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Al-Azhar tackles ISIS propaganda machine | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) holds up a copy of Dabiq, the English language magazine published ISIS, during a hearing on ‘worldwide threats to the homeland’ in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 17, 2014. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) holds up a copy of Dabiq, the English language magazine published ISIS, during a hearing on 'worldwide threats to the homeland' in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on  September 17, 2014. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) holds up a copy of Dabiq, the English language magazine published ISIS, during a hearing on ‘worldwide threats to the homeland’ in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 17, 2014. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Given its notoriety and the brutality of its tactics, the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has developed an impressively slick and professional new media arm is sometimes overlooked. In response, the most prestigious institute of Sunni Islamic learning in the world, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, together with its fatwa-issuing body Dar Al-Ifta, are stepping up their own efforts to both monitor and counter the group’s extremist ideology in what could well turn out to be a protracted media battle.

The target of the initiative is ISIS’s new media arm, Al-Hayat, which distributes disturbingly high-quality videos, and an equally slick magazine, Dabiq. The high production values of the content on both platforms have surprised and worried many observers, among them mainstream media professionals.

Dr. Ibrahim Negm, a consultant to Egypt’s Grand Mufti—the highest religious authority in the country—told Asharq al-Awsat that ISIS had obviously managed to recruit and train a cadre of members highly-skilled in media production, and that the group “realized from the outset the importance of the use of the media and technology to its advantage, to use it in its war in the same manner it uses its troops and artillery on the ground.”

In a report issued recently by its Marsad Al-Fatawa department, which monitors takfirist (the practice of declaring others infidels) and extremist fatwas, Dar Al-Ifta said the group’s adept use of media in all its forms was having a considerable effect in attracting recruits.

But Marsad and Dar Al-Ifta are attempting to hit back, attempting to counter ISIS’s destructive ideology, first by monitoring and analyzing its output, then by replying using its own ample religious resources. “The Marsad monitor of takfirist fatwas is an extremely important research tool through which Dar Al-Ifta can keep track and monitor takfirist messages via audio, video and the spoken word, and on the Internet and social networking websites,” Negm says.

Marsad is currently preparing reports and studies “around the clock” to be presented to the public “so as to eliminate such destructive ideas,” adds Negm.

“Marsad’s objective is to eliminate the resources of the takfirist trend by rectifying its erroneous treatment of some Islamic issues,” Negm says, and perhaps no-one is better-placed than Dar Al-Ifta, one of the highest Islamic legal authorities in the world and part of the prestigious Al-Azhar—long been considered a haven of Islamic authenticity and moderation—to carry out this task.

In an international campaign launched mid-August 2014, Dar Al-Ifta launched a Facebook page to counteract ISIS’ ideology, asserting that the wanton murder and terrorizing of men, women and children, and the destruction and looting of public and private property committed by ISIS had absolutely nothing to do with Islam, nor with any revealed religion. As part of the campaign, Dar Al-Ifta also requested that international media outlets stop using the name “Islamic State” in reference to the group, or any other name using the world “Islamic” such as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” in order to dissociate the group’s actions and ideology from the Islamic religion. Instead, it called on the media to use the name, “The State of Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria,” which, despite perhaps being more cumbersome, was seen by Dar Al-Ifta as a more accurate description of the group’s true nature.

Regardless of whichever name is used for the group, it has become almost a commercial brand, promoting itself using the full gamut of media outlets available in the digital age: print, video, images, as well as numerous websites and social media accounts. The group’s powerful media machine has thus allowed it to become, in a mere matter of months, the most infamous terrorist organization in the world.

An example of this shrewd marketing was noted by Dar Al-Ifta and its Marsad department in a recent report. The group was using online mailing lists to send copies of its Dabiq magazine to liberated areas in Syria occupied by what are now battle-hardened rebels. As these fighters struggle against Assad’s regime, this glossy publication—hinting at the ample resources required to produce it—and its relaying of the group’s victories and achievements, could serve as bait for fighters who may have had enough of being on the losing side. The email does not give specific details about how to reach its staff, but signs off with the mysterious, if not alluring, “the Dabiq team is eager to receive your comments.”

Negm argues that Dabiq aims to cultivate an image of success and triumphalism in order to attract recruits. The magazine’s first four issues all included photos of crowds of people holding black flags and chanting for ISIS militants during military parades the group held in Iraqi and Syrian cities, as well as photos of people the magazine says were killed at the hands of the “Refuseniks,” the moniker it uses to denote Shi’ites. Other photos claim to show Shi’ite Iraqi soldiers executed by ISIS militants after being captured. In its first issue, the magazine published a lengthy article that leaned on Islamic legal opinions that justify and legitimize the announcement of the group’s so-called “caliphate” and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s position as its rightful religious and political leader.

The magazine, similar in design to the Inspire magazine published by Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, also includes more practical information including instructions about how to manufacture bombs and recruit individuals who can carry out solitary attacks, such as suicide bombings. Negm also notes how every issue of the magazine so far has been prefaced with a quotation by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the former leader within al-Qaeda in Iraq, which reads: “I struck the first spark here in Iraq, the flames of which will rise until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

The first issue of Dabiq was titled, ‘The Return of the Islamic Caliphate,’ and included a map of the group’s territory, highlighting the places under its control in Syria and Iraq on the inside of the magazine’s front cover. In the second issue, entitled, ‘The Flood,’ the magazine posted a photo of Mohamed Al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, for the first time, with a caption that read, ‘The first clear photo of the catapult of the Islamic State.’ The cover contained an image of a ship sailing towards high waves, a clear message that only ISIS and its adherents will achieve salvation from the coming flood.

In the third issue, some light was shed on the execution of the journalist James Foley, the mass execution of members of a tribe that had taken up arms against ISIS in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, and the call for jihad in ‘the land of epics’ [the Levant]. The fourth issue was entitled ‘Failed Crusader Campaigns.’

More shrewd, perhaps, is what the magazine does not include. “The people in charge of the magazine avoid publishing images of the atrocities ISIS has committed against Muslims, their mosques and shrines, or those their militants committed against Christians and their churches, whether in Syria or Iraq, while also urging doctors, engineers and other [professionals] to migrate to the land of the ‘Islamic caliphate,’” Negm says.

Negm notes how the magazine’s aesthetic qualities and high production values surprised many of those who saw it online, including bloggers, social media users, and graphic designers, who could not hide their amazement that such a barbaric group was able to produce such high-quality media; the magazine even uses the 42–50 pages per issue that are the industry standard.

Negm says emphasis throughout the magazine is on making a visual impact rather than the editorial content, with images taking two-thirds of the magazine’s space. As for the writing, it is divided into columns with images in between, and in some cases, images form the background of the text. It is also noticeable that large-size images were used on the magazine’s centerfold.

In order to fight back against this highly sophisticated propaganda machine, mainstream religious institutions throughout the Islamic world need to form their own specialized media cadres, as ISIS has done, he argues. Confronting ISIS’s terrorist ideology and requires monitoring, analyses and observation he says, “and this has become a [religious] obligation so as to unveil and scandalize their [ISIS’s] abuse of religion.”

Negm expressed his resentment at some Western media outlets’ exaggeration of ISIS’ capabilities, giving the impression the group functions like a state and that it is engaged in a colossal empire-building exercise. This actually works to the group’s advantage, he says, noting another aspect of ISIS undeniable media nous: let others do your work for you.