Islamic State’s Copywriters Are Setting the Global Agenda

ISIS probably doesn't expect to receive $200 million from Japan. It only wants to keep Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from promoting stability in the region.

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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A screenshot from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 shows Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressing worshippers at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
A screenshot from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 shows Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressing worshippers at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul.Credit: AFP
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

The Islamic State’s media department has once against proved its ability to dictate the global agenda. At the height of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to the Middle East, shortly before a Jerusalem press conference where he would declare his country’s commitment to the peace process and “stability in the Middle East,” ISIS released a video showing its two Japanese hostages.

In the clip, the militant known as “Jihad John” demands that the Japanese government pay $200 million within 72 hours — ransom only for the hostages’ lives, not their release. The sum the Islamic State is demanding is the same sum Abe pledged in a Cairo speech on Saturday — $200 million in nonmilitary aid for refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East, and to promote stability in the region.

At the press conference, which was delayed because of the incident, Abe gave the same contradiction-filled response that other leaders have given in the face of threats to their people. Abe said over and over that the lives of Japanese citizens were his highest priority, while reiterating that Tokyo would not cave in to terrorism and not change its policy in the Middle East.

Like previous leaders who are not the president of the United States or the prime minister of Britain, Abe would not say if he was willing to pay the ransom, whether directly or through a third party. He only said his people were in contact with the Israelis and Jordanians to gather all possible information and work for the hostages’ release.

Yet in light of the huge sum being demanded — much larger than the ransoms paid for previous hostages — and the symbolism of the $200 million, it doesn't seem the Islamic State really expects to see the money. It only wants to convey a message to Abe, who has come to “promote stability” in their territory.

Researchers who study global terrorism believe that Al-Qaida has a clear strategy. After its efforts in the 1990s to get Muslims in the Middle East to rise up against their tyrannical leaders, it set its sights on major terror attacks in the West. It sought to draw the West into military involvement in the Middle East — involvement that would convince the local population to adopt its radical Muslim ideology.

The Islamic State’s strategy seems much less solid. Its attempt to establish an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq would face fewer problems if the group didn't use every possible provocation to drag the West into a fight. Also, the international coalition's attacks on ISIS could have won it much more support from the local people, but so many of them are turned off by the atrocities on which the Islamic State prides itself.

Still, ISIS' lack of strategic coherence hasn’t detracted from its success thanks to its media operatives’ good sense. As its hostage videos prove, images are just as important as reality in our world. Even a global jihadist organization doesn’t need a solid strategy if it has skilled copywriters.

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