The Islamic State may practice medieval barbarism in Syria and Iraq, but its worldwide media operations are 21st century.
It’s active on social media, it has pamphlets, weekly illustrated magazines, billboards, T-shirts, baseball hats and even propaganda offices in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has expanded the message machine, too, particularly since the United States began its air attacks against the terrorist group’s forces in Iraq on Aug. 8.
Its recent output of videos has been prodigious.
The three professionally staged beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker shocked the world. Whatever their original purpose — seemingly to halt the U.S. bombing — they instead generated U.S. public demand for immediate action against the Islamic State and greater international support for President Obama’s decision to expand the bombing to Syria.
The newest Islamic State prisoner videos, using captured British journalist John Cantlie, take a different tack. They have him questioning the West’s military operations against Muslims.
In two six-minute videos, one released Sept. 18 and one on Sept. 23, Cantlie reads from a script in an apparently forced but calm manner.
He describes himself as “a British citizen abandoned by my government and a longtime prisoner of the Islamic State.” In his first program, Cantlie pointed out how the Islamic State had negotiated the release of other European prisoners — without mentioning ransoms — while the British and Americans refused to make any deal.
Cantlie argues against the United States and Britain attacking the Islamic State, referencing Vietnam and recent criticism of the first Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. He also raises the specter that this approach eventually will require thousands of American boots on the ground.
He closes the newest video quoting former CIA analyst Michael Scheurer, who headed the agency’s original al-Qaeda unit: Islamists “have been in the field fighting since 1979, and their movement has never been larger, more popular or as well armed as it is today.”
Cantlie signs off: “Join me again for the next program.”
The Islamic State’s video output since June has been far greater than these publicized prisoner ones.
●There are recruiting videos such as “No Life Without Jihad,” featuring English-speaking fighters telling others to join, and “Breaking the Border,” showing equipment and prisoners seized on the Iraq-Syrian border area they control.
● A 55-minute documentary “Flames of War,” released last week alternates between horrific bloodshed — Syrian army soldiers forced to dig their own graves and then shot — to a masked American-sounding fighter explaining why he has joined. There’s also a scene in which a jihadist is killed by an explosion as the English-speaking narrator praises him and quotes the prophet Muhammad, saying those who fight on the battlefield “and do not turn their faces away until they are killed” are the best of martyrs.
● A two-minute trailer promoting an upcoming new jihadist video game in which players kill Iraqi and U.S. forces.
The United States and its coalition may have top-notch weaponry, but the Islamic State appears to have what one intelligence analyst recently described as an “awesome” thought-through campaign to win hearts and minds — and recruits.
The Islamic State PR team has a big advantage when it comes to the propaganda war, according to present and former U.S. intelligence analysts.
The region is hospitable to the anti-West and particularly anti-U.S. messaging. In the midst of sectarian conflict, political disorder and years of social inequities, they have been skillfully portraying themselves as having solutions.
One of the most recent examples of Islamic State propaganda came in a Sept. 21 speech by its chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, broadcast in Arabic, translated into many languages and placed on social media around the world.
Adnani sprinkles his 42-minute, 12-page speech with disparaging descriptions of U.S. officials that are bound to be circulated among jihadist fighters, with whom they will resonate. Obama is called a “mule of the Jews,” and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is called an “uncircumcised old geezer.”
Addressing Americans, Adnani says: “The Islamic State did not institute a war against you, as your governments and media try to make you believe.”
He adds that the United States “will pay the price” when its economy collapses and “you will pay the price when your sons are sent to wage a war against us and they return to you as disabled amputees, or inside coffins or mentally ill.”
Then he adds that Americans, “will pay the price as you walk on your streets, turning right and left, fearing the Muslims. You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms. You will pay the price when this crusade of yours collapses and thereafter we will strike you in your homeland you will never be able to harm anyone afterwards.”
He has messages for Egypt, Sunnis in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, Australians and Canadians.
U.S. attempts to counter this type of messaging faces the same difficulty that Washington has had in trying to create democratic governmental partners in the region. The new Baghdad government somehow must overcome the anti-Sunni, anti-Kurd actions of the former Nouri al-Maliki government to regain the Iraqi people’s support — U.S. tweets can’t do it. The task in Syria is even more difficult.
President Obama has repeatedly said that it is up to Iraqis and Syrians to win the military war on the ground. The propaganda war is no different.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.