Seventy-two hours before America was set to elect its next president, ISIS barged into the debate, breaking what had been a protracted and somewhat surprising electoral silence for its propagandists.
Throughout the last year, the U.S. presidential race had been the elephant in the ISIS media room; for one reason or another, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s propaganda moguls neglected to address it. Montages of “Crusader leaders” staking bombastic rhetorical claims are a favorite trope for the ISIS media operative, so it seemed that talk by the U.S. presidential candidates of things like “carpet-bombing” ISIS or “[taking] out their families” might provide valuable programming for their propaganda. Yet, besides one fleeting reference to the catalyzing role the “presidential electoral campaign in America” played in the run-up to the operation to retake the group’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, not once did the group deign to tackle the issue directly.
That is, until Saturday, when one of the Islamic State’s official propaganda arms, the Al Hayat Media Center, released a seven-page essay on “The Murtadd Vote” (“murtadd” meaning “apostate”). Even this, the group’s first election-focused media product, opted to sidestep the considerable propaganda value presented by the current campaign, instead offering up an ISIS twist on electoral advice. Written in dense but fluent English, it marked a departure from the group’s normal media operations, in that it ostensibly targeted a group to whom it rarely pays any attention—American Muslims. The aim was to try to convince them not to vote. There is, perhaps, some irony to the group’s intervention in an electoral process it considers illegitimate, even to urge abstention. The image of theocratic fundamentalists making a pitch to voters on the eve of a democratic election is an incongruous spectacle.