The Jihadi Are Winning Their Online War on the West

The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
"The Jihadis Return" by Patrick Cockburn. OR Books

The most sinister change in the way war is perceived through the media springs from what just a few years ago seemed to be a wholly positive development. Satellite television and the use of information supplied by YouTube, bloggers and social media were portrayed as liberating innovations at the beginning of the Arab Spring. The monopoly on information imposed by police states from Tunisia to Egypt and Bahrain had been broken.

But as the course of the uprising in Syria has shown, satellite television and the Internet can also be used to spread propaganda and hate.

"Half of Jihad is Media" is one slogan posted on a jihadist website, which, taken broadly, is wholly correct. The ideas, actions, and aims of fundamentalist Sunni jihadists are broadcast daily through satellite television stations, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. As long as such powerful means of propagandizing exist, groups similar to al Qaeda will never go short of money or recruits.

Much of what is disseminated by the jihadists is hate-propaganda against Shia and, more occasionally, against Christians, Sufis and Jews. It calls for support for jihad in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and anywhere else holy war is being waged. A recent posting shows a romantic-looking suicide bomber who was "martyred" carrying out an attack on an Egyptian police station in Sinai.

Looking at a selection of such online postings, what is striking is not only their violence and sectarianism but also the professionalism with which they are produced. The jihadists may yearn for a return to the norms of early Islam, but their skills in using modern communications and the Internet are well ahead of most political movements in the world.

By producing a visual record of everything it does, ISIS has greatly amplified its political impact. Its militants dominate social media and produce well made and terrifying films to illustrate the commitment of their fighters as they identify and kill their enemies. The Iraqi government approach to media differs radically: attempting to maintain morale by downplaying ISIS successes, emphasizing patriotism and stressing that Baghdad can never fall. Crude propaganda like this frequently leads viewers to switch to al-Arabiya, based in Dubai but Saudi owned, or other channels that broadcast images of the events unfolding across the country, giving the advantage to ISIS propaganda.

In contrast to the sophistication of the technical production of footage by militants, the content is frequently crudely sectarian and violent. Take for instance three pictures from Iraq. The first shows two men in uniform, their hands tied behind their backs, lying dead on what looks like a cement floor. Blood flows from their heads as if they have been shot or their throats cut. The caption reads: "Shia have no medicine but the sword—Anbar victories."

The second picture shows two armed men beside two bodies, identified by the caption as members of the anti-al Qaeda Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq's Salah ad-Din province. The third shows a group of Iraqi soldiers holding a regimental banner, but the words on it have been changed to make them offensive to Sunni: "God curse Omar and Abu Bakr" (two early Sunni leaders).

Such Internet postings often include appeals for money, issued by Sunni clergy and politicians, to finance jihadi fighters. One such appeal claimed to have raised $2,500 for each of the 12,000 fighters that the group responsible for the appeal had sent to Syria. Another included a picture showing seven shelves, as if in a retail store, which, on closer inspection, could each be seen as displaying a different kind of grenade. The caption beneath the photograph read: "Anbar's mujahedeen pharmacy for Shia."

ISIS images have also appeared showing prisoners being loaded into flatbed trucks by masked gunmen and later forced to lie face down in a shallow ditch with their arms tied behind their backs. Final pictures showed the blood-covered bodies of captive soldiers, probably Shia, who made up much of the rank-and-file of the Iraqi army. Captions indicated the massacre was in revenge for the death of an ISIS commander, Abdul-Rahman al-Beilawy, whose killing was reported just before ISIS's surprise offensive that swept through northern Iraq, capturing the Sunni strongholds of Mosul and Tikrit, in mid-June 2014.

It is not just Twitter and Facebook accounts that are used by the jihadists. Two television stations based in Egypt (but reportedly financed from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), Safa and Wesal, employ journalists and commentators who are vocally hostile to the Shia. Wesal TV broadcasts in five languages: Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Indonesian, and Hausa. The Iraqi government response has been to close down some "enemy television stations" as well as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other Internet services, although Iraqis are quick to find ways around official censorship. Followers of ISIS continually flood Twitter with pictures of the bodies of their enemies, but they also use the medium to show functioning hospitals and a consultative administrative process.

Hate preachers, likewise, can incite large numbers of followers on YouTube. Sheikh Mohammad al-Zughbi, a popular blogger in Egypt, calls on God to protect Egypt from "the criminal traitors and the criminal Shia," as well as from the Jews and Crusaders. Another sermon entitled "Oh Syria, the victory is coming," says President Assad is "seeking help from these Persians, the Shia, the traitors, the Shia criminals."

Such rants could be dismissed as being addressed to a small, fanatical audience, but the numbers of viewers show them to be immensely popular. Observers of the rebels in Syria have noted how much time they spend on the Internet, using it to follow what they believe is happening elsewhere in the conflict. Further evidence about the impact of satellite television and jihadist websites comes from prisoners taken in Iraq.

While, like all prisoners, they are inclined to say what their captors want to hear, their accounts in interviews on Iraqi television ring true. Waleed bin Muhammad al-Hadi al-Masmoudi from Tunisia, the third-largest supplier of foreign jihadists to Syria, told one such program that in making his decision to come to Iraq to fight he "was deeply influenced by al-Jazeera TV channel." Together with thirteen other volunteers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen, he had no difficulty in making his way to Fallujah. In another interview, Abdullah Azam Salih al-Qahtani, a former Saudi officer, said: "Arabic media and jihadist websites convinced me to come."

Some of the portrayals of atrocities that appear on computers and television screens across the world, supposedly within hours of having taken place, are fraudulent. ISIS successes in Iraq are sometimes fabricated, with the footage used to advertise them taken in Syria or Libya, or even outside the Middle East altogether.

A correspondent in southeast Turkey recently visited a Syrian refugee camp where he found ten-year-old children watching a YouTube clip of two men being executed with a chainsaw. The commentary claimed that the victims were Syrian Sunnis and the killers were Alawites: in fact the film was from Mexico and the murders had been carried out by a drug lord to intimidate his rivals.

Such fraudulent atrocity stories have an effect on a war: a Libyan militiaman who believes that the government soldiers he is fighting are under orders to rape his wife and daughters isn't going to take many prisoners. But more often the pictures of murder and torture are accurate. Their rapid dissemination explains the ferocity of the conflict in Syria and the difficulty the participants have in negotiating an end to their civil war.

The Arab Spring revolts were a strange mixture of revolution, counterrevolution and foreign intervention. The international media often became highly confused about what was going on. The revolutionaries of 2011 had many failings, but they were highly skilled in influencing and manipulating press coverage. Tahrir Square in Cairo and later the Maidan in Kiev became the arenas where a melodrama pitting the forces of good against evil was played out in front of the television cameras.

Good reporters still took immense risks, and sometimes paid with their lives, trying to explain that there was more to what was happening than this over-simplified picture. But the worst media coverage, particularly in the first two years of the revolts, was very bad indeed. One correspondent remarked caustically that trying to describe post-2011 events in Syria from Beirut while relying on rebel sources was "like reporting the last American presidential election from Canada depending on members of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party for information."

Predictably, such news was so biased and unreliable that the real course of events turned out to be full of unexpected developments and nasty surprises. This is likely to continue.

Extracted from The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, published by OR Books. Newsweek readers can obtain a 20 percent discount when buying the book by ordering through the OR Books website and providing the discount code NEWSWEEK