The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It doesn’t matter if you call it ISIS, ISIL or Islamic State, the extremist brand is winning

An image from a video uploaded on YouTube on Aug. 23, 2013, allegedly shows a member of a jihadist group affiliated with the Islamic State at an undisclosed location in Iraq's Anbar province. (YouTube via Agence France-Presse)
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Earlier this summer, the Associated Press announced that it would no longer refer to the Islamist militants who had taken over swaths of of Syria and Iraq as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and instead would call them ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The news agency justified the move by saying that it was a more accurate translation of the Arabic original, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (DAIISH or داعش), though some observers, including Syria analyst Hassan Hassan, argued that this itself was an oversimplification.

Confusing, right? Since then, things have only got more complicated. On June 29, a spokesman for the group, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, announced that it would renounce the ISIS/ISIL appellation because it had broken down national borders to create a caliphate. It was now simply the Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamiya).

The problem is, not everyone got the memo. The U.S. government still refers to the group as "ISIL." And although The Washington Post, the Associated Press and some other news organizations diligently updated their style guides, Poynter reports that the New York Times, the L.A. Times, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News all still use “ISIS." The Soufan Group, a consulting firm that tracks jihadist groups, argues that the Islamic State's re-branding efforts are "struggling." In a report published Aug. 8, it notes:

In the last 30 days on English Twitter, “ISIS” was mentioned 1,371,277 times, while “Islamic State” was mentioned only 193,222 times (the less common English variation and term of reference, ISIL — the L for Levant — was mentioned 55,000 times in the same period).

In Arabic, there were similar problems: "In the past last 30 days in Arabic-language Twitter, with the Arabic acronym for ISIS (داعش) mentioned 1,481,172 times," the Soufan report says, "while the Islamic State (الدولة الإسلامية) is mentioned only 231,169."

Perhaps it sounds glib to talk about the branding of an extremist Islamist group responsible for the deaths and oppression of thousands. But the branding or, perhaps more accurately, the idea of the Islamic State is exactly what attracts recruits and funding to the group. And even if its techniques have sometimes been crude, the Islamic State has clearly gone out of its way to promote its brand.

What's really worrying is that despite all the confusion over its name, the Islamic State "brand" actually seems pretty solid — and worryingly global. It's distinctive black-and-white flag was flown in London last week, and leaflets supporting it were handed out in the city's Oxford Street on Tuesday. An American was arrested at a New York City airport this month after authorities were tipped off by his pro-Islamic State Twitter rants. The group has began publishing videos in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil in a bid to reach Indian Muslims. There are credible reports that the group is hoping to target Asian countries — and Indonesia is so worried that it banned all support for the Islamic State.

The list goes on and on. Whatever you call it — the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, or something else — its brand is potent.