Has Jihadist Propaganda in Syria reached an end?
Enab Baladi Investigation Team
Dia Odeh /Ammar Ziadeh /Nour Dalati
Extremist organizations have been using Virtual platforms, social media websites, channels, and other publications and distributions over the years, to spread their influence and call for taking up the banner of the caliphate, impose borders, and promote for the teachings of Islam.
This time the Syrian land was the field and space for production companies and media institutions whose mission revolved around promoting for the ideology of Violent Jihad, to fill the void with the ideas of extremism, calls for hatred and violence and incitement to murder and revenge.
This began more than four years ago, with the emergence of jihadist groups on the Syrian scene and as a major party to the conflict. However, nowadays, the situation is no longer the same for content has changed along with the previous situation of jihadist media. The military situation and political changes the organizations running those media outlets had witnessed, affected the quality, and the amount of diffused content, thus influencing the ideas they are seeking to promote.
The demise of ISIS, which is characterized by the most cohesive and organized media policy among jihadist groups, caused most of its affiliated media, whether formally or informally promoting for its ideology and seeking to win supporters, to disappear.
Al-Nusra Front changed its speech to adapt to the changing political and military conditions, leading the organization to break free from al-Qaeda and change its name as well as the discourse its leaders and media are using.
This file enumerates the media outlets affiliated to jihadist organizations, analyzes its media discourse and the tools used to promote for it. It also sheds light on the most prominent changes that have taken place at the level of speech in relation to the military and political changes in Syria.
ISIS media and the State complex
On the 6th of Ramadan 1435 AH, 4 July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS leader appeared for the first time on the “minbar” of the Great Mosque (al-Hadba) in Mosul, Iraq. Before giving his speech during which he appointed himself as a Caliph, al-Baghdadi used miswak twig for few seconds then said,” I was afflicted being a Caliph entrusted with such a position. I am appointed by you to be your custodian [Wali], and I am neither better than you nor the best among you. ”
Al-Baghdadi’s appearance was the first step of the propaganda initiated by ISIS after declaring him as the Caliph. The potentials, capabilities and technology harnessed to this goal may have exceeded the ones allocated for military ground operations, following which the organization managed to control large areas of Syria and Iraq, named the “Land of the Caliphate”. ISIS was perfectly aware the extent to which media war was important to the state it has declared and is striving to keep it, for it is an “effective” weapon which works to achieve a set of goals, mainly the mobilization of supporters and polarization of “Muslim youth” and, thereby, the dissemination and indoctrination of its military, cultural and political ideology.
Publications, films, songs, videos, video reports, audios, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, social media platforms and various media outlets, were used by the organization to promote and disseminate its ideology, reinforced by a newly-adopted rhetoric and language. ISIS introduced a jargon, which urged Muslim youth to take part in “jihad”, touched them, and targeted the injustice they feel and the need to take revenge. This has been reinforced by the way “tyrannical regimes” were dealing with the people, especially in the Arab world.
Nowadays, years after the establishment of the “Caliphate State” on Syrian and Iraqi and, the US and its allies are about to declare the organization to be entirely eliminated after imposing siege on ISIS members in an area, which covers hundreds of meters, inside al-Baghuz Syrian village, Eastern Euphrates. This has been accompanied by the demise of the organization’s social media platforms, mainly Telegram, which has been recently limited to “Nasher News”, ISIS news outlet in addition to Amaq news agency, which is considered as ISIS official news agency.
Media apparatus headed by “Delegated Committee”
Al-Furqan is the first and most prominent media foundation established by ISIS in 2006, when the organization used to be called the “Islamic State of Iraq”. It produced dozens of works and films in both Arabic and English versions. Its activities grew as a result of the organization’s control of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, and the expansion of its influence to Syria, specifically Raqqa. It has then moved into a new phase characterized by the use of social media, namely Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, which led to the emergence of several other means, ranging between agencies, newspapers, and magazines.
Before tackling the media apparatus it is necessary to refer to the structure of the organization as a whole, which was divided into Diwans (bureaus), similar to ministries, such as “Diwan al-Zakat,” “Diwan al-Jund” and “Diwan al-Hisbah” in addition to Diwan al-I’lam (Information Bureau). This latter bureau was run by ministers during ISIS control over Iraqi areas. Later, the position of a minister has been turned into a “spokesman”, such as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and Abul-Hassan al-Muhajir.
Enab Baladi conducted a research relying on several sources familiar with the structure of ISIS media apparatus. The newspaper discovered that ISIS took control over media through the so-called “Delegated Committee”, which was linked to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The committee was responsible for making decisions and issuing suspension decrees. Every publication or film or report produced shall be evaluated by whether editing, publishing, or rejecting it.
ISIS Diwan of Central Media was heading the “Delegated Committee”, which was divided into several media institutions, notably al-Hayat, al-Furqan, al-Bayan, al-I’tasam, Agnad for Nasheed and al-Himma, paper library issuing pamphlets. Also, Amaq agency delivered the organization’s official speech and addressed the entire world relying on Telegram app mainly for the dissemination of news from all states.
In addition to the above mentioned outlets, the media apparatus has been divided into newspapers and magazines, the most prominent of which is, al-Naba, a newspaper written in Arabic, printed and distributed recently in Deir ez-Zor. It has 170 issues, the last of which was issued on 14 February, 2019. Dabaq is the first English-written paper magazine to publish its first issue in July 2014, in addition to the Turkish-written magazine Constantinople produced by al-Hayat, Rumiyah Italian language magazine, Dar al-Islam French magazine and al-Masdar in Russian. Al-Bayan radio station is another broadcasting authority established by ISIS.
ISIS media apparatus adopted a single rhetoric in every platform since its inception until demise, despite the different target groups the organization was addressing, whether Muslims, or the so-called “Crusaders” and Western regimes. The organization adopted the same rhetoric with the multi-lingual media outlets. For instance, the English-written Al-Hayat was translated into different languages, including Arabic, following the target audience and environment.
Using its media outlets, ISIS tended to spread terror and fear among the “ranks of the enemy” through the brutal films and productions, displaying a “strong and cruel” nature to defeat the opponent, and attract the largest number of supporters. In spite of their affiliation to ISIS and their participation in field battles and arrival to the “Land of the Caliphate”, these supporters were mainly acting like “individual wolves” in the areas where they lived, and electronic-soldiers fighting through social media platforms.
The emergence of several media platforms in addition to ISIS official media outlets, justifies the above mentioned theory. They were responsible for promoting ideology and ideas of the organization. For example, Nasher was publishing news about ISIS media offices, whether in Wilayat al-Raqqah, Wilayat al-Dimashq or Wilayat al-Khayr. According to Enab Baladi, Nasher News is a pro-mediator platform, which is not officially affiliated to ISIS, but rather working to deliver its news. In addition, it is also linked to the Delegated Committee. Several similar pro-ISIS platforms have emerged, the most prominent of which are Banat Aisha, al-Batar, Mu’tah, Esra, al-Wafa , Irtiqa, al-Zawra and Khattab Media Foundation.
The State- complex
Years after the establishment of ISIS huge media apparatus, which has clearly become ancient history, one must look into the objectives the organization was looking to achieve using this entire body, for the techniques and professional skills it has made use of were not pointless. ISIS wanted to communicate many messages mainly the so-called “State Complex”, as referred to by Abbas Sharifa, researcher in jihadist groups.
During an interview with Enab Baladi, Sharifa said that “ISIS wanted to communicate the message that the organization is an established state having borders, sharia courts and Hisbah as main pillar. Therefore, it has provided much effort to the media apparatus in order to prove this theory and communicate the desired messages.”
The second goal was to send scary messages to the “enemies”. “The bloody and barbaric acts of killing, beheading, burning and making an art out of it were meant to intimidate the soldiers following the principle of psychological warfare,” said Sharifa.
The activities of ISIS media apparatus focused on “psychological warfare”. This tendency has been highlighted in the “Healing of the Believers’ Chests,” which documented the method of execution of the Jordanian pilot, Moath al-Kasasbeh, in addition to the speeches of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and the video that documented the killing of the Syrian regime soldiers in Raqqa. The third and most important objective ISIS wanted to communicate through its media outlets is to recruit and try to attract members to its military body by targeting the emotional side of Muslim youth around the world.
Sharifa highlighted that “ISIS represented a dream for a number of Muslim youth. Through media, ISIS sent a message to these youth, informing them that this dream may become true, only if they join in the land of the Caliphate.”
Through the broadcasted films and publications, ISIS was intending to introduce its structure and ideology. The organization worked to give a “positive image” as a response to all those who stood against its actions, such as illustrated reports showing the way ISIS was running its held areas and the process of Zakat collection in addition to punishing those who steal and violate sharia laws, and promoting for the extent to which life is beautiful in the “land of the Caliphate,” where “security and justice are well-established.”
In addition to the above mentioned objectives, ISIS has worked to disseminate ideas and ideology through its means, and has adopted an “educational” approach to the issue of jihad and governance, factors nullifying Islam and expiating Arab regimes and the House of Islam and War, relying on social media websites, namely Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram.
In a study conducted in 2015 by Quilliam, the British anti-extremism Center, it was revealed that more than half of the propaganda issued by ISIS at that time was meant to demonstrate the organization’s ability to run a “viable state”.
The British Center pointed out that ISIS media apparatus produced 900 propaganda including reports, provisions, videos and radio programs between 17 July and 15 August 2015. He pointed out that this is to be considered as a large media campaign, which publishes an average of 38.2 advertisements per day, and this greatly weakens efforts to curb it.
The Center’s report pointed out that, despite the diversity of the issues ISIS is focusing on, most notably violence and military power, the organization paid great attention to local issues for several reasons, mainly containing any internal attempt of revolution against it and convincing the population subject to the organization’s control that it could be changed into a viable state.
The image and the way it is implemented have a great impact on the recipient and the public. Many media outlets failed to attract an audience through messages or speeches addressing the public. However, ISIS managed to adopt this process as a basic pillar and communicated its ideology and doctrine using the image delivered through its media outlets. This has been made evident, by its publications, the most prominent of which is the “Flames of the War”, the largest and the “most frightening.”
ISIS harnessed the image in different occasions, whether the black color Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sported on the “minbar” of al-Hadba Mosque, or “La Illah Illa Allah” (There is no other God but Allah) expression written on the banner in an old typeface that does not need any printing machine, in addition to the seal of the prophecy.
According to Sharifa, ISIS’s message is similar to a “brand” being promoted by more than one platform, and which is distinguished by the vocabulary used, such as “wali”, “wilaya” and “Board of Grievances” (Diwan al-Mathelem), which epitomizes an unprecedented special visual identity.
The researcher explains that several factors contributed to the proliferation of ISIS rhetoric in the previous years. First, “the speech is full of action, and it attracts a large group of young adolescents (…) for fighting and war not only at the virtual level through films, but also at the concrete level as it became a rather real act.
“The desperate youth seeking martyrdom” is another factor that contributed to spreading ISIS ideology. “This group of people was fascinated by martyrdom operations and bombing enemies. They are seeking revenge, for they were subject to the oppression of tyrannical regimes. Thereby, ISIS represented to them a revenge tool through which they could eliminate the terrorism of the counter parties”.
Among the interdependent goals, which contributed to the proliferation of ISIS rhetoric is the “intelligence-based media message”, which has been invested in terms of intelligence according to Sharifa who does not deny the existence of this factor through which ISIS exaggerated the fact that the Syrian people let the organization down. This was meant justify the ISIS invasion of the regions and the implementation of projects of division, intervention and destruction of cities, such as Mosul, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
The influence of the organization on the ground is about to vanish, and so is the media affiliated to it. Therefore, the researcher believes that “ISIS media propaganda has declined to less than half.”
“In the past, more than 90,000 Twitter accounts affiliated to ISIS were active. Now, the number has declined, especially with the presence of censorship,” he said. However, their presence and impact will not end up in social networking sites.
Two people spoke on behalf of ISIS in the “Land of the Caliphate”
Abu Mohammed al-Adnani
Abu Mohammed al-Adnani or Taha Subhi Falaha, was born in the city of Binnish in Idlib countryside in 1977. He joined ISIS during Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s term and the US invasion of Iraq.
Al-Adnani was appointed as spokesman for ISIS as soon as the organization entered Syria in mid-2013. He was the organization’s second man and the adjunct of his current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
On August 30, 2016, Amaq agency declared al-Adnani to be dead in a brief article without mentioning any further details. The news agency announced that he was killed “while he was monitoring the repelling of the campaign waged against Aleppo” in a brief article without further details.
Al-Adnani has been well-known for his strong speech, in which he relied on the language and content of power supported by the Quranic verses and the traditions of the prophet, in addition to the terms that distinguish ISIS from the rest of the jihadist groups, such as “re-energizing the drive, spreading terror among infidels and apostates, the enemies’ and agents’ ongoing defeats, and We shall fight now.”
Enab Baladi monitored 25 of al-Adnani voice recordings published by Archive, the most prominent of which is “Now we shall fight, I preach you one, we shall pray that we will put the curse of Allah on liars, they are polytheists, this was our approach and it will not be, and they won’t have their own religion.”
ISIS introduced al-Muhajir in December 2016, after declaring the death of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani.
ISIS provided no details as regard to the identity of al-Muhajir, not even a picture or a date of birth, or military and media achievements, except for the voice recordings attributed to him and broadcast by al-Furqan Foundation.
Abul-Hassan addressed the first voice recording to the members of ISIS in Tal Aafar in Iraq, through which he called them to stand still on the fronts and not to quit “Jihad” and pursue their battles against “infidels” and “apostates.”
“Destroy their vehicles, storm their headquarters, scare them in their shelters, let them taste some of your strength and never consider escaping,” said in the recording, published by ISIS outlets.
In the same recording, al-Muhajir attacked Turkey and its army, and called ISIS cells deployed all over the world to wage attacks and carry out security operations, especially within Turkish territory, following the Turkish Army operation, Euphrates Shield, in northern countryside of Aleppo. During this operation Turkey managed to liberate some strategic cities including al-Bab, Bizaah and Jarabulus.
Al-Muhajir rhetoric did not differ from al-Adnani’s, proving that ISIS was keen on choosing media figures having of the same level and strong language, distinguishing al-Adnani.
One of the most prominent audio publications of Abul-Hassan al-Muhajir, “And You will Remember what I [Now] Say To You”, “So Be Patient. Indeed, The Promise of God Is Truth” and “And When The Believers Saw the Coalition” published by the al-Furqan Foundation in June 2017. He called ISIS loyalties to wage attacks in Europe Russia, the US, and Australia, and addressed ISIS members in Syria saying “aside from Muslims, attack Alawites and the secular Kurds and the apostasies in the Levant, like angry lions, storm them from every door, and do not miss you share in this month.”
ISIS featured publications and films
“Flames of the War”
The English version was published on 15 January 2016 by al-Hayat, which gave an account of the factors that led to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and why the organization moved to Syria, in addition to announcing the establishment of the Caliphate and abolishing frontiers between the two countries.
The one-hour film praised the organization’s battles against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, the Iraqi forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.
It also referred to the “qualitative victory” brought by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the Caliphate in July 2014, and the removal of barriers and earthen berms between Syria and Iraq. “The flames burned [scrapped] Sykes-Picot agreement and eliminated borders between Iraq and Syria.”
Saleel al-Sawarim (Clashing of the swords)
A four-part film accounting for ISIS battles in Iraq and Syria. The first part was released on 1 July 2012, the second on 2 August 2012, the third on 3 February 2012, and the forth on 4 May 2014.
The four parts were produced by al-Furqan Foundation, which focused on the “innovative” executions against Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Syria using Hollywood-like films, with the anthem of Saleel al-Sawarim as background music.
A Message to the US
In September 2014, ISIS shared a videotape depicting the beheading of the American hostage James Foley. Then, the organization published another video bearing the same title and included the beheading of American hostage Steven Sotloff. Both hostages were journalists.
“Breaking the Border”
In June 2014, ISIS published a video depicting its members storming Iraqi lands using Syrian border. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani appeared for the first time in this video, in addition to Abu Omar al-Shishani,” one of the most prominent military leaders in the organization.
The video depicted al-Adnani and al-Shishani about to demolish earthen berms using military vehicles on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
“Sermon of the Declaration of the Caliphate”
In July 2014, the leader of ISIS, Ibrahim al-Badri commonly known as “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”, appeared on the “minbar” of the Great Mosque of al-Hadba in Mosul, Iraq.
Baghdadi was videotaped while saying that he “was plagued being a Caliph” in reference to the position of the Caliph, calling on Muslims to obey him.
“Messages from the Land of Epic Battles”
Films produced by al-Furqan and al-I’tasam in 2013.
A series of films documenting the operations of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which had amounted to more than 55 issues, some of which focused on the lives of ISIS foreign fighters, and included calls to their “brothers” in the West to join them to the land of the caliphate.
Among the issues in the series is the release of “Disperse, with them, those who follow them” which covered the defeat of Brigade 93 in the governorate of Raqqa, in August 2014, and taking over al-Tabqa airbase in September 2014.
“You have sinned and lost, Russians”
A video has been published by the “Information Office of Wilayat al-Raqqah “, on December 2015, showing the confessions of a Russian spy, Magomed Khasayev, who was arrested inside ISIS territory and executed by a fighter who speaks Russian too.
“Listen, Putin, the dog, we bombed the regime before you came, and then we bombed the US and its coward allies and today you are bombing us, but we are more determined and steadfast than before,” ISIS fighter said these words before the execution of Khasayev. He also said “infidels always fight the rightful people. You did nothing through bombing but killing Muslim women, children, and elderly people.”
“O, Infidels around the world”
It was published by al-Hayat on 31 December, 2017 and included warnings and a song in different languages. Presidents of several countries, including the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, US President Donald Trump, and Russian Vladimir Putin, appeared in this video.
The video starts with the voice of the former spokesman of the organization, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who told the presidents: “You will see only the intensity and power, and he who will escape from our bombing, and our weapon will only die in pain.”
The recording also included a Jihadist song in French, accompanied by video chunks of ISIS members in Syria, France and other countries in addition to field executions. The song was translated into Arabic and English.
“Healing of the Believers’ Chests” (Shifa Al–Sudur)
Produced by al-Furqan in February 2015, the recording depicted the members of ISIS burning the Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh in the municipality square in the city of Mayadim in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor.
The issue continued for more than 20 minutes, during which ISIS killed al-Kasasbeh in a brutal manner, placing him inside an iron cage and burning him alive.
The video also included the testimonies of the Jordanian pilot which tackled the nature of the operations targeting ISIS and the participating countries, in addition to the air bases from which fighter jets are launched to target the sites of the state organization.
Eroded Media Apparatus
How has Al-Nusra Front rhetoric changed?
A simple comparison between Abu Mohammed al-Julani announcing the formation of al-Nusra Front in Syria and the last interview he had seven years after, is enough to chart the extent to which the faction’s rhetoric has changed and the way it has adopted to the surrounding circumstances as well as its predilection toward reconciliation.
Concessions Speech… from the world’s antagonism to pragmatism
In his first audio recording, published by al-Manara al-Bayda (the White Minaret) on 24 January, 2012, al-Julani defined the goal behind the formation as “restoring God’s sovereignty to his land and avenging the oppressed and killed, and returning the smile to infants and widows.”
Al-Julani denounced the calls for Western intervention in Syria, considering them as attempts to”use the Western enemy to get rid of the Baathist enemy, which is an erroneous call and a major crime.” He said, attacking Turkey, that “no doubt I include in this crime the Turkish regime, which is America’s new tool in the face of brains and rational methods. It tempts Muslims to win their friendship, but it actually poisons them.” He considered that “the form of Islam in the Turkish regime has no content. It is a picture without meaning and a body without soul, and the worst thing in the Turkish regime’s project is that America is satisfied with it…”
However, his recent interview with Amjad tv channel, on January 13, 2019, witnessed a qualitative shift regarding the relationship with Turkey. Al-Julani expressed his support for the Turkish move to control the eastern Euphrates regions of Syria, saying that “the Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK is an enemy of the revolution and controls the areas inhabited by a large number of Sunni Arabs. We see the need to remove this party,” and he insisted: “We cannot hinder this work.”
The goal of “restoring Allah’s sovereignty to his land” has also been reduced to the fact that his faction is “part of the Syrian revolution and does not want to dominate people. Rather, it is interested in the right path under the Sharia of Allah.”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham started with a paradoxical speech, both inside and outside, since September 2016, when al-Julani appeared in an interview with Al-Jazeera, wearing a Malaysian hat that his Amir Abu Musab al-Zarqawi used to appear with, and wearing the famous suit of Osama bin Laden. After the word “Syria” was absent, in reference and wording, in the speech of the jihadist factions over the course of five years of armed action, al-Julani opened his first visual interview with a term with far-reaching connotations, “the Syrian revolution.”
The word “Syria” in al-Julani’s speech had an inevitable major meaning, which is to restrict the activity of Fatah al-Sham (after al-Nusra Front withdrew from the al-Qaeda organization) at the time, within the Syrian borders, asserting that it would not pose a threat to the West.
The paradoxical discourse of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham did not stop at al-Julani’s interview, but was reintroduced in the statement of approval of the Sochi Agreement in September 2018, yet in a different way, as a large part of its terminology was changed and replaced by another in a move to satisfy the movements inside the country and to clarify the new policy abroad.
The main point referred to by Tahrir al-Sham in the statement was the indirect thanks to Turkey, which is the main party to the agreement signed with Russia in Sochi. It stated that “we appreciate the efforts of those who seek inside the country and abroad to protect liberated areas, and prevent its invasion and committing massacres therein,” warning against “equivocation of the Russian occupier or giving confidence to his intentions.”
The statement said: “We call upon the world to assume its responsibilities.” This is the first sign of its kind in the speech of Tahrir al-Sham, which used in its previous speeches and statements opposite expressions, as “Never will the Jews nor the Christians be pleased with you.” In addition, it confirmed in most of the previous statements slogans against the West and its affiliated institutions operating in Syria, and considered that seeking its help is “forbidden and a sign of disbelief.”
What is behind this change?
The media discourse of al-Nusra Front passed through several stages, and although it kept pace with the internal discourse against the opposition factions and the Syrian regime, it witnessed openness and a gradual change in its foreign relations, especially with the limitation of its control to Idlib governorate and the successive losses of the opposition against the Syrian regime. This did not satisfy a number of supporters of the faction who started questioning the pillars of the faction and their relations with it and its media conduct.
The jihadi theorist and former leader of Al-Nusra Front, the Kuwaiti Ali al-Arjani, told Enab Baladi that “the observer of al-Nusra’s media speeches notices the pragmatic approach and how they promote the gains they make at each stage. I say that this is their own problem because they left the useful jihadist media to the youth and the nation, and they even deliberately neglected and did not publish important battles and conquests of sites carried out by the hero Mukhtar al-Askari, may God have mercy on him, who nicknamed them “al-Manara al–Sawda,” in reference to the “al-Manara al–Bayda” which was at the forefront of media institutions speaking on behalf of Al-Nusra.
Al-Arjani was not surprised by the periodic fluctuations of the faction according to the interest. Al-Julani manages the media himself and is known for his obsession with power, and he used religious discourse as a means of influencing and fragmenting the stages. It is more important that this be the case at the moment where his stage requires political gains and international relations, after he saw it as a crime and a deviation.”
The Kuwaiti theorist pointed out that the speech did not maintain a single style even with the local factions’ media, referring to the use of pragmatism inside, citing examples of media reality, such as the “Sham Legion” and “Ahrar al Sham,, and other factions. Tahrir al-Sham adopted a neutral policy towards some factions, such as “Nour al-Din al-Zenki,” but fought against and eliminated it from the northern Aleppo countryside in early 2019.
Al-Manara al-Bayda’s (the White Minaret) retreat
Al-Manara al-Bayda Media Production Company was the only and exclusive organization authorized to publish all what is issued by “al-Nusra Front.” It published its materials through the Jihadist websites, according to a header which opened the publications of the faction, but with the dispute between the “Islamic State” and “al-Qaeda,” al-Manara al-Bayda flamed out, as its personnel joined ISIS along with its spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who used to run the media outlet.
It was called al-Manara al-Bayda based on a prophecy saying that Christ (peace be upon him) will descend at the “end of time” at al-Manara al-Bayda, amid a difference between the interpreters of the Prophet’s Hadith in identifying it between the eastern Manara of Umayyad Mosque and the “Bab Sharki” Manara of Damascus Wall.
Although al-Manara al-Bayda’s publications continued in favor of al-Nusra Front until early 2016, they were not as strong and professional as those of the Islamic State, except for some publications such as Warathat al-Majd (Heirs of Glory) issued in September 2015.
In light of the decline of al-Manara al-Bayda, the faction leaders and commanders bridged the gap that emerged in the media outlet through their accounts in the social media sites and their blogs, along with the Syrian Reporter Network, which was run by the leader Abu Maria al-Qahtani, and spread in several areas (reporter of Hama, Idlib, Aleppo, al-Sahel, Hauran) as a step imitating the work of media offices belonging to the Islamic State. The faction also used channels through Telegram similar to the channels of the Free Army.
Then, the faction started relying on new institutions, the most important of which are Ebaa newspaper, Amjad Visual Production, Ebaa News network, as well as its accounts via websites, which are active especially on Twitter and Telegram.
The quality of content provided by these media outlets has declined, such as Ebaa News agency, which uses a simple “open” language that helps to reach out more to the non-supportive audience; but at the same time, we notice weakness and grammatical errors in the texts, which the Jihadi media and the media outlets of the “Islamic State” had previously avoided.
Enab Baladi asked questions to the Foreign Relations Official of Tahrir al-Sham, Emad Eddin Mujahid, about this change, but he refused to comment, believing that there was no point in dealing with this issue.
Speech of the faction leaders … Crisis or media policy?
In contrast to a comprehensive centralized media of the “Islamic State,” the speech of “al-Nusra Front” is inconsistent with its media discourse. The faction’s leaders have always put their leadership in a dilemma and had to comment on it. The most recent of these was the dispute between the leader Abu al-Iqazan al-Masri who denied fighting in the east of Euphrates under the flag of “secular” Turkey, as he put it, and the commander of the faction, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who supported the trend to control it.
The Kuwaiti theorist Ali al-Arjani thinks that the policy of al-Julani is based on the use of several movements in his group. He allows them to write with certain limits, and strengthens one side over the other according to the requirements of the stage, and he is skilled in that. “In the stage of oppression and the fighting of factions, he uses the media of extremists, and at the time of politics, he employs political media, but at the time of blurring, he focuses on the blurring media as he called them … and so on,” he added.
As for the leaders, they write for misleading, enthusiasm and commenting, according to al-Arjani, which is their real function in their faction, according to the audio leaks of leaders in the faction, including al-Julani. “We notice that the writings of the faction leaders focus on a particular thing, and the decisions of al-Julani, which are made secretly and on which he works with gradual progress, deal with a totally different thing, and therefore they have no value.”
In the meantime, the Islamic State adopted methodically a clear, albeit deviant, approach, according to the Salafist view, and devoted the media for it. It was therefore more coherent.
The theorist pointed out that in all his decisions, al-Julani is behind the prominent figures in the faction. These figures appear in the forefront while al-Julani commands the work internally, and in case of failure, the blame is put on these people.
As for the return of the jihadist organizations, similar to what happened after successive losses in different parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Arjani does not find alternatives in Syria at present with weakened military and political tools. He said that “the jihadist organizations have doctrinal and combating strength, so they can re-prioritize their strategies even if they lost in certain battle, but the options are limited now, because their reality in Syria is narrow and difficult, and I do not think they have the alternatives other than what they declare, which is fighting under any circumstances.”
The most prominent releases published by Al-Nusra Front
Announcement of the formation
On January 24, 2012, the formation of the Victory Front for the People of the Levant of the Sham was announced with a voice recording of its leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani.
He defined the purpose of the formation as “to restore God’s dominion to his land, to avenge against defilement and blood shedding, and to return the smile to infants and widows’ faces.”
Al-Julani denounced the calls for Western intervention in Syria, saying: “They are asking for help from the Western enemy to get rid of the Baathist enemy, which is an abnormal and erroneous call and a major crime.”
The breaking into the General Staff Headquarters
Al-Manara al-Bayda issued a series named “Bidayat al-Nihaya” (Beginning of the End) which showed scenes from the breaking into the General Staff Headquarters in Damascus on September 26, 2012, and the entry of four Inghimasi fighters into the building and their clash with the Syrian regime forces.
Warathat al-Majd (Heirs of Glory)
Al-Manara al-Bayda issued it in June 2015. The video did not deal with the operations and battles that the Front carried out in Syria. It rather recounted the reality of life in Pre-Islamic Arabia during the Jahiliyyah , the development of relations in the region with the advent of Islam, and then the Islamic State’s situation during the era of Rashidun Caliphs . The video then moved on to the modern era to talk about what it described as “symbols of jihad.”
The video used for the first time a song of Islamic chanter Muhammad Mustafa (Abu Ratib), allegedly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, instead of the usual jihadi songs.
In the second part of “Warathat al-Majd,” published in March 2016, a number of personalities and leaders of the faction appeared for the first time on the media, including Abdul Rahman Atoun (Abu Abdul Rahman al-Shami), Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri) and al-Nusra Front’s Emir in Qalamoun, Jamal Hussein Zaidia (Abu Malek al-Tali).
Fakk al-Ertibat (The Split)
In his first appearance in a videotape published by Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera on July 28, 2016, al-Julani announced the split from al-Qaeda and the formation of Fatah al-Sham faction, asserting that the new faction would “have no ties with any external party.”
Al-Julani said that the announcement comes in order to “bring closer the Mujahideen factions in the Levant and protect the Syrian revolution and the Jihad of the people of the Levant,” adding that “it came in response to the desire of the Levant people to push the pretexts of the international community.”
Al-Sikka (The Railway)
In November 2018, Amjād Foundation for Media Production published a video release entitled “al-Sikka“ in response to the faction’s accusations of withdrawing from the eastern areas of the Hijaz Railway (in the countryside of Idlib) under the Astana agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The release shows the 130 days of fighting in the region against the Syrian regime and Russia, and al-Julani’s commentary on the battles, attacking factions that he said they did not participate in these battles.
Social media websites… fertile environment for jihadists’ activity
Most of these policies have been created following the increasing spread of extremist jihadist groups, especially in Syria, after 2014, but they have not been deterrent. In contrast, the content of extremist ideologies has been steadily increasing as jihadist activity increased on the ground.
Social media websites have been a fertile ground for the growth of jihadist ideology, as confirmed by several studies and reports that we will mention in this article. The growth of this ideology has been based on the promotion of the bases of jihadist action and its promotion to attract new members, or to gain supporters around the world, which has indeed been greatly successful.
Nowadays, with the decline of the activity of ISIS in its last strongholds in Syria, its ideology still exists on social media websites. The group’s defeat on the ground and in the battlefields has not been accompanied by a complete disappearance from the Internet. Many Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram accounts are still publishing and spreading what promotes the group’s ideology, similar to other groups, such as al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups in Syria.
On May 17, the Digital Citizens Alliance and the Global Intellectual Property Center published an investigation saying that digital platforms, like Google, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, are still hosting hundreds of violent and harassing terrorists, and sharing videos, photos and posts, thousands of which remain online for several weeks for thousands of users to see, giving terrorists a valuable platform to spread hatred and recruit members.”
The investigation also found that “social platforms are full of photos of violence, including cutting heads and throwing victims from rooftops.”
Facebook’s Community Standards define a “terrorist organization” as:
“Any non-governmental organization that engages in premeditated acts of violence against persons or property to intimidate a civilian population, government or international organization in order to achieve a political, religious or ideological aim.”
“A member of a terrorist organization or any person who commits a terrorist act is considered a terrorist.”
“A terrorist act is defined as a premeditated act of violence against persons or property carried out by a non-government actor to intimidate a civilian population, government or international organization in order to achieve a political, religious or ideological aim.”
The most widely used social media website in the world takes several steps to counter this content, most notably by removing, banning and taking down the pages that publish the content.
In May 2018, Facebook announced that “its algorithms found 99.5 percent of terrorism-related posts before they were flagged by users.” The website said that this is an improvement of about 2 per cent compared to the previous year, 2017.
Enab Baladi have recently monitored the taking down of dozens of Syrian jihadist pages, whose links are provided by “Facebook Jihad Guide” published on the website “Jihadica” specialized in the promotion of jihadist ideology.
On the other hand, Enab Baladi has recently noted some comments on Facebook posts that contain a jihadist ideology, including, for example, the call for “the return of the Caliphate.”
Twitter removes suspicious accounts
In November 2014, with the emergence of ISIS, Reuters published a report saying that extremist jihadist groups publish 90 tweets every minute via Twitter, as part of the promotion of their ideas and operations in both Syria and Iraq. The agency added that Islamist groups fighting in Syria, such as ISIS, al-Nusra Front and the Syrian Liberation Front, resorted to Twitter as the first option for their promotion and recruitment campaigns and for the attraction of fighters from around the world.
In 2015, the American research group Brookings Institution published a report saying that ISIS had at least 46,000 followers on Twitter.
In the following years, Twitter continued to give a space for the jihadist ideology to be active via its pages. In 2017, the website announced its intention to impose strict measures on the promotion of hate speech and violence on its pages. Twitter said that accounts that violate the new rules would be permanently closed.
Twitter’s Help Center defines Hateful conduct policy and addresses users, saying, “You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people.” It adds: “We prohibit content that makes violent threats against an identifiable target. Violent threats are declarative statements of intent to inflict injuries that would result in serious and lasting bodily harm, where an individual could die or be significantly injured.”
Twitter revealed in early 2018 that it had removed nearly 275,000 “terrorist accounts” between July 1 and December 31, 2017. The company also said in a post on its own website that it had banned more than 1.2 million “terrorist accounts” since August 2015.
Telegram… Encryption provides security for the “jihadists”
Telegram, a chatting application that was created in 2013, uses special cryptographic mechanisms, making it one of the most secure applications for users. It also prevents intelligence agencies from tracking message senders and users, making it the most fertile environment for the publication of content related to jihadist groups, according to the app’s programmer. The founder of Telegram application, Pavel Durov, said in statements to the American TV channel CNN, in April 2015, that “terrorists coordinated their operations through the application.”
In 2016, Telegram objected to the accusations against it of negligence in stopping ISIS’s use of its platform “in spreading the messages of the terrorist organization,” and said in a message it shared through its application at that time it “had been daily blocking more than 60 ISIS-related channels and more than 2,000 channels a month.”
In July 2017, the application administration announced that it had set up a team to attack “terrorist” content and remove it before its spread, preventing it from reaching a large number of users, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
Several countries have banned Telegram, including Russia and Iran. In addition, many governments have asked the company to remove the conversations’ encryption.
Nevertheless, there are many jihadists-related accounts that are still active so far. Enab Baladi have monitored dozens of accounts and groups containing the names “Jihad,” “Mujahideen” or “Caliphate,” that are still publishing their contents till now.
“ArXiv”… ISIS’s releases in safe place
Although Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are deleting the visual content of extremist organizations, many ISIS releases and visual materials are still saved on arXiv website, a huge electronic archive library.
ArXiv provides 4 million videos, 3 million photos and billions of web pages and books, according to the information provided by the website.
Anyone with a free account can download media from the website and can simply create an account using an email account and password, enabling anyone to upload content on the website.
In an initial research conducted by Enab Baladi on the website, using the full name of ISIS in Arabic, more than 30 research results showed up, most of them were ISIS’s visual releases, military lessons and jihad chants. The research results for the name in English “Islamic State” were more than those in Arabic, most of them were related to ISIS or were promoting it.
According to a report published by the American website medium in January 2018, ISIS supporters use arXiv website as a platform for spreading “extremist propaganda” on the internet.
According to the report, arXiv website has been one of the best “file sharing services” mentioned in links included in posts on Twitter. It has also been noted that arXiv has been appearing at the top of the initial research results on Telegram, regarding content related to the extremist organization.
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