Thanks for listening to ISIS radio in English

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Marco Werman: The Islamic State, or ISIS, has proved itself to be a formidable military force in Syria or Iraq, but it is also a master of propaganda, although often of a pretty gruesome kind. This month, ISIS opened up a new propaganda technique: radio news bulletins in English.


[Excerpt from ISIS radio news bulletin]


Werman: Wow. Okay, that’s a sample of today’s Islamic State English language radio broadcast. I’ve got The World’s Leo Hornak with me in London. It sounds pretty professional, Leo.


Leo Hornak: It does, doesn’t it Marco? I mean, it’s interesting, when you look at a lot of ISIS propaganda, as I have done unfortunately, a lot of it is quite sensational, sort of slow motion explosions, that kind of thing. This, they’re going for something it seems very different. As you heard, they’re almost a kind of BBC or Public Radio-style news bulletin with a very factual voice reading out military victories, and attacks and defenses, and so on. And they’re going, it seems, as far as we can tell, for something authoritative and very calm, which is out of step with the rest of their propaganda efforts so far.


Werman: So, what are they talking about when they’re doing these broadcasts?


Hornak: It’s a very downbeat description of where an attack happened, where this martyrdom operation was enacted--martyrdom meaning suicide bombing--where they defended against the Kurdish Peshmerga. Not much commentary in English, and it’s quite short, and that’s in contrast to the kind of radio broadcasts that they’re doing in other languages. In Arabic, there are quite extensive Islamic State broadcasts. They have a discussion program, I’m told by my colleagues at BBC Monitoring, which goes into their approach to education, and it’s almost like a sort of quite high brow examination of the theory of education within their worldview. There’s also broadcasts  apparently, we think, in Russian, in French, and Kurdish. The English broadcasts are quite a small part of the effort, really.


Werman: Okay, so a small part of the effort, but clearly somebody there, the man we just heard, has something that sounds like an American accent. So, do they assume that there are some English listeners out there?


Hornak: Indeed, and it’s also very professional-sounding. You and I know, as radio professionals, you need quite a lot of professional equipment to get something sounding as clean and as professional as that.


Werman: Clearly they know that there are some English speakers out there listening to their broadcasts.


Hornak: That’s one of the question marks really that still exist about this broadcast. We’re not clear at the moment, and the BBC isn’t clear, whether it is being broadcast on a conventional radio signal in Iraq and Syria. The way it certainly is being distributed is online and through social media and Twitter accounts, and that suggests obviously that the targets are potential recruits in the English-speaking world. Now, we know they have been remarkably successful in this regard in the past. There are estimated to be hundreds of ISIS fighters and recruits from English-speaking nations, so it would make sense that this fits into that part of the propaganda aim. What’s a little bit more surprising, I think, is that this is not propaganda in the “recruitment” sense. It’s not saying, “Your future lies with the Islamic State,” it’s saying, “We fought this battle in this particular province today and we won.” So, it’s much more factual and much more news-like, which possibly suggests it’s aimed at actual fighters in the field who speak English.


Werman: So, in the little excerpt we heard from the English broadcast there, we heard some music, but that was kind of music of clerics, I suppose. Presumably no other music on this FM broadcast.


Hornak: There are Islamic hymns and the subject of what counts as music in strict Sunni Islam is an interview in itself. But the way it’s introduced in many of their propaganda videos on  Youtube also use chanting with no instruments exactly as you heard.


Werman: The World’s Leo Hornak who’s been listening to some broadcasts from the Islamic State. Thanks very much. We appreciate it, Leo.


Hornak: No problem, Marco. Thank you.