While many Westerners associate Islamic State propaganda with violence and beheadings, the terror group also likes to showcase its deceptively "softer" side to those within its territory in the Middle East, as a Vocativ analysis showed this week.
And given that their target audience is disaffected Sunnis living in war-torn Iraq and Syria, the plan is working.
Videotaped beheadings and action-packed fighting scenes might be effective recruitment tools for young people who are thinking about traveling to Syria to fight with the militants, but the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) knows that winning hearts and minds is just as important to its longevity.
Vocativ notes that "in the areas it already controls or is fighting to take over, almost half of what [ISIS] broadcasts has a positive theme to it. 'Come to the Islamic State,' is the message. 'There is fun here, and food, and services.'"
ISIS markets itself as an Islamic utopia that can provide happiness and stability its residents. In addition to enforcing a strict interpretation of Sharia law, ISIS sets up schools and consumer protection bureaus in the areas of Iraq and Syria it holds.
And apparently, ISIS also operates a mall and amusement park near Mosul, Iraq:
The above propaganda video shows children playing and residents talking about how much better life is now that ISIS has moved in and taken control of Mosul.
And it's not just amusement parks — earlier this year, ISIS' media wing announced that the group had re-opened a "luxury" hotel in Mosul.
The video makes no mention of the headless bodies that can also be seen in the streets of ISIS' self-proclaimed "caliphate," an aspirational Islamic empire that aims to unite the world's Muslims under a single religious and political entity.
With its civil services and positive propaganda, ISIS seeks to build a sense of community within its caliphate. And given that many ISIS members are from disaffected Sunni communities, the group has a natural advantage over Westerners in uniform trying to win hearts and minds.
Recruiting with camaraderie
ISIS also uses positive propaganda, along with more brutal propaganda, to bring in foreign fighters replenish their ranks on the battlefield.
In an extensive analysis of ISIS propaganda for the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, Charlie Winter noted that the idea of belonging is "one of Islamic State's most powerful draws to new recruits," especially Westerners who are thinking of traveling to the caliphate.
"Through their regular publication of, for example, videos and photographic reports depicting istirāḥat al-mujāhidīn — fighters relaxing with tea and singing with each other — the propagandists emphasise the idea of brotherhood in the 'caliphate,'" Winter wrote.
"The carefully branded camaraderie that one is absorbed into upon arrival in Islamic State-held territories is, as the propagandists would have their audiences believe, almost overwhelming."
ISIS "recognize[s] that offers of friendship, security and a sense of belonging are powerful draws for its supporters abroad," Winter wrote.
But ISIS doesn't just want to attract fighters who are willing to die on the battlefield for their cause. They also see women and families as crucial to their long-term quest for dominance and control of territory.
In their recent book "ISIS: The State of Terror," Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger noted that ISIS leadership says "hijrah (or emigration) to the land of Islam is obligatory" for all Muslims. They recruit doctors, administrators, engineers, scholars, and women who could marry future martyrs and bear their children.
"They're the first terrorist group that aren't interested in [just] fighters, they want families to come," Patrick Skinner, director of special projects at The Soufan Group, told Vocativ. "They need women and children, they believe they have a state, they now need a future. A lot of people are going there just to live in the caliphate."
The propaganda depicting bucolic settings and a fully functioning society is obviously false.
ISIS' caliphate is extremely violent, and militants loot homes, tax residents heavily, and behead opponents. Some who have decamped for ISIS territory have desperately sought to return to their home countries after realizing that the reality on the ground is vastly different from the propaganda they saw online.
Nevertheless, ISIS is still seeing foreigners stream into their territory (many through the Turkish border), and the US is trying to come up with ways to counter the propaganda and come up with an effective counter-narrative.
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