearly universal access to information technology.VI Rather, the current assumption must be that any given message can spread anywhere, even though it might not. Under this condition, Sean Heuston, Professor of English Literature at The Citadel, suggests that, “propaganda film has changed from work to text in a process first described by Roland Barthes more than thirty years ago in his essays, ‘The Death of the Author,’ and ‘From Work to Text.’”30 Barthes might have chafed at the idea of a work definitively “changing” to a text, but Heuston’s point is compelling. The inability to control the audience necessitates an abandonment of the false presumption that a message can be communicated in perfect fidelity.31 The literature on mass communication strategy seems to be shifting in this direction as well: “a meaning cannot simply be transferred, like a letter mailed from point A to point B. Instead, listeners create meanings from messages based on factors like autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, and immediate personal needs.”32 State departments worldwide have largely failed to embrace this paradigm shift, preferring a “message influence model” shaped largely on a 1950’s understanding of the telephone.33 The Islamic State, on the other hand, has embraced the concept of propaganda as Barthesian text intuitively if not explicitly.

Islamic State media can be understood in this way partially because the group’s legitimacy is deeply dependent on broadcasting an image of uncompromising ideology. There is no room for substantively different messages. There are often differences in its construction and presentation of media, indicating that it is designed with divergent audiences in mind,34 but to stray too far from the group’s core ideology would catastrophically undermine IS legitimacy. And regardless, the Islamic State is by no means sheepish in proclaiming its divine right to rule; the group distributes as widely as possible, apparently unafraid of what unsympathetic audiences might make of it. In utter scorn of an obsessive control of distribution, the Islamic State’s media, “featur[es] the very kind of content that Western politicians and diplomats have hoped [would] dissuade people’s attraction to the group.”35 Instead, the Islamic State has attracted thousands of foreign supporters. The content is deeply manipulated to portray a consistent ideology, and this consistency allows for a strategy of maximized distribution with the anticipation of multiple interpretations.

Furthermore, it is evident that the Islamic State actively avoids including an Author in its media, such that the question of intention cannot even be properly asked.VII In “The Death of the Author,” Barthes explains that: “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”36 By removing this presence, the Islamic State creates media that is only text. In the infamous decapitation videos, “Jihadi John’s” face is not concealed to protect his identity. It was only a matter of time before British or U.S. intelligence agencies identified him, as he sports a British accent, obvious even after an applied audio distortion effect. His face is concealed to prevent an association with one man, a “final sig-ified.” The video establishes him as a symbol—an open-ended signifier. Similarly, when depicting an image of an individual IS fighter, Dabiq magazine often obscures his face. A startling exception to this is when the IS fighter has died in battle.37 Then, the face is shown plainly, and it signifies, rather definitely, a martyr. The use of John Cantlie as a reporter is the primary departure from this consistency. He has appeared in multiple videos and is listed as the writer of several articles in Dabiq. His visible inclusion provides each text an Author, and it is perhaps the most identifiable misstep of the IS media campaign so far. Portraying Cantlie raises doubt as to his intentions and sincerity in an attempt to ascertain the text’s meaning. This doubt is manifested by a Cantlie article in Dabiq, fending off accusations that, “the videos are scripted, and that perhaps [he has] no choice in the content.”38 Regardless of how persuasive, Cantlie’s very presence will always allow for the designation of text as work, ultimately casting doubts on his sincerity and the narrative. However, it is a departure that closes off only a tiny portion of an otherwise overwhelming open narrative, which effectively gives viewers the chance to see whatever they want to see.


III. Looking Good


In all of the coverage of Islamic State media, aesthetics has received the least attention by far. The discourse advanced by popular Western media and scholars alike has been limited to superficial “look” and “wow” narratives. They progress little further because just below the surface, these narratives are built on a pretension of surprise that “they” could do “that.” The Islamic State has indeed done “that,” creating media within an ostensibly Western visual language with the stylistic sensibilities of contemporary new media. This should be far from astonishing. Due to its reach, the Western visual language can no longer be claimed as Western at all but universal. It is only still perceived as Western because it was developed in the West, and the overwhelming majority of media creators continue to be wealthy Western entities. But the rest of the world has learned and fully inherited a common visual language, whether it likes it or not. To properly “encode” an image so that it can be read, or “decoded,” globally, it is not only the best option, but necessarily the only one.39 The reason that a phenomenon like IS media has never been seen before is twofold. The first is simply that the technology of image creation and distribution necessary for the Islamic State’s high level of production is only now widely available. The second is that only a miniscule number of people worldwide are literate image writers. Nearly everyone can and is taught to read images—advertisements depend on it after all—but few are versed in the process of image writing. IS media is a phenomenon of exceptionally literate image readers putting forth the concerted effort to write for the first time, but with little practical guide as to how. And the aesthetics of IS media are deeply influenced by its creators’ high literacy of image reading but apparently still-developing literacy of image writing.

The majority of Islamic State media emulates contemporary, in-the-field documentary conventions, the most identifiable being the use of multi-camera, multi-angle setups for any given scene. This means that an IS production often runs multiple cameras simultaneously to capture an event. The angles are then cut together such that there is an unbroken temporal thread documented from different vantage points, a convention distinctively characteristic of documentary. Though including multiple angles is more expensive and time-intensive, the practice persists because documentaries purport to capture authentic events, meaning there are no opportunities for retakes. Logistically, it ensures that at any given time, at least one of the shots is serviceable. This practice is also used in interviews, so human errors can be edited out, and the narrative can be simplified or manipulated. To supplement the documentary aesthetic, IS productions also employ conventions like a slightly shaky camera and roving reports. These practices are certainly used for some of the same practical reasons that any other production might, but they are also often used unnecessarily. The Islamic State can be seen mimicking the aesthetic with little regard to motivation in order to lend an extra layer of authenticity to its media.

Despite the popular narrative of the Islamic State as extraordinarily skillful in media creation,40 as well as its largely competent emulation of documentary aesthetics, other unmotivated choices within the visual language reveal highly literate amateurism. Examples can be identified in just about every IS video. The decapitation videos, for instance, are shot primarily in a two-camera setup, with an occasional third that appears to have been shot at a later time. In the first shot, the camera is angled straight on, and the prisoner and executioner speak into the camera, the prisoner kneeling next to the defiant envoy of the Islamic State. The second shot is at a forty-five degree angle to the subjects and is used for cutaways. Both the high degree of image curation41 and the the direct address of the camera indicates that the video favors performance over authenticity. With this in mind, the inclusion of a second angle does not make sense exactly. The cuts between the two angles are also unmotivated since it is quite clear that many of them are just switching within the same take. Moreover, cuts to the second angle actually detract from the power of previously constructed symbols in the establishing shot, though admittedly, not that much.

IS media also displays amateurism in frequent breaks from the 180 degree rule. This rule is universal across all types of realistic, representational audiovisual production. Given two subjects in conversation, it mandates that all angles originate from one side of the two subjects, drawing an imaginary line between them. The camera can be placed on either side of that line, but once determined, the camera and all subsequent cameras used in the production must remain on the established side. If the rule is broken, it can be an extremely disorienting experience for the viewer. Imagining the camera as a fixed spectator of the conversation, that spectator can turn her head to view nearly 180 degrees of the conversation, but she cannot travel to the other side of the subjects. When there is only one speaking subject, the rule is softer but still applies with an unpictured or imagined interlocutor. IS media breaks this rule with abandon, placing the camera on either side of most conversations at typically equivalent angles. This occurs in countless videos but most clearly in “Uncovering an Enemy Within.” It is likely unintentional, but the consistency in departure, combined with the sheer quantity of videos, results in the development of a new aesthetic aspect to the Islamic State’s visual language. The assumption of an unpictured interlocutor is at its core stagey and artificial, and the break is not particularly disorienting simply because there is only one subject—it is just not that confusing. The movement from one side to another prevents the audience from projecting another interlocutor, creating an intensity of focus on the subject. Consistent departure from the rule justifies the choice and develops an intensified aesthetic, notably devoid of a composed, behind-the-scenes Author.

While this new aspect could be designated as accidental, the Islamic State’s use of glitch imagery is situated purposefully within conventions of the language. The glitch literally indicates some sort of disruption, either benign, like a glitch on a television or a streaming video, or violent and purposeful, like the hijacking of a channel of communication. Either way, something unexpected disrupts the intent of the viewer and distributor. Prior to the Islamic State’s rapid rise on the ground and in the consciousness of Western media, the glitch came to be associated with the violent disruption of terrorism. There are countless instances of this phenomenon in Western media post 9/11, from the promotional aesthetic of the television series 24, to the Mandarin’s “lesson for America” in Iron Man 3. In turn, this association has transformed into an idea of the glitch as originating from something morally “bad.” The Islamic State would have been a prime target for this sort of representation in Western media, but instead, it has appropriated the glitch as its own. The decapitation videos all begin and end with an effect that imitates a glitching television, accompanied by a distorted buzz. This signifies a broad sense of disruption, and the videos actively denote themselves as such. They also open with clips of foreign, Western leaders taking a stance against the Islamic State before proceeding to the prelude of the execution. The clips of the leaders also contain a glitch effect while the segment of the prisoner and executioner is crystal clear. In juxtaposition, these visual effects simultaneously signify Western leaders as morally “bad” or even “evil” while disassociating the glitch from terrorist organizations. In effect, the Islamic State has aesthetically appropriated and somewhat redefined a signifier that has often denoted terror- ists, against the West.

IS media stands in stark relief of what has come to be expected of terrorist organizations. Low-fidelity images have come to be expected of extremists and non-Western entities alike. Perhaps arising from a capitalist ideology, distrust of low-fidelity or even just poorly designed media is common in the West. Low fidelity images are evidently also anathema to the Islamic State, and it overcompensates by employing sometimes beautiful, often overproduced graphic design. This includes simple 2D animation, more complex 3D modeling, and compositing, or the use of multiple layers to achieve a dynamic, glossy look. Examples are endless in IS media; even a subtitle could be considered basic compositing. Dabiq benefits greatly from composites, partially because it is easier to work with still images, and when done correctly, the technique is often unnoticeable. The composites in Dabiq include upwards of half a dozen individual images resolved into one highly dynamic whole. The composites are far more noticeable in IS videos because they are typically composed of text and simple geometric patterns animated and overlaid on the video. These effects attempt to imitate the aesthetic of contemporary new media but as before, without much concern for motivation. The overuse is not all that uncommon or noticeable, however, except in creating the impression. Though many pieces of IS media are overproduced, this level of production aggressively contradicts the idea of the low fidelity of non-Western, terrorist media. The Islamic State relies on its media receiving attention and that media projecting legitimacy. This overproduction achieves both ends by drawing attention to the now broken stereotype of terrorists as lo-fi and demonstrating legitimacy by actively creating and manipulating aesthetic sensibilities, an unmistakable signifier of affluence and power.


The prevalent Western media reaction of being surprised and impressed with Islamic State media is a natural one. What the Islamic State achieves with mass media is a new phenomenon in propaganda, distribution, and even production itself. Though the model for media production and distribution has been evolving particularly rapidly for the past decade, IS media represents a massive disruption and paradigm shift, not in any one sense, but taken as a whole. However, rehashing a discourse of “wow” without progressing it any further is irresponsible and morally lazy at best, if not bankrupt—not because that discourse is fueling the propaganda machine and not because that is precisely what “they want.” It may very well be fueling the propaganda machine insofar as any awareness of the Islamic State fuels the propaganda machine. Individuals who might be receptive will likely seek it out to some degree anyway. It is morally treacherous if the credit given to the Islamic State comes from a pretentious place, and based on popular journalism on IS media, it almost certainly does. Under the guise of credit, this traditional discourse propagates the idea of the enemy as not only powerless to write media, but also as savage, barbaric, and unable to even engage in aesthetic conversation, much less control it.

Plenty of the Islamic State’s activity can be identified as universally heinous,VIII but heinous activity does not necessarily make a barbarian. The creators of IS media are real people with high degrees of visual literacy and aesthetic and design sensibility. The forceful realization of this fact is one source of the shock. For millennia, nations have been able to get away with characterizing their enemies as evil and barbaric, but the ever expanding accessibility to the infrastructure of image manipulation and mass communication is finally dismantling this strategy for good. But the other, deeper shock, which can shake to the very core, is the depiction of horrifying, nonfiction content in an arguably beautiful and explicitly aesthetic object. If this is not apparent from the gut-wrenching anxiety that accompanies the viewing of a real execution in high definition, then it can be viewed in the countless forums that comb through IS media, attempting to find the tiniest shred of evidence that the more horrific content is “faked.” The forum lurkers are so convinced that it must actually be fictional. It simply cannot be real. Because—good things are supposed to be made by good people. Well, not anymore.



I. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In June of 2014, the group, which has gone through many self-styled identities, rebranded to simply the “Islamic State” at the establishment of the caliphate.

II. The majority of which can be found at Aaron Y. Zelin’s blog, “”

III. He goes on to explain the efficacy of the media halo as all-encompassing because, “people are subservient to it not only through fear, but also through love because it spreads freedom, justice, equality among humanity, and various other slogans.”

IV. “In addition to their own experience, the Islamic State’s leaders are eclectically drawing on extensive Arabic literature on global jihad- ist theory of guerrilla war, politics and governance, such as the writings of Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.”20?

V. The Islamic State’s approach to countering the Western media halo is significantly different from that prescribed in The Management of Savagery. While Naji recommends exhaustion and confrontation of the enemy, the Islamic State achieves similar ends through direct violence to Western citizens and a narrative of IS perseverance in the face of airstrikes, rendering the image of the West impotent. Refer to “Inside Halab,” narrated by John Cantlie.

VI The best example of modern propaganda might be the Bush administration’s use of “free speech zones,” which controlled where dissenters could protest in the President’s public appearances. By placing these out of view of the cameras, the images propagated by the media depict the full consent of the American people and the uncontested power of the President.29

VII This, in turn, could help explain the sparsity of information regarding its media production model.

VIII Even among diehard Islamic State Twitter fanboys, there appears to be a degree of disapproval at some of the Islamic State’s action, especially regarding reports of rape.




1. Olivia Becker, “ISIS Has a Really Slick and Sophisticated Media Department,” Vice News, July 12, 2014, https://news.vice. com/article/isis-has-a-really-slick-and-sophisticated-media-de- partment.

2. Steven Corman & Jill Schiefelbein, “Communication and Media Strategy in the Jihadi War of Ideas” (Report #0601 to the Consortium for Strategic Communication, Arizona State Uni- versity, April 20, 2006).

3. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March, 2015, really-wants/384980/.

4. Gina Ligon et al., “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: Branding, Leadership Culture and Lethal Attraction” (Report to the Office of university Programs, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, START, University of Maryland, November, 2014).

5. Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan, Isis: Inside the Army of Terror (New York: Regan Arts, 2015), Chapter 11.

6. “The Islamic State’s (ISIS, ISIL) Magazine,” The Clarion Project, September 10, 2014,

7. Alex Bilger, “ISIS Annual Reports Reveal a Metrics-Driven Military Command,” Institute for the Study of War, May 22, 2014,

8. Azmat Khan, “What ISIL’s English-language propaganda tells us about its goals,” Al Jazeera, June 20, 2014,

9. Ibid.

10. Sam Biddle, “How ISIS Makes Its Blood Sausage,” Gawker, February 6, 2015,

11. Ibid. 12. Ibid.

13. Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan, Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, Chapter 11.

14. J.M. Berger & Jonathon Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, No. 20, (March 2015): 9.

15. J.M. Berger, “How ISIS Games Twitter,” The Atlantic, June 16, 2014, isis-iraq-twitter-social-media-strategy/372856/.

16. Ibid.

17. Paul Fucito, “Al-Qaeda’s Media Strategies,” (George Washington University, 2006).

18. Jay Caspian Kang, “ISIS’s Call of Duty,” The New Yorker, September 18, 2014,

19. Steven Corman & Jill Schiefelbein, “Communication and Media Strategy,” 3.

20. Michael Ryan, “What Islamic State’s New Magazine Tells Us...,” The Jamestown Foundation, August 1, 2014, http:// news%5D=42702#.VVFIadpVhBc.

21. Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Model,” The Washington Post, January 28, 2015, wp/2015/01/28/the-islamic-states-model/.

22. “Brits abroad: UK citizens abroad joining the Islamic State Group,” Channel 4 News, April 20, 2015, neying-into-the-islamic-state.

23. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic.

24. Sean Heuston, “Weapons of Mass Instruction: Terrorism, Propaganda Film, Politics, and Us,” Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2005: 59. 

25. Nicholas Reeves, The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? (New York: Cassell, 1999), 239-240.

26. Sean Heuston, “Weapons of Mass Instruction,” 60. 27. Ibid, 61.?28. Ibid, 60.?29. Ibid, 66-67.

30. Ibid, 60.

31. Steven Corman, Angela Trethewey, & H.L. Goodall, Jr., “A New Communication Model for the 21st Century: From Simplistic Influence to Pragmatic Complexity,” in Weapons of Mass Persuasion (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2008), 152-154.

32. Ibid, 156. 33. Ibid, 152.

34. Scott Shane & Ben Hubbard, “ISIS Displaying a Deft Command of Varied Media,” New York Times, August 30, 2014, playing-a-deft-command-of-varied-media.html?_r=0.

35. Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan, Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, Chapter 11.

36. Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, ed. Stephen Heath (Great Britain: Fontana Press, 1977), 147.

37. “Allah’s Messenger,” Dabiq, Issue 2, 18-19.

38. John Cantlie, “The Real Story Behind My Videos,” Dabiq, Issue 4, 52.

39. Steven Corman, Angela Trethewey, & H.L. Goodall, Jr., “A New Communication Model for the 21st Century,” 152-154.

40. Sam Biddle, “How ISIS Makes Its Blood Sausage,” Gawker.

41. Marshall Sella, “How ISIS Went Viral,” Medium - Matter, October 19, 2014, fective-terrorist-brand-92620f91bc9d.