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Islamic State Uses Online Strategies To Get Its Message Out


When Islamist militants released a video showing the killing of American journalist James Foley this week, they were sending a message - warning the United States, which has been striking against them in Iraq. It was also part of their broader propaganda strategy - one that uses social media to directly reach the followers. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has more.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The self-proclaimed Islamic State has spent much of this year honing an online media strategy with two goals - their first, to intimidate religious and ideological enemies.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are no longer an insurgency. We are an Islamic army.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That the militant fighter who executed James Foley, and he threatened President Obama and the U.S. directly.


MAN: So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.

WILL MCCANTS: It seems to be of a piece with similar videos in the past.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Will McCants. He's in charge of the Project on U.S. Relations in the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, and he says the Foley video followed a familiar intimidation script terrorists have used to great effect in the past.

MCCANTS: With the orange jumpsuit, the man standing menacingly over him and then the gory end - these are the same kind of videos you saw coming out of Iraq in the middle of the last decade.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Terrorists have historically used horrific acts of violence as a way to threaten adversaries. Now they're taking advantage of social media and rapid communications to get their message out faster than ever before.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Unfortunately, I think ISIS is one of the prototypes of 21st century media strategies and communications.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman runs a national security program at Georgetown University. He says that even that the choices in the video show the group has considered how to tailor its message to a particular audience. One example - Hoffman says it's no accident that the executioner in the video speaks with a British accent.

HOFFMAN: That's - you know, this is a familiar voice or familiar accent transmitting this threat to us - was just meant to, you know, heighten our sense of horror an unease.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Will McCants of Brookings agrees. The choice of an executioner with a British accent was a very calculated one.

MCCANTS: It's to send a signal to the American people that, look, even your fellow English speakers despise you. And to scare the United States and the Obama administration that, hey, we've got Europeans here that don't need a visa to enter your country, and they're carrying out these horrific acts against your citizens. There's no reason we can't send them against you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So that's the Islamic State's first goal - to intimidate. The second goal is something that sets the Islamic State media team apart from its predecessors. The group is trying to reach out to local Sunni Muslims and even to convince fighters to move their families into occupied areas. So that's why McCants says there are gentler videos, too.

MCCANTS: The Islamic State produces a lot of videos that show them handing out dates and candy to kids, repairing electrical lines, taking care of sewage - that sort of thing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that message appears to be luring foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, if not directly into the Islamic State's ranks. Those foreign fighters aren't just coming from the Gulf states; they also include Europeans and Americans. Intelligence officials tell NPR that the number of Americans going to Syria has more than doubled since January. They say between 140 and 150 Americans are now thought to have traveled there. The British contingent is thought to be about twice the number. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.