Interviews with imprisoned and former members of Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda document that such group’s online media campaigns provide information and motivational appeals that help radicalise recruits and make attacks more lethal (Capellan, 2015; Gill et al, 2015; Gill et al., 2017; von Behr et al., 2013 ). The groups’ leaders also stress the importance of their online media campaigns for reaching the eventual fulfillment of their goals (Al-Zawahari, 2005; Bin Laden, [n.d.]). The potential influence of such efforts intensifies the need to understand what factors influence the messaging content of the group’s media campaigns. Previous studies document several factors that correspond to changes in the media campaigns of IS or al-Qaeda: gains and losses of territory, engagements in military confrontations with opposing forces, the killing of media leaders, and the weakening of competing militant groups with similar ideologies (e.g., see El-Damanhoury, et al., 2018; Kaczkowski, et al., 2020; Roggio, 2010; Wignell, et al., 2017; Winkler, et al., 2019a; Winkler et al., 2019b; Winter, 2018). Missing from these published analyses, however, is an understanding of how the groups’ own on-the-ground actions interact with their production of their media content.
Our recent article, “Shifts in the Visual Media Campaigns of Al-Qaeda and ISIS After High Death and High Publicity Attacks” works as a first step towards filling that gap. It seeks to understand what types of attacks correspond to significant changes in the visual media campaigns for two types of militant groups: those that carry out attacks and those that compete against the groups who perpetrate attacks. Our focus on the visual messaging strategies stemmed, in part, from the large volume of visual imagery produced and distributed by groups like IS and al-Qaeda (Milton, 2016; Milton 2018; Zelin, 2015). Additionally, the use of visual messaging reduces language barriers useful for recruitment. Finally, studies of visual images in other experimental contexts document that they increase audience attention and recall (Graber, 1990; Pfau 2006), heighten emotional responses and are quicker to process than text.
Utilising components highlighted in the U.N. definition of terrorism, the study examines two attack-related independent variables—death counts and publicity levels—to assess four attack conditions: high death/high publicity, high death/low publicity, low death/high publicity, and low death/low publicity. We measured death counts according to data drawn from the Global Terrorism Database. We measured publicity levels based on the number of international news stories catalogued in the ProQuest News & Newspaper Database. We randomly selected two IS attacks that met the criteria of each of the four attack conditions, stratifying those selections to ensure that no other high death or high publicity attacks occurred within the time frame of our analysis.
To assess changes in the visual media campaigns of IS and al-Qaeda in relation to the IS attacks, we examined images appearing in the two groups’ Arabic language newsletters—al-Naba’ and al-Masra. We compared the images appearing in the three issues before with those in the three issues after each of the attacks. All told, the study examined 1177 images in Al-Masra and 705 images in Al-Naba’. We coded each of the study’s images according to four types of authority appeals: militant/militant, leadership, state-building, and religion. Chi square analyses determined significant differences in the visual media campaigns before and after the attacks.
One key finding of the study was that IS attacks resulting in low death counts (regardless of publicity level) did not correspond to shifts in the use of authority-related images in the visual media campaigns of either IS or al-Qaeda. The finding suggests that both the group who perpetrate attacks producing few deaths, as well as the group in competition for like-minded followers interpret attacks producing low death counts as inconsequential and unworthy of change to their visual messaging strategies.
IS attacks resulting in high death counts, however, did correspond to shifts in both Al-Qaeda’s and IS’s use of authority images in their media campaigns, but the results varied based on the group and the type of visual authority appeal under consideration. In the case of IS’s media campaign, for example, the display of fighters changed after high death attacks that attracted high publicity levels. More specifically, the number of images showing enemy fighters (often corpses) was higher than statistically expected before the attack which fell to lower than expected afterwards, perhaps in an effort to avoid further provocations immediately after highly publicised, deadly attacks on their enemies.
After IS perpetrated their high death/high publicity attacks, however, al-Qaeda adopted a different visual messaging strategy. One example is how they changed their display of state-building images, particularly in their distribution of map images. Before the IS attacks, al-Qaeda used a lower than statistically expected number of map images, which shifted to higher than expected after the attacks. The heightened focus on al-Qaeda-related territories emphasises that a viable alternative exists to the so-called IS caliphate regardless of their success on the battlefield.
When IS perpetrated high death/ low publicity attacks, the two groups again diverged on how they changed their visual messaging strategies. IS changed its display of religious imagery, showing a much higher than expected number of images with religious identity indicators before the attacks which dropped to much lower than expected levels of presentation afterwards. The decreased emphasis on religious identity after the attacks may have resulted from strategy of minimising Islamophobia.
Al-Qaeda, by contrast, changed its display of state-building images in the aftermath of high death/low publicity attacks by IS. In this case, however, the type of state-building images that displayed the highest deviation from expectations were those related to providing social services and those featuring media products produced and distributed by the group. Both were lower than expected before the IS attacks and higher after the attacks occurred. The changes helped reinforce both the presence of both the online and offline activities of the group. For other findings of the study, please see Winkler et al., 2020.