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Monday, February 6, 2023

Gas Stations, Terror Balloons and Team Spirit: ISIS Propaganda Since Baghdadi’s Death

Four days after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest during a U.S. raid on his Syrian compound, Islamic State media announced the appointment of new caliph Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.

ISIS’ extended media network — propaganda and recruitment outreach including official media, allied media groups and independent operators spread across the globe — likewise didn’t miss a beat, continuing to churn out materials that not only lauded the late terror leader but vowed to carry on. The online propaganda produced and disseminated since Baghdadi’s death reflects allegiance to al-Qurashi, the push to keep broadening the reach of the terror group, and the drive to recruit unlikely operatives for message-sending attacks.


Gas Stations, Terror Balloons and Team Spirit: ISIS Propaganda Since Baghdadi’s Death Homeland Security Today
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A tutorial in a 2012 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine highlighted the damage caused by various wildfires and instructed jihadists on picking optimum weather conditions for arson and where to set a blaze to inflict maximum devastation. “The most important damaging result… is the spreading of terror among the targeted community,” al-Qaeda said.

ISIS has similarly promoted arson as a terror tactic, a messaging push that flares up whenever wildfire season sends communities fleeing. Promoting the use of arson — both of occupied structures and of tinder-dry wildlands — as a cheap terror tactic that requires little skill but can inflict immense fear and harm, ISIS claimed this spring that the terror group was behind a series of wildfires in Iraq and Syria. In January 2017, ISIS’ now-defunct Rumiyah magazine told would-be jihadists that they should look for dry brush “as fire cannot endure in damp or wet environments.” The article added that “incendiary attacks have played a significant role in modern and guerrilla warfare, as well as in ‘lone wolf’ terrorism.”

Recent propaganda has also included a push for jihadists to target gas tankers and stations: “Targeting oil and gas transport trucks with accidental accident that causes the truck to overturn,” directed one poster from ISIS-supporting Quraysh Media, which also showed a calendar at the bottom of the page switching from 2019 to 2020. “Targeting gas stations by throwing a cigarette to look like an accident. Do a search for the presence of oil pipelines, and then burn them.”

Novel attack suggestions

Gas Stations, Terror Balloons and Team Spirit: ISIS Propaganda Since Baghdadi’s Death Homeland Security Today
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Since the terror group burst onto the scene, ISIS’ official media and allied media groups have seemingly tried to one-up each other by suggesting the weirdest or hardest-to-predict attack methods, including taking out a Craigslist ad for a small apartment and picking off interested renters who came for a showing, killing lone patrons who stumble out of a bar and into adjacent alleys, or using poisonous plants to inflict casualties. A year ago, an ISIS-allied media group directed the “lone lion” to “kill the infidels in ways which no one else ever used,” including “snake,” “smoke,” “poison,” “wild animals,” “poisoned arrow,” “killing gaz [sp],” and “electricity.”

Since Baghdadi’s death, another suggested tactic was floated in a propaganda poster from an ISIS-supporting media group: a hot-air terror balloon. In a poster titled “The Airship,” showing a hot-air balloon floating over the U.S. Capitol with a handful of uniformed soldiers photoshopped in the foreground, the Quraysh Media infographic suggests that operatives can “burn large areas using the airship, by throwing (fire) from the airship on different places after you pass over the forest.” They suggest using the balloon to surveil and target military leaders from above, or using it as a “booby-trapped plane” through which explosives can be sent to a target location. “Airship can be used for transportation, hiding and migration,” the poster continued. “The idea can be developed by a specialist to make the airship work via (remote control) to carry out attacks through it.”

Gas Stations, Terror Balloons and Team Spirit: ISIS Propaganda Since Baghdadi’s Death Homeland Security Today
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Loyalty pledges

After Baghdadi’s death, ISIS’ Shura Council convened “immediately after being sure,” according to the terror group, and “mutually agreed” to pledge allegiance to “the mujahid, knowledgeable, working, God-fearing” Abu Ibrahim. Their statement urged Muslims to rally around the new leader because “he fought against the protector of the Cross — America — and inflicted on it woes upon woes” and is thus “aware of its method of war and realizes its scheming deception.”

Declared ISIS provinces have taken up their banners, so to speak, and filmed or photographed images of fighters gathered in team-spirit huddles and holding their index fingers aloft from Africa to southeast Asia, and notably including cells in Iraq and Syria. The circulation of these oaths of allegiance, which appeared online very quickly after the appointment of the new caliph, were intended to signal strength of the terror movement despite setbacks, but also pushed the message that rank-and-file jihadists aren’t that married to the idea of a figurehead leader and won’t base their allegiance on whether those leaders fall.

ISIS propaganda has also included overt threats of retaliation for Baghdadi’s death. “We will soon take revenge on millions of disbelievers,” vowed one nonspecific threat soon after the terror leader was killed. “Today is your time, tomorrow is our [sp]. One lion gone, other take his place.”

Gas Stations, Terror Balloons and Team Spirit: ISIS Propaganda Since Baghdadi’s Death Homeland Security Today
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Showing geographic range

The push to ensure ISIS visuals — and warm bodies in jihadist garb — extend far beyond the territory of the former physical caliphate began long before Baghdadi’s demise. In a November 2016 audio message, he referred to ISIS units in regions such as Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Indonesia, Philippines, Sinai, Bangladesh, West Africa and North Africa as the “base of the caliphate,” and warned that “kuffar [disbelievers] will try to split you.”

ISIS’ official weekly newsletter al-Naba led its last issue with its claim of killing dozens of soldiers in a Mali ambush, highlighted loyalty pledges in Libya, and devoted two-thirds of a page to an IED attack in the Sinai. The terror group has always boasted of its global reach, but after the Syrian Democratic Forces cleared the last territory once claimed as the caliphate ISIS’ media messaging placed greater weight on the provinces still viewed as thriving or growing. Regardless of the degree of the terror group’s resurgence in Iraq and Syria, ISIS wants to ensure that its seeds in other parts of the world are nurtured in the form of publicity that translates into recruitment.

Telegram pushback

Gas Stations, Terror Balloons and Team Spirit: ISIS Propaganda Since Baghdadi’s Death Homeland Security Today
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More recent content from ISIS adherents has included reaction to their newfound stumbling blocks thrown up by Telegram, a messaging app where online operatives of the terror group found a haven of sorts after crackdowns on Facebook and Twitter. Europol announced Monday that it has been working with Telegram over the past year and a half “with the common aim of ensuring that material glorifying terrorism would be removed from internet as soon as possible,” and said the company “has put forth considerable effort to root out the abusers of the platform by both bolstering its technical capacity in countering malicious content.” Belgian prosecutors’ spokesperson Eric Van Der Sypt told reporters in The Hague that several ISIS servers had been knocked out, but he “cannot say at this time it is 100 percent; we will see how they recuperate from this.”

Cue the ISIS propaganda urging followers to rally against media companies — they’re previously threatened to attack companies such as Twitter for going after the terror group’s followers — and to make sure they stay entrenched online by any means. “Hey Telegram,” said a statement published by pro-ISIS Quraysh Media. “Your campaign on Telegram will complicate the situation, the ‘Ansar’ will spread everywhere, the goal will become hidden, and it will spread the thought secretly.”

Urging lone jihadist action

Gas Stations, Terror Balloons and Team Spirit: ISIS Propaganda Since Baghdadi’s Death Homeland Security Today
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Encouraging attacks by independent operators has long been a staple of ISIS’ strategy, and the current stream of propaganda coincides not just with Baghdadi’s death but with the holiday season — a traditional time for increased online threats against Christmas targets, tourist centers, and religious institutions. Yet it also reflects the current dispersement strategy of ISIS — to capitalize on its far-flung adherents and put every soft target under threat, encouraging attacks that require little skill or planning while growing the pool of homegrown extremists.

One recent poster showed a lit match and four unnamed operations ticked off as “done,” with a “5” and “Who is next?” A number of European locations, led by France, was listed along the matchstick.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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