On the Importance of Taking-down Non-violent Terrorist Content

This Blog post is a lightly edited version of a report prepared by the EU Internet Referral Unit in Europol and circulated to law enforcement agencies and member states in October 2018. It is appearing here publicly for the first time, at the request of Europol. [Ed.]

Key Takeaways

  • Non-violent material is integral to terrorists’ propaganda efforts and is in many ways more resilient online because of it being less graphic;
  • Non-violent material can be just as persuasive as its gory counterpart and can even cultivate broader appeal because of its normalised content;
  • The fact that it is rarely taken down from Online Service Providers (OSPs)—including well-known platforms—reinforces its credence;
  • Non-violent material produced by designated terrorist organisations must be removed and the same criteria and standards must apply to removing it as to its violent counterpart.

Introduction

Over the past few years, the increasing disruption efforts led by social media companies working jointly with law enforcement agencies and government bodies — in the context of the EU Internet Forum — have succeeded in curtailing jihadi organisations’ broadcasting capabilities. This sweeping and relentless clampdown resulted in more extensive disruption of terrorist activity — and more specifically of Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda (AQ) activity — on a number of major social media platforms, aiming to reduce the wider public’s access to terrorist propaganda.

Within the takedown process, explicitly violent material is usually the first to be removed. This is partly because of its blatantly unpalatable content, but also because of the common belief that gory content, or content which explicitly incites people to commit acts of terrorism is deemed more influential and should be prioritised for removal. There is in fact a lack of empirical research to verify whether gory content does indeed incite more violence than non-violent material.

This post explores terrorists’ ostensibly non-violent material and explains why it can be just as persuasive as its gory counterpart. The report argues that violence is too simplistic a lens through which to understand jihadi organisations and that non-violent material is central to the terrorists’ propaganda message and broader communications strategy. In part, non-violent material is currently more difficult to counter because the threat it poses is either not understood or not taken seriously.

Discussion and Results

Importance of propaganda

The term ‘propaganda’ in this brief refers to “strategic communication intended to influence the perceptions and behaviours of target audiences and attain their support to achieve politico-military ends”. This form of indirect aggression is used to reinforce attitudes and behaviours favourable to the originator’s objectives. It also aims to destroy enemy morale and curb enemy influence on public opinion. To successfully carry out this type of political warfare, the instigating group has to appeal to pragmatic and perceptual factors.

For groups like IS, propaganda is central to their campaign strategies. IS considers it to be “half the battle” and continuously focuses on strengthening its media capacity, comparing guided missiles to guided information. It is fair to say that, at its zenith, IS was as much a media group as a fighting corps.

Cultivating Broad Appeal: A Race for the Hearts and Minds

Only a low percentage of AQ and IS propaganda reviewed by Europol’s EU Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) features ultraviolent videos. The larger portion emphasises the groups’ alleged utopian aspects and focuses on community and state-building projects (including schools and healthcare), religious preaching and fighters’ pastimes, among other things.

This is because AQ and IS understand the importance of leveraging a range of target audience motivations in an attempt to engage — or at least elicit the sympathy of — a broad section of the Muslim population.

AQ, more so than IS, appears to place greater importance on not alienating the Muslim masses. In 2004, Ayman Al-Zawahiri reportedly penned a letter to the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in reaction to AQI’s gruesome beheading of captives. In it, AQ’s deputy cautioned al-Zarqawi against depictions of extreme bloodshed stressing that these might damage AQ’s reputation and lead to a loss of support among Muslim communities: “I say to you that we are in a battle… And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma.”

Similarly Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) videos depicting spies or prisoners — unlike their IS equivalents — do not show the execution of their captives. Supporters on online discussion forums have also been known to advise their peers to adopt a softer tone when discussing jihadi ideology with potential new recruits.

Winning the moral high ground is a fundamental aim of jihadi propaganda and cannot be done through exclusively violent content. Instead AQ, and even more so IS, have succeeded in deploying multidimensional campaigns which weave together pragmatic and perceptual factors in a bid to align audiences’ rational and identity-choice decision-making processes.

Propaganda that appeals to pragmatic factors features politico-military successes on the ground and covers anything from governance initiatives to military attacks against the enemy. The aim is to stress the group’s legitimacy and credibility, to convince the audience of its ability to set up the foundations of a functioning state, and—more to the point—of a truly Islamic one. Indeed, in its effort to portray itself as the saviour of Sunni Muslims against the West and against Shia aggression, IS painstakingly documents its “successes” via numerous photo reports and videos from across IS provinces which show local populations praising IS’ ability to institute basic governance, Sharia law and hisba.

In parallel, by highlighting Sunni Muslims’ crises (whether inflicted upon them by the West or by themselves because they have forsaken true Islam), IS establishes itself as the only possible solution to theses crises and the only true defender of the faith. By so doing, IS seeks to produce an emotive response in the audience, one that speaks to their identity as Muslims.

This also explains the frequent depictions of IS fighters relaxing and revelling in the joy of camaraderie (incl. praying, storytelling, cooking and swimming). Indeed, emphasis on fighters’ distractions and times of enjoyment are an important part of the propaganda campaign. For as many aspiring jihadis energized by the gore exhibited in IS videos, there are idealists who carry outhijra (i.e. migration of Muslims to Islamic lands) motivated by their desire to live in a land that implements true unadulterated Islam and yearning for a tight-knit community where they can belong.

The aim is to create a coherent propaganda campaign where the messaging is so intertwined, that if one issue—whether frustration vis-à-vis Western foreign policy or the feeling of subjugation in a non-Muslim country—appeals to a potential recruit, he/she can become receptive to other aspects of the organisation’s messaging.

With this view in mind, the soft approach is a way of garnering more followers as it could potentially resonate with Muslims who would otherwise shy away from the brutality of terrorist acts but who are nevertheless moved by the grievances expressed in jihadi propaganda. The repeated portrayal of the Islamic Caliphate as a safe haven where Muslims can live under Islamic laws, free from any religious persecution, is part of this strategy. In this context, it is worth noting that some aspects of ultraviolence (e.g. amputations for thefts) are not in fact aimed at putting fear into the enemy but are rather part of the state-building project and emphasise the organisation’s ability to implement Sharia law.

In many ways the strength of IS and of AQ lies in their softer messaging. Many of their political grievances speak to a majority of Muslims and can resonate with many moderate if not secular Arabs. An excellent example of this is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) recent statements calling for a boycott of French companies in the region and railing against Western powers who “continue to occupy Muslim lands and plunder their resources.”

Indeed, the idea that countries in the region have yet to gain their independence and the accompanying hope that they will one day be released from the yoke of tyranny forced on them via puppet rulers and Western-favoured elite is shared by a significant portion of the countries’ citizens. Furthermore, the desire to see Islam regain its former glory is another common aspiration and the portrayal of Muslims from Kashmir to North Africa as a homogenous global category with untapped potential is a theology that stokes this aspiration and makes it seem possible.

Leveraging the Power of Symbolism and Imagery

One of the more resilient forms of propaganda — going by its online shelf-life — are the a cappella chants known as anashid. Anashid are often sung versions of poems, another cornerstone of jihadi culture. IS, AQ, as well as the broader spectrum of Islamist movements, produce a huge amount of anashid and verse. Yet, more often than not, this mainstay of jihadi culture is overlooked. This is partly because they, unlike the beheading videos, appear to be aimed at a non-Western audience and are more linguistically challenging from a translation and cultural reference viewpoint.

Poetry is a literary medium that is widely appreciated across the Arab world and is an important part of the region’s identity. Mastering it provides the poet with singular authority in Arabic culture. The most prominent jihadi leaders — including Osama bin Laden and former IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani — frequently included poetry in their speeches or wrote poems of their own. Their charisma was closely intertwined with their mastery of poetry.

Poetry is so central to jihadi identity that fighters are frequently shown reciting verses and even online jihadi sympathisers have dabbled in the art. Composing verses is one way of gaining status among peers in the jihadi community, leading some to earn epithets such as “the Poet of al-Qaida” (Jordanian Muhammad al-Zuhayri) or “the Poetess of the Islamic State” (Syrian Ahlam al-Nasr). IS’s infamous female morality police group al-Khansa’ Brigades was named after a famous female poet who converted to Islam and became a companion of the Prophet.

The Islamic State’s guide to becoming an IS media operative quoted Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — AQI’s leader after al-Zarqawi’s death — to underscore the importance of poetry in the propaganda toolset and its rootedness in Islamic history and culture: “The prophet used the available media tools of his time that had the most powerful effect on the enemy and that was poetry… The prophet even took an orator to defend Islam and Muslims, Thabit Ibn Qays Ibn Shammas.”

The most recurrent genres in jihadi poetry and anashid are the panegyrics to mujahidin or Hamasas which recount chivalrous exploits and military victories. In these, jihadi poetry deliberately mirrors classical Arabic verse forms and metres. In doing so, it defends as much a cultural as a religious heritage. The themes and grievances expressed in jihadi poems are often as much rallying cries for Muslims (including in the West) as for secular Arabs. Recurring themes include the suffering and subjugation of Muslims and the usurping of their land. At the heart of this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about which topic secular Arab poets as well as Islamists have written the most passionate verses.

In this way, jihadi poetry plays the dual role of reviving an authentic cultural and literary heritage, while stressing core principles of the faith. One of the major successes of Islamist jihadi propaganda has been interpreting combative jihad as a “personal duty” (fard ’ayn) central to Muslim identity, an ethical obligation and a political necessity. Some of the most compelling arguments for this have been expressed in verse.

Anashid and poems embody the goals of the organisation but also everyday life under Islamic rule. They act as a gateway to jihadi ideology and are key to jihadi recruitment. Often used as backdrop to combat videos, anashid have also been used by terrorists to mentally prepare themselves before attacks.

It is also worth noting that Arabic poetry has long been used to record events for historical data. At a time when terrorist organisations are doing their utmost to archive their feats online, the role of poetry cannot be ignored.

Conclusion

The appeal of jihadi propaganda is often attributed to its slick Hollywood-style videos, horrific violence, high level graphics and use of the latest social media platforms. While these factors undoubtedly appeal to numerous jihadi recruits, it is important to realise that seemingly non-violent mediums can be just as persuasive.

There are numerous reasons why individuals join radical groups including a predisposition towards violence, grievances with Western foreign policy or seeking an emotionally rewarding community. Jihadi organisations realise this and as a result have successfully leveraged rational-choice and identity-choice appeals in order to maximise their message’s reach.

These appeals are put across as much in gory videos as in verse. Indeed, terrorist organisations leverage the power of imagery and symbolism and rely on speeches, images and songs to express their grievances in an effort to resonate with the broader Muslim public on an emotional level. As such, non-violent material is an integral part of the propaganda message and is in many ways more insidious because it is allowed to last for longer online before being removed.

Implications and Recommendations

Terrorist organisations, and IS more than any other, have used propaganda to ensure digital depth and resilience. The combination of emotive, political and religious messages contained within the archived material (both the violent and non-violent) will continue to captivate individuals for years to come, thereby preserving the terrorist threat. Thus, while the Islamic State’s media output may be a shadow of what it was three years ago, its ability to inspire attacks and attract more recruits — motivated by the idea rather the actual existence of a Caliphate — will continue.

As such, focusing myopically on what appears to be the most immediate threat leaves counter-terrorist strategies ill-prepared to deal with future ones. In other words, if online platforms continue to focus exclusively on removing the explicitly violent content, this runs the risk of other more ‘palatable’ jihadi material being left online. In effect, this would be rendering terrorist organisations a service in that it allows them to articulate a different form of narrative to cultivate a broader demographic of consumers.

Instead, all content produced by designated terrorist organisations — and affiliated media outlets — should be removed. This should include all content branded with an official logo as well as supporter-generated content which commends a proscribed terrorist organisation and bears its logo. This is because each and every item, however moderate or inconsequential it might appear, is produced to fit within an elaborate and cohesive communications strategy that specifically aims to exploit cognitive openings and achieves this objective via non-violent material.


Mike Caulfield is currently the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University, Vancouver, Canada and head of the Digital Polarization Initiative of the American Democracy Project, a multi-school pilot to change the way that online media literacy is taught. Follow him on Twitter: @holden