Information Warfare: Atrocity Porn


November 11, 2016: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has, since early 2015, been trying to reduce the use of indiscriminate violence by its followers. ISIL was particularly intent on halting the distribution of photos and videos showing ISIL members killing captives in particularly gruesome ways. This “atrocity porn” may have been helpful in recruiting more young Moslem men but it was turning off the better educated recruits and, worse, the wealthy Moslems who donated cash and other useful services. 

This new policy was noted since early 2015 in captured documents that had been sent to subordinate leaders. The new policy was more visible on the Internet where there were fewer and fewer “atrocity porn” images posted by ISIL members. Instead ISIL stressed images showing ISIL members (often unarmed) building the Islamic State in more constructive ways, like restoring electricity and water supplies in captured areas or distributing food or providing medical care to civilians.

ISIL leaders were learning the hard way what al Qaeda discovered a decade earlier. Al Qaeda continues to remind its members of the benefits of the more selective attacks long espoused by al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. This internal feud first became public in 2006 when Bin Laden openly criticized the massive slaughter of Moslems (even if they were Shia) by al Qaeda in Iraq. Bin Laden pointed out that such indiscriminate slaughter would turn the Islamic world against al Qaeda and that is what happened when so many al Qaeda members ignored the advice. Bin Laden was more aware of this than most other senior al Qaeda leaders. Some of those more tolerant (of atrocity porn) Iraqi al Qaeda leaders went on to form ISIL in 2013. ISIL doesn’t care much about sparing women and children or innocent Moslems in general even though the leadership tries to pretend otherwise.

Back in 2006, shortly after Bin Laden’s public criticism, the al Qaeda boss in Iraq (Abu Musab al Zarqawi) was removed (via an American smart bomb), and it's long been suspected that the targeting information for that hit was leaked to the Americans on bin Laden's orders. The defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq by 2008 led to a shift in tactics, away from killing lots of civilians, and more towards focusing on security forces, especially non-Moslems. This has been unpopular with the al Qaeda foot soldiers because Western troops are very hard to kill and too easy to get killed by. Moreover, one of al Qaeda's beliefs is that any Moslem killed during a bombing, who didn't want to be, was simply an "involuntary martyr." While nice in theory the families of these involuntary martyrs hated al Qaeda for the honor and bin Laden picked up on this more than Zarqawi and other Iraqi al Qaeda leaders. One reason ISIL was formed in 2013 was because Western troops were gone from Iraq and there was chaos in neighboring Syria. Without the fearsome Western troops ISIL could run wild, kill anyone and gain lots of new recruits.

Unfortunately for ISIL Bin Laden knew what he was talking about. Bin Laden always provided a lot more encouragement for carrying out terror attacks in the West. That has been difficult because of the massive counter-terror efforts in the West and the growing unpopularity of Islamic terrorism among Moslems in the West. Bin Laden's death in 2011 took away a major critic of the “kill them all” doctrine so loved by ISIL and now ISIL leaders are trying to get that genie back in the bottle.

An example of how this al Qaeda policy still works can be seen in the growth of AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) in an area where ISIL has been having a much more difficult time getting established. AQIS was established in 2014 and has its headquarters in Karachi, long a haven for all sorts of criminal activity. AQIS has forged alliances with the major Islamic terrorist organizations in Karachi. To make those alliances work AQIS cannot try and recruit members of those other Islamic terror groups and that has slowed growth. Most of the AQIS violence since 2014 has been against police and other security forces in Karachi. AQIS considers these attacks necessary to survival as it helps keep the security forces from knowing too much or getting too close. AQIS was created to manage and support operations in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as India. It was believed that AQIS was largely a publicity stunt by al Qaeda to counter the growing popularity of the more radical ISIL. Indian Moslems have produced some recruits for Islamic terrorism, but not enough to produce the level of mayhem Islamic terrorists wanted. Lacking a lot of radical clergy and religious schools India has simply not produced a lot of radicalized young men willing to kill and be killed. Thus the more pragmatic approach of al Qaeda is more feared by governments than the atrocity porn approach of ISIL. But this is not a major issue because neither al Qaeda nor ISIL are making much progress in South Asia.


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