Jihadist hate propaganda as video activism: how the web video COME ON RISE acts as a call to action in the context of the so-called Islamic State’s current Lone Actor campaign

Describing online propaganda, especially extremist material such as the clips spread by the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), as a form of activism is problematic, to say the least – activism on the Web 2.0 in particular is most commonly associated with democratisation, social participation and civic engagement, while the term “propaganda” has in most cases become synonymous with manipulation and deception and is, accordingly, now being used pejoratively in everyday life. Propaganda in its broadest sense has, however, at least one feature in common with civic-society activism: in both cases, the purpose of one’s efforts is focused, goal-oriented political activity beyond the reach of established political institutions and processes. Therefore, propaganda often makes use of similar methods and means. The 2014 online campaign “One Billion Muslims” – which called upon Muslim Facebook users to show their support for ISIL by posting and sharing Jihadist pictures – proves just how similar, even downright identical the methods employed by civic and extremist online activism can, in certain cases, be.

The peculiarity of extremist “activist” videos on the internet in particular is reflected in the fact that (pro-)ISIL clips are basically unobtainable through official, reliable sources, nor are there undisputed records of total viewcounts, shares and other statistics. As such clips violate human dignity and glorify acts of violence, terrorism and war, they are often considered illegal under national law and violate most social media services’ terms of use. Even though they are usually quickly detected and subsequently deleted along with all user comments, they quickly reappear on other sites – uploaded from a different account or with a new title and description. As there is no such thing as an ISIL YouTube channel, a main website or a central online hub, evaluating these videos can often prove difficult. In this context, “fan communities” – groups of distributors who often produce Jihadist content themselves, but are not, at least not strictly speaking, part of ISIL – have shown to be extremely important. Individual ISIL supporters can, such is the underlying idea, create their own content by cutting excerpts from pre-existing footage and combining these snippets with new and other foreign material.

The video COME ON RISE, a primarily English-language video produced by the “pro-ISIL press office” al-Thabat (meaning “fortitude”) and published in mid-August 2016 via their Telegram channel, serves as an example for said remix practices. It remains unclear at this time who is behind al-Thabat and how the organisation is connected to official ISIL media departments. In the video’s opening seconds (with a total runtime of approximately 3 minutes 36 seconds), as is typical for Jihadist videos, the Tawhid article of the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, is displayed in white lettering on a black background. The statement “There is no god but Allah” is visualised in the basic, easy-to-read font used in other ISIL clips – those produced by the al-Hayat Media Centre, for example. Following the over-the-top intro (complete with a computer-animated high-tech crossbow, arrows exploding in giant bursts of flame and a waving ISIL flag bearing the metallic al-Thabat logo), 3D-animated words are thrown on-screen with a menacing thud, the image “trembling” beneath their weight – first, the title “Come on Rise” in steel-textured letters, then the names of several countries at war with ISIL, including the targets of past and future terror attacks, each displayed with an added Arabic subtitle: “In France”, “In America”, “In Belgium”, “In Russia”, and so on.

Then, in less bombastic fashion, a statement by “Al Ahaik Abu Muhammad Al Adnani” is shown in front of a dark green background, slowly crawling upwards and inch by inch making its way past a small cropped image of the ISIL spokesman in full combat gear, posing with his Kalashnikov and magazine vest. The speaker’s voice, slightly distorted by an added reverb effect and subtitled for Arabic viewers, addresses all Jihadist fighters in Europe and the “infidel West” in general, demanding that they attack the “crusaders” in their own countries: „We will argue, before Allah, against any Muslim who has the ability to shed a single drop of crusader blood but does not do so, whether with an explosive device, a bullet, a knife, a car, a rock, or even a boot or a fist.“ This quote, which alongside a second excerpt shown later in the video works as a kind of framing device, is taken from one of Adnani’s speeches held in January 2015 in which he reiterated the main points from a previous and widely-quoted speech of his, “Indeed Your Lord Is Ever Watchful”. Held in September 2014, the latter speech contained a direct call to action, with Adnani propagating individual lone-wolf terrorism and urging ISIL supporters to fight and kill disbelievers in their home countries – by any means possible, available and necessary. Originally, Al-Qaeda was among the first to propagate this kind of “leaderless jihad” meant to carry or re-import the holy war into the enemies’ cities; campaign videos and infographics circulating in social media taught their audience how to carry out terrorist attacks with knives, vehicles and by other every-day means. The high-quality PDF magazine “Inspire”, which since its inception in 2010 has been published regularly by “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), a terrorist organisation which operates primarily in Yemen and Saudi-Arabia, became notorious – infamous, even – for similar pieces of advice: in 2013, the magazine published its own “holy warrior’s paperback” – and more recently, in light of the Orlando and Nice attacks, special “guides” for “Lone Mujahids”.

The al-Thabat video COME ON RISE can thus be seen as a contribution to ISIL’s Lone Actor campaign, a strategy also advertised in a number of other Jihadist videos. In addition to the Adnani quote, the video sketches a brief outline of the historical framework of Jihad, a collage made of various video snippets: scenes from a historical drama film show a cavalry battle between Muslims and Crusaders, followed by a photograph taken at an anti-ISIL conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as Pentagon aerial recordings of a bomb detonation or a missile attack, presumably in Syria. On both the pictorial and commentary level, popular Jihadist master narratives are spun and elaborated once more – narratives according to which the West currently is and has for the longest time been waging a centuries-old war of aggression on the Muslim world. Past and present are linked by virtual “camera display” effects – including a “REC” overlay complete with a flashing red dot – and are therefore presented in pseudo-documentary fashion. Especially considering the fictional war drama battle scenes, full costumes and all, this authenticating gesture appears peculiarly anachronistic.

The effects overlay is also used in the following shots, highlighting the video’s central message – calling upon the muslim audience to kill disbelievers – by showing two masked figures equipped with knives and assault rifles engaged in close-quarters combat on a staircase. The black garments as well as the dramatised knife combat scene serve as a thematic bridge to an excerpt taken from an ISIL execution video entitled ALTHOUGH DISBELIEVERS DISLIKE IT (13 November 2014, al-Furqan) – a highly aestheticised and cruelly choreographed video depicting the mass execution of Syrian soldiers, and the same video in which the death of US development aid worker Peter Kassig was announced and brutally documented (see background literature). In the short excerpt shown in COME ON RISE, the masked man known as “Jihadi John” slashes his black-clad victim’s throat; the decapitation, only the first seconds of which are actually shown, is dramatised even further by an added sound effect. Then, several more excerpts from various propaganda videos and news reels are shown, framed by images of ISIL fighters, the chaos and bloodshed in the immediate aftermath of terror attacks as well as a close-up shot of a victim’s severed head. This culminates in a photo collage of Omar Mir Seddique Mateens “selfies” – the terrorist who shot dead 49 people at the “Pulse” nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and is therefore praised by al-Thabat as a role-model for all “lone wolves”.

All things considered, however, COME ON RISE and al-Thabat do not play a prominent role amidst the flood of ISIL propaganda. Other web videos have been subject to much more in-depth discussion and analysis due to their content, in particular the threats issued, or their formal aesthetic qualities. In the latter respect, COME ON RISE seems rather substandard by comparison – for example, elaborate ornamental or infographic computer animations frequently used by the al-Hayat or the al-Furqan Media Centres in order to visualise “war facts”, historical processes, political constellations, the heroism of the religious fighters or the internal weaknesses of the US are nowhere to be found here. (In contrast, NO RESPITE by the al-Hayat Media Centre, which appeared in several languages, serves as an example of a professionally handcrafted, albeit somewhat over-produced video.)

What makes an otherwise mediocre clip like COME ON RISE nonetheless special is the simultaneous implementation of several key features of ISIL propaganda videos: the ideological-historical framing of the central Jihadist narrative and the call to action with regards to the current Lone Actor campaign stand out in particular. Furthermore, the clip’s self-referential character should be noted, as well as a certain degree of intertextuality shown by the abundance of images of different origin. COME ON RISE also illustrates a further, even more worrying point: how casually violent and graphic images are used nowadays. This apathy, this indifference to violent scenes is exemplified by a recent trend regarding execution videos – videos which, in an attempt to continuously outdo each other in terms of crassness, use more and more excessively brutal imagery – and ultimately, with a hint of macabre irony, culminates in dwindling media attention.

Bernd Zywietz