“We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, purportedly wrote in a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who led al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time. The previous year, Zarqawi’s network, originally known as Tawhid and Jihad, had publicly released more than 10 beheading videos, including a video believed to show Zarqawi himself beheading the American businessman Nicholas Berg. This was bad PR, Zawahiri cautioned his hotheaded field commander, and risked alienating Muslims.
Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, but the hyper-violent form of sectarian jihad he pioneered emphatically lives on in the form of ISIS, the direct descendent of al-Qaeda in Iraq. While the group hasn’t exactly followed Zawahiri’s counsel about winning hearts and minds, it has proven fantastically adept at exploiting new social media to disseminate its message. Indeed, it is no exaggeration—although it may now be clichéd—to say that as well as being one of the most savage terrorist groups in the world today, ISIS also has the slickest propaganda. Its media arm Al Ḥayat has produced hundreds of films, ranging from three-minute beheading videos to hour-long features improbably combining elements of travelogue, historical documentary, and atrocity porn. Many are high-quality productions involving Hollywood-style techniques and special effects. One video, titled Clanging of the Swords, Part 4, drew particular praise from the late New York Times media critic David Carr, who wrote, “Anybody who doubts the technical ability of ISIS might want to watch a documentary of Fallujah that includes some remarkable drone camera work.”