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Ruthless marketing of ISIL: “The caliphate” business project and pyramids of terror

No matter how the world has responded to the Paris terror attacks, the “Islamic State” (a terrorist organization banned in Russia – EADaily) has won. There will be more air strikes at targets of the militants in Syria and Iraq and more support to the land operations… Brilliant! The rightwing sentiments have grown in Europe and security measures have been toughened…That’s precisely the point! Not a shade of doubt that ISIL is the devil incarnate…Great!

We perceive the “Islamic State” as modern-day barbarians. In fact, ISIL is more like a commercial enterprise with its clear marketing strategy where even mass executions are of economic importance. The calls for Jihad and ‘Caliphate’ are rather a tagline rather than a goal.  ISIL ideologists as the best students of the best business schools follow the Western tactics and strategies and use the reality that cannot be changed even in a year. It appears that the civilized world was not ready for that. Western analysts admit that the battle has been lost so far.

Earnest pupils

Before 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) little differed from the other Jihadist groups. Created with the support of Al Qaeda, ISIL was to war for the worldwide caliphate in Iraq. However, last year, the group spiraled out of control of the “senior” brothers and seized Mosul packed with money and weapons. The story of a different “Islamic State” (IS) started from that very moment. In one and a half year, the militants seized the one third of Iraq, Syria, created an army of dozens of thousands of Jihadists and built their own full-fledged “caliphate.” No Islamic group in contemporary history has managed to do so. Even Al Qaeda ended up with nothing, turning from the driving force of Jihadism into a defeated rival at its own surprise.   Practice showed that non-recognition of the “Islamic State” by most of clerics, infringement of the Islam’s norms even from the viewpoint of the Islamic fundamentalists, and reserving a right to establish a “caliphate” are not arguments.  Marketing on the Western templates proved much stronger a weapon than surah and fatwas. After all, besides Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Yemen, Somali, the sticky fingers of the “Islamic State” reached even Al Qaeda’s inviolable sanctuary Afghanistan. Even Taliban that resisted the pressure of U.S. has split by its attitude to ISIL. Prosaically, even in the outlandish mountain villages they love the winners.

ISIL reached the successes that seemed incredible to Jihadists as if it acted on business manuals. ISIL has successfully “taken” part of the market in Iraq for a successful start. Seizing Mosul, in Iraq, the “Islamic State” gained the support of the local Sunni tribes discontented at the Shia government. Oil fields and rich banks, arms depots, several millions of residents became a base territory for the militants in the region where the “Islamic State” started increasing its share on the market. The hatred of the West and the Middle East countries towards Bashar al-Assad was so strong that ISIL inherently got away with the expansion into Syria. And a good marketing helped it raise more resources. Thousands of Jihadists that rushed to the “Islamic State” created more sensation in the press rather than in the governments. A high-ranking officer of U.S. intelligence told Reuters that the governments of the Western countries were even happy that radicals leave their countries. As ISIL did not declare about its plans of global expansion then and did not organize terror attacks, U.S.  just made a series of air strikes that was not a deadly blow for the mobile groups of the militants.

Contradictory attitude to the situation in Syria by its neighbors enabled ISIL ideologists to use them as allies, though temporary. It is no secret that Turkey connived at the transit of the militants via the country and even helped them if they attacked Kurdish positions. Middle East countries that comprise many Sunni clans and dislike the Alawite Assad – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – became one of the funders and arms suppliers of the militants.  ISIL refrained from bloody battles with Syrian troops leaving it to Al Qaeda and other “moderate oppositionist-terrorists.” Therefore, Russia first attacked the targets that constitute threat to the position of the government troops. By that time, the Islamic State has saved its strengths and money and started expanding into new market – still local markets not to irritate powerful actors: into the countries torn by religious wars and Islamic fanatics.  It may sound cynical, but the terror attacks in Paris were the third stage of ISIL’s “development”.  Expansion into developed countries where already millions of Muslims live now can be called suicidal considering the possible backward reaction, but quite logical from the viewpoint of business and the reality Europe has found itself in.

“Buy jihad and caliphate”

Beheadings, mass executions, including by running over with tanks, all this has shocked millions, but made ISIL known everywhere on the Earth, with its black flags with Arabic script and balaclava masks becoming a universal brand. They post video footage of executions on the web and make them discussed in social media, mass media, kitchens. The Brookings institution calls this a marketing campaign that attracts the maximum amount of viewers with the minimum amount of effort.  And it’s much more than that. “The burnings, beheadings, and torture are really hard to look at, but we're not the [target] audience. The brutality works in their favor because it proves their effectiveness. The darker the images, the more obvious the void or lack of someone preventing them,” Jason Smith, creative director for Magnetry, told BBC. In the light of the defeats of even the Middle East countries in geopolitical games, ISIL’s success impresses the Muslims who might be susceptible to radicalization.

For most of the non-Muslim inhabitants, the introduction with the ISIL ends in brutal executions. In fact, those executions account for only 2% of the “Islamic State’s” media campaign. Muslims that rise to ISIL’s bite, plunge into a different world where “caliphate” is not a dream, but reality. ISIL has established a state within a few months with a powerful propaganda machine.  According to the Brookings institution,  the “Islamic State” has up to 5,000 accounts on Twitter alone.  These accounts are blocked, but new ones are created instead.

ISIL’s publicity wing, al-Hayat Media Center, is not just promoting ISIL in social media. The Center has a professional TV studio, TV channels and radio stations. It even issues computer games, mobile apps and a glamour magazine Dabiq.  It was once sold on Amazon and is a fully illustrated magazine telling among others about how to keep weapons the right way. CNN was reluctant to admit that the quality of ISIL’s documentaries is as good as the ones shot in Hollywood.

No matter what in fact happens inside ISIL’s “caliphate.” Few return from there. How it looks virtually – that’s the matter. The powerful propaganda machine of the “Islamic State” finds a customized approach to everyone in the outside world. It is the only source of information inside the “caliphate.” By data of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank, a total of 1146 separate events – discrete batches of ISIL’s propaganda – were recorded in a month: a mixture of photo essays, videos, audio statements, news bulletins, posters, theological essays, and so on - about 40 events a day. Information is disseminated in 6 languages: Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, French, and English.

Over half of all the propaganda was focused on depicting civilian life in Islamic State-held territories. The narrative is refined into 7 subsets: religion, economic activity, social life, justice, governance, expansion, Sharia rules. The content streams videos of children playing or photo reports of young people getting married – utopian events are of existential importance to the group. For instance, children are playing at an entertaining center and swimming in a pool while adults are engaged in charity. In Mosul, people are restoring trade after airstrikes. In Fallujah, they are distributing newspapers. In Tall Afar, they are laying asphalt, organizing telephone lines and confiscating cigarettes. Reports about military successes and army life account for one third of the content. Another important part of the propaganda is martyrdom: militants killed for jihad or the civilians that are allegedly in Paradise after U.S. and Russia’s air strikes.

The ISIL’s propaganda has a target audience.  Even video footages of brutal executions have their key target audience. For instance, they are intended for the Sunnites living in Syria and Iraq or possible deserters. They show what happens to those who cast a doubt on the legitimacy of the Islamic State.

Islamic “MMM” (Ponzi scheme)

Much has been written about ISIL business: starting from illicit trading in oil from the seized fields up to taxes and ransom for hostages. Jihadists have enough money for marketing and for hiring the people who will do it for them.  Who are those people? It is obvious that among them there are many foreigners. Dozens of thousands of foreigners have joined ISIL since the moment it emerged. Perhaps, this is the major success of the pseudo-jihadists. By official data of The National Counter Terrorism Center (USA), nearly 4,000 Europeans and Americans have joined ISIL. These are only official data. The “Islamic State” offered the radical Islamists what others did not: mansions, cars, money. The IS promised them welfare, not just paradise and imaginary prospects after Jihad like Al Qaeda does.

Many analysts say ISIL has one more factor of success in recruiting foreigners. The ideologists of the “Islamic State” have offered everyone who might feel marginalized in the world to become part of the “revolutionary brotherhood.” If you fail to find yourself, you are lonely and a hurting unit, you will become part of the revolution, you will find understanding and a chance to make your contribution to the world history by joining the “Islamic State.” 

"To many young men who feel like their current life is purposeless, this tells them that they can do something," Anna Bedineishvili, a strategic planner at Pereira & O'Dell, a marketing agency in New York City, told BBC. "They can be someone and play a meaningful role in a glamorized apocalyptic battle."

The stream video and photo reports of how militants smile, make charity, warmly welcome the newcomers. People no longer read books and ISIL does not “burden” the audience with texts and surah. Everything is plain, easy and clear: more photos and videos and a customized approach.

"There are units of specialized recruiters operating around the clock from internet cafes in Iraq and Syria, interacting on an individual level with prospective recruits," Henry Tuck, program coordinator for Extreme Dialogue at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News. "Content is expertly tailored to specific audiences in multiple languages, with propaganda aimed at women, converts to Islam, and even certain professions."

Therefore, it is not surprising that the flow of foreign-Muslims to ISIL does not stop.  Even Al Qaeda has nothing to put up against the pseudo Jihadists. These two have quite different levels of propaganda. Few believe in the stories about how new-comers are used as cannon fodder in combat assaults and have to pay bribes to become a Shakhid. Meantime, Al Qaeda continues losing its supporters. For instance, its most recent squabble with ISIL happened after part of the clerics from Dagestan joined ISIL. Generally speaking, a choice between Al Qaeda and ISIL is a choice of an insecure borrower between a bank and MMM (a Russian Ponzi scheme company).  Al Qaeda like a bank offers a man who hopes for a miracle a dollar for a cent and a million in the next century. The “Islamic State” like MMM offers everything and now.

Stakes are rising

The way the “Islamic State” has developed rapidly using the weak points of the major geopolitical actors is impressive.  It is a running story that will be even more impressive.  ISIL’s marketing strategy is raising stakes.  As Russia launched air strikes in Syria, ISIL became the past Islamic group to declare jihad to Russia. It was a blunder for ISIL as business-project.  The Russian plane downing over Sinai, terror attacks in Paris and Beirut became an unprecedented “PR campaign” for ISIL. Yet the retaliation may be crucial, and the ISIL “marketers” could not reckon with it.  Actually, they think the Big Powers will hardly risk launching a land operation. Neither will they unite forgetting mutual distrust.  Otherwise, there will get more victims and large-scale public protests. Will anti-Islamic sentiments grow in Europe? It will just radicalize the local Muslims.  One of the EU’s major problems is millions of the local faithful believers who poorly integrate into the European public. More and more people feel marginalized and join ISIL.  Therefore, the future of about one million of the newly arrived refugees from the Islamic countries is even more obscure. Apparently, ISIL will try to find a place there and shift to a new level of “marketing” strategy.  The question is whether the world will be able to give an adequate response. At least, it was put in black and white in all business manuals long ago.

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