Published on October 23rd, 2014 | by EJC0
The Isis Propaganda War: A Hi-Tech Media Jihad
In 1941, Hollywood director Frank Capra was commissioned to make a series of propaganda films for the US war effort. He knew he had his work cut out: he had seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will – a staggering, state-of-the-art display of both film-making expertise and Nazi military might. “It scared the hell out of me,” Capra later said. “It fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.” How could the Americans possibly compete? Capra’s solution was to turn the enemies’ weapons against them. His resulting seven-film documentary series, Why We Fight, repurposed footage from Triumph Of The Will and other propaganda films to show “our boys” what they were up against. He even copied Riefenstahl’s editing rhythms and rousing use of music. “Let their own films kill them,” Capra said. “Let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause – and the justness of ours.”
Fast forward to the present-day, and the situation seems to have been reversed. Just as Islamic State (Isis) has used captured American artillery against its enemies in Iraq, so it is using the west’s media tools and techniques against it. Isis has proved fluent in YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, internet memes (see: #catsofjihad) and other social media. Amateur videos and images are also being uploaded daily by its footsoldiers, which are then globally disseminated, both by ordinary users and mainstream news organisations hungry for images of a conflict their own cameras cannot access. A recent example was a recruitment video consisting of edited footage from Grand Theft Auto. “Your games which are producing from you, we do the same actions in the battlefields!! [sic]” proclaimed the YouTube clip, which was duly reported around the world. The current geopolitical situation in the Middle East is depressingly familiar, but Isis’s media sophistication is something new. It’s almost as if it looked at Osama bin Laden’s fuzzy, monotonous camcorder sermons of a decade ago and concluded that extremist Islam really needed a snappier marketing strategy. Isis is in competition with western news channels, Hollywood movies, reality shows, even music video, and it has adopted their vocabulary.
Isis’s global media operation appears to have two key objectives: to provoke the US and its allies, and to recruit from outside the Middle East. Both seem to be working. In the former instance, the horrific videos of the beheadings of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers David Haines and, on Friday, Alan Henning, have helped drag western powers back into combat in the region. Meanwhile, those same countries have seen their citizens departing to join Isis.
As we have seen, Foley, Sotloff and other hostages have been forced in the videos to condemn the US government’s “complacency and criminality” and to warn them not to intervene. Meanwhile British photojournalist John Cantlie is, under duress, currently presenting what looks like a mock current affairs series. The three episodes to date lay out clear, analytical arguments, referencing credible sources including the New York Times. The language is fluent – “What is this latest, ill-advised foray really supposed to achieve?” If it weren’t for Cantlie’s orange, Guantanamo-style shirt, this could almost be Newsnight.
The visual grammar of these films bears close examination. Cantlie first appears talking straight to the viewer, but the angle switches mid-speech, showing him in profile. It’s a technique common to modern documentary and TV interviews, requiring more than one camera or multiple takes. Cantlie’s broadcasts also end with a news-like sign-off: “Join me for the next programme”. In the beheading videos, “Jihadi John” and his masked kidnappers indicate their next victim at the end, as if enticing viewers to stay tuned, in the manner of a reality TV show. Why do this? Isis is trying to make its hostage videos look more professional, more entertaining, even.
The full extent of Isis’s media ambitions can be seen in the output of its “Al Hayat Media Center”. Not to be confused with the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, Al Hayat Media is specifically aimed at non-Arabic speakers, particularly younger viewers, and its output is closer to mainstream broadcast standards than anything else Islamic extremism has yet produced. Like a conventional broadcaster, it has its own glossy ident, not dissimilar to that of Al-Jazeera: a teardrop-shaped logo of Arabic script materialising from a digital cascade of water. Its broadcasts invariably feature this logo or a fluttering black-and-white Isis flag in the top corner of the screen. It makes programmes in several languages – primarily German, English and French – and multiple formats, from minute-long, Twitter-friendly “Mujatweets” to an hour-long “documentary” entitled The Flames Of War, which was heralded by its own Hollywood-style trailer. It also publishes audio content and an English-language PDF magazine, called Dabiq. Issue two likened the Caliphate to an “ark” in an apocalyptic “flood”. It illustrated the analogy with images from the recent Hollywood epic Noah.
Al Hayat Media’s programming is diverse. Eid Greetings from the Land of Khilafah, for example, filmed in occupied Raqqa, Syria, plays like a jihadi travel show. Isis fighters from Finland, Indonesia, Belgium, the UK and other countries speak of how happy they are to be there. “I don’t think there’s anything better than living in the land of khilafah,” says Abu Abdullah al-Habashi, from Britain. “We don’t need any democracy, we don’t need any communism or anything like that, all we need is sharia.” The interviews are intercut with colourful scenes of street life and children at a fairground. It even ends with the sign-off: “I wish you were here.” The “Mujatweets” also cynically display Isis’s gentle side: Isis handing out ice creams to children, a chef talking about his appetising shawarmas, a soldier comforting wounded comrades in hospital.
There’s grislier propaganda, too. The feature-length Flames Of War mythologises Isis’s military heroism with gruesome footage and florid prose. “The heavy shelling let out thunderous roars that cast fear into the hearts of the enemy, and left them breathing the thick fumes of death,” intones the narrator in English. There is graphic combat footage: genuine roadside bomb explosions, gun battles, executions, corpses. There are also clips from western news, and countless images of triumphant soldiers marching, riding horses, driving military vehicles, waving AK-47s or Isis flags. It’s a good example of what seems to be the Al Hayat style. Virtually every frame has been treated. The colour is so saturated, the combatants appear to glow with light. Explosions are lingered over in super slow motion. There are effects giving the feel of TV footage or old photographs. Transitions between clips are sheets of flame and blinding flashes. Graphics fly across the screen. Sonorous, auto-tuned chanting and cacophonous gunfire reverberate on the soundtrack. The Isis regime might have outlawed music, singing, smoking and drinking alcohol, but it clearly embraces Final Cut Pro.
The more violent images from The Flames Of War have also been edited into a rapid-fire, steroidal action montage accompanied by a recruitment nashid, or hymn. Again, the implication is that warfare is a real-life Grand Theft Auto. The song lyrics sweep across the screen, karaoke-style in latin-script Arabic and English: “Brothers rise up! Claim your victory! Let’s go! Let’s go for jihad!” It takes a while to register that the song itself is in German.
These films were put together with reasonable competence, despite being basic and inexpensively produced. They are most likely shot on standard equipment, according to professional film-makers. The shadow of a cameraman in one film suggests he is holding a small camcorder with a flip-out viewfinder. Other images betray the shallow depth of field of a DSLR camera, such as Canon’s 5D or 7D – easy to operate and to keep in focus. They use radio microphones for sound. Those effects and graphics and image-manipulation tools are standard on editing software like Adobe Premier; even phone apps can do a super slo-mo effect. The liberal use of effects heightens the sense of importance and filters the horror of the violence, but it also lends coherence to footage that must have come from disparate sources.
Pinning down Isis’s visual style is harder. The martial triumphalism has inevitably drawn comparisons with Triumph Of The Will but the connection is tenuous – not least because Leni Riefenstahl had the funds, hardware and ranked personnel of the Third Reich at her disposal. Others have likened Isis’s fast-cutting stylistic overkill to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, or even horror movies like Saw. At times, the fetishised, HD, slo-mo combat brings to mind The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Iraq war drama; at others, the cheap production values and portentous narration resemble a bad History Channel documentary. None of these quite capture it. What nobody wants to admit is that Isis could have fashioned a visual aesthetic of its own.
Unsurprisingly, the personnel behind Al Hayat Media Center are unknown. If there is a Leni Riefenstahl figure, chief suspect is Abu Talha al-Almani, AKA Denis Cuspert, AKA “Deso Dogg”. In the latter incarnation, he was a moderately successful gangsta rapper in Germany, but Dogg publicly converted to Islam in 2010 and and began writing nashids not dissimilar to those put out by Al Hayat. Last year he was known to be fighting with Isis in Syria, but was apparently wounded. This April, around the time Al Hayat Media became active, he announced he had taken a new role in Isis’s propaganda arm, though that “propaganda arm” could actually consist of one man and a laptop.
And this is propaganda, let’s not forget. There’s little evidence in these films of abduction, rape, persecution, destruction of mosques, crucifixions, severed heads mounted on railings, whippings of women found not wearing the hijab and other Isis-inflicted atrocities. Women are barely visible at all, in fact. And there’s no telling how much of it is actually staged. In The Flames Of War, for example, we see defeated soldiers from the Syrian Army’s 17th division apparently digging their own graves. One of them unconvincingly eulogises the bravery of Isis as he digs: “It’s as if Allah has blessed the Islamic State. They captured the 17th division base in a matter of seconds – even though there were 800 of us and they only numbered in the dozens.” In reality, Raqqa’s 17th division base had been under siege since long before Isis arrived and took weeks to capture.
The question for the world is: what can be done about it? The Frank Capra approach worked against a nation state like Nazi Germany (even if Why We Fight resorted to racial stereotyping and emotively manipulated history). It clearly isn’t going to work against an anonymous, amorphous, guerrilla media opponent. The US state department has already tried. Its Twitter site Think AgainTurn Away links to Isis-related news stories, and occasionally releases its own videos. Last month, it put out a parody of an Isis recruitment video, sarcastically listing jihadist activities: “Crucifying and executing muslims… suicide bombings inside mosques! … Travel is inexpensive … because you won’t need a return ticket!” Never mind the tastelessness, or the inferior production values, the activities listed barely differ from those in Isis’s own propaganda. Another Think Again … missive feebly parodies Isis’s Grand Theft Auto video: “Grand Theft Innocence – don’t let Isis be your controller!” Predictably enough, Isis supporters have parodied Think AgainTurn Away’s parodies. It becomes a hall of mirrors.
Western film-makers face the same challenge. They only seem to be providing more raw material for Isis’s image library. Hollywood has even been accused of setting the tone, with its dark, doomsday scenarios, not to mention its own expensive recruitment films, from Top Gun to Transformers, made with the cooperation (and conditional approval) of the US military. As one critic recently observed: “Isis is moving in on their turf.”
Isis’s propaganda does cast some light on the US’s own output, suggests American documentary maker Eugene Jarecki. “Not only are we a pace-setter in production values, we are also a pace-setter in murderous, amoral, profoundly disturbing content the world over,” he says. “If we are watching [Isis] come up to speed, it’s to our own apparent obsession with gore and depravity.” Jarecki, a vocal critic of US policy, does not feel Isis deserves praise for its film-making. “It’s like saying ‘Hitler wasn’t such a bad painter’.” In his 2005 documentary, coincidentally also entitled Why We Fight, he detailed the increasing appetite for conflict on the part of the US military-industrial complex. “A threat like Isis plays directly into the hands of our military lobbyists who want such behaviour because it’s good for business.”
Jarecki draws parallels between the histories of military and media supremacy. He cites George Orwell’s 1945 essay You And The Atom Bomb, in which Orwell argued that sophisticated weapons such as tanks, battleships and planes favour tyrants and oppressors, whereas accessible weapons such as rifles strengthen the weak. It’s the same with the movies, he says. Once, cameras were big and expensive and only available to movie and television studios. As they have became cheaper and more available, ordinary people have gained control of the media narrative.
This shift, Jarecki contends, roughly coincided with the Gulf wars. The first was reported virtually exclusively by CNN. By the second, Al-Jazeera was providing an alternative viewpoint (and was “accidentally” bombed by the US military as a result). A key development was Saddam Hussein’s execution, cellphone footage of which was relayed around the world. “Rather than the peaceful transition of power the US and its allies sought to communicate, the footage showed Saddam’s death was actually a thuggish mob hit,” Jarecki says, “a total and unmitigated mess – a perfect visual metaphor for the unmitigated mess of the war they had launched.” Now, in the age of YouTube, Twitter, smartphones, cheap cameras and software, the superpowers no longer control information. Ironically, the beneficiaries of this media democratisation are a medieval theocracy hell-bent on eradicating democracy from the face of the earth.
For Jarecki, the big question is who Isis truly is. “As the acronym shifts daily, we don’t know if these videos are actually being produced by a ragtag force seeking to provoke a superpower and her allies into war or if Isis is rather a front for more institutional actors, even states, pretending to be such a grassroots group. This is vital for knowing whether this development is one toward or away from the democratisation of the narrative.”
Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act Of Killing, also urges the west to reflect upon its own position. As a Londoner, Oppenheimer was chilled to hear the English accent of the executioner in the video of James Foley’s beheading. “He could have been my neighbour. This speaks volumes about who we have become, about our society, about alienation, about our relationship to the media, to fantasy, and via both to our fellow human beings. We must ask ourselves what moral vacuum have we created in the west, here at home. What alienation are we creating from each other, from community, from human life? How are we teaching our children to forget the preciousness of life? And how has our brutal, even barbaric, economic system brought us into these relationships to images, fantasies and media? I am challenging us to look at the masked executioner as though we are looking in the mirror.”
Jarecki broadly agrees. “Why wouldn’t America produce videos that – oh my God! – actually recognise its wrongdoing?” he says. “And recognise the need for a world run with a greater sensitivity to the demands of a planet that is ever more a global village, and that acting sociopathically and myopically within that global village is a non-starter. We should respond to this not with bombs but with schools, not with warships but with assistance for ebola, not with more horrors but with the diminution of horrors. That’s the video I’d like to see.”
Isis could well be losing the propaganda war all by itself. The recent execution of Alan Henning, in particular, was condemned the world over. The video pleas to spare Henning’s life, from his wife and British Muslim leaders, stood in marked contrast to Isis’s own pumped-up rhetoric. They were calm, guileless, heartfelt, personal, entirely free of visual trickery. “Alan was volunteering with his Muslim friends to help the people of Syria,” said Barbara Henning in her video. “He was in the right place, doing the right thing.” The fact that Isis went ahead and killed him anyway, on the eve of the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, has exposed them as both inhumane and un-Islamic. In propaganda terms, it was a colossal own-goal. Now that Isis has hijacked the world’s attention, its philosophy surely cannot bear the scrutiny. In Capra’s terms, we need to examine both the enormity of Isis’s cause, and the justness of ours.
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Photo: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann