What is ISIS’ Media Strategy?
In the past few weeks ISIS has released several new videos of attacks on ancient sites. First came Hatra, then the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. This has raised several issues about ISIS’ media strategy which need to be addressed.
ISIS has been destroying cultural sites since last summer and publicizing their actions online. Some attacks, such as the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah, receive significant media coverage. Many others received much less media coverage. Most of the sites destroyed were Shia mosques, shrines and Yezidi holy sites. Very few ancient sites were targeted at this time. The two main exceptions were the destruction of two Iron Age lion sculptures on display in a public park in Raqqa, Syria and the destruction of Assyrian statues seized from looters at Tell Ajaja. The former were in a prominent public exhibition and the latter has all the markings of the artifacts being pawns in a power struggle between different groups in the area under ISIS control.
On February 26, 2015 this changed. ISIS released a video showing its fighters rampaging through the Mosul Museum. The story dominated the news cycle for over a week in nearly every major news outlet.
Interest in this story led to greater coverage of ISIS’ destruction of ancient sites, and unconfirmed reports proliferated. During a segment on Al Jazeera on February 27 an Iraqi government official reported that ISIS fighters in Mosul had “told the people they will go next to Nimrud.” On March 5, unnamed officials from Iraq’s ministry of tourism reported that ISIS had in fact bulldozed Nimrud. The next day, unnamed officials from the same ministry relayed reports from Mosul that ISIS had blown up parts of Hatra. On March 8, Kurdish Democratic Party official Saeed Mamuzini reported that ISIS began to destroy Khorsabad.
Yet there was no confirmation of any of this. ISIS has had no problem publicizing their destruction of cultural sites, yet there were no propaganda videos. Most of the reports came from the Iraqi ministry of tourism, usually via Facebook posts. There were no photos and no confirmation, even from satellite photos.
After a week the reports faded from the news cycle. ISIS defaced St. George’s monastery in Mosul on March 12 and destroyed the monastery at Mar Behnam on March 19 without much media attention.
On April 4, ISIS released a video showing its fighters defacing and destroying sculptures built into the walls of the Great Iwan at Hatra. While devastating to Hatrene art, the video also showed far less damage than had been implied by previous Iraqi government reports, leading to questions about whether the reports had been accurate at all or if ISIS had made the video at a later time. The video was undated and provided no clues as to when it was filmed.
On April 11, ISIS released another video showing relief sculptures at Nimrud being destroyed with a bulldozer, followed by the entire Northwest Palace being blown up with several thousand pounds of explosives.
Sources who cannot be named at present confirm that the destruction took place on April 2. The mushroom cloud caused by the massive explosion would have been visible over a wide area, so I see little reason to doubt the reports.
It is hard to come to any conclusion except that the original reports from March 5 were mistaken and that ISIS only destroyed the site after massive media coverage a month before. Which in turn raises the question: did the prospect of additional media coverage drive ISIS to destroy the site?
(Update: Since this article was written, satellite photos taken in early March have been released by ASOR’s Syrian Heritage Initiative which show a pile of debris at Nimrud which appears to be the same pile of destroyed lamassu and relief sculptures seen in the Nimrud destruction video, however the structure is still intact. Therefore it seems that the site may have been damaged by bulldozers and sledgehammers in early March consistent with Iraqi government reports, with the explosions set off on April 2).
At this point several things should be considered:
- The vast majority of sites destroyed by ISIS have been Islamic sites.
- Before the destruction of the Mosul Museum, very few ancient artifacts were targeted.
- Since February, there have been 3 major confirmed cases of ancient sites being targeted.
- Before February, ISIS seemed to prioritize attacking shrines of other Islamic sects. Once most of those were destroyed they were free to turn to other targets.
Why the shift towards ancient sites? The first video, from the Mosul Museum, featured an ISIS spokesman giving their official justification:
The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honorable hands, when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if this costs billions of dollars.
Initially, therefore, it seems ISIS’ motive was to elevate their status amongst Muslims and other Jihadist groups by drawing a link from themselves to Muhammad. The fact that hardly any of the statues in the Mosul Museum were cultic images did not matter. Muhammad destroyed idols, so ISIS needed to find some idols to destroy in order to legitimize their claim to a caliphate as successors to Muhammad.
Dabiq, ISIS’ online English-language magazine, had this to say a month later:
Last month, the soldiers of the Khilāfah, with sledgehammers in hand, revived the Sunnah of their father Ibrāhīm (‘alayhis-salām) when they laid waste to the shirkī legacy of a nation that had long passed from the face of the Earth. They entered the ruins of the ancient Assyrians in Wilāyat Nīnawā and demolished their statues, sculptures, and engravings of idols and kings. This caused an outcry from the enemies of the Islamic State, who were furious at losing a “treasured heritage.” The mujāhidīn, however, were not the least bit concerned about the feelings and sentiments of the kuffār, just as Ibrāhīm was not concerned about the feelings and sentiments of his people when he destroyed their idols.
With the kuffār up in arms over the large-scale destruction at the hands of the Islamic State, the actions of the mujāhidīn had not only emulated Ibrāhīm’s (‘alayhis-salām) destruction of the idols of his people and Prophet Muhammad’s (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) destruction of the idols present around the Ka’bah when he conquered Makkah, but had also served to enrage the kuffār, a deed that in itself is beloved to Allah.
(Ibrahim = Abraham, who destroyed idols in the Islamic tradition. shirkī = idolatry. Wilāyat = province. kuffār = infidels (non-Muslims).
The above issue (No. 8) of Dabiq was released on March 30 – after the extensive media coverage of ISIS’ destruction of the Mosul Museum, which was at its peak roughly from February 27 to the middle of March. Therefore it seems to be taking into account the media outcry as part of ISIS’ evolving justification for their actions – a media outcry which may or may not have been anticipated by ISIS in February.
Dabiq went on to give two more reasons for destroying ancient sites: That they were used to support Arab nationalism (which ISIS sees as a crime preventing the unification of Islam into a single state) and that restoring the remnants of ancient polytheistic societies and putting them on display detracts from their true intended purpose, which is to provide witness to how Allah destroyed previous polytheistic civilizations and thereby warn modern-day Muslims against the dangers of idolatry.
The more basic function of destruction as a display of ISIS’ power is fully evident in the most recent video from April 11 showing the destruction of Nimrud, in which a spokesman says:
Whenever we take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism, and spread monotheism in it. By Allah, we shall remove the symbols of polytheism, until we have destroyed the tombs of the Rafidites in their own land, until we have shattered the crosses, and until we have destroyed the Black House in the heart of the land of heresy, America.
By showcasing their power to destroy Nimrud, ISIS seeks to argue that both Iran (the ‘Rafidites’ – a pejorative term for Shia Muslims) and the United States will soon be destroyed by the Islamic State in the same way as these ancient civilizations were destroyed, as an act of divine judgement.
It should be noted that all of the videos released by ISIS are in Arabic. ISIS has plenty of people who speak English and have made English language videos targeted to Western audiences, such as the beheading of western hostages. The intended audience for Arabic-language videos is the Arabic-speaking world.
Dabiq is in English and targeted at Muslims abroad who ISIS wants to recruit. But even there the reaction in the West to the destruction of the Mosul Museum is cast as a response which legitimizes ISIS’ caliphate.
ISIS’ grand strategy requires that it continuously pull Muslims into itself in order to continue to expand. They are not particularly concerned with what the West thinks. After all, Westerners are kuffar who exist only to be destroyed, and they know the West is already against them.
On the other hand, ISIS needs a constant stream of volunteers from outside its territory in order to survive. Millions of people have already fled ISIS-controlled lands. People do not build productive lives there. Its economy is based almost entirely on oil smuggling, slavery, and redistributing looted property to supporters of ISIS. Maintaining such an economy requires constant territorial expansion, and since people are fleeing the caliphate as refugees in all directions expanding the ranks of its army for further military offensives depends on a steady supply of foreign fighters.
We must be careful not to assume that we are the intended audience of every ISIS video. If we do so we run the risk of misunderstanding their intent.
A recurring concern expressed by many people over the past month is if media coverage and resulting outrage over the destruction of antiquities is encouraging ISIS to destroy more sites. Such a possibility must be carefully considered. I believe the answer to be complex.
ISIS has its own media outlets, however this media must reach an audience. ISIS videos are regularly removed from YouTube as soon as they appear and its members are regularly banned from Twitter. But the original posts quickly propagate throughout the internet. ISIS does not only rely on western and Arab media to spread their videos after they publish them, they depend on the vast decentralized networks of Web 2.0 to ensure content is never deleted permanently from the internet.
Given that ISIS’ intended audience are their own potential sympathizers abroad in Europe and the Middle East, even if a media blackout could be put in place such a code of silence would do nothing to contain its spread across the internet. The target audience for ISIS propaganda are disaffected conspiracy-minded young people who likely do not trust anything they read in mainstream news media anyways and get their news from alternative sources. If mainstream media outlets were to observe a code of silence about each new ISIS video it would do nothing to contain its spread across the internet. The decentralized nature of the internet means no one can censor anything for long. The media do not show full versions of graphic executions, but they can still be found.
Therefore, while western media outlets play an important role for ISIS by informing the world of ISIS’ actions, they also reach an audience which ISIS may consider secondary. The extensive coverage given to the destruction of ancient antiquities has certainly raised public anger at ISIS, but that is beside the point for ISIS, who are not exactly trying to become loved.
But could western media coverage have planted the idea to destroy more ancient sites, even if their propaganda efforts are targeted at others? This is an even more difficult question to answer, since ISIS could just as easily have accessed Google or Wikipedia if they wanted to learn about archaeological sites in their area. Yet ISIS is certainly aware of how their actions were discussed in the media, as evidenced by the recent Dabiq issue, and they use that reaction to further their own propaganda goals as described above.
The most likely conclusion could be that the ‘success’ of their Mosul Museum video led them to attempt to replicate that success by destroying more ancient sites which had previously been left alone. There is no evidence that the early false reports from Nimrud or elsewhere inspired ISIS to destroy those sites, in fact, if the early Al Jazeera report is to be believed they had already threatened Nimrud before rumors of its destruction spread.
Our best weapon against the erasure of history remains documentation and publishing. Distribution is key. If it is not all in one place it cannot be wiped out. The internet, therefore, is not only one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of ISIS, but also one of the most powerful tools against ISIS.