ISIS: How Important Is The Look and Where Did It Come From ?

I have seen more campaigner chatter about the ice-bucket challenge than about ISIS.  Yet if there was a current communications phenomenon that is making serious waves, the social media reach of terror group ISIS is surely it.

ISIS Reuters two men

In Britain there has been understandable concern that ISIS has inspired over 60,000 supportive social media accounts this summer, and alarm at the claim that in recent years, more young British Moslems had gone to join Jihad in Syria than had joined the army.

Many analysts and commentators have pointed to the “media savvy” of ISIS.  Some have identified its ‘marketing war’ with the older Al Quaeda.  For instance Jim Armitage who wrote in The Guardian, ‘Isis is refining terrorist marketing … they know all about corporate branding in war zones’.   Salience and recruiting support are presumably the two key metrics.

As well as drawing analogies with brand battles in business, there is an erudite literature about importance of Islamic ‘narratives’ and ‘Master Narratives’ in forming the stories that sustain ISIS and other Jihadist groups but despite the very visual nature of social media, little attention seems to have been devoted to the ISIS ‘visuals’.  Perhaps fashion seems too flippant to consider when innocent people are being slaughtered and journalists beheaded ?   Yet if ‘jihadi cool’ is important, what ISIS looks like may be very important.

Most press analysis focuses on the politics and hardware. ‘As The US Strikes At ISIS, Here’s A Look At What The Jihadists Have In Their Arsenal’ said Business Insider.  Maybe we should also look at what’s in their wardrobe ?

Any Colour So Long As It’s Black ?

AP march isis The most obvious thing is that ISIS has black clothes, masks, and black flags with white writing on them.  There are whole books on the use of symbols by insurgent groups but more important for their power to recruit from afar (people from over 80 countries are said to be active with ISIS) is how the overall communications ‘package’ registers with potential sympathisers.

Black and white is graphic.  The look is instantly recognizable, and its use is clearly controlled, in set piece marches such as these in The Independent and on the BBC and in set up shots such as this AP photo of a convoy reproduced in The Guardian.

ISIS convoy

It also comes in handy when the flag doubles as a banner.  But is it cool ?  With the atrocities dulled by the distance of time, many writers have noted that the Nazis looked ‘cool’.   In 2005 even Prince Harry had to apologize for wearing a Nazi army shirt to a party.   Designer Hugo Boss became notorious for having made Nazi uniforms, and Walter Heck who worked for him, helped design the iconic black and white SS uniform.

ss uniform The Nazis espoused futuristic technology and power which created now embarrassing links with companies such as Bayer, Siemens, IBM and VW but most notably, Hugo Boss.    A article ‘Third Reich to Fortune 500: Five Popular Brands the Nazis Gave Us’, which has been viewed three million times, notes  ‘while today Boss uses black for slimming effects, in the SS uniforms it was used to command respect and fear in the populace’.  Nazi style was later picked up and played with by punks, incorporated into fetish fashion and has been parodied and copied countless times, from fashion to the Stormtroopers and  Imperial Officers of Star Wars.

imperial officers

Black has had its own separate fashion journey but with the context, purpose and allusions to taking and exerting power and control, the choreographed use of black and white by the Nazis and ISIS seem more than a little coincidental.  Below: ISIS and a SS tank general.

ISIS TankSStankgeneral

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

Chief Nazi propagandist Herman Goebells was no slouch when it came to organising events for visual communication, as shown most famously in the film The Triumph of the Will, which Hitler persuaded Leni Riefenstahl  to make.   Cinema newsreel was the most powerful propaganda medium of the day but social-media uses video, twitter, facebook and the like.  Several other Middle Eastern organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas use partly black uniforms but none of them seem have attracted foreign online support like ISIS.

Nobody knows, or nobody is saying, who might have inspired ISIS from the world of online but it seems likely that their digital strategists have looked at successful online campaigns, commercial and otherwise, which have appealed to other young, ‘Western’ audiences.

One of the most widely discussed of these was ‘Stop Kony’ by Invisible Children.  In 2012 this became the most successful viral video campaign in history, inspiring admiration at its techniques as well as a slew of questions and criticisms.

kony poster

The Most Successful Online Campaign ?

I analysed the motivational structure of the Stop Kony campaign in a previous post and more on that below but there are some striking visual similarities between some of IC’s promotional videos and the ISIS, not to mention between some IC visuals and those of Nazi rallies.  Of course IC are neither Nazi nor Islamic Jihadists – they are evangelical Chrsitians – and Stop Kony was a campaign to capture a notorious human rights abuser, not a campaign causing human rights abuses but their cultish communication, some would say propaganda, has similar visual elements.



Triumph salute 1Third Reich (Triumph of the Will)

IC arms up

Fourth Estate (IC)

Fourth Estate

IC vans on desert road ISIS convoy


IC has used music videos for campaign recruitment,  such as Blazing Trails 2007 which shows triumphant IC supporters riding a fleet of glossy black people carriers emblazoned with white graphics, frantically air-guitaring to Kings of Cydonia by Muse.

IC vans forward IC wrote in 2007: ‘Thirteen black vans, filled with teams of four, are driving an uprising across America’.

IC shirts

After viewing Stop Kony and IC recruitment videos about the ‘Fourth Estate’, UK TV host Charlie Brooker commented on Channel 4:  “In summary, Invisible Children are expert propagandists with what seems to be a covert religious agenda, advocating military action in central Africa, while similtaneously recruiting an “army” of young people to join their cause and their weird “Fourth Estate” youth camps… ”

IC on vans 1

IC women on vanIC blazing still girl


What’s The Appeal ?

With apparently opposite agendas but similar audiences (mainly young, mainly online), can there be any similarities between the communications of groups like ISIS and IC ?  A lot of evidence suggests there is, and it’s motivational needs rather than just age or the medium which defines them.

IC effectively made human rights into a movie (and previously a dance video – now deleted from its website but viewable in part in the Brooker piece).  Patrick Skinner, analyst with security intelligence services company Soufan, says ISIS aims to reach specific demographic groups and in the West, they try to make jihad seem like a Hollywood-like video game.

“They make jihad seem cool, not over the top – beheading videos aren’t recruitment videos – but they do do very slick productions, with music overlaid on top of very slick graphics, and they make it seem like a video game. They don’t show the after effects. They’ll show an attack or they’ll show a killing, or they’ll show shooting with explosions, and it’s very Hollywood-like,” says Skinner.  Apparently ISIS also shows Jihadists with kittens and sweets in order to ‘humanize’ its fighters for the intended audience.

More importantly, both groups offer an apparently simple, attractive way to gain power over others, and a story about why it’s the right thing to do.  We are going to ‘change the course of human history’ Jason Russell tells the audience in the Stop Kony video.  The decades long struggle for human rights is reduced to mobilising to capture or maybe kill, one man.   We are not joining a long campaign, having to negotiate or to study history, we ‘are changing it’.

This is classic Golden Dreamer content (see guide to Prospector Values Modes at ): we will gain the esteem of others with one simple easy act.  Caliphate or the Fourth Estate, we will create a promised land.

Raffaello Pantucci, from the Royal United Services Institute, has said idealism, fleeing trouble at home, seeking redemption for a criminal past and religious vision may all be factors for ISIS recruits. “And yet”, he added, “others are simply young people at a juncture in their lives where the idea of going to run around a training camp and shooting guns seems quite appealing.”  Germany’s Head of security has suggested   ‘some young people are attracted to Isis because of its brutality, which makes it appear “more authentic” than al-Qa’ida’.

In a recent post, Pat Dade from Cultural Dynamics has analyzed population-wide psychological data from four countries to compare commitment to religion with the appeal of using force to ‘get what you want’.  He writes:  ‘in each case, we have found only a small percentage that espouses the combined ‘religious-force’ factor within the culture. These …  will likely be regarded as outliers and aberrant by the standards of the culture in which they are embedded’.  His ‘working hypothesis’ drawn from the evidence is that “given the right (not necessarily extreme) circumstances, Force will trump Religion”.

The psychological group he is talking about is a (subset of) the Golden Dreamers, people moving from Settler (Security Driven) to Prospector (Outer Directed or Esteem Driven).  This group has strong identity and esteem requirements and scores higher than others on factors such as the desire to have power  ‘over others, over things, over ideas’.

Dade also analyzed the motivation to riot, in the case of the 2011 UK “shopping riots”.  He noted “Apart from the extreme youth of many of the participants, commentators and analysts have struggled without success to find a ‘demographic’ base for the majority of participants”.

Amongst hundreds of questions put to thousands of British respondents he used four to charcaterize an ‘Attribute’ termed ‘Asocial’.  The four statements that correlate and make up the Asocial Attribute are:

  • If someone does me a bad turn, I don’t get mad – I get even
  • The thought of social disorder excites me
  • I look for people’s weak points
  • I would enjoy being involved in a street riot

(The survey measured agree-disagree on a five point scale).  This overlaps with just the same Golden Dreamer area of motivational values (see links above), where in his words, “The old rules that provided stability now seem oppressive and stifling.  A new world beckons, a Prospector world, one where anything is possible.  As bounded and accepted morality frays around the edges new, multiple possibilities for recognition by others and rewards for social displays of prowess emerge and drive an excitement with life not previously experienced. Anything and everything is possible and only the experience of trying new forms of behaviour will enable the person to know what is best for them. No amount of moralizing will stop the person in [this] Danger Zone from doing or thinking what they want to ‘right now’.”

Which could be leaving a comfortable suburb to join a foreign Jihad because it looks cool or simply X-box style ‘fun’, or opting into a riot, or opting into the Fourth Estate.

Looking for Certainties

Many commentators who obviously do not share such motivational values see what people in such groups are doing and call them ‘extremists’ rather than ‘moderates’ but although their actions are extreme to us, to the followers they may look more like purity, authenticity or truthfulness.   They may quite literally be looking for and finding a simpler, black and white, uber-certain version of reality, as well as winning status within their group.

A Mother Jones article by Chris Mooney,  ‘Here Are the Psychological Reasons Why an American Might Join ISIS’ quotes Maryland University Professor Arie Kruglanski who has interviewed and studied the way a large number of terrorists see the world.  He pinpoints a high need for ‘cognitive closure’, which Mooney describes as ‘a disposition that leads to an overwhelming desire for certainty, order, and structure in one’s life to relieve the sensation of gnawing—often existential—doubt and uncertainty’.

“These extreme ideologies have a twofold type of appeal,” says Kruglanski “First of all, they are very coherent, black and white, right or wrong. Secondly, they afford the possibility of becoming very unique, and part of a larger whole.”   This he says, attracts young people who lack a clear sense of self-identity, and are craving a sense of larger significance. ‘If you go through the world needing closure’, writes Mooney, it predisposes you to seek out the ideologies and belief systems that most provide it.

It is perhaps this which is the common thread of appeal in Nazi, IC and ISIS ‘messages’, and the lure of many other fundamentalist propositions.  These could even be ‘extreme’ animal rights and other ‘issue’ activists, or ‘extreme’ right-wing, left-wing political groups, while in business it can drive the ‘wolves’ of Wall Street and ’extreme’ predatory captialism.  Causes which demand total devotion and commitment to the cause, and corporations which demand total devotion and commitment to the cause, may be very different in their impacts on society but not so different in their motivations.

Postscript: since I began writing this post I came across the ‘Burn ISIS flag challenge‘ (#BurnISISFlagChallenge), seemingly started by Moslems outraged by the actions of ISIS, it rolls the Ice Bucket Challenge into the bloodbath of Levant.  It is unlikely to make much impact on ISIS but it could triangulate the public discussion, and in particular the visuals, and might just be the sort of thing to give potential recruits cause to think twice.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *