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This is why the Islamic State shocks the world with its graphically violent imagery

Smoke rises in the distance on Sept. 11, 2015, behind an Islamic State flag and banner after Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters reportedly captured several villages from ISIS fighters in the district of Daquq. (Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images)

The Islamic State shocked the world with its use and publication of graphic violence. Its coordinated media apparatus and social-media campaigns have been widely discussed and studied, but little is actually known about its media strategy, a potent blend of weaponized images and creative poaching from American popular culture.

In my new research project, funded by the Carnegie Corp. through a 2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, I have examined multiple primary jihadist documents about media and communication. Far from random acts of violence, the Islamic State has a clear media doctrine intended to do as much damage as its bullets and bombs.

The well-known 2004 jihadist tract, “The Management of Savagery,” emphasized “savagery” because it attracts extensive media coverage. Violence must be spectacular, over the top. Jihadists should use massive explosive charges that obliterate buildings into smithereens, underscoring “the role of violence and coarseness against the infidels in combat and media battles.”

The book calls for an aggressive media strategy that both demoralizes the enemy and rallies the population. But it has little to say about targeting militants themselves, particularly those who design and execute media campaigns. For that, we have to turn to Ayyuha al-E‘lamy Anta Mujahidon (Oh Media Worker, You are a Mujahid).

A striking document, Ayyuha al-E‘lamy is at once inspirational tome, field manual, revolutionary pamphlet and philosophical manifesto. It mixes technical instructions with bursts of indoctrination, all peppered with religious quotes. Imagine an undergraduate media production textbook on ideological steroids.

From the onset, Ayyuha al-E‘lamy emphasizes “jihad of the tongue” over “jihad of the self,” reminding readers “that the weapon of the word can be more devastating than nuclear weapons.” In lengthy epigraphs, leading Islamist militants describe how the prophet Muhammad attacked his enemies with the most important media of his time — poetry, which was “more extreme than arrows.” The publication repeatedly highlights the importance of jihadist media and media workers and “achieving a media triumph hand in hand with a military victory.”

Most revealing is the systematic weaponizing of images. Ayyuha al-E‘lamy explicitly compares militant media to arrows, bullets and bombs. Quoting top Islamic State in Iraq leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, it reminds readers that in “the military front, and … the confrontation with the demonic media … media rockets exceed in their ferocity and danger the flames of bombs dropped from airplanes.”

Speaking of “the arrows of jihadi news,” Ayyuha al-E‘lamy compares a camera to a machine gun and underlines that image weapons are so important they are worth dying for: “Don’t you see the photographer/cameraman carrying his camera in lieu of the Kalashnikov and running ahead of the soldier in our conquests, welcoming bullets with his breast?”

This equation of images with weapons is not merely metaphorical. German artist and writer Harun Farocki once described footage shot by drones as “operative images,” which “do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation.”

After the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq — which eventually became the Islamic State — championed high-quality, high-brutality images. Especially compared to the poorly produced videos of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, post-Zarqawi Islamic State videos are often described as “slick” and “sophisticated.”

But to understand images as operative, we need to reach further than the conventional narrative of technical sophistication and high production values. We could learn much about how images operate as weapons by shifting our attention from the messages images convey to the affects they impart.

Individuals first experience affects as bodily sensations. By the time people can make sense of these stirrings and give them names, affects become emotions. Terror itself is an affect. It stirs us, provoking sensations that we define as the emotions of fear and anxiety.

Philosophers have argued that weapons have an affect that is “projectilic.” As a fast, penetrative object that crosses a distance and hits its target at high velocity, a projectile can overwhelm a human body.

When the Islamic State indoctrinates its media workers with the idea that images are tantamount to bullets, rockets and missiles, it is defining images as projectiles. This climaxes in Ayyuha al-E‘lamy’s equation of media workers and suicide bombers: “The media worker is a martyr-operator without a belt.”

Islamic State publications like Ayyuha al-E‘lamy reflect a media doctrine that understands images as projectiles. They pack such an extreme dose of violence that their affect can overwhelm those it reaches. Most people will go to great lengths to avoid seeing such images, just as most people would try to escape a bullet or arrow.

Aware of this, the Islamic State brings us the affect of terror in familiar form. Many have noted that Islamic State videos have a “Hollywood visual style,” particularly when it comes to images of death. This is not the only visual trope in Islamic State imagery familiar to Western audiences. Hostages about to be beheaded wear orange jumpsuits, a clear reference to militant detainees in Guantánamo.

Using a visual repertoire provided by Hollywood film and the U.S. military, and therefore familiar to American and global audiences, the Islamic State efficiently delivers its image-projectiles. Wrapping images of atrocity in a familiar visual and narrative format makes them more accessible, and thus more potent, inflicting the affect of terror on viewers.

As many have argued, the Islamic State is not an exceptional phenomenon, and its violence is not unprecedented. However, the group’s image weaponization, spelled out in official, prescriptive and lasting documents and conveyed through a familiar delivery system, betrays a particularly creative media philosophy. Created during a moment of Islamic State ascendance, this media doctrine may have to evolve as losses mount, but it still offers insight into an idealized form of media jihad.

Marwan M. Kraidy is the Anthony Shadid Chair in Global Media, Politics and Culture, and director of the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC), Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is “The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World,” (Harvard University Press, 2016). He tweets @MKraidy.