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With the attempted terrorist attack using machetes at the Louvre museum in Paris yesterday by Abdullah Reda al-Hamamy, whose social media history shows statements at least sympathetic to the Islamic State (IS), it raises once again the question, making no assumptions about al-Hamamy’s motives, of how connected the organization headquartered in Raqqa is to the attacks taking place around the world under IS’s banner—and how we would know.
As IS’s attacks outside of the statelet it has built in Iraq and Syria increased in frequency over the last year, a rather routinized mechanism has developed for attributing blame: IS claims the atrocities—or attempted atrocities—through Amaq News Agency.
IS has developed its media department since 2004. Though the IS movement was able to conduct military operations sooner—notably the August 2003 strikes at the Jordanian Embassy, the Canal Hotel, and the Najaf mosque of Ayatollah Muhammad al-Hakim that signalled the true beginnings of the Iraqi insurgency—it took time for its media infrastructure to develop. Since then IS has both decentralized production, with media offices in all IS provinces, within the territory of the caliphate and beyond, and maintained total centralization over editing and publication. IS has trialled numerous methods in disseminating its message. In terms of content, IS pushed the envelope of brutality so far it drew rebukes from al-Qaeda even before the formal schism, and in terms of distribution IS fully exploited the internet, initially in closed forums and later with Twitter and Telegram.
With the establishment of Amaq News Agency, IS broke new ground, blurring the distinction between propaganda and information and implicating all who try to follow the conflict in doing so.
IS had a thriving presence on Twitter between the time of its establishment in April 2013, and August 2014. In this time, the U.S. administration’s view of IS shifted, from a “jayvee team” shortly after it took over Fallujah in January 2014 to a serious threat by the middle of the year, with airstrikes against the group beginning in Iraq on 8 August 2014, and beginning in Syria on 23 September. Doubtless related to this increased attention, which brought public and political pressure, Twitter had already begun suspensions of prominent IS accounts by the time IS put out the video, on 19 August 2014, that showed Mohammed Emwazi (Abu Muharib al-Muhajir), the British IS operative who would become known as “Jihadi John” in the press, murdering American journalist James Foley. The suspensions of course increased thereafter.
It was in this period, the last two weeks of August 2014, that the process that led to Amaq’s creation began, as IS scrambled for an alternative to its Twitter presence.
Amaq, a town in southern Turkey, is mentioned in an end-times hadith alongside the more famous Dabiq, a village in northern Syria that IS took as the namesake of its English-language magazine, as a possible site of the onset of the end of the world. The prophecy states, as IS’s late spokesman Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), once narrated:
The [last] Hour will not be established until the Romans (Westerners) land at al-Amaq or Dabiq. Then [a Muslim] army from Medina of the best people on the earth at that time will leave for them. When they line up in ranks the Romans will say, ‘Leave us with those who enslaved some of us so that we can fight them.’ The Muslims will say, ‘Nay, by Allah, we will not abandon our brothers to you.’ So they will fight them. Then one third of them will flee; God will never forgive them. One third of them will be killed; they will be the best martyrs with God. And one third will conquer them; they will never be afflicted with tribulation. Then they will conquer Constantinople.
The beliefs of IS’s leadership about the apocalypse are somewhat ambiguous—its focus is on a revolutionary project of state-building, unlike true apocalyptic groups like Juhayman al-Utaybi’s, which took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 with only a week’s worth of food, so confident were they that the end was nigh—but as a recruitment pitch, the apocalypse “always works“.
Amaq News Agency aimed from the start to cultivate an image of independence. For example, as Romain Caillet has written, it adopted a tone of “pseudo-neutrality”. Gone was the triumphalism over IS’s victories, the praise to Allah for all things, and the damning of His enemies. The Syrian opposition would be referred to as such, rather than as apostate sahwat. Lebanese Hizballah, despite being Shi’a and an Iranian proxy, two of the most loathed categories in IS’s propaganda, would also be mentioned by its chosen name, which means “Party of God,” and which IS usually changes to Hizb al-Shaytan (The Party of the Devil). Amaq even referred to the Coalition, rather than Crusaders.
“The agency was founded by a Syrian, Riyan Mesh’al, former head of HalabNews.Net (HNN), a group of Syrian anti-Assad activists,” according to Caillet. “It made itself known in October 2014 … for its coverage, largely favourable to the Islamic State, of the Battle of Kobani …, while presenting itself as an independent news agency.”
Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) is a Kurdish-majority city in northern Syria that IS had all-but conquered before the intervention of the U.S.-led Coalition. Kobani became a media-political test of wills, and IS—for the only time until the Mosul battle began in October 2016—would stand and fight to the very end against overwhelming power, throwing away the lives of perhaps 1,000 of its fighters, as the Coalition rained down 700 airstrikes. After 112 days, the IS siege was broken. The coordination between the Kurdish PYD/PKK and the Coalition would become one of the lasting facts of the Syrian war.
IS fully annexed Amaq in short order, bringing it under the supervision of a board led by the head of IS’s Media Council, Wael al-Fayad (Dr. Wael al-Rawi). “From a simple website in origin, Amaq quickly evolved to create Twitter and Facebook accounts, and then Android applications,” notably Telegram, and has now been “institutionalized as the voice of IS,” with the international news media treating “the dispatches of Amaq as official communiqués,” essentially as IS’s state media.
In a recent paper on IS’s media, Craig Whiteside highlighted this grey area:
The establishment of the A’maq News Agency was an attempt by IS to create an “independent” service that produces “scoops” by movement insiders to sway a target audience that might be hostile or sceptical of Western or regional media outlets. Ironically, in practice A’maq serves as an allegedly legitimate source for these same international print and cable outlets to cite, which in turn amplifies the official message of IS.
This point became especially salient as the pace of IS’s foreign terrorism increased in 2015 and 2016. IS had already begun claiming foreign operations through Amaq, such as the 2 December 2015 San Bernardino shooting rampage and the 14 January 2016 atrocity against the shopping centre in Jakarta, Indonesia. But with the commencement of a wave of attacks in Europe particularly over the summer of 2016, a refinement was made in the model.
In Paris, on 13 June 2016, Larossi Abballa stabbed to death an off-duty policeman, Jean-Baptiste Salvaing, then invaded his house and murdered his wife, Jessica Schneider. Abballa then took their young child hostage and recorded a video in which he declared bay’a (allegiance) to IS’s caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). Abballa was shot dead by police, and the—edited—video was soon released by Amaq. (It seems even IS had qualms about including the image of a terrified little boy, about whom Abballa said, “I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with him.”) The video was accompanied by a note that claimed the attack as a response to IS’s spokesman’s call for terrorism against countries involved in the Coalition campaign against IS.
This became a template: terrorists would send a bay’a video to Amaq, who would then release it after the attack, which usually resulted in the attacker’s “martyrdom,” accompanied by a text message whose language became stereotyped.
This has been particularly noticeable in Germany. Riaz Khan Ahmadzai (Muhammad Riyad), who was killed on 18 June after he assaulted pedestrians at a railway station in Wurzburg, with an axe, had sent a bay’a video to Amaq that was subsequently released, as had Mohammad Daleel, who carried out a suicide bombing in Ansbach on 24 July, and Anis Amri who hijacked a truck that he drove into a crowd of Christmas shoppers in Berlin on 19 December. But it has happened all over.
A video of Adel Kermiche and Abdelmalik Petitjean, the killers at the Normandy church on 26 July, emerged after they were killed. We did not actually see the video Aaron Driver made, but after his arrest on 10 August, Amaq claimed him as one of their “soldier[s]”. In Balashika, Russia, two men, Uthman Mardalov and Salim Israilov, attacked a police post with axes and firearms on 17 August; shot dead at the scene, Amaq duly released their video giving their pledge of allegiance to the caliph.
Among other things, these videos—demonstrating unequivocally that these men had contact with IS before their attacks—were conclusive evidence against the thesis that these were “lone wolf” attacks. As I wrote at the time, these attacks were part of a concerted campaign, directed from the centre by IS’s Amn al-Kharji or foreign intelligence service. Given the nature of the communications, on encrypted platforms, and the significant advances IS has made with the information revealed by Edward Snowden about the workings of the Western security system, which include tactics like the use of “burners,” it is quite likely that some attacks presently believed to be “inspired” will transpire to have direct links to IS.
IS is waging an ideological struggle and in doing so credibility is crucial; concealment of beliefs or practices is counterproductive to the political outcome they are trying to reach. In media terms this means that they cannot be seen to lie. IS, contrary to some commentary, does not just claim every attack in the West. This could be seen clearly in August 2016. On 4 August, a 19-year-old Somali, Zakaria Bulhan, stabbed three people in London, killing one of them, a retired American schoolteacher, Darlene Horton. Two days later, in Charleroi, Belgium, a man with a machete injured two female police officers. On 7 August, claimed the Charleroi attack and not the more “successful” one in London. This tallied with subsequent investigation. Bulhan had possessed some Islamist material, but he had acted alone and his overwhelming driver was his mental instability. In Charleroi, the motives were politico-religious and the would-be killer was part of a network. In addition to dropping the “official” linguistic designations of IS when referring to the group’s enemies, Amaq even (occasionally) reports on battlefield losses by IS. But this veneer of trustworthiness is deeply problematic, providing IS further room to move in presenting their message—of strength, progress, and so on.
When IS’s presence in Derna, Libya, was ended in less than a week in June 2015, it became clear that major global media outlets had been wrong for months that IS had control of the city. Amaq’s claim on 20 October 2016 that it had shot down a U.S. jet were refuted by the Pentagon. Even more intriguing is the case of Thaddeus Borowicz, an American working at the Incirlik airbase in Turkey from which the U.S. and other countries launch airstrikes against IS. Borowicz was found dead on 13 June 2016 having fallen from his tenth-floor apartment, presumed to be by accident. IS subsequently claimed it killed Borowicz. This can be doubted, but definitive proof is difficult to come by, and this is where one can see how insidious the Amaq innovation is: IS is able to use Amaq’s generally-reliable record to carry its message to a larger audience than if it was a blatant propaganda channel.
Post has been updated