Jihadi Selfies and the Thrill Kill Cult: The Evolution of AQ/ISIL Media Machine

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Jihadi selfies coverI. Introduction
There has been a revolutionary shift in the media usage of jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda ISIL, and its affiliates. Thirty years ago Jihadi terrorism was promoted via cassette and pamphlet. Today the modern terrorist who straps on a GoPro action sport camera, sets up to edit on an advanced laptop and rushes out to record it in a murder campaign. While the techniques may appear sophisticated due to the improved technology, the underlying methods, types of product and motivations remain constant over the past three decades of terrorism media.

Yet with the global extremist jihad transitioning from an underground al-Qaeda to an aboveground ISIL we’ve seen an dramatic advancement in how the message is disseminated and how it is gathered due to the power and ubiquity of the internet and free hosting of media worldwide. Terror media operations are more advanced only because we are in a more advanced tech world. This generation of jihadist is raised in a world filled with cinema graphic video games, action movies and the internet’s world reach. This also includes the expansion of affordable portable computing and telephony gadgets. The tools for terror have been upgraded in line with available consumer goods and this was always and will always be the case with the modern terrorist organizations.

The driving purposes of terror videos are determined by the message narrative that the group requires be retransmitted into the mainstream media.  Who is speaking, to whom they are speaking, what is the narrative they are trying to frame and what is the method of communication. For example, in the most sophisticated videos published by the al-Hayat Media center, the English driven voice of ISIL’s media system are directed at Muslims and non-Muslims in West and an educated global audience. English is the language of business and the second language of many countries but they carefully peppers each message with critical Islamic words and phrases that practicing Muslims should know and converts had better learn.  For non-Muslims this fuses the image of ISIL as a wholly Islamic organization without any context as to accuracy or deviance in their words.  For more than a decade each message was clearly scripted in al-Hayat publications indicating a significantly sizable team of dedicated staffers who understand the need for carefully crafting the narrative to the language they operate with. Thus they frame the message for the viewer in a cloak of piety and fear depending on who is watching.

The most sophisticated videos often have a singular message and may include acts of violence and charity mixed with calm religious dissection and justification.  The image created by al-Qaeda was of the Itinerant Jihadi “Knights” who travel the world fighting injustice.

While the news media in the west is often focused on the violent messages as an accent to heightening outrage.  AQ affiliates and ISIL have an industry-level understanding of the importance of filling the news cycle with what producers need and shoot video for just that purpose.  The suicide bombings, executions, burning and crucifixion are designed to enrage the West and bring about the Clash of Civilizations Osama Bin Laden designed for al-Qaeda to fight.  They need this outrage to justify their operational role as defenders of Islam in order to eventually coopt and control Islam.

However, the overwhelming majority of official terror media over the past three decades is internal propaganda aimed at recruiting new members into the group and bolstering the determination of the already indoctrinated members. These include religious rulings (Fatwas), discussions of law, sermons aimed directly at compelling the listener to feel guilty for their shortcomings before promising a salvation if they will renounce the world as they know it and enjoy the beauty of the Caliphate. In typical cult brainwashing style, isolation (called Hijrah or emigration) is employed to divide the target from family members who would stop them. Hijrah is described as the greatest of religious undertakings and no one should stop a prospective recruit, except God.  If one doesn’t speak Arabic the media services have translations built into the stream and immediate translation.


Foreign murder victims are paraded for show in ISIS’s al-Hayat productions (L), while Muslims are mass murdered without fanfare. (Liveleak) (R).


II. Terrorism as Spectacle: Welcome to the Thrill Kill Cult

In the most sophisticated videos published by the al-Hayat Media center, the English driven voice of ISIL, the narrative is designed to influence the global media and potential Western recruits.  However, the most popular videos are from unofficial publications, webstreams, forums and internal storage dumps.  They reveal a ‘Thrill Kill Cult’ (TKC) component within the entire al-Qaeda/ISIL ideological franchise.   The members make video-game like combat videos of merciless mayhem and bath them in a sacred mission rhetoric purposed by God alone.  To a man, and sometimes women, they use the phrase “We are on a mission rom God” to justify whatever horror they are about to reveal.  These videos are not just bragging but to allow the ‘cowards’ to bear witness to what the jihad is mentally strong enough to do with true devotion.  The TKC videos are almost always intended to inspire fear from the non-faithful and jealousy from the co-denominationalist viewer who has not yet shown the guts to come to join the murderous rampage.  Often they mock the viewers and claim that they are not men, but cowards who eventually must find the AQ/ISIL interpretation of Islam correct or die as the others.   This is a core cult-like component of recruitment. They appear to intone ‘Be a Man Among Men’ and add ‘… and Kill Anyone and Anything not Us!’  Many of the videos are so well shot they appear to have come from cut-scene videos in games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.  The TKC component of ISIL videos show off how ‘fun’ it is to kill Kufr (Infidels), Rafida (Apostates), Salibiyeen (Christian Crusaders) or just about anyone who opposes ISIL. The raw video that emerges on reality sites such as Liveleak show the bloody murder without any filter on the murder and mayhem.  The Thrill Kill Cult component of the terror videos exists within all jihadi groups from Yemen to Somalia to Nigeria and is a key component of inspiring the mentally weak, psychotic or fanatic to join the Jihad and become a fellow murderer for their variant of God.

The more videos one gathers from unofficial publications and actualities reveal the Thrill Kill Cult behavior within virtually all AQ/ISIL fighters.  Each aspect of the TKC component of the ideology is clear whether it is in Mali, Chad, Libya, Syria or Pakistan.  Each group performs in precisely the exact same manner on video and says virtually the same thing – they all extol the AQ derived ideology that allows them to massacre innocents with utter impunity.  In reality they want their compatriots to see that their videos show off how fun it is to kill anyone who is opposed them. This is in their eyes, the highest form of worship to God. This is why groups such as AQ and ISIL seek to control the distribution of the media at strategic level as often as possible. The raw footage that pops up on affiliate sites shows some jihadists behaving with hyena-like bloodlust which is not helpful to the strategic goals of the group.


Figure 1.0 Approximate visual of the formal organizations associated with AQ & ISIL media world-wide


III. Terror Media Production Units

Al-Qaeda organized the first widespread use of centralized professional media groups around As-Sahab media in the mid-1990s.  It is still strong and active.  While As-Sahab remains al-Qaida Central Command’s (AQC) official media wing and speaks with the voice of Bin Laden’s successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, it has steadily lost media share between 2011-2015 to ISIL in a majority of the latest official publications.

The heart and soul of the ISIL communications team is al-Furqan media.  It operates the currently popular al-Hayat Media center for non-Arabic communications and propaganda.

For all Jihadi communications groups the apparent system in use now has a few central production centers, followed by translation and repackaging centers.  These multimedia nodes are responsible for networked multiplatform information technology dissemination with subgroups monitoring, operating and posting on web forums, twitter, and other social media.

Reading the most popular forums and press releases shows that these groups are keen to avoid anyone modifying their work. al-Hayat and As Sahab remain the top generators of messages with Nusra Front following close behind. Releases are then funneled to translation services to specialize the messages and uploaded to the web at self-service storage sites.

Translation groups have been created to further propagate the group’s message including “INFORM” for Bosnians and Russians, “Global Islamic Media Front”, who formed Al-Qadisiyyah Media for Urdu, Hindi, Bangla, Pashtu, and Persian, and Fursan Al-Balagh Media, dedicated to translating to English.

We have categorized the three levels of video production thusly:

First Line Video – Body, Helmet or Weapon mounted cameras – The favorite camera of the fighting squads is the GoPro. Increasingly you can find first-person shooter footage appearing on sites like LiveLeak that resemble video games as the fighters raid villages. One popular video shows a tank with a GoPro mounted as it launches an attack on the Kurdish city of Kobane.

Second Line – Video Support Team (VSTs) – These are the one or two man teams pioneered by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that follow and shoot media like a military “Combat Camera” team. They never carry arms and exist solely to capture the footage for replay. Iraqi insurgents often co-located the VST with a suicide bomber supervisor who could also trigger the explosive by phone if the bomber backed out.

Third line – Professional Newsmedia Teams (PNTs) – These are high quality media shot digitally and produced in a large format facility such as a newsroom or dedicated media site. The John Cantile hostage news reports such as his report from Mosul souk used this format and camerawork.


Islamic State ban on Apple products

Islamic State ban on Apple products


IV. Messaging Typology: Issue Ideologically Sound Messages

Consistent with the history of terrorism propaganda, the majority of multimedia produced and distributed by AQ/ISIL involves a call to action to prove one’s faith. This tradition dates back through many movements to compel the viewer from one who watches to one who acts.

a. Maintenance of Narrative Control

There are hundreds of videos across the jihadist landscape. The tie that binds them all is the central message that the Islamic State or other jihad zones are the present utopias for all pious Muslims who emigrate from the land of the unbelievers.  Getting to the utopia requires leaving a state of ‘ignorance’ and understanding that the entire world except the AQ/ISIL occupied lands are unclean.

Additionally, the image of a pastoral religious paradise with real men fighting like Knights is spread through a quiet system of internal messaging in the ISIL/AQ franchise world.  “Mujatweets” are Twitter messages that are archived and compiled for the benefit of prospective Jihadis.  Mujatweets are generally hidden from the newsmedia and casual observers by dumping them into hidden folders.  Though AQ/ISIL are believed to have  issued over  90,000 Twitter messages a day the best and most representative for their media are kept from public view.  Most Mujatweets are usually completely pastoral presentations of how wonderful life is in the self-named ISIL Caliphate and how brave the ISIL Knights are to battle the entire world. On the other hand the newsmedia style reports from the British hostage John Centile, detailing how stable are the ISIL controlled cities such as Mosul and Ar-Raqqa, are shot in National Geographic documentary style segments and are slickly convincing.  The purpose of these media activities is to reflect a false image of a ‘nation” which is not locked in bitter combat but a paradise on Earth filled with images of cool water, a devoted Muslim community and laughing Mujahideen children filled with calm and stability. Additionally, they are designed to directly combat the Western message of a nation under aerial siege by the world’s forces.  To the conspiracy theorist mindset of many people in the internet world, these ISIL media have about equal weight to the reports from the BBC or CNN.

One of the last but no less important uses of these publications is to maintain control and unanimity in their jihad zone be it the ISL caliphate or the combat regions of AQ. This showed up best when it ISIL proclaimed itself the sole Islamic caliphate and government on earth.  Many groups were exhorted to line up and swear an oath of loyalty to the new Calife à la place du calife, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Cohesion of message is also seen in battlefield reports from the various district media centers that will proclaim that the enemies of monotheism have been conquered, repelled or wayward Muslims have confessed and are now ready to be part of the Islamic State.

Hostages and murder victims are also used in videos to validate the messaging. Hostage John Cantile, a British journalist was taken and allowed to “report” on the conditions in Mosul under ISIL. At one point an Iraqi aircraft flew overhead and he shouted on camera “Here I am. Drop your bombs. Try to rescue me again … Rubbish.” This was designed to show the viewer that Western forces were powerless with Cantile standing out on a street.

Hostages who do not survive captivity are made to give ‘Last Confession’ videos.  The victim is paraded before the camera to testify how  AQ/ISIL helped them find the way back to pure monotheism and redemption – then they are shot in the back of the head or beheaded. To a cultist group ideology, the blessing of God is graced the moment the victim confesses and the murder is an immediate reward for finding the way back to that God.  Not one iota of this is Islamic in any way but it works on video for the consuming terrorist audience.

This is a stark difference from the high polished propaganda videos of al-Hayat media shows a projection of false humility as if to be servants of God without ego. al-Hayat seeks to maintain a positive and powerful image. The loose individually shot footage shows an undisciplined gang. Organized footage seeks to portray discipline in the ranks while loose footage reveals harassment and lack of confidence in authority.

b. Demonstrate Projection of Power

First and foremost, the official media services of ISIS and al-Qaeda serve to project the constitution and viability of the organization on the world stage. The message is, “we are a force to be dealt with.” The viewer is then bombarded with the mashup of their video team operations and proclamations of gains and glory, especially in rewards that are in the future. The narrative is laden with more than simply apocalyptic messages meant to signify what these propagandists believe, they are telling you what they want you to believe.

To prove their viability, the regional offices of the jihadist news services often applaud each other or themselves for hard-fought campaigns by the enemies of the group. It is not unusual to see an al-Shabaab media group congratulate a Boko Haram operation or vice versa.  Within Syria the regional groups from one state will work to let each other know that the systems are working and life is normal in the Caliphate.



Amedy Coulibaly’s martyrdom video

c. Devotion Through Martyrdom Videos From the early on, ideology videos – filled with hyperbolic sermons and covered with chanting nasheed music, have been a cornerstone but one compelling tool used to recruit new members are martyrdom videos. They usually have the same format and are exploited in the same ways no matter which jihadi group issues it. The smaller video clips filmed by the attacker is later exploited by the media centers and leaders will use their names in calls to other fighters to stay dedicated to the groups mission. Without exception the young suicide bomber in martyrdom videos express unbridled joy about their coming death.

In the martyrdom video filmed by Amedy Coulibaly, you can read of his path, see him work out with focus, sit and be joyful at the prospect of his future in heaven, and then muffled footage of the raid that ended his life. Previously, al-Qaida operations like the 7/7 bombings in London had martyrdom videos Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer told their families that they would miss them. Whenever possible, particularly in post combat martyrdom videos, if the head or body can be recovered they face contorted and made to look like it is peaceful or that the martyr died happy and is smiling.  If the body or even just a hand is recovered they are posed and made to hold the forefinger up in the symbol of “One God.”

V. The Beheading Video Tradition Continues in High Definition

Despite the shock and aghast of the west, terrorists have documented their spectacles for decades now yet the news media struggles to cover the latest atrocity with this historical context. Instead, they fixate on the glossy nature of the image.

The first viral video was the beheading of a Russian soldier Yevgeny Rodionov in 1996 by Chechen jihadists. Six years later, The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl, would be released after he was murdered by al-Qaeda. Nick Berg was murdered by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in May 2004, over a decade ago followed by nine others including citizens of Japan, South Korea, Nepal, Egypt, Bulgaria, and UK. Each recorded and published for both shock value and recruiting device



The First Viral Video on the World Wide Web was of Russian soldier being beheaded-1996


a. ISIL Adaptiveness in the Beheading Genre The huge difference in response between the 2004 execution of Nick Berg, for instance, and the death of James Foley ten years later came by only adding a couple of changes to the original media style. First change was to the venue. ISIL conducted their murders outdoors in what they claimed was liberated lands in a holy caliphate. They showed no fear of being caught or attacked from the air. Zarqawis’ was in a basement and took the visage of a trapped rat. The ISIL video implied freedom to execute at will. Second, ISIL managed to get the victim to recite their message to the target audience, his people and leaders. Third use a native speaker from the victims region of the world. Using Mohammed Emwazi, or Jihadi john to speak in English and carry out the beheadings was powerful. Having him speak eloquent English and directly threaten the western world caused the level of political emotional outrage that the murder of Nick Berg did not.

b. Official vs Unofficial Beheadings & Murders on Video

Official beheadings were frowned upon by AQC after the globally negative impact of the Abu Mussab Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq  (AQI) videos of Nicholas Berg and other Western hostages in the first years of the Iraq insurgency.  In fact, the use of official beheading videos from AQI was suspended after 2004.  AQC knew that to lure more Arab recruits that mass murders could continue but not so publicly.  However, when ISIL transitioned to all-Iraqi leadership they wanted to restitute media spectacle as a form of Terror Shock value (TSV) in order to break and subjugate the will of the victim populations.  Additionally, luring the Americans back in to a conflict with the “Islamic State” would help as well.  So Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader is ISL re-instituted official beheadings of Westerners with the murder of journalist James Foley in 2014.

It should be noted that before the Foley video, there were already hundreds of beheadings happening in the Iraqi and Syrian region. Videos of beheadings, crucifixions, hangings and massacres abound on unfiltered sites like LiveLeak and similar sights but with zero mention often in western media. These were not official videos put out by al-Furqan for the polished presentation to the Western news stream but unofficial documentation and recruitment videos.  Each was unpolished handycam work revealing the gleeful pursuit of murders wrapped in the admiration of their handiwork.

There are also individuals acting as self-generating media centers without editors or middle-men to the AQ/ISIL publication services. They are similar in nature to the western “iReporter” theme.  Al-Furqan media tends to a carefully arranged message even if this means reshooting a scene over and over. The self-generating individual doesn’t have to wait for an editor to show that footage might not be gory enough, or where he forgot to remind the viewer there is only one God, or any number of requirements in official videos. Nor does he have to wait for the publication date because the clip can be uploaded the next time he’s near a working Wi-Fi. This lack of editorial control has become clear with ISIL leaders telling many supporters and combatants in the field to reign in unofficial video and to avoid giving away intelligence. Always wary of spying ISIL leaders recently released a declaration that Apple products may be used by NSA and Mossad to detect the whereabouts of leaders or units for attack by drone strike.

c. The Murder of Jordanian Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh
In the most controversial video to date, ISIL burned Jordanian captive alive in a cage while surrounded by fighters in ruins. From his capture on October 24, 2014, the pilot had been part of a negotiation with Jordan for release as a POW. ISIL released “Healing of the Believer’s Chests” in early February 2015. The murder was immediately condemned around the world. The pilot was killed in early January 2015 and yet ISIL sought to exchange him with Jordan for failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi. Al-Rishawi was in Jordanian prison awaiting execution. The reaction was swift retaliation by Jordan including both airstrikes and the immediate execution of Al-Rishawi and Ziad Khalaf al-Karbouly, another jihadist in Jordanian custody. The murder also began a shift in the engagement of the war on ISIL from the West alone to the Arab states taking the lead. Jordanian King Abdullah II announced he’d personally lead airstrikes in retaliation.

The teacher of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, an influential Salafist, claims that ISIL asked him to negotiate with Jordan for al-Rishawi’s release. Al-Maqdisi, real name Assem Barqawi, says ISIL lied to him before he went to negotiate with Jordan. He expressed outrage at their deception. Al-Maqdisi condemned the burning of al-Kaseasbeh as forbidden in Quran and a detriment to the entire jihadist movement.

The video was a combination source production that included war zone footage, a forced confession then murder of Jordanian pilot, concluding with a threat list on other Jordanian pilots and military leaders. The confession was shot in both a inside and outside shots intermixed with casualty footage. The inside shots were entirely against a black background with the prisoner in Gitmo orange with a layering of screens animating his confession. The animation is vector based requiring only intermediate skills in editing.

In the execution portion of the video, there is an opening shot of the pilot giving a forced confession leading into him standing in the ruins with a line of fighters keeping an eye on him with guns and fully covered faces. There is no film crew seen in the circular shot nor equipment that would lead to a film crew. The shot’s implication is that the pilot must face what he contributed to in ruins. Images are burst to indicate he is responsible for civilian deaths. There need be no more than 2-3 cameras used for this filming and it could be done without extensive media staff. The editing is staggered up until the point where the pilot is set on fire. The camera man came in relatively close to film the most gruesome portions. Unlike the beheading videos of the past where the beheading lasted seconds or was even omitted, this segment was nearly 1minute from ignition until dozer crushed cage with pilot.

The video concludes with a threat list on Jordanian pilots including GPS panels of headquarter locations and residents. The editor was less interested in the last clips as they become rushed and are increasingly shorter in length to the eye. The total length is 22: 34. The execution itself lasts 40seconds.

6. Tricks of the Trade for the Sophisticated Media Jihadist

Osama Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi all had to hide their production operations and despite a few familiar outside shots. They had to do most of their work in the shadows. Bin Laden used to have to summon a trusted videographer to come tape his latest lecture. It was also critical to the security of the group since Bin Laden had the famous Afghan warlord, Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated with a bomb in a video camera the day before 9/11 in order to hinder his assistance to the Americans. When the trusted videographers product was cut in a location far from the site of the shoot it would be disseminated via courier to the world. The methods were advanced for the day.

During the Iraq insurgency the Washington Post noted:

Zarqawi plans in secret

Analysts said that as-Sahab is outfitted with some of the best technology available. Editors and producers use ultralight Sony Vaio laptops and top-end video cameras. Files are protected using PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy, a virtually unbreakable form of encryption software that is also used by intelligence agencies around the world.

This changed when ISIL seized terrain. They were more readily interested in exploiting this opportunity with full scale media organizations and team operating in captured newsrooms. . They have seized cities with large scale television stations and production studios. They have seized all the electronic shops that sold cameras and gear. Essentially, they have all the tools needed to continue to produce their media on a grand scale until destroyed or overrun.

6.1. Go Smaller, Faster, Portable and Make Broadcast Ready Media

Casio F-91

Casio F-91

Between the founding of AQ, 1988 and year 2000, various forms of media were used to spread ideological message. The first form was the audio cassettes, which were ubiquitous South and Central Asia and Middle East. When secrecy was required the Casio (F-91) watch with memory was used by couriers to carry messages, fatwas and speeches. The pamphlets and self-published booked gave way to the audio cassette. By 1997, the DVD replaced other methods of media and was subsequently replaced by the World Wide Web. The storage media has evolved from cassettes, VHS, hi8, to smart cards, jump drives, and direct upload. Networking has moved from BBS boards to BlogSpot, Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress if not a standalone site.

When jihadism was still starting using infant personal computers with dot matrix texts on Bulletin board System forums (BBS) reigned the day. Online forums still have a strong presence on many jihadist sites and act as dump sites for video distribution.

Additionally, there are the file portals that contain hundreds of pdfs, mp3s and videos of jihadist activities. Videos speak much more clearly and are easy to find with a little digging. The reason the jihadist of the past didn’t upload photos or videos were due to the limitation of the technology of the time not the ambition of the jihadist himself. That is why the advent of the CD-R and the early World Wide Web changed the face of messaging.

There are many ways to record video now and post immediately to the web. Many jihadists want to avoid using cell phones to evade detection by authorities; however it is still a convenient way to record surreptitiously and propagate the footage for others to edit at a later time. Take the sim card out and operate only via Wi-Fi and they would be already harder to detect.

Easy to carry and mount GoPro

Easy to carry and mount GoPro

6.2  Use High Definition Cameras – The GoPro Generation

The shooting of video under al-Qaida used to involve Sonycams with tape cassettes in the 1990s. Today there are many different types of camera systems being used across the major jihadist video spectrum. Most of which are not level of quality found in al-Hayat publications but have enough digital quality for broadcast news.

Much of the first level combat footage shows fighters using GoPros action cameras, iPad styled Tablets, Phones and an array of digital cameras. Examination of all the official publications by al-Hayat Media has shown that the quality of the cameras has simply gone up as they have kept pace with the average technology any of us can use and render a quality product. Only that unit seems focused on the quality of the video because it is seeking to gain outside listeners to its message.

There still needs to be the trained eye to know the best methods of capturing images. Most of the footage indicates there are few quality videographers working for al-Furqan or As Sahab and none are working for the satellite groups like Boko Haram, AQAP or lesser groups.

6.3 Go pro and the Charlie Hebdo Attackers

In the Paris attacks of 2014, the attackers all had GoPro cameras in possession. Two years ago it was Medhi and Nemmouche and Mohamed Merah who also had GoPro 6ameras. Merah even had his strapped around his neck and wanted to have his footage be played on al-Jazeera.

The Kouachi brothers never opened their GoPro camera box according to police report.  That may indicate that the camera footage was an afterthought and they decided to carry out the attack and let the traditional media cover the result rather than try to survive and issue their own footage. On the other hand, Amedy Coulibaly in the kosher supermarket siege was pressing his hostages to upload video he had already filmed and edited on a laptop he had in possession. His video Soldat du Califat was in essence his martyrdom video. The laptop he had in his possession would tell us what software he used. We know he used a jump drive from GoPro to computer according to hostage accounts.

6.4 The Video Support Team vs Individual Videographer

The extensive use of VST (Video Support Teams) in most operations continues to this day but only in active war zones. We are seeing more and more self-driven first person shooter footage across the web portals we monitor. The ability to franchise the experience of adventure to a generation who grew up with the ability to play first person shooter war games is an obvious draw. This would also enable to the fighter to be more than simply a fighter in combat as they become part of the message making mechanism.

6.5 Render High Quality Editing

The quality of video has improved in most digital cameras over the past decade enabling even the most unskilled videographer to package a presentation that would make their family and coworkers happy. Simple editing suites are often included with the purchase of most cameras.

The camera is only part of the work. The editing is another. In the examination of several of the major videos published by al-Furqan Media, there are areas where the editing is rushed unnecessarily including bad edits in the November 16, 2014 video of Syrian soldiers and short edits in the Jordanian pilot video. In some cases, the frames listing the ISIL intended targets for attack were simply thrown in after the important names had been rendered.

6.6 Go Hollywood Style

The discussion in the media seems too often be focused on how advanced these operations are and whether professional filmmakers or PNTs are involved in the process. Al-Hayat products are called “Hollywood style” by most of the major media. While it may be easy to marvel at how advanced the techniques in these video productions may be, the videos examined so far could have been filmed with fewer than three cameras and edited on a standard laptop. The speculation about professional filmmakers assumes much about putting together a film. Most of the videos are raw combat footage mixed with PowerPoint or inserts. If al-Hayat created one ubiquitous intro file and simply passed it along, it would only have to be made once. Once branded, the rest of the media outlets could more readily propagate message instead of being caught up in the assembly of the message.


AfterEffects tutorial on creating fire. Free on YouTube to learn.

The average video clip usually last no longer than 15 minutes. The segments of Syrian soldiers being murdered or the Coptic Christians being murdered in Libya were shorter than 10 minutes total. To do this, clearly there were retakes and changes in angles. The percentage of videos that are well made is dwarfed by the mountains of boring, tripod mounted camera shots that still get published daily.

Despite speculation that the dozen or so high quality films were produced on complicated platforms like Avid, it is also possible that they were created via Adobe Premiere with AfterEffects or Sony Vegas. In the past, many jihadists would use Sony Vaio laptops to edit their video which leads me to suspect they are still PC based and likely using pirated software.

What is clear, the releases that are al-Farqan media all begin with the same Bismallah opening, “In the name of God most merciful most compassionate”, before shifting to a variety of qualities in playback ranging from first person actualities to highly orchestrated group settings.


7. Distribution

Unless maintaining the most rigorous operational security, foot couriers are no longer necessary with today’s online tools. Once footage has been completed, the array of options to disseminate the message exists now. With the launch of As-Sahab, AQ wanted to expand its voice and with al-Farqan ISIL has been doing the same thing. Now they have a plethora of online resources to distribute videos without need for a courier. Now most of the official mediaclips are readily available at Archive.org, a repository of clips that fit all categories of jihadist materials including video, pdf, and mp3s. MediaFire is a favorite for instant sharing of files.

Sites used by jihadists for propagating their message include Youtube, Liveleak, Dailymotion, Facebook, Vid.me, Archive.org, badongo.com, extabit.com, rapidspread.com, easyshare.com, 2shared.com, zshare.net to name but a few.

Encryption seems to only be for those who don’t want to be found downloading the material since the materials are often found without any protections in place on any number of download sites, supported by free blogs that host a repetitious updated links list to download sites. Many of these sites are readily geared to deal with copyright infringement but not with terrorism propaganda. Twitter and YouTube actively remove posts and pages but it only takes a few hours for another to pop up and republish the same material.

8. Conclusion

As the global jihadist groups continues to plan their next media operations, the Western news media continues to struggle finding its balance between covering terrorism and being a convenient tool for terrorist media operators to manipulate. Surprisingly western anchors live and work in advanced media studios but fail to relate to the home user who can also make elaborate films on the cheap. The spectacle distracts from the real message, that each of these groups wants to expand its base, recruit from abroad, and bolster its internal support. Cameras will continue to evolve. The trend in advancing technology explains most of the advances in production quality. The seizure of cities and their media resources explains the rest. Without the spectacle, terrorism would simply be violence without a voice. The West continues to assume that ISIL/AQ are cavemen unable to operate consumer grade equipment. However, the technology associated with jihadist terrorism media is only as advanced as the modern consumer age permits. Jihadist media will likely continue to expand in correlation to the areas of technology’s incremental advances. Though some of the most notable videos published today come in high resolution, the vast majority do not. Despite the advances in technology, most of the content published currently is less than professional. The items which seem highly professional can be produced on affordable equipment. Some groups control entire television stations. Today’s digital tools allow for quick and prolific distribution compared to the audio cassette via courier method of decades ago. However, the reality is that the modern terrorist can be his own terror cell, logistic team and media relations center.