ISIS Has A New, Much Deadlier Type Of Propaganda
This past week presented 2016 with yet another terrorist attack. Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a student at Ohio State University, rammed a bunch of his fellow students with his car, and then hopped out and started stabbing people. He wounded 11 before he was shot and killed by the police, which is generally what happens to people who go on stabbing rampages.
Whenever someone with a name like "Abdul" commits one of America's major monthly spree attacks, a certain segment of the population is honor-bound to start shouting "ISIS!" In this case, they're right. In his note, Artan demanded the U.S. cease all attacks on the Islamic State in order to stop more "lone wolf" attacks. ISIS has claimed him as their soldier, but they didn't spend any time or money equipping him.
You're going to hear the term "self-radicalized" a lot over the next couple of days. What does that mean, really? It means the Ohio State stabbings weren't a random expression of anger. They were directly inspired, even cultivated, by a novel brand of ISIS propaganda: the terrorist organization's new magazine, Rumiyah.
Some of you might remember that last year, I read every issue of ISIS's first magazine, Dabiq. That magazine is named for a town in Syria, recently retaken from the Islamic State, which was prophesied to be the site of an apocalyptic battle. "Rumiyah" is the Arabic word for "Rome," and that shift tells you a lot about what you need to know here. ISIS has switched their focus from expanding the caliphate to inspiring attacks on Western "crusader" nations. They provide the ideology, the sense of identity, and colorful guides. "Independent contractors" do the grunt work.
Yes, ISIS has become the Uber of terrorism. You take on the risk, and provide the "car" (which in this case, was an actual car, and a knife) and ISIS gets to put their name on whatever you do. You didn't hire Ivan to drive you home from the bar; you called "an Uber". And a month from now, this won't be Abdul Artan's stabbing spree. It'll be yet another ISIS attack.
And if ISIS is the Uber of terrorism, Rumiyah is the manual they send out to new drivers. Including Abdul Artan,
ISIS's Propaganda Is Designed To Inspire Attacks Like This
There are a few telltale signs that Artan was more than just a very depressed, angry young man with a knife and a driver's license. First off, before his attack, he posted a justification for it on Facebook, saying he was "sick and tired" of Muslims being "killed and tortured" by the U.S government. And the way ISIS and their followers see it, random kids at a school are as culpable in that as Presidents Bush or Obama.
There are a number of beats in Artan's letter (the full text is apparently here) which seem to be at inspired by the "last words" other ISIS soldiers. Take this ...
... and compare it to this rant printed in Rumiyah:
It's the same basic statement. You've fucked with Muslims, so now we're fucking with you on their behalf. Page after page of both magazines is dedicated to building the case that people who live in countries that oppose the Islamic State also oppose Islam, so they're all fair game.
That's from a section of the magazine called "The Kafir's Blood is Halal For You, So Shed It." The graphic for this section looks like the cover of an Eli Roth movie:
Both issues of Rumiyah are filled with long theological discussions of "takfir," a fringe Muslim belief that boils down to "Muslims who don't believe what we believe are OK to kill." (In the Middle East, one slur against ISIS-type nuts is "takfiri.") It also repeatedly hammers home the point that "random strangers are OK to kill in the name of God."
Now, Artan never uses the word "takfir" in his letter. But he does say this:
The Sahaba were the original companions of Mohammed. ISIS loves to talk about the Sahaba in Rumiyah, particularly in the context of justifying murder ...
If you're not Muslim and not working with ISIS, withholding "zakah" refers to you.
This is the same explanation used in Dabiq for why the soldiers of ISIS are allowed to kill Muslim civilians. If you're an atheist who doesn't submit to Muslim rule, you're as dead as a Muslim who goes "Holy fuck, you guys are crazy." (That's why most of ISIS's victims are Muslim).
Calls for lone-wolf-style attacks on Westerners were always a part of ISIS propaganda, but Rumiyah is all about that shit. Also, remember how Artan carried out his attack with a knife? Maybe he couldn't afford a gun, but it's worth noting that issue two of Rumiyah devotes a lot of page space to advising its readers on how to carry out a stabbing spree. The knife porn starts on the cover...
... and continues in a full-page-spread article on the finer points of stabbing motherfuckers:
I hate to give anything to ISIS, but their knife game is on point. They give pretty solid advice for an inexperienced kid planning his first stabbing -- buy a fixed-blade knife, make sure it's serrated, cutting off heads is great but don't spend too much time per victim, and avoid victims wearing lots of leather or denim:
They even advise their readers to leave a calling card at the scene of any attack, so no one mistakes it for one of America's many other kinds of random acts of violence:
Hey, at this point, does anybody else think it sounds a little like they're training young people to become Batman villains? Well ...
They're Targeting Young, Nerdy Middle-Class Boys
There's no nice way to put this: ISIS is recruiting lonely, disaffected nerds. The organization is often brushed off as savage, brutal madmen, but they're also savvy observers of Western culture. They know that 98 percent of mass killers are men, generally under 30, who tend to have serious issues with women. So issues of Rumiyah are peppered with the kind of misogynistic shit you'd expect to find on a men's rights subreddit:
Issue one of Rumiyah is essentially a textbook in how to radicalize a young man. It starts with religious justifications for killing nonbelievers, then moves down to an infographic which promises what they imagine all their young, awkward readers want: thousands of wives who "do not urinate, defecate, spit or expel nasal mucus."
Now, "Jannah" is the Islamic concept of paradise. So they're retreading that old "72 virgins" thing, but adding 30 miles' worth of virgins and clarifying that they never poop, pee, spit or get BO. And after promising their young readers a "sexy" eternity in sterile paradise, the very next page is ...
Yep! That is a dead dude's face -- specifically, a profile of a dude who died fighting for the Islamic State (similar to what you'd find in Dabiq). You get to read this guy's whole heroic journey into paradise, and then Rumiyah follows up with a series of battle reports that sound like they were written by either adolescent boys or Michael Bay.
It's filled with pictures of fighters who should clearly still be in school, as if to make the point that "No matter how young you are, you can be a badass rebel warrior!"
Reading through both issues of Rumiyah, it becomes very clear that ISIS is specifically trying to inspire young people. They focus on knives as attack weapons because teenagers and poor college students like Artan have trouble buying guns. It also includes a whole chapter on how stupid your teachers are if they tell you not to murder strangers:
It so happens that Artan's note also included a shout-out to the "celebrity" scholars who've condemned ISIS:
Now, Abdul wasn't a rich kid, but he did live in first-world comfort, attend an American university, and own a car. To a kid who grew up as a refugee, the life of many college students is luxury. ISIS has a lot to say about how good it is to give up that luxury for the cause:
These kids are portrayed as the jihadi versions of Harry Potter, if he'd beheaded the Dursleys before running off to join a violent cult recruiting an army of child soldiers. You can tell they're the heroes because they have their own movie poster!
That brings me to another point ...
They've Taken A Lot From Our Movies
In May of this year, Professor David Tolchinsky of Northwestern University pointed out that some of ISIS's propaganda videos follow the hero's journey -- a sort of framework for storytelling that's followed by virtually every work of popular fiction.
The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, Die Hard, and the Harry Potter series all have plots that conform to this template. And you'll find ISIS-ified versions of the same cycle throughout both issues of Rumiyah. I'll give one example: the story of Abu Mansur. He starts off as a normal kid living in the real-world equivalent of Tatooine (Australia), but then he receives his "call to adventure" with the death of a loved one.
He's quickly imprisoned by the evil empire.
But he breaks free, and meets his Obi-Wan Kenobi in a "senior" Islamic State leader named Abu-Bakr Al-Iraqi.
If Obi-Wan had the sultry, smoldering eyes of Fabio.
Abu-Bakr padawans the shit out of Mansur, teaching him the ways of warfare and how to be a giant dick to everybody without a beard and an AK-47. But then, during a desperate battle against the jihadi equivalent to Darth Vader (probably an F-16), Mansur's mentor is killed...
Mansur is thrust into command. But he rises to the occasion, becoming a great warrior and leader of the Islamic State. The heroic climax to his story is when a piece of shrapnel goes through his heart, killing him.
Yes, in ISIS's world, the Death Star the hero destroys is himself. It seems insane, but it's also a hell of a lot more accessible than having the abs of, say, Channing Tatum. And that's a big appeal of ISIS's propaganda: making the reader feel like a hero, part of something remarkable. If you're a poor college student like Artan, all you need is a good knife to become the terrorist version of John McClane or, fuck it, Master Chief. See ...
They've Gamified Terrorism
It'd be silly to suggest that video games cause terrorism. They don't. But the kind of alienated young men who become terrorists also happen to be a major chunk of the demographic that plays games like Call Of Duty and Overwatch. This has not escaped ISIS. That's why they've taken great pains to make deadly terrorism look like a video game.
That infographic is a real report on battlefield activity in Dijlah, Iraq. If you saw that at the end of a level in some new Middle-East-themed shooter or real-time strategy game, it wouldn't look at all out of place. But the whole video game connection isn't superficial. ISIS has introduced a way for aspiring young jihadis to score themselves prior to their attack. Shortly after that infographic comes this article:
Dhul-Hijjah is the last month on the Islamic calendar, and the first 10 days are some of the holiest of the entire year. It's considered an especially sacred time to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, for example. Most religions have the concept that certain days or months are particularly sacred, but ISIS has turned Islam's holy days into a kind of bonus multiplier for acts of unspeakable violence.
In fact, if you're sufficiently violent, ISIS says you'll even earn bonus points to elevate your score far beyond what your nonviolent friends and family could ever hope to achieve.
Want more bonus points? Kill a rich Westerner. Their blood is like the Golden Snitch of Terrorism Quidditch.
And ISIS is careful to note that picking a prominent location and looking really scary is as important as actually killing people.
The practical goal of all this point-counting is to inspire young people to really "top" each other in the violence, body count, and prominence of their attacks. They even include these calls for one-upsmanship in articles about successful attacks, like this profile of some young shooters in Bengal:
"... for Cesare Tavella was just a warning, the Gulshan attack was just a glimpse, and what is yet to come by the permission of Allah will be worse and far more bitter."
You could say the same thing about Artan's recent attack in Ohio -- that he was just a proof of concept. Rumiyah didn't make him want to go out and stab a bunch of people. Muslims aren't magically more susceptible to insane Islamist propaganda than white people are to Nazi propaganda. (And many of the Muslim soldiers I met in Iraq are fighting ISIS right now.) But some people are vulnerable to this shit. Especially the kind of young, alienated men ISIS targets. That's why they spend more time appealing to guys like Abdul Artan than small children. Although they do that, too.
"Choose your target!" A little on the nose, ISIS.
Want something lighter than ISIS? Robert Evans also has a whimsical book about how drugs built civilization, A Brief History of Vice. It's on sale now!