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ISIS videos are sickening. They’re also really effective.

ISIS's propaganda videos are some of the foulest things on the internet. These videos aren't just grisly celebrations of violence. They're a tactic, one highly calculated to convince people to leave home and join ISIS. And it's working: Around 20,000 fighters from 100 different countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS according to US National Intelligence director James Clapper. But why are people actually attracted to this fetishization of killing? The video below explains why. Please be aware that it contains images that might be disturbing to some audiences.

ISIS videos appeal to young people — mostly young men — who feel like their lives lack a sense of purpose or direction. Some fighters come from places like Tunisia and Morocco, where youth unemployment is sky high — but they come from enough different countries from around the world that we can say, with confidence, that radicalization isn't just about either proximity to ISIS or poverty. It's about something more: a sense of political grievance on the part of the recruits, sure, but also a life of romantic adventure in a holy war.

ISIS values high-quality media

ISIS videos are markedly different from the earlier al-Qaeda productions, which were often low-action, single-cut videos, shot in a cave with no music. ISIS, by contrast, employs a range of sophisticated camera and editing techniques as well as animation and effects unparalleled among violent Islamists. The videos are often in English and other languages, making the goal of appealing to international audiences very clear.

ISIS Fighter Video (ISIS)

A foreign fighter from France delivers a recruiting message.

ISIS videos are not just tech-savvy. There's a real plot to them, a story designed to exonerate the group's barbarism and paint its enemies as the real evil. Combat footage shows ISIS triumphs, credited to the will of God.

The group also sells itself as a real government. The videos often claim to show the range of medical and social services available to people living under ISIS rule (which don't seem to actually exist).

To beat ISIS's propaganda, you have to beat ISIS

Young ISIS fighter

A young fighter featured in an ISIS recruiting video.

ISIS's propaganda strategy has one huge weakness: It depends on the real-life perception that the group is winning. ISIS sells itself as the inevitable, God-backed victor in its war against virtually all of the Middle East. If it were to be seriously beaten back, this narrative would fall apart — and with it, its promise of glory for foreign recruits.

And ISIS is, in fact, losing on the battlefield — though it's managed to hold on to enough territory and win new victories to keep up its narrative. The only way to beat back ISIS's ability to recruit, in the long run, will be to expand on the defeats ISIS has already suffered.


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