ISIL propaganda: How the group offers two different rationales for its atrocities
BEIRUT // When ISIL killed nearly 400 people in less than two weeks in attacks on the streets of Paris, a Russian airliner and a suburb of Beirut, the atrocities were immediately presented as punishment against France, Russia and Hizbollah for their roles in fighting the extremist group.
But alongside this, ISIL offers an even more uncompromising rationale for the violence: an incitement to the foreign actors meant to invite a ground war that will hasten an end-of-days prophecy central to the mythology preached by the group.
Shortly after the attacks, in the group’s brief claims of responsibility on social media, the message from ISIL was “leave us alone and we will stop killing your people”.
But in other pieces of propaganda, the group also provides a more theological justification.
“The Islamic State is not consistent,” said William McCants, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy and author of The ISIS Apocalypse. “They speak in these two very different ways about why they carry out attacks on the West.”
In a written statement claiming the downing of Russian airliner Metrojet 9268 over Egypt – an attack that killed 224 – ISIL’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula used Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria to justify the attack.
“The killings of tens every day in Syria with bombs from your planes will bring woe to you. Just as you are killing others, you too will be killed, God willing,” the statement read.
When ISIL attacks killed 130 in Paris less than two weeks later, the message was similar.
“The scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in this crusader campaign, as long as they dare to curse our Prophet – blessings and peace be upon Him – and as long as they boast about the war against Islam in France and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets,” said ISIL in an audio statement claiming the attacks.
But ISIL has gone further than declaring such strikes as punitive, saying at times (through propaganda pieces attributed to British hostage John Cantlie) that the group could reach a truce with foreign countries at some point in the future, and encouraging the West not to keep negotiations off the table.
These interactions with foreign powers through ISIL’s propaganda suggest the group is looking for a potentially peaceful resolution to the current conflict. But in other propaganda, the only way this conflict ends is with a grand battle against foreign powers that kicks off a series of events culminating in the end of the world.
The apocalyptic vision ISIL presents comes from a selection of hadiths – sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed – that the group believes they are a part of.
One prophecy declares that Rome (read in modern times by ISIL as the west or other non-believing nations) and its allies will confront an Islamic army in battle, represented by “eighty flags” and ten thousand troops beneath each flag. Another declares that the hour of judgement “will not come until the Romans would land at Al A’maq or in Dabiq”, the former being a valley in southern Turkey and the latter a Syrian town nearby that ISIL currently controls.
The prophecies are a point of obsession for ISIL. The group named their English-language magazine Dabiq and prioritised capturing the town in 2014 despite its minimal strategic importance compared to other fronts at the time. Many fighters follow another prophetic hadith about warriors who come to fight Rome and its allies that says they used their hometowns as their last names and did not cut their hair or beards.
In an ISIL propaganda film released in November, the flags of nations who have committed to fighting ISIL flashed across the screen. Rather than condemn the countries for confronting ISIL, the narrator welcomed them and voiced that more would join them to help fulfil the end-of-times prophecy.
“Your numbers only increase us in faith and we’re counting your banners, which our Prophet said would reach 80 in number,” he said. “And then the flames of war will finally burn you on the hills of Dabiq. Gather your allies. Plot against us. And show us no respite.”
ISIL’s offering of a potential truce falls within its apocalyptic narrative: The same hadith that speaks of Rome and its allies gathering under 80 flags to confront the Islamic army says the army will first offer Rome a treaty of security.
But knowing the true intentions behind ISIL’s attacks – whether they are punitive or part of ISIL’s end-of-days narrative – is difficult given the two contradictory, yet simultaneous narratives.
“The truth is you cannot know [what the true motivation is] unless you have some evidence of their internal deliberations,” said Mr McCants. “It’s instructed to me that even in its strategic literature, you have both rationales for attacking western countries. And in Al Qaeda’s own private memos to [former Taliban leader] Mullah Omar in 2001 explaining why they did the 9/11 attacks, both rationales were given.”
Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, a research fellow with the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum who monitors extremist organisations in Iraq and Syria, said ISIL’s confusing narrative surrounding its justifications fits the group’s goals.
“I would say the apocalyptic aspect is overplayed as a dimension of ISIL’s immediate strategic calculations,” he said. “More than anything, ISIL seems to thrive on dysfunction and discord among its own enemies and the ‘retaliatory’ attacks fit in that regard.”