July 8, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Murders the Messenger

• The Islamic State fears journalists as much as spies, as the group’s rule depends on those it controls having no competing options or voices

• Recent reports that the Islamic State murdered two men accused of nothing more than ‘activism’ is yet another example of the group’s monopoly on messaging

• The Islamic State reportedly beheaded a journalist this week in Mosul, a city where the group maintains Orwellian control over image and information

• One of the reasons the group’s social media campaigns are so widely consumed is that there is little to no competing reporting coming out of the cities under Islamic State control.


The Islamic State has no choice but to murder the messenger, given the nature of the message that journalists and activists carry from places such as Raqqa and Mosul. The Islamic State’s reports about services provided to the populations under its control—meant to portray them favorably when compared to the governments of Syria and Iraq—are as informative as reports of a worker’s paradise from North Korea. Simply put, there is little independent reporting coming from the lands under the sword of the Islamic State. The people that attempt to provide counter-reporting are doing so at extreme personal peril, and paying a horrific cost in order to document what is happening inside the so-called caliphate.

The conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State were indeed miserable, with both the Syrian and Iraqi governments abjectly failing their citizens in almost every way. But to compare oneself favorably to the Assad regime is to strain the meaning of comparison; the safest option is to limit all reporting of its rule to that which bears the official seal of the Islamic State.

To that end, since anointing itself a caliphate one year ago, the Islamic State has targeted three types of people above all others: religious minorities, including Shi’a, Christians, and Yazidis; potential spies or Sunni tribal opposition; and reporters of any kind. For a group that depends on controlling the message, killing the messenger has always been a key priority. Through high-profile executions such as that of American journalist James Foley last autumn, the group creates a fact-free zone that enables it to write the copy for a global press desperate for content and access.

Now, as the group faces its most serious and sustained pressure, from the Kurds in the north to the Shi’a militia in the south, it is again striking out at the press and anyone else bearing public witness to its rule. This week the group released a slow-motion video showing the murders of two young activists who had allegedly been reporting on the ground in Raqqa. There is some confusion as to whether or not the two men were working with one of the few groups reporting from inside Raqqa, known as 'Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently', which provides a unique insight into the realities of line inside the Islamic State's capital. The Islamic State has ended the age of the combat journalist, with no modern-day equivalent to World War II’s Ernie Pyle or Vietnam’s Bob Schieffer.

In addition to the murder of the Raqqa activists/reporters, the group beheaded a female journalist Suha Ahmed Radi in Mosul. There are few jobs on earth more dangerous, or more vital, than being a journalist in Mosul. Suha Ahmed Radi paid the ultimate price for trying to report what was happening in Mosul, a mission that cuts at the heart of the caliphate’s social media deception. While irregular electric power and some social services might be an improvement over the terribly low bar of previous dictators or would-be despots, the crucifixions and summary executions do not endear a local population so much as cower it.

By murdering all alternative voices, the Islamic State hopes to dominate the info-war that is a large part of the greater war between bin Ladinism and modernism. Journalists in Iraq and Syria are paying the ultimate price for trying to get the global media to pay less attention to official Islamic State propaganda and more to the less polished images of reality in the caliphate of fear. The war will not be won by messaging but it will be framed by it.


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