Let me ask you a question.
Would you, gentle reader, go off to join a group on the other side of the world, whose main distinguishing mark seems to be its penchant for hacking off heads on camera, or burning people alive?
What was your answer?
I am probably correct if I say that, even while you probably react to the suggestion with horror, you equally have not the slightest hesitation in identifying exactly which group I am talking about. It’s the Islamic State, alias ISIS. Right?
Well, actually, you’re wrong. I was talking about the Sinaloa drug cartel of Mexico, which also has a penchant for hacking off heads, gutting people with chainsaws, or burning them alive in oil drums. But why did you immediately imagine I was talking about ISIS?
It’s because of the relentless media coverage of ISIS, isn’t it? It’s because of the brand that is ISIS now, one which is immediately, at once, so recognisable that not only can it not be mistaken for anything else, others stand in danger of being mistaken for it? Just like all petroleum jelly is, in popular consciousness, “Vaseline”, all toothpaste, in India at least, “Colgate”, and all vacuum cleaners in Britain are “Hoovers”, all Islamic, or suspected Islamic, terrorism is “ISIS” now, am I right?
Why do you think this is so? Why has ISIS reached a level of mass identification, instant brand-name recognition if you will, which other outfits like al Qaeda can only dream of? It doesn’t happen just like that, and it certainly isn’t the level of brutality that determines its familiarity in the popular consciousness. The aforementioned Mexican drug cartels could certainly give ISIS a run for its money in terms of sadistic brutality; and even other Islamic groups like al Shabaab of Somalia are at least as viciously brutal as ISIS when it comes to the treatment of captives, and in some ways significantly worse. But who knows about them?
There is one obvious answer: marketing.
I assume that anyone who reads this article is familiar already with the highly theatrical execution videos ISIS routinely puts online and which usually appear on sites like LiveLeak or Heavy.com. As part of my self-imposed task of satirising ISIS on my comic strip and discussing them more seriously on my blog, I do watch these videos, and I have come to some conclusions about them:
1. They are of two broad categories, meant for very different audiences. One set is clearly made for dissemination in the West, and that is the type familiar to everyone, the one where prisoners in orange jumpsuits are made to kneel while knife-wielding men in ninja suits, such as the ludicrously named "Jihad John", harangue the viewer in impeccable English. At first, the ultimate demise of the prisoner would not be shown on camera, and this led to accusations, which in at least one case were undoubtedly accurate, that some or all of these videos were faked. Lately, the videos are actually beginning to show the full decapitations (or, in one recent case, death by tank tread), and I can assure you that they are anything but faked, and also that they are anything but easy watching.
However, the videos were, and are, remarkably theatrical, with carefully composed shots, multiple camera angles, often clearly made with multiple takes, and put together very slickly with fancy logos and music. The whole intent is to be eye catching, immediately recognisable theatre. One recent one I watched, for instance, was from Afghanistan, and this is what I had to say about it:
There seems to be a shortage of orange jumpsuits in Afghanistan. Maybe the CIA delivery channels are having problems with distribution.
However, there are obviously enough black-ninja-suit-wearing ISIS men with equestrian skills, enough horses, enough morning-mist-shrouded Afghan mountainsides, and enough Hollywood production to compensate.
Also, evidently beheading has palled as a method of execution. Blowing up people en masse with dynamite is the bold new way to go.
However, even that video had the victims blown to pieces and body parts bouncing around in front of the cameras. ISIS has apparently decided that it has to achieve a higher level of brutal realism to gain attention.
The second set of videos, which have not changed since they first came out, were meant very much not for Western consumption. There are no speeches, no fancy camera angles, no musical soundtrack, no jumpsuits, no ninja outfits, and the camera – often obviously a mobile phone camera or a hand held camcorder – does not discreetly move away when the knife comes down. The videos are exceedingly brutal, were always exceedingly brutal, and nobody, at any time, could have had the slightest doubt that they were genuine.
If the intent of the first set of videos was to gain attention and branding, the purpose of the second is much simpler: terrorisation of actual, real opponents – people whom the makers of the video could actually be fighting – and to break their morale and will to resist. In other words, it is actual terrorism, the application of fear as a weapon, indistinguishable in its object from what George W Bush had hoped to accomplish in Iraq with his Shock and Awe.
Do you get what I am talking about here? The purpose of the second set of videos is psychological warfare. The purpose of the first set of videos? Brand recognition, on as broad a level as possible, among as many people as possible.
In other words, they're advertisements.
In other words, they're advertisements.
|ISIS is coming to get you! Boo!|
2. The first set of videos could not have been made without at least some level of professional expertise, including studio editing, and, if we are to believe some alleged “experts”, with the use of green screen technology. Someone is obviously providing substantial software services. Who is this “someone”? Was this “someone” recruited by the ISIS Human Resources from among the best Hollywood has to offer? Only in a universe where the Easter Bunny has dinner with Santa Claus at the restaurant run by the Tooth Fairy would this make some kind of believable argument.
3. Also, I am not exactly convinced that any band of literal cutthroats and desperadoes in the desert of Iraq can just get hold of orange jumpsuits and black ninja outfits, enough to equip a whole line of hostages and an equal number of knife wielders. I live in a reasonably modern country with a reasonably modern market, and I doubt I could get hold of a jumpsuit, orange or otherwise, easily – let alone those spiffy all-black outfits, not to mention horses.
Therefore, the general run of videos that are presented to the West by ISIS are, first, made for publicity and brand recognition, and, second, depend heavily on the kind of slick direction and production that is the hallmark of the average feature film.
Then there is also the matter of the ISIS flag. I have said once before that
In the course of drawing this strip, I realised – somewhat belatedly – something I think worth mentioning. You know that – as in today’s episode – I have frequently had cause to draw ISIS flags. Have you ever thought about this ISIS flag? It’s interesting, for more reasons than are immediately apparent.
Or they can directly appeal to potential recruits with memes like this, which allegedly would make young men rush off to join:
You can add to this the ISIS magazine – yes, they have a magazine! – Dabiq; the alleged ISIS “currency”, mention of which was made on the so-called mainstream media before people realised it was too tall a story to swallow; and ISIS’ grandiose plans to take over everything between Spain to the western part of India, illustrated by a map. A map! Even I could draw a map saying that, say, Botswana is my personal property. Doesn’t make it so.
Now, I’m going to ask you all something: suppose you had a new start up company, which was desperate to make a mark on the public consciousness: what might it do to do so? What might a marketing professional advise it to do?
-Create a very distinctive profile, so characteristic that anyone can instantly identify it? How might it do that, in a market teeming with competitors? One answer – go further than them. Do the same things, but more brazenly, more eye-catchingly, so that people identify you with the action, not your competition?
-Create an instantly identifiable logo, so distinctive that, for example, even other, totally unrelated things might be mistaken for your logo, just on the basis of the colour alone? A beard club outing, for instance?
-Make what might be called a huge IPO on the stock market? Now, I am a dedicated opponent of capitalism, so I have never owned a share and never will, but as far as I’m aware, the value of a company on the stock market has little or nothing to do with its real value. It’s mostly what the perception of it is, what people think that matters. The stock market is a grand Ponzi scheme, in other words, one long endless boondoggle. So if people think your new company is big and powerful and the up and coming thing, your stock will rise through the roof, even if the reality is nothing like that. In fact, the more mythical your capabilities get, as long as people continue to swallow the claims, the further your stock will soar.
Putting these together, the whole public perception of ISIS becomes one of a marketing phenomenon, which has turned heads all over the world, and which has obscured what the group really is, or rather was (because, like any other animal, it’s a plastic, amorphous, evolving organism).
So what is ISIS?
Let’s get the first thing out of the way: the core ISIS, the one in Syria and Iraq, is not a guerrilla organisation. It’s a conventional fighting force, which tends to fight fully conventional campaigns, something which actually renders it extraordinarily vulnerable to any opponent with the weapons and desire to strike it. There is next to no reason why the US, for example, with its allegedly greatest military force in the history of the world, the country which turned Saddam Hussein’s army to slag, can’t knock out lines of Toyotas driving serenely through the desert...if it really wants to. Only, maybe it doesn’t.
Secondly, ISIS is, even as a conventional army, only a light infantry organisation. It has relatively little armour, artillery, or anything much in the way of air defence. It has no air force, no navy, no complex net of command and control (to have that third would be suicidal against any enemy with strong electronic warfare capabilities – command centres would be at once located and destroyed). As such, its fighting ability depends mostly on movement, tactics, and terrorising the enemy into fleeing...by, for instance, beheading prisoners, thus terrifying opponents by showing them exactly what will happen if they stay and fight.
As a military force, however, its abilities are strictly third grade against a powerful enemy. In comparison, I would like to cite the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE had a far greater level of control, armament, and organisation than ISIS has. It had not just artillery and a measure of popular support, but also a navy of speedboats and mini submarines, a worldwide fund collection and supply network, even an air force of Czech-made Zlin light aircraft converted for bombing. But even with all this, it was defeated and destroyed by the relatively tiny army of Sri Lanka, with almost no external help at all.
Can anyone explain why ISIS can’t be wiped out by an alleged international coalition while the much more heavily armed, equally fanatical, LTTE could be taken out by Sri Lanka alone?
Basically, then, ISIS is a light infantry force, which by all rights should have been destroyed a long time ago by the West, if it had really been interested in destroying it. Instead, it’s taken a space in the public consciousness as a kind of gigantic, unstoppable force of absolute evil and darkness, a kind of Orc army, against whom all hatches must be battened down, and everyone take to arms.
Really, and I mean this totally unironically, the ISIS marketing strategy should be taught in business schools. People could learn something from it.
But if the West isn’t interested in destroying ISIS, and if ISIS’ entire public image is an exercise in brand building, what does that mean?
The answer is obvious: build up a sufficiently evil opponent, a Black-and-White Peril if you will, and anything you do is all right in order to fight it. Suspend civil liberties, close down borders, declare martial law...invade and occupy nations on the other side of the planet...everything goes when it comes to fighting Absolute Evil of that magnitude.
Really, when you can create something like that, why would you ever want it to end? It’s the goose that lays the golden egg.
Now, there’s one very significant way in which ISIS has been dramatically more successful at drawing attention, even among Sunni Muslims, than al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, when all’s said and done, is a Sunni Arab organisation from West Asia with almost no members from anywhere else. Its appeal has never been particularly widespread, and other disaffected Muslim fundamentalist groups have preferred setting up their separate outfits rather than identify themselves with it. Even when they wanted to identify themselves with it, al Qaeda itself has often been chary of giving them official recognition. It’s like a very conservative, old style business.
ISIS, with its aggressive marketing strategy, has succeeded in unexpected ways. When Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared himself the Caliph Ibrahim, he also automatically declared himself Amir ul Momineen, that is, the Commander of the Faithful, whom it is every “true” Muslim’s religious duty to obey. At one stroke, therefore, he broke through the West Asian Sunni Arab straitjacket of al Qaeda and made himself, potentially, the king of all the world’s Muslims. No wonder that one of the groups that reacted with the greatest rage to this announcement was...al Qaeda.
I’ll explain what this means. In simple terms, no Muslim jihadist group now needs to carefully build up its own identity, an image for itself, and attract support. All it has to do is swear allegiance to ISIS, declare itself an affiliate of the organisation or part thereof, and it immediately is guaranteed of attention and even of recruits. Not everyone can spend money to travel all the way to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, and even if they want to, the very difficulty of the trip is often more than sufficient to squelch the dream and keep it in the realm of “if only...” But what if an ISIS franchise is right there next door – or you can set up one yourself?
How much does it cost to make those black flags anyway?
This is probably not what the people who had helped set up, arm, train and finance ISIS had anticipated. The franchise has broken the bounds of the intended market, and become so well known that exactly what happens to ultra-well-known consumer products like Reebok shoes or Louis Vuitton bags has happened to it.
In short, knockoffs.
At this point, it no longer really matters if the core ISIS is destroyed, for the survival of the brand. It does not even matter if the Caliph al Baghdadi is killed or is already dead or even if he never really existed. He’s become the Ronald McDonald, the Michelin Man, the Colonel Sanders...you get the idea. This is why ISIS is sprouting in countries as disparate as Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia.
Normally, then, one would anticipate a certain amount of disquiet, even incipient panic, in the capitals of the west; a desire to try and dial back the demons they unleashed. But there seems to be no such thing. Instead, they are intent on their farcical bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which seems to be more about destroying Syrian infrastructure and limiting Iranian influence than about fighting ISIS; and they’re gearing up further towards confronting Russia.
It would seem then that they think ISIS still has a lot of potential as a brand, one can still turn a dividend for stock holders.
I will close with this prediction: In two years’ time, at the most, we will hear talk of “moderate ISIS” the West can deal with, people who share “democratic values” and can be “partnered with.” We will see them being armed and trained, increasingly overtly, and unleashed on recalcitrant nations with Muslim populations around the world...like, oh, Russia or China, for example.
Don’t believe me? It’s already happened with the Taliban, it’s happened to al Qaeda.
With ISIS it’s as inevitable as the rising sun.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015