ISIS’ branding and propaganda has been enormously successful since they seemingly came out of nowhere to seize the city of Mosul last summer. Islamist groups from Yemen to Central Asia to Libya are purportedly pledging allegiance to the group and flying its black flag. Washington, the Kremlin, and Beijing are all warning of the danger of this next iteration of Tamerlane’s savagery (even in places like Xinjiang, where there is little sign of the group actually taking root among the Muslim Uighurs), while the Islamists themselves are putting out video after video that at once shock and elicit contempt.
The majority of ISIS propaganda that reaches the West is deliberately calculated to bait Western involvement in Iraq and Syria. Videos of beheadings, pilots being burned alive, and antiquities being smashed with sledgehammers are intended to induce outrage. So is the flaunting of the sexual enslavement of Iraqi and Yezidi women. They are made as savage as possible, not as deterrents, but as provocations. ISIS personnel have said this themselves; the “media officer” in the VICE video series “Inside the Islamic State” openly said to the Americans, “Send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.” Every outrage is intended to draw Western militaries into the fight.
At the same time, some of their recruiting and training videos are serving a dual purpose. The ones that make it to Western eyes elicit mockery of their “ridiculous” training. The most recent example elicited howls of derision from many on American social media, mocking the martial arts demonstrations and crude camouflage in one scene. (I’d link to the video, but YouTube has taken it down.) In all honesty, however, Marine recruits doing MCMAP Tan Belt techniques and applying cammie paint don’t look much better.
To those unfamiliar with infantry techniques, such as potential ISIS recruits, the video might appear cool. So it works as a recruiting tool to the uninitiated. Among their enemies, many of whom either have forgotten how awkward it is to be a raw recruit or are simply used to choreographed “cool-guy” videos, contempt is built upon, reinforcing the idea that these are just a bunch of stone-age booger-eaters without any knowledge of modern warfare, who would be easily steamrolled if we just let the military off the chain and went after them.