DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden had to rely on video and audio messages recorded in remote hideouts and delivered to international television networks by supporters to claim responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Islamic State, today the preeminent terrorist threat to the West, sponsors its own Amaq news agency, producing dispatches on a 24-hour news cycle using mobile technology. The group claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels through the agency, posting reports in English and then Arabic in a detached journalistic style free of images or statements from its leader. Aware of the propaganda value of defining itself as a combatant in an unequal struggle, Amaq said the attacks were part of a wider war with an international coalition.
Amaq is an attempt to seize “information dominance” over enemies, said Charlie Winter, a senior research associate who focuses on Islamist militancy at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The agency is named after a Syrian town mentioned in an ancient prophecy as the site for an apocalyptic victory over non-believers.
“It’s being used as part of a broader strategy of propaganda first, tactical and strategic gains second,” Winter said by phone. The group is “very keen on having a very centralized message.”
Amaq sends out press releases and reports on the WordPress blogging platform but is now embracing encrypted technology to evade ever-tighter monitoring of social media.
It first emerged in late 2014 when Islamic State was attempting to seize the northern Syrian city of Kobani from its Kurdish defenders, part of an offensive that also saw the group establish a presence in large swaths of neighboring Iraq. Amaq was used by Islamic State to claim influence over the couple responsible for the shootings last year in San Bernardino.
The agency has played a leading role in swiftly moving Islamic State’s propaganda machine beyond the barrage of comments provided by supporters on social media.
Amaq carries reports on events from Libya and Iraq to the Philippines, in Arabic, English, French and Russian. It refrains from posting videos of beheadings and other graphic images of Islamic State actions, delivering more subtle messages, such as in its labeling of suicide bombings as “martyrdom operations.”
It’s referred to within the Islamic State administration as an “auxiliary” media unit, said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum based in Philadelphia. It tracks conflict and the provision of services in provinces the group rules, but isn’t branded with Islamic State symbols.
“They’re a part of Islamic State, a full part of the media strategy,” he said by phone, adding that it’s unclear who heads the operation and from where. Amaq has developed an app called Arawi, meaning storyteller or narrator in Arabic.
Islamic State is also adopting new ways of communicating with supporters, including on the encrypted Telegram Messenger service, prompting Telegram to remove multi-user “channels” that members complained were promoting the terrorist group.
Islamic State’s migration to new platforms could be a result of a crackdown by tech companies. The group was “very robust” on Twitter until the site moved to reduce its presence, said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Austin, Texas-based strategic advisory firm Stratfor.
Some attempts by Islamic State to invent media portals have failed to attract large numbers of followers, as in the case of an attempted social-media network called Kilafahbook. But its push toward the latest technology continues. After the attacks in Brussels, the group called for “brothers in Belgium” to use encryption and “stay away from social media.”
Islamic State “seems to be fairly confident it can go the encrypted route, and to date it seems to be working,” said Tricia Bacon, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington and former U.S. State Department counter-terrorism official. Intelligence agencies don’t appear to have had much success detecting electronic communications as Islamic State plotted the attacks in Belgium or the earlier assault on Paris, she said.
“There’s going to be a lot of variation in who’s able to keep up and who’s not,” Bacon said. “Belgium has not been able to keep up, as evidenced by the attacks.”
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