How the Internet changes the jihad

The slick and shocking videos of IS

Zaventem Airport in Brussels, this tuesday.

By Vincent Bongers

IS’s propaganda machine is going full blast and governments are taking increasingly drastic measures to silence the caliphate. British researcher Gary Bunt explains how Islamic groups use information technology to propagate their doctrine.

Four men from different ethnic backgrounds smile into the camera. The guys are kitted out in military gear but even so, the viewer almost expects them to break out into a melodious song about the oh-so lovely girl next door. It could be a clip from a successful multicultural boy band.
The IS propaganda film No Respite quickly changes its note: animated blood and explosions suddenly fill the picture and proud warriors stand triumphantly next to the smoking remains of tanks and the fragments of a demolished temple in Palmyra.
“In good English, a voice-over tells the viewer that the American troops are demoralised”, says British Islam researcher Gary Bunt from the University of Wales. “No Respite claims that every day, eighteen traumatised US soldiers shoot themselves in the head because they can’t cope with the war against the caliphate. The makers of the clip have illustrated that figure with spattered blood and pieces of brain against a white background. The content is horrifically violent and the shock value is considerable, but they’re also very slick.”
Gary recently visited Leiden to give a talk on how Islamic groups use the Internet and social media. “The quality of the material is obviously much better than Bin Laden’s grainy video messages. Nowadays, it is, of course, relatively easy to get hold of an HD camera and anyone who has a laptop can install edit-software and edit footage themselves. But it all looks very professional. In between the atrocities, they show a few religious quotes that supposedly substantiate their ideology.”
IS keeps these messages very concise, as if they were advertising slogans for a cool start-up company. “They are publishing their glossy magazines and clips in a growing number of languages.”
The way the caliphate uses information technology to disseminate their ideas has caught the media’s attention. “They use tens of thousands of Twitter accounts and channels simultaneously to briefly put a propaganda clip online and then withdraw it. But by that time, the film has already gone viral and then it’s picked up by the traditional media such as television broadcasters and radio programmes too. And that’s what IS is counting on. Don’t imagine that IS’s propaganda impact is simply due to their use of new technology.”
For example, the British tabloid, The Daily Mirror, has a large part in the propagation because it posts the clips claiming to be scandalised by the “sick images”. The British government is attempting to contain the torrents of propaganda. “In the UK, something like a thousand of websites and social-media accounts linked to IS are taken offline every week”, says Bunt. “But it’s doubtful as to whether that helps because it’s just like playing Whac-A-Mole, a game found in arcades in the United States and Great Britain: every time a mole sticks its head out of the ground and you thump it, it squeaks and another mole pops up somewhere else.”
Nonetheless, the government want more drastic measures. “A bill – also known as the Snoopers’ Charter – has already been drafted. The charter will force chat services like WhatsApp and iMessage to disclose the encryption of their programs to intelligence services. That means the intelligence services will be able to follow all the chats and so on.”
However, the result is that our freedom is becoming more and more limited “while extremists just transfer their activities to the dark web or find new apps for exchanging information and posting propaganda films online”.

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