Little attention is being paid to what could arguably be considered to be the most dangerous propaganda emerging from the Isis terror group – the pictures and videos that attempt to normalise and even glamorise life within Isis. It is these pictures that are used as a recruiting tool for the extremist group.
This week, one Western ‘jihadi bride’ found herself being chastised by fellow Isis supporters for going off message with a picture of her and other women posing around a luxury BMW. The same woman also posted a picture of a group brandishing guns in a similar pose often struck by their male counterparts.
This image suggests power and a sense of parity with male militants, but it is undermined by the recent Isis document unearthed and translated by the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam telling women their position would be confined solely to the home and the service of their militant husbands.
Another Isis fighter, whose account has since been suspended or deleted, posted a gallery showing a group of smiling, happy militants enjoying a day off together in Raqqa, images devoid of combat uniforms or weapons. With captions about “brothers enjoying a day in the sun” and young men shown diving into blue waters and laughing together, the pictures would not seem out of place on a friend’s Facebook page.
Other images attempt to build a picture of a family life that can continue with some semblance of normality in the so-called caliphate, showing young children playing together outside in the sunshine - when they are not been pictured in training camps holding Kalashnikovs almost the same size as them.
Charlie Winter, a researcher at Quilliam, said propaganda attempting to normalise militants and their daily activities plays an important role in constructing an image of Isis as a way of life as opposed to just a group.
He said: “A lot of propaganda like this doesn't get noticed in Western media because it’s content is not very controversial, but it is important for the group’s overall message – it’s important within the wider context of the image that Isis tries to portray of itself and nurture.
“When images and videos are taken together and understood together, it’s all pretty clear what they are trying to get across – that Isis is not just a jihadist group fighting, it is setting up a state. It’s no longer a group even, its political machinery.
“When they show children playing in the street that’s also to try and get across the idea that the war against the Islamic State isn't disrupting life that much that kids can’t play, that jihadis can’t hang out together.
“It is not surprising that there is so many things which seem pretty inane, like a bunch of soldiers having a break - there has been a lot of stuff like that in the past. It is about showing Isis as a ‘utopia’, what it claims to be.”
These pictures are all the more dangerous considering what we have been told about the reality of living in Isis-controlled territories by those who have experienced it. Activist groups such as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report cases of fighters facing the same hudud punishments as the civilians, who risk amputations, crucifixions and being stoned to death by the group’s penal code.
Reports emerged last year of a young fighter being crucified, while one high ranking fighter was found beheaded after apparently being caught smoking cigarettes.
RBSS, who still has members living inside Raqqa, the group’s defacto capital in Syria, has captured pictures of huge queues for food relief, markedly in contrast with images of large meals being shared by fighters in the same area.
The propaganda serves a clear purpose of recruiting foreign men and women, particularly from the West, by presenting a life that still contains aspects of life they may find hard to leave behind.
Recruitment propaganda with a more materialistic focus, such as that suggesting financial gain, is also used by Isis to radicalise people across the globe and in countries where basic necessities such as gas and flour are becoming increasingly unaffordable.
“The financial side of things is a powerful draw for people in the region, it’s the way of attracting fighters who don’t really believe in the ideological or theological message,” said Mr Winter.
“Joining a group who will give you a few hundred dollars a month is quote an enticing thing.
“It’s been an undercurrent of a lot of propaganda for a long time. In winter we saw more official photo reports of gas canisters being sold – things like that are typical – it’s the kind of things that say: ‘look at us, giving these things cheaply to supporters.’”
Furthering reading: Life under Isis