As wind-whipped wildfires char parts of California, ISIS supporters distributed a propaganda poster showing a flaming street in San Francisco accompanied by one of their fire-themed slogans.
With the headline “Flames of War,” the photoshopped image depicts the 400 block of Geary Street, with an ISIS flag perched above the vertical sign for the Touchstone Hotel. Two heavily armed jihadists stand in the middle of the street, alight with embers in addition to the buildings on the block.
The image was circulated online last week at about the same time as the beginning of the Kincade Fire north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, which may have been sparked by power lines during intense winds.
San Francisco is not a commonly pictured target in terror threats but has previously appeared in ISIS propaganda. A 2016 ISIS video, which featured a Bosnian and two French jihadists encouraging attacks, included shaky footage of the Golden Gate Bridge, shot from the pedestrian walkway, showing one of the supports of the suspension bridge before focusing on the cars. Additional footage showed Pine Street and then focused on the top of the 52-story 555 California Street tower in the financial district, the second-tallest building in San Francisco. The mystery cameraman then filmed the route of a cable car along Powell Street. The video was released on the same day as the city’s LGBT Pride parade and included copious praise for Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen.
The city has figured into a recently disrupted terror plot: Everitt Aaron Jameson, a Modesto, Calif., tow-truck driver who pleaded guilty last year to planning a Christmas-season attack on San Francisco’s Pier 39, argued to an undercover FBI employee, according to court documents, that he was especially “useful” to the ISIS cause as “I can blend in. Or shock and awe.”
“Flames of War” refers to two of the most-hyped feature films from ISIS’ official media unit. The first “Flames of War” debuted in September 2014, lasted nearly an hour and concluded with a mass execution. In 2017 they released “Flames of War II,” which included footage from attacks in the U.S. and Europe and showed a U.S. map with fireballs descending on a handful of locations.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS, though, have taken notable interest in California wildfires in seasons past.
Long 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 in May that the terror group was behind a series of wildfires in Iraq and Syria. In the ISIS newsletter al-Naba article, “Roll Up Your Sleeves and Begin the Harvest — May Allah Bless What You Reap,” ISIS reminded “soldiers of the caliphate” that they “have before you millions of acres… their plantations, fields and homes, as well as their economic foundation” to burn.
In threats directed at the West, ISIS and al-Qaeda have linked their calls for wildland arson to devastating fires occurring at that time, stressing to supporters that they can wreak similar havoc by intentionally sparking blazes as their method of jihad.
“O america, This is the punishment of bombing Muslims in Syria,” stated a November threat from ISIS supporters that circulated online with an image of the California wildfires. “This is Allah’s punishment for you. And in shaa Allah, you will see more fires.”
At the time, official ISIS media also highlighted the damage and death toll of the wildfires in multiple issues of al-Naba.
In January 2017, ISIS’ now-defunct Rumiyah magazine told would-be jihadists that “incendiary attacks have played a significant role in modern and guerrilla warfare, as well as in ‘lone wolf’ terrorism,” and said wildfires around Israel that month “demonstrated the lethality of such an effortless operation.”
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. It also included instructions for making an “ember bomb” incendiary device.
“The most important damaging result… is the spreading of terror among the targeted community,” al-Qaeda said.