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Middle East

'The main message is revenge,' IS expert says

A video depicting the beheading of a US journalist is part of a highly professional media strategy by the "Islamic State," Islam expert Christoph Günther tells DW.

DW: The "Islamic State" (IS), previously known as ISIS, has published a video which purportedly depicts the beheading of US journalist James Foley. What was the message of this video?

Christoph Günther: The main message is revenge. The aesthetic presentation speaks a clear language. By dressing the victim in an orange jumpsuit like the detainees in Guantanamo, they're saying, "We are turning the tables on you."

The second message is one of deterrence: "If you use military force against us, then we will hit back with all means available to us. If need be, we will target all of your citizens that we can get our hands on: Journalists, employees of Western companies in the Kurdish region, and people who work for aid organizations."

What kind of media strategy is the 'IS' pursuing?

It is very broad. If you take a look at the group's forerunners going back to 2003, they first produced print publications and audio recordings, which were sometimes distributed as cassette tapes. In the past few years, the distribution of audiovisual material has greatly increased. Not only has the quality improved, but the content has also diversified. You still find videos of attacks, but not with bad resolution. In contrast, they are sometimes recorded by film teams from four different camera perspectives in high resolution.

In addition to these films, there are also videos that spread the group's ideology and justify why the "Islamic State" is necessary in the current era. People are introduced, fighters as well as civilians, that have played a role in the establishment of the "Islamic State."

In early propaganda videos from al Qaeda, romanticizing the comaraderie of the fighters played a major role.

That's also depicted by the "Islamic State": Fighters that gather to pray or recite verses together, but who also have fun with each other, laughing and swimming. Civilians are also depicted, both their suffering as well as events like children's parties or swimming trips organized by the jihadists. The message is that under the protective rule of the "Islamic State," a secure life is possible.

What are the main goals of their propaganda?

If you look back a couple of years, then the target group was above all young Arabic-speaking Muslims, who could search for the jihadists' publications on the Internet. Today, a very diverse audience is being targeted. They are no longer just trying to recruit future fighters, but also people who could help expand the group's structures: Academics and well-educated people are not expected to fight, but instead to contribute their knowledge to the project.

Christoph Günther, Islam expert at University of Leipzig

Christoph Günther

If the "Islamic State" is actually supposed to have the functions of a state, then it needs a bureaucratic apparatus, which requires educated personnel.

How important is the propaganda for recruiting in Europe?

It plays a major role, because they are looking to recruit people that they can send back as indoctrinated followers, who will then spread the ideology of the "Islamic State" further. The strategy is to gain ambassadors, who have grown up in the Western world and are well-acquainted with the culture.

What role does social media play?

An intense exchange and dialogue is taking place across social networks. This has served above all to strengthen the cohesion within the movement. A couple of years ago, Internet forums primarily filled this function. The use of social networks has expanded the reach of their media efforts.

How does the Al Hayat Media Center, the media arm of the IS, operate?

In principle, this media division works like every other news agency. Camera teams are assembled and news from different sources is evaluated, produced in a certain form and then published. Camera teams film fighters and document festivities, sermons or the work of Islamist courts. That means that the media division has superb technical capabilities and has accompanied the establishment of the "Islamic State," which it of course represents in a positive light.

You paint the picture of a highly professional and rational organization.

In the sense of rational action - if you use sociologist Max Weber's arguments - then this group is acting rationally, even through actions that one would characterize as irrational. This horrifying beheading video, for example, has the very rational purpose of deterring foreign enemies and consolidating power within the "Islamic State." Highly rational and strategic thinking lies behind the actions of the IS.

Christoph Günther is an Islam expert at the University of Leipzig. His research focuses on visual culture and social movements in the Arab-Islamic world. His dissertation, "A Second State in Mesopotamia? Genesis and Ideology of the 'Islamic State of Iraq,'" is available in German through the publisher Ergon-Verlag.

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