In 2014, Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the caliphate and himself as caliph. A-Baghdadi presented a global vision and declared it obligatory for Muslims around the world to make hijrah by migrating to the land of Islam in Iraq and Syria. The caliphate, al-Baghdadi purported, was “where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers.” Accordingly, the divine polity was a place where “their blood mixes and becomes one, under a single flag and goal.” From its inception in 2014, IS had transnational ambitions, and even after the fall of the last bastion of caliphate territory in Baghuz, Syria, in 2019, the movement has continued to spread across Africa and Asia.
IS’s propaganda apparatus and production capabilities are unmatched in jihadist history, with its branches spanning across continents. Official propaganda by IS Central – the caliphate’s leadership and official propaganda apparatus – and the various regional insurgent networks have long been bolstered by independent pro-IS media outlets amplifying the organisation’s narratives and by individual supporters engaging in discourse on social media and messaging application channels.
In early March 2023, there was an unprecedented development in the pro-IS media space when a statement was released from a newly-formed umbrella coalition of independent propaganda outlets. The new collective, Fursan al-Tarjuma (Knights of Translation), brought together 14 IS media entities that produce propaganda in at least 18 languages. This Insight will explore the Islamic State’s doctrine of ‘media jihad’, how it is embodied by Fursan al-Tarjuma and the security implications of its emergence.
Media Jihad and Fursan al-Tarjuma
To truly understand Fursan al-Tarjuma, we begin with an overview of IS’s doctrine of ‘media jihad’. The concept of media jihad was articulated in an April 2016 document published by IS’s official central publishing house, al-Himmah Publications, titled ‘Media Operative, You Are Also a Mujahid.’ This article described how “the media is a jihad in the way of Allah”, and assures followers that “you, with your media work, are therefore a mujahid in the way of Allah.” IS state explicitly that “the media jihad against the enemy is no less important than the material fight against it.”
The core purpose of the communiqué was to highlight:
- The nature of the conflict between IS and its enemies;
- raise awareness of the award that await those participating in the media front of the war;
- to emphasise the importance of jihadi media operatives;
- to stress the necessity of scoring media victories and inflicting “psychological defeats upon the enemy”;
- to instil the idea that media jihad is intertwined with kinetic militant operations, and
- to prepare a new generation dedicated to carrying out the aforementioned propaganda tasks.
Also notable was an infographic by al-Naba Newspaper (in Issue 288), published in May 2021 entitled ‘The Objective of Jihadist Media’, in which IS argued that even unofficial channels such as translations or aligned/supporter media channels are crucial in the struggle, as they: spread the organisation’s narratives; incite violent attacks; valorise members for their actions; lift morale and amplify news of victories, and intimidate their enemies.
Later, in a 33-minute audio entitled: ‘Fight them, Allah will torment them at your hands” released in April 2022 by then-IS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir, praises the unofficial media of the IS and urges them to intensify their propaganda and dissemination of pro-IS material.
The Emergence of Fursan al-Tarjuma
Fursan al-Tarjuma emerged as an umbrella organisation of 14 pro-IS media outlets that publish IS content in at least 18 different languages within 48 hours of its original publication in Arabic. The coalition’s content can be accessed on both the internet and the dark web and is disseminated across several social media platforms and messaging applications such as Telegram, Rocket.Chat/Tech Haven, XMPP, and Threema.
These same themes are very much observable in Fursan al-Tarjuma’s announcement of the coalition’s formation in early March 2023. Fursan al-Tarjuma’s mission statement stated its aim to bring together translation groups from around the world, disseminate the materials in as many languages and on as many social media platforms as possible, and reach an expanded audience. Moreover, Fursan al-Tarjuma is designed “to be the singular source for translations of Islamic State media, publications that explain its policies bound by Shari’ah, dispel suspicions and false arguments raised by its enemies, and articles and graphics to inspire dedication and faith.”
Fursan al-Tarjuma did not develop by itself; some of the involved pro-IS media outlets had been collaborating with each other and external propaganda groups in the years and months prior. These early alliances were meant to combine propaganda creation and distribution capacity, while also expanding their reach across respective audiences.
The most prominent English language translation group, Halummu, which has been around since at least 2016, has a long history of partnering with the multi-lingual pro-IS network Al-Battar; the Turkish Medyan Media group; Russian Irshad; Indonesian Darussalam; Filipino Dawlah al-Islamiyyah Sharqu Asia; East African Al-Hijrateyn; French Centre Mediatique An-Nur, and a number of others. These past relationships provided the groundwork for the unification of several of these under the Fursan al-Tarjuma umbrella.
The largest and most powerful media outlet in Fursan al-Tarjuma is Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production, the propaganda arm of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP). Al-Azaim has enabled ISKP to produce propaganda in more languages than any other IS branch since the height of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Al-Azaim and Halummu started collaborating on English language translations of IS Central’s weekly al-Naba newsletter in 2022. By November 2022, Halummu translations were appearing in ISKP’s flagship Voice of Khurasan magazine series. As ISKP’s connections to various pro-IS media outlets expanded, co-translated propaganda by At-Taqwa and Halummu began appearing in Voice of Khurasan Magazine as well as content produced by Al-Azaim’s official Uzbek wing.
Another major player on the dissemination side is the I’lam Foundation, which is a vast archive of official and pro-Islamic State propaganda in many languages, hosting a surface website and a DarkWeb platform. I’lam’s ‘About Us’ page makes its purpose clear: to offer publications “in various languages so that the benefits will spread wide, and the Islamic State’s message will reach the largest number of people possible.”
The Militant Wire research network first identified I’lam’s connections to ISKP’s Al-Azaim and Halummu in July 2022. Media representatives from Al-Azaim, Halummu, and I’lam Foundation were increasing their interactions on Telegram and sharing each other’s content and links on their respective channels. I’lam now gathers and publishes much of Fursan al-Tarjuma’s materials to archive and post all new content in a timely manner so IS supporters can access them upon release. It should be noted, however, that the group posted a message earlier this May, stating it has no formal ties to I’lam Foundation.
Analysis of these media channels illustrates how much more active Fursan al-Tarjuma are in comparison to IS Central. Fursan al-Tarjuma, through high-quality infographics and posters created by experienced propagandists, frames violent jihad as obligatory and encourages supporters to carry out attacks around the world. Though it will be difficult to gauge Fursan al-Tarjuma’s impact, the bolstered apparatuses and multilingual reach could result in boosted recruitment and fundraising, as well as incited attacks by autonomous cells and independent actors.
Fursan al-Tarjuma and the media networks under its coalition umbrella have proven difficult to counter, as the outlets are spread across many platforms and the propagandists are scattered across the world. There is talk on Fursan al-Tarjuma Telegram channels about Telegram cracking down on and banning related accounts, indicating the mutual awareness of both tech companies and Fursan al-Tarjuma. To counter Telegram’s crackdown, the group is advising supporters to subscribe to newly-created backup bots and channels. Tech companies should be aware of and prepared for Fursan al-Tarjuma’s adaptation strategies to avoid deplatforming.