Daesh Media Points: A glimpse of how Daesh does PR and media for the public in its territories

While researching for a workshop presentation at UPenn’s CARCG about Daesh media, I came across an interesting and so far overlooked aspect of life under Daesh in Syria and Iraq. In the photo and article, taken from an issue of the Arabic-language النبأ, an unknown author writes on behalf of Daesh about “نقطة إعلامية” . They lay out the history of the “media point” as this translates to, saying that it first appeared in the rural area outside of Aleppo. In the image, we see several dozen people sitting in what resembles a small theater, watching a large digital screen. On the roof above the screen, is the Arabic title mentioned above and a series of media logos. What are these media points and why would Daesh build them?

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image from al-Naba issue 21.

First, the point above is apparently one of sixty such media points spread throughout Daesh territory. The group laments the difficulties of mass communication, saying that it was hard to reach all of “the Muslims.” They discuss how CDs became the standard but that at a certain point, these were replaced by smartphones.  The problem of reaching people without the hardware to use CDs or smartphones remained; the media point is their attempt to bridge the gap between their digital displays of prowess and ideology and the margins of its “caliphate.”

In the article, which appeared in النبأ number 21, Daesh explains how these media points are part of a larger project to confront the “crusader media” and the media of the “tyrants” or طواغيت (I have written about this discourse here). They see these points as a success, and describe how crowds gather around them to watch when new media releases come out. One example of such an event they list was the execution of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot. The discuss how the points are customized relative to the density of residents, and that they were pleased that many residents had “chosen the path of jihad” after watching videos at the points.

Daesh interviewed a number of different media workers to outline local specificities. For example, Abu Bara al-Furati speaks about his work in Raqqa, describing that there are currently six media points there but that they are not enough to meet the needs of the large city and that more are planned as well as updating the existing ones. They also say that they have deliberately spread points in urban and rural areas, claiming that there are 6 points each in rural areas to the north, west, and east of Raqqa. Several of the points have local names corresponding to the traffic circles where they are located. Interestingly, they talk about how they made a wide variety of languages available, which they list as including Arabic, English, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi (yes, really), French, and others. This would lead one to deduct that Daesh members on both sides of its foreign/local divide are consuming media at the points. ِAbu Hajar Musab lays out his view that he too engages in jihad through his media activities, a trope that appears elsewhere about Daesh media.

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image from al-Naba issue 21

Abu Anas al Faluji hammered home the ideological value of the media points, saying that the public needs to take advantage of the points in the correct way to raise awareness of the people and point them to the truth of what’s going on around them. One man in his 60s spoke of the pride he felt watching the images on TV at a media point, but as this was quoted by Daesh it’s impossible to know how genuine he was, or whether he was just telling them what they wanted to hear.

What I see so far, based on this limited source, I won’t try to theorize too deeply. I hope to find more empirical details about the points and hopefully some discussion of them will appear in testimony by those who have been on the inside and escaped. Clearly, Daesh sees an opportunity to get more of its propaganda and ideology in front of citizens who otherwise can’t access these media by building these points. They also claim they’re very popular, which may well be true. I’ve also seen that Daesh media is highly selective, does not report major losses, and exaggerates their institutional capacity.  I will post more soon if I find more and better sources on this topic.

 

Review of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State”

As accounts and interviews with those who have lived under Daesh rule in Syria and Iraq emerge, I have eagerly sought them out. It is one thing to study Daesh, to seek to understand its structures, its finances, its media, its violence. It is another, however, to understand the impact it has on people’s lives. Headlines that talk about capturing a new city, or losing control of one for that matter, obscure so much of the pain and violence that comes along with those noteworthy events. Their shocking nature also pushes us to dehistoricize, to forget what came before, all too easily slipping into assumptions that things there have been this way for some time. The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State” is a powerful antidote to these assumptions, generalized by those far away about events they only know through already simplified headlines.

The book is the result of the brave writing by a young man who lived under Daesh rule in Raqqa, the group’s organizational hub in Eastern Syria. With the help of Mike Thompsen, a BBC journalist, “Samer” the activist managed to smuggle his accounts out of Syria, to a third country, where they were translated and edited for presentation in this book. The end result is easy to read and accessible, at least on a literary level. On an emotional level, it is anything but easy to read, and is in fact very challenging. Readers will find it hard not to imagine themselves in Raqqa with Samer, experiencing the pain and trauma through his words.

Samer’s narrative of his life in Raqqa chronicles three broad periods to acquaint readers with Syria. Through memories, Samer discusses growing up under the Assad regime. He chronicles how his father had problems with regime intelligence services, and disappeared for some time (p.39). Readers see the toll this takes on Samer’s family. It turns out Samer’s father had been reported to the Assad government as a political dissident by his manager at work and had been detained. His family ultimately had to bribe the boss who had leveled the charges against Samer’s father. Samer’s mother sold her jewelry and a small piece of land they owned to get him out, but even in freedom Samer’s father had already lost so much. “I couldn’t understand how someone could take everything we knew from us like this” Samer says on p.46. “Not only was all this happening under the eyes of the (Assad) government, it had their complete support.” Additionally, Samer mentions the 1982 Hama Uprising and how it was crushed by government violence. Because it was not covered in the media, Samer states that Syrians have learned from this and approached things differently this time, making sure to film and put images online of government actions (p. 47).

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image taken from the book p.48-49

Once the uprising began in Syria several months after the initial movements of the Arab Spring, events in Syria snowballed from peaceful protest marches to violent escalating clashes with the Assad government, recalcitrant in power. Samer describes his arrest, interrogation, and torture at the hands of the regime (p.50). “This didn’t stop me,” he states. “If anything, it made me more rebellious.”

The final period the book details, as its name suggests, is life under ISIS rule once the organization seized control of Raqqa. I won’t quote the details here, but Samer describes many of the repressive and violent realities he was exposed to. The public sphere loses its vitality, and becomes a place where bad things happen. Samer and others want to stay home just to avoid interactions with Daesh. The store Samer’s family ran for years can’t make money anymore, it is too hard to move goods through the war zone and they reach Raqqa with very high prices. These give a tiny glimpse into the very real changes Daesh rule brought to Raqqa.

On specific anecdote about life under Daesh in Samer’s account caught my attention. While walking home, Samer was warned, cryptically, not to walk down a given street. He had an idea what this meant, but his human curiosity got the best of him. What he saw was shocking enough I will leave it out of this review. Even if he hadn’t been warned, such a sight would shock and traumatize anyone, but the human element of his inability to stay away was the most telling to me. Everything Samer had experienced was easily enough to make him avoid such sights, to take the advice of his friend. Yet those who live under ISIS rule are just as human as anyone, in all their virtues, vices, tendencies and shortcomings.

This account should be considered a primary source for the study of life under ISIS, and as such I highly recommend it. It brings the humanity, emotions, and trauma of those who have experienced life under ISIS into detail on its pages. Where other works I have read mostly deal with the history leading to the group’s emergence, this work is head and shoulders above the others to give one a sense of human life in Syria before the uprisings, during the Syrian War, and finally under Daesh rule.

 

Daesh in the Digital Realm

In popular discussion of the Islamic State, several topics have received the vast majority of the attention. The group’s executions, treatment of women, their oil profits, and rumors about state sponsorship have all gotten large amounts of attention. Not far behind that is discussion of their digital propaganda. Stories of those who’ve returned from having joined are likewise important. Lost in the cracks of these topics is an interesting field, how Daesh relates to the digital realm more broadly. The topic should be especially important, as both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had very similar things to say recently:
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This author, for one, finds it ironic that two presidential candidates from the country that dominates the internet, has been shown to be heavily monitoring all kinds of digital activity all over the world, and weakening encryption protocols still want further action taken in this domain. Both also dismiss potential rebuttals based on freedom of speech. What they don’t seem to realize is that Daesh and its supporters already face a harder time using the most basic platforms for social media than almost anyone else. Twitter is constantly taking down accounts of supporters and followers of Daesh, and their content. Youtube is constantly doing the same thing. Facebook has almost zero Daesh content because of all its existing controls. This has meant Daesh members and supporters must use smaller sites that few normal users come across. ُEvery once in a while I come across a wordpress site hosting Daesh content, but not many. The majority of Daeshi material I have seen is actually on justpaste.it. The corporate infrastructure of the internet has started locking them out. On top of all this, the Anonymous hacker collective has announced its #OPISIS targeting twitter accounts of Daesh members. In response, Daesh released a statement to its members and followers about how to protect themselves from getting hacked. The group also has its own hackers targeting US government and others sites, with apparent success.

If Daesh faces significant resistance from online establishments like Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, its approach to the internet in the territories it controls shows a different aspect of the group’s fraught relationship with the internet, and digital technologies more broadly. The group was targeted heavily in its early years by American surveillance technology, and it lost many members because their phones and digital communications were intercepted and tracked. This shaped the group, and even today they’ve become wary about surveillance. The group issued a notice that any devices with GPS had to have the feature turned off completely and that no Apple products were allowed at all because they were deemed untrustworthy:
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Beyond this, Daesh has had problems with infrastructure and severely constricted access to the internet inside of the territory it controls. A recent NYTimes in-depth investigation about the lives of young women in Raqqa discussed how the internet was only to be used for the most important of business like media production and enticing new recruits. Early in 2014 many internet cafes closed because of inability to operate wireless networks, apparently due to disruption of radio networks by the Syrian regime. According to this same source some succeeded in using satellite connections to establish internet cafes but these were apparently very easy to track. Daesh released this order in May 2015 demanding four kinds of identification for any user of the internet cafe. So while larger global forces could watch much of what the internet user in question was doing through the technologies we know they have, Daesh wanted to know exactly who was using the internet for its own purposes. A Washington Post investigation of life in the ‘Islamic State’ says that speaking to outsiders about conditions inside is a very risky act, one the leaders of Daesh monitor the internet to try to catch. In this vein, the website Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has continued to speak out against Daesh from inside while also being targeted. Two of its activists were found and killed in southern Turkey by Daesh agents.

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This control over the internet is sadly an extension of attempts at totalitarian rule inside Daesh territory more broadly. No independent media is allowed to exist. There is a radio station, run by the group, which broadcasts in different languages, but aside from this there is no space for civil society. It only makes sense that those inside who were angry with this and wanted to voice their views would turn to the internet like the aforementioned Raqqa website. This control doesn’t extend to all citizens, however. Foreign fighters and their wives are said to hold a privileged status inside Daeshi terrtitory, meaning they can continue with things like internet access that are severely restricted for all others.

That fits with the broader outline, the internet is a vital lifeline for Daesh to exist, but it’s also an extreme risk and liability, one that has consistently been used against them. I cannot agree with Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton in this regard, I don’t see that any major action needs to be taken that isn’t already being taken. I write those words with a lot of worry. Not because I think Clinton and Trump might be right, but because it also shows the extent to which the internet can be used against anyone in today’s age. Here, I think the target (Daesh) is a legitimate one, but what about in the future? What if the same capabilities directed at keeping Dawaish (the plural) off major internet sites with corporate infrastructure are directed at others who aren’t brutal murderers?  What if governments use those surveillance technologies against dissidents?  We’ve seen the way police have been targeting activists around COP21 in France, which isn’t normally considered a brutal dictatorship. We’ve also seen glimpses of what this future can look like in Bahrain, and it’s ominous.

nb- the Daesh documents used here come from this website run by Aymenn Jawwad al-Tamimi, a researcher and academic who studies jihadi groups. The English translations of the original Arabic documents were done by Mr. Tamimi.

Update: This post was mirrored by Informed Comment, thanks Juan!