TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Tries to Act Like a State
September 19, 2014

The Islamic State Tries to Act Like a State


Bottom Line Up Front:

• The so-called Islamic State has made some significant changes to its propaganda efforts, seeking to portray itself as a rational state actor

• Completely different than its other hostage videos, the group released a video of British hostage John Cantlie in which he seeks a dialogue with viewers over several “programs” to avoid “the abyss of another war with the Islamic State”

• The group is seeking to sow doubt or at least apathy among those suspicious of traditional media by presenting a reasonable face to the group, and thereby lessen support for increased military action against IS

• The group is also highlighting its de facto status as a governing state, posting a polished photo gallery of its uniformed police force in Mosul, showing its members as they ‘serve and protect.’


In an effort to weaken popular support for increased Western-backed military action against it, the so-called Islamic State (IS) is trying a new tactic in its use of social media, one quite different than its previous efforts. The group seeks to present itself as a rational actor deserving of the title “state,” and has posted an altogether different kind of hostage video as part of the presentation. The previous three Western hostage videos were designed to enrage and terrorize, and the growing Western push for increased military action against IS shows the videos had at least done the former, if not the latter.

IS showed no interest in dialogue in the first three videos; quite the opposite, the videos were simply high-production value performances, designed to taunt the US and UK. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron were mentioned by name, with the citizens they represent going unmentioned. Either the group misread Western politics and thought the videos would scare the West into inaction, or it hoped it would provoke the West into rash action. Either way, the sweeping dramatic background was intended to separate the viewer from the scene.


However, IS’s latest video, posted across YouTube yesterday, September 18, represents an entirely different approach. In a video entitled “Lend Me Your Ears,” British hostage John Cantlie is sitting at a table and speaks not to politicians but directly to Western citizens who might be skeptical of traditional media as well as tired of war. He directly acknowledges that he is under duress but then pivots to discuss what he describes as Western media’s push for another war with the Islamic State. He doesn’t rush to cover all of the usual talking points; in fact, he goes out of his way not to, saying that he hopes to talk to the viewers over numerous programs to come. The use of multiple camera angles while Cantlie talks at a simple table is designed to create an intimacy with the viewer and a conversational atmosphere, however horrible the backstory.

The video is not designed to show the power and brutality of IS but rather to create the slightest doubt in the viewer’s mind. IS knows some version of war is coming and it wants to weaken support for such action in the West, even if it can’t strengthen its support there. It’s indicative of a learning organization that IS understands there needs to be different approaches for different audiences, and that no one style will work across the board.


In keeping with its desire to be seen as a rational state actor, IS has also posted a polished photo gallery of IS uniformed police in Mosul. The IS police has changed the uniforms of the old force but kept the M-4 and M-16 rifles, as well as patrol cars and boats, provided by the US to the Iraqi police years ago. In an Arabic-language document uploaded to justpaste.it—the file-sharing site used heavily by IS—the new police are seen interacting with the public, directing traffic, and even patrolling the river.

The photos interestingly show a mix of old and young men engaged in ‘IS police work,’ without masks or aggressive poses. The text of the document reaches back to the earliest days of Islam, and the first Islamic police force of Muslims to protect Muslims. Such a mixing of modern media with ancient themes is consistent with IS efforts to wrap itself in religious history and thereby make its claim of a caliphate slightly less ludicrous.