American accent, superior editing: IS revamps recruitment, with savvy, professional broadcasts
Paris: After a selection of tunes, the presenter with an American accent offers "a glimpse at our main headlines." IS militants have just seized three Iraqi cities. A bomb blows up a factory, killing everyone inside. Militants destroy four enemy Hummers and an armored vehicle.
The newscast's tone sounds much like National Public Radio in the United States. But this is Al-Bayan, the Islamic State radio targeting European recruits — touting recent triumphs in the campaign to carve out a Caliphate — and it represents a major headache for Western powers trying to curtail the IS influence.
All news is good news for Al-Bayan's "soldiers of the Caliphate." In this narrative, the enemy always flees in disgrace or is killed. The broadcasts end with a swell of music and a gentle English message: "We thank our listeners for tuning in."
The tension between the smooth, Western-style production and the extremist content shows how far the hardcore Islamic propaganda machine has come since 2012, when an aging Frenchman posed in front of a jihadi flag and threatened France in the name of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The footage was grainy, with minimal production values, and released on a relatively obscure website. By contrast, Al-Bayan reaches thousands of listeners every day via links shared on social networks, helping to swell the ranks of Westerners — projected this year to reach up to 10,000 — fighting for the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
In the time it took to bring the Frenchman Gilles Le Guen to trial, his European successors in violent jihad have overturned the recruitment script in ways that might impress a New York PR agency.
Islamic State videos come with thrumming beats, handsome clear-eyed young men and editing techniques that call to mind tourism commercials.
A typical week of recruitment now includes multiple newscasts in three languages, except the "good news" is about suicide attacks instead of traffic reports and baseball scores. A polished video directed at French recruits shows trainees leaping through burning hoops and swinging across monkey bars over flames. And a metastasizing network of tweets spills forth from the smartphones of armchair cheerleaders.
Cameramen themselves are heroes in this information war: Media, an unnamed fighter says in a video dedicated to these PR muhajedeen, is "half of the battle, if not its majority."
An April video calling for doctors to join IS shows physicians in immaculate scrubs, as well as functioning medical equipment. It features a blue-eyed Australian moving about in a pristine neo-natal ward, promising new recruits that they will be helping Muslims who suffer from "a lack of qualified medical care." The video has the feel of a daytime television public-service message.
In an exchange on jihadi radio station Ask.fm the same week, a person identifying himself as a British resident of IS territories promised newcomers free medical school. Meanwhile, in a series of tweets, another person purporting to be a Briton praises subsidized gas, free water and dental care superior to anything offered in the West.
"Naturally the arrogance will kick in & they would deny the truth and claim there (sic) way is better. Lol next time you pay your bill smile," the person said, according to a selection of tweets culled by the SITE Intelligence Group.
A handful of people show up repeatedly as key recruiters: a Glasgow woman who reportedly helps British girls reach Syria; a Dutch fighter who gives jihadi interviews and set up a Tumblr page; a blue-eyed Frenchman who appears in multiple videos calling on his countrymen to emigrate to IS territories.
"They want Europeans in general. They want anyone to come, to fight, to create the Islamic state, to make the caliphate," said Sebastien Pietrasanta, a French lawmaker who is spearheading nascent efforts to de-radicalize young extremist recruits. "We estimate there could be 5,000 and within the year, there could be 10,000. ... We are facing not just a problem of security, but a problem of society."
Anyone, from anywhere, can recruit for Islamic State. A March study by Brookings Institute researchers J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan found more than 46,000 active Twitter accounts supporting Islamic State in a two-month period. As soon as one account is shut down, more emerge.
Meanwhile, Western government warnings about the dangers of joining Islamic State have barely dented the rate of departures. Those who have lived unhappily under IS rarely offer a competing narrative, in mortal fear of retaliation. And Western nations are having a hard time combatting rhetoric that they — and the Western media that IS so successfully mimics — are untrustworthy.
Islamic State recruits skew young. In France, the West's largest source of extremists heading to Iraq and Syria, they average in their mid-20s, with female recruits tending to be even younger. Whatever they are looking for, Islamic State promises: Shariah law, a deeper purpose in life, a fight against a dictator, aid work, automatic weapons, pathological violence for those so inclined.
"They are able to reach and find out what is important to these people, what motivates these people, and then they create an ability to fill that need, initially through the social media, Internet," Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, said recently. "And then when they bring them on board, they continue to address these basic wants, of value, of a purpose — a sense of something as a part of a larger good."
Peter Neumann, of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at Kings College London, says disillusioned returning fighters — if Western governments can guarantee their safety — will ultimately be the most effective at preventing more departures.
"Right now it's really only Islamic State who is telling a story," he said. "To have a counter-story being told by a former fighter would be potentially very powerful."