Billboards, newsletters, radio stations, murals, big-screens, and pamphlets.
ISIS inundates the residents of its territory with propaganda that has become nearly impossible to escape.
It’s well-known that ISIS has been very successful in disseminating its propaganda online to recruit westerners to its self-proclaimed Islamic “caliphate,” the swath of territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
But ISIS also runs a very sophisticated operation within the caliphate itself to brainwash the population it rules. The group has set up “media points” in the cities it controls to maximise the exposure of its propaganda to the public.
The media points are surprisingly high-tech. People can can submit their own material or download media from machines that have built-in slots for SIM cards and flash drives. Large flat-screen TVs set up in public places show gruesome beheading videos alongside scenes of utopia. One activist from Raqqa, Syria compared the screens ISIS has placed in central areas of the city to Times Square in New York — highly visible and well-known to those who live there.
ISIS also uses more old-school propaganda methods like blaring messages from speakers on trucks and hosting public beheadings.
“There’s wall-to-wall propaganda in the caliphate. It’s similar to North Korea,” Charlie Winter, an expert on jihadism and ISIS propaganda, told Business Insider last month in London. “It obscures the realities of life and tempers discontent. It becomes a means of stabilisation and continuous control.”
Propaganda also serves to promote the ISIS brand — the group sets itself apart from other jihadist factions and terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda by casting itself as a legitimate government that provides services (like education, trash collection, and policing) to the people of the caliphate.
In tandem with blasting its propaganda out everywhere in the caliphate, ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) chokes off internet access to limit exposure to information from the outside world.
“A majority of people don’t believe [ISIS propaganda], but that coupled with a lack of any other information will impact thinking and decision making,” Winter said.
“It’s totalitarian politicking. You can really break down someone’s ability to resist the state.”
ISIS attracts those living in its “caliphate” to its media points by setting up installations that resemble outdoor movie theatres — public gathering places with big screens showing slickly produced videos that are available for download to anyone who has a USB drive.
ISIS propaganda “is familiar for the people of Raqqa,” Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, an activist with the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Business Insider last month via Skype. “They put big screens in the cities and the roundabouts.”
Raqqawi is from ISIS’s de-facto capital of Raqqa, Syria and still has family living in the city. He uses a pseudonym to mask his true identity as he travels to and from ISIS territory with the help of smugglers.
Raqqawi said there are several media points in Raqqa.
“It’s a small city,” Raqqawi said. “It’s like if you go to Times Square … you will find these screens, they are playing videos, so it’s familiar for the people there,” he said.
And these propaganda centres can be found in cities across the caliphate — not just its capital.
ISIS has disseminated photos of ISIS members setting up these media points in cities including Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul in Iraq; Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, and Raqqa in Syria; and Sirte and Derna in Libya.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a DC-based organisation co-founded by a former Israeli military intelligence officer, published a report recently detailing how the media points are set up in various cities.
“They take different forms — simple booths, trucked-in prefab units, impromptu open-air movie theatres, and more,” the report read. “The media points serve ISIS as a tool for indoctrinating local communities, from the very young to the very old, in the areas that it already controls, by providing access to its videos, pamphlets, and other educational and promotional materials, especially in areas where Internet is spotty or nonexistent.”
ISIS has cracked down on internet access in its territory, banning Wi-Fi and keeping a close watch on public internet cafes. The media points provide easy access to ISIS propaganda that is otherwise disseminated online and accessible to those outside its territory.
Videos, audio files, and other promotional materials are available directly from the media points using USB flash drives and SIM cards, as this graphic from MEMRI illustrates:
People can also submit their own material to the media points.
“It goes both ways,” Steven Stalinsky, the executive director of MEMRI, told Business Insider. “You can go and get information and you can provide information too. … The material that they’re handing in sometimes ends up in [ISIS’s] productions and magazines.”
Even for those who don’t seek out ISIS propaganda, the screens are often placed in public, open-air places that are highly visible in the cities ISIS controls.
“Every media point has a big screen and they put propaganda videos on, especially when they feel that they are losing,” Raqqawi said. “They make sure people see their videos to make people think that they are winning.”
A Syrian man from Deir Ezzor, who goes by the name Fikram, told Business Insider that ISIS shows its propaganda “in the streets to let the passersby see.”
And the videos of beheadings and other brutal acts could help desensitize residents to violence.
“If violence is being broadcast in the open, children would see it and believe that it’s normal and accepted because it’s in public and it’s not publicly condemned, which would lead children to commit similar violent acts,” Rachel Bryson, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation who studies ISIS propaganda, told Business Insider.
“They’re aiming to control a lot of the curriculum to indoctrinate children, and so that is just a way to do it. Nazi Germany was a similar situation.”
But despite ISIS propaganda photos showing large crowds gathering at the media points, some in ISIS territory say this is misleading.
“These media centres are not very popular because people are aware of the fact that the organisation [ISIS] by this promotion is trying to prove itself as it is right in all its behaviours and actions,” Ali Leili, a who runs the Syrian activist group DeirEzzor24, told Business Insider. “But the people in Syria and especially in Deir Ezzor, according to the previous battles against the organisation … are fully aware that this promotion is failed.”
Still, those in the caliphate don’t have to go to a media point to see violence at the hands of ISIS militants. The terrorist group also beheads people in public. In Palmyra, Syria, they use an ancient amphitheater to stage beheadings. And they leave bodies of their victims in the streets.
ISIS propaganda isn’t all violence, however. Most of the group’s recent messaging focuses on the idea of an Islamic utopia, in which Muslims have all their needs met and are free from oppression. ISIS releases photos of members repairing roads and power lines and shows markets overflowing with food and clothing.
“There’s so much more focus on civilian life than anything else,” Winter said. “It’s justifying its existence and reason for being.”
Scenes of prosperity in the caliphate displayed at ISIS’s media points coupled with a dearth of information from the outside world can alter people’s perceptions of what ISIS is doing.
“Speeches, utopian clips, it’s a way to show that they’re being successful,” said Stalinsky, the executive director of MEMRI. “… They’re trying to control the message, what people are seeing and understanding.”
You don’t have to go to an ISIS media point to be exposed to its propaganda — it’s largely unavoidable in the caliphate. Militants distribute news bulletins about the group’s activities, operate a radio station, blare propaganda from loudspeakers attached to trucks, and erect billboards with Islamic messages.
ISIS documents its activities extensively across its various propaganda channels online, including: WordPress websites; channels on the secure-messaging app Telegram; Twitter; and file-hosting websites, like Archive.org. Although this information has an obvious slant and is difficult to independently verify, experts and locals from ISIS-held areas have confirmed to Business Insider the propaganda tactics the group uses.
Photos that ISIS has released over the past month show militants blanketing the caliphate with its propaganda.
Here, ISIS members print out and distribute newsletters and pamphlets:
Here’s what the news bulletins look like in English:
“It’s not a newspaper, but it’s like a small piece of paper that includes all the news that [ISIS] does in Syria,” Raqqawi, the activist, said of the newsletters that are handed out in Raqqa. “They say, ‘We won this battle. We killed these people. We did that. We did this.'”
In addition to newsletters, ISIS distributes pamphlets with religious messages. The group governs based on a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, calling for amputation as a punishment for stealing and telling women they must cover up and be escorted by a male relative if they go out in public.
“They distribute [the pamphlets] in the marketplace and in front of mosques,” said Fikram, the Syrian man from Deir Ezzor. He also noted that the brochures are given to prisoners.
Notices are also posted in public squares, according to Leili, the DeirEzzor24 activist.
“ISIS seeks to promote itself by several means in the areas it controls, including mosques and sermons in it, in addition to the paper publications that are posted in the public squares,” Leili said. “The biggest focus to address the people is through the visible side first, and then through the reading and audio side.”
Even if residents avoid reading ISIS’s pamphlets, they’re still exposed to its messages on billboards that have started popping up in its territory.
“They put up billboards that speak mostly about jihad and there are some of them talking about the niqab [an Islamic face veil] and why smoking is forbidden and punishable by the terrorist organisation,” Fikram said.
ISIS recently released these photos of militants putting up billboards in Fallujah, Iraq:
These billboards are reportedly standing in Tal Afar, Iraq:
And these are in Raqqa, Syria:
“There are road signs related to speeches and religious wisdom at the entrances to cities and towns under the pretext of reminding people of Islam, and these road signs always have … the phrase: ‘Islamic state — Wilayat al-Khair’ or ‘Wilayat al-Furat’, according to the place that has the sign,” Leili said of Deir Ezzor.
ISIS carves its territory into areas called “wilayats,” and the group has reportedly began renaming some cities in Iraq and Syria based on what “wilayat” they fall under.
“There are many road signs set up by ISIS in the areas controlled by it, and some areas have been renamed,” Leili said.
It seems that ISIS has also been painting murals that mimic its billboards, according to photos the group has released on its propaganda channels. Some depict violence, while some look idyllic:
ISIS also releases information on a radio station that broadcasts in both Arabic and English, Raqqawi said.
“They produce … propaganda news, Sharia courses, sometimes voice messages from al-Adnani or al-Baghdadi,” Raqqawi said, referring to the ISIS spokesman and the group’s leader. “… It’s really shocking how they’re playing with people’s minds.”
Leili confirmed this, noting that ISIS uses the radio to promote its message.
The trucks and vans ISIS paints with its messages and outfits with large speakers are also hard to avoid.
MEMRI’s report refers to them as “mobile media points,” or “travelling indoctrination vans that broadcast ISIS releases.” These vehicles can also travel to rural areas that don’t have permanent ISIS media installations.
“They call people for Islam or jihad and these cars go near the river [in Raqqa], especially on Fridays, because a lot of people go near the river on Fridays,” Raqqawi said.
The report includes photos of these vehicles:
In one of the photos above, militants sit at a table that looks like it holds children’s toys and accessories.
Raqqawi told Business Insider that ISIS targets children specifically with these vehicles and at media points, hoping to indoctrinate them at a young age to grow the ranks of its terror army.
“Sometimes they make parties for children, so if you answer the right question they will give you a present or a mobile phone,” Raqqawi said. “They recruit a lot of young boys for these cars. They target children a lot, because it’s very easy to recruit them, more so than [adult] men.”
MEMRI’s report also confirms that ISIS hosts games and gives away prizes from its mobile media points.
Fikram said that while he hasn’t seen gatherings in Deir Ezzor specifically to recruit children, the ISIS “advocacy” office “distributes biscuits and juice to passerby children while they showcase publications.”
ISIS’ sophisticated strategy
ISIS’ control of information and aggressive strategy to bombard those who live in its territory with propaganda might be unprecedented.
“I haven’t seen any other terrorist group do something like this before,” Stalinsky, the executive director of MEMRI, said of ISIS’ media points. “… This just shows that ISIS continues to be on the forefront of using the media and how, especially the younger generation, that’s part of their culture.”
And choking off the internet in the caliphate means that ordinary citizens don’t have many places to turn to get information on what’s happening in the outside world, or even inside ISIS territory itself.
“It became very difficult to access the Internet at the moment, because of the fear of the organisation that its violations will be published by the opposition media and the the outside world will know what happens in those areas controlled by ISIS,” Leili said.
People who live in ISIS territory can get online in internet cafes, but these are all highly controlled by ISIS, which has blocked personal Wi-Fi networks.
“There are internet cafe shops managed by ISIS, and these cafe shops are fully controlled,” Leili said. ‘They even write the name of the person when entering those cafe shops, then they spy on what he has reviewed online, because they fear that this person to send information or news against ISIS.”
“Many young people were detained in those cafe shops,” Leili continued. “Now it became a big fear among people of going to those cafe shops, to stay away from the arbitrary arrests.”
The expansion of propaganda centres in ISIS’ self-declared caliphate, coupled with depriving people of internet access, shows how focused the group is on indoctrinating local populations in addition to recruiting foreign fighters. The fact that most of its propaganda is in Arabic, rather than foreign languages, is a testament to how much ISIS targets locals.
“They’re radicalizing local populations, first in Syria, then to Iraq, and in Libya now,” Stalinsky said. “Everyone knows people are being radicalized online, but not everyone in their territory is online.”
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