“To My Brothers in the West . . .”: A Thematic Analysis of Videos Produced by the Islamic State’s al-Hayat Media Center

AuthorLogan Macnair,Richard Frank
Date01 August 2017
Published date01 August 2017
DOI10.1177/1043986217699313
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17iEcDj91xYRcD/input 699313CCJXXX10.1177/1043986217699313Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeMacnair and Frank
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Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2017, Vol. 33(3) 234 –253
“To My Brothers in the
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Analysis of Videos Produced
by the Islamic State’s al-Hayat
Media Center
Logan Macnair1 and Richard Frank1
Abstract
This study examines videos produced by the al-Hayat Media Center, a branch of
the Islamic State’s (IS) larger media campaign aimed more specifically at Western
audiences. Using a thematic analysis approach, recurring themes of 10 al-Hayat videos
were identified with conclusions made regarding the specificities of the message and
the target audience. It was found that al-Hayat videos cater to potential Western
recruits and sympathizers by portraying life in the IS as spiritually and existentially
fulfilling, while simultaneously decrying the West as secular, immoral, and criminal.
By utilizing well-produced propaganda videos that tap into the dissatisfactions of
Western Muslims, al-Hayat was shown to deliver a sophisticated and legitimate
message that may play a role in the larger radicalization process.
Keywords
Islamic State, al-Hayat Media Center, propaganda, radicalization
Introduction
Given the ubiquity and permanence of the Internet in today’s increasingly connected
world, it should come as no surprise that terrorist and extremist organizations such as
the Islamic State (IS) have found a powerful and useful tool in the Internet. In a rela-
tively short amount of time, the IS has established a notable online presence and, like
1Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Logan Macnair, International CyberCrime Research Center, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser
University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada.
Email: lmacnair@sfu.ca

Macnair and Frank
235
other terrorist organizations, has since continued to use the Internet as a means of data
gathering, planning and coordination, networking, fundraising, recruitment, and admin-
istering propaganda (Argomaniz, 2015; Erez, Weimann, & Weisburd, 2011; Guadagno,
Lankford, Muscanell, Okdie, & McCallum, 2010; Richards, 2014; Weimann, 2010).
In particular, the IS has shown to be alarmingly effective at both recruiting new
members from all around the world, with an estimated 20% of these new recruits com-
ing from Western nations (Neumann, 2015), and at maintaining a sophisticated and
productive propaganda machine that is run by savvy technical professionals with incon-
testable expertise (Heickerö, 2014; Singh & Krupaker, 2014). Part of this effectiveness
is due to the IS creating and disseminating propaganda and recruitment materials that
are aimed at specific audiences and demographics, taking into account the unique social
and political circumstances of different nations and locations, then tailoring the content
of their message accordingly (Gates & Podder, 2015). This tendency is exemplified by
the al-Hayat Media Center, a media arm of the IS that produces content aimed more
exclusively at Western audiences. Since its inception in 2014, the al-Hayat Media
Center has released several videos, all professionally produced and shot in high-defini-
tion, as well as the equally high-quality periodical magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah,
which are translated in several languages including English (Ingram, 2016).
Content produced by al-Hayat is easily accessible and can be found online with no
more than a little light Googling. Due to the ready availability, it is not unrealistic to
think that those who may be more receptive or sympathetic to the message of the IS,
and potentially more prone to radicalization, may come across al-Hayat content at
some point, and while watching a few videos is almost certainly not enough to lead to
full-on radicalization (Ducol, 2015; Spaaij, 2012), that exposure may well be the start
of a slippery radicalization slope (Berger, 2016).
But what exactly are the messages that are being delivered by al-Hayat, and who
are they being specifically addressed toward? It has been suggested that the breadth of
the IS’s media strategy is insufficiently understood (Zelin, 2015). By applying a the-
matic analysis to several al-Hayat produced videos, this study endeavors to address
this deficiency by identifying and deciphering both the stated and latent messages
contained within the IS’s Western-focused propaganda. By focusing on the content
and the message of al-Hayat’s videos, some conclusions may be drawn regarding the
specificities of who the target audience is, the methods in which this target audience is
being addressed, and the potential impact that such videos may have in the larger radi-
calization process.
Terrorism, Media, and Propaganda
Propaganda may be understood as media or discursive materials that systematically
attempt at shaping and manipulating perceptions and directing behavior to achieve a
desired response. More succinctly, it is simply discourse in the service of ideology
(O’Donnell & Jowett, 1989). Though propaganda and other techniques of psychologi-
cal manipulation have been central to warfare for a long time, in the multimedia-
driven landscape of the 21st century, it has been suggested that “the message” is now

236
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 33(3)
more important than ever, with the media sphere itself becoming a battlefield that is of
equal importance to “real” ones (Conway, 2006; Richards, 2014).
The ability for terrorist organizations to disseminate their messages through various
media outlets has long been considered a crucial factor for their continued success. For
the actions of terrorists to be impactful, they need to be seen and heard by the largest
audience possible (Erez et al., 2011). Traditionally this has meant a certain degree of
reliance on the mainstream media, however, given the accessibility, scope, and poten-
tial audience more recently provided by the Internet, terrorist organizations have now
found ways to circumvent their dependence on mainstream media outlets and deliver
their unfiltered, unedited messages directly to the masses (Awan, 2007; Conway,
2006). Many modern terrorist organizations, not ignorant to the importance of winning
the war of ideas, have largely adapted with the times, adopting media strategies that
resemble those of public relations-savvy corporations (Caldwell, 2008). The content
of terrorist media output ranges from the 140-character messages found on Twitter
right up to the professionally shot and edited videos distributed by the al-Hayat Media
Center with many examples of varying substance and quality in-between (Klausen,
2015; Lieber & Reiley, 2016).
Videos that are shot, produced, and distributed by terrorist organizations have
become particularly popular in the last few years, partially attributable to the increased
accessibility and affordability of high-definition cameras (including those found on
most modern smartphones) and video-editing software (Neumann, 2013). This access
to sophisticated video-creation technologies combined with the popularity and scope
of open video-sharing platforms such as YouTube have allowed terrorist organizations
such as the IS to reach a larger audience than ever before with highly stylized videos
of undeniable production quality (Gates & Podder, 2015; Stenersen, 2008; Weisburd,
2009). Although videos that promote or feature content of a threatening or hateful
nature are in violation of YouTube’s community guidelines and are generally removed
once detected, this may take quite some time, and even once removed, the most
extreme and graphic of videos are still easily accessible on other video-sharing sites
such as LiveLeak.com, or cached on one of the many gore/shock sites that exist in the
darker corners of the Internet.
Previously Identified Themes of Terrorist Propaganda
Terrorist and extremist organizations are diverse in their goals and in their preferred
methods of achieving those goals. As a result, the general propaganda videos and
images that are produced contain a variety of distinct themes and often range in their
extremity. Some of the more recurrent themes that have been previously identified
include the following:
Friendship and Comradery
People have an inherent social and psychological need to belong to groups, and terror-
ist organizations have been shown to prey on these base needs with their media outputs

Macnair and Frank
237
(Borum, 2011; Guadagno et al., 2010; McCauley & Moskalenko, 2011). Promoting a
sense of social belonging is a key element in the process of persuading and potentially
recruiting new individuals into a movement, and much of the media content produced
by terrorist organizations is pitched in a way that tailors to this (Davies, Bouchard, Wu,
Joffres, & Frank, 2015). Though generally portrayed as stalwartly determined and
pious, soldiers depicted in videos and photos are also shown to be friendly with one
another, often engaging in acts of comradery such as “hanging out” and eating pizza
(Klausen, 2015). In his analysis of jihadi videos, Weisburd (2009) noted that shots of
mujahedeen brothers traveling together through the landscape, smiling, and enjoying
one another’s company were common. Similarly,...

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