As U.S. officials admitted to the New York Times on Friday that ISIS continues to win the war of words, news broke that the radical Islamic terrorists were stepping up their propaganda machine by launching a 24 hour a day radio station.
"We thank our listeners for tuning in and present the following Islamic State news bulletin," is what listeners hear when they tune into the “Al-Bayan” radio network, which launched in Mosul on April 7th and now covers most of ISIS' territory. The station is broadcast in Arabic, Kurdish, English, French and Russian languages.
Delivered in a smooth, American male voice, the English-language newscast starts with “a glimpse of the main headlines” and is followed by updates from the “wilayats” (Arabic for “states”) of ISIS while providing details on “martyr” operations by “soldiers of the caliphate” against the “enemy.”
The professional tone of the anchor and sound quality of the broadcast are very similar to the National Public Radio (NPR) or England's BBC.
“The language is broadcast radio. It sounds like we are listening to the BBC,” Jasmine Opperman, a senior analyst for the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), said to reporters.
“They are diversifying their central message of success on the battlefield,” said Opperman.
“ISIS would not launch a propaganda campaign like this if it did not have a target audience in mind,” she elaborated.
ISIS’s use of media, both social and traditional, “promotes its soft power,” said William Youmans, a professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University.
“As ISIS seeks to become an established state, it knows it must seek legitimacy, and that it cannot just rule on violence, even if that is how it gains territory and represses people living under its rule,” Youmans said.
“In terms of its efficacy in recruiting foreign fighters, their media production must be somewhat effective as they continue to invest in it and are becoming more sophisticated,” he added.
“One of the common accusations of the west is that under Islamic State education will suffer, religious studies and changes to the curriculum don’t quite fit their image of progressive schooling. But here in Halab, these young men here are learning Qur’an recital and languages, and with any luck they will form the mujahideen for the next generation in this region,” captive British photojournalist John Cantlie is heard saying in ISIS documentary “Inside Halab.”
“ISIS has a big incentive to show itself as friendly to families and generous in welfare to undermine the images of its brutality. It would want to widen the tent of people it could attract,” explained Youmans.
Al Bayan’s newscasts, in contrast to ISIS social media posts and video documentaries, sound more serious and focus on updates from the battlefield. When announcing the name of a suicide bomber on the program, the anchor's tone remains calm, which is different from the usual “sensationalization” of ISIS “martyr” deaths in its other propaganda.
“There is a tension in ISIS media strategy,” said Youmans.
“It wants on one hand to show that it is exciting to join and is winning battles, yet a group grounded in higher values, on the other. It seeks normalization and legitimacy, while also trying to be attractive as a sort of adventure for foreigners.”
“It is possible this reflects ISIS's media savvy. The people who work on media likely have a sense of how audience breaks down per each medium, and try to tailor the messages based on who they think they are more likely to get,” he added.
Opperman argues that such newscasts “are nothing new to ISIS’ propaganda.”
Analysts see the newscasts augmenting its already heavy media propaganda, while also providing vital communication across its increasingly sprawling empire. While its social media campaigns and documentaries are designed for audiences outside its territory, to either recruit or fundraise, the radio channels are designed for people living inside the Islamic State in an effort to make their daily lives seem normal.