Media war: ISIS insights from former Mideast correspondent

By Rebecca Phillips, University Communications

pintak-l-2011-80PULLMAN, Wash. – The beheading of American freelance journalist James Foley. YouTube videos flaunting a Jordanian pilot’s fiery death. Mass beheadings and other barbaric images tweeted and posted on Facebook. Week-by-week the Islamic State, known as ISIS, ratchets up atrocity and serves it to news outlets around the globe.

To insiders, it’s a media war.

“ISIS is a master of media manipulation,” said Lawrence Pintak, former CBS News Middle East correspondent and founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

Lawrence Pintak, former CBS News Middle East correspondent and founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

“The group is extremely effective at using media to recruit Westerners who then return to their home countries and wreak chaos,” he said.

Indeed, J.M. Berger at the Brookings Institution estimates that ISIS and its supporters produce up to 200,000 tweets and other social media posts each day in pursuit of new members, according to The provocative bait has successfully attracted foreign fighters from all over the world including the United States.

As a result, the Obama administration is ramping up national efforts to counter the ISIS propaganda machine. As reported by the New York Times, a small State Department agency called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications will coordinate alternative messages, including those generated by foreign allies and prominent Muslim leaders opposed to the extremist organization.

Unlikely sophistication

ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is a long-simmering Sunni jihadist rebel group that has surged to global prominence and is widely condemned by nations around the world. It is a terrorist organization that operates in Iraq, Syria, other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

“Ultimately, ISIS wants to destabilize nations, overthrow all the governments in the Middle East and establish a single entity ruled by Sharia Law where political leadership is synonymous with religious leadership,” Pintak said. “Their goal is to reinstate the original Caliphate, the Islamic kingdom that followed the prophet Mohammed.”

According to a CNN article by Peter Bergen, this mindset follows a prediction by the prophet that armies of Islam and Rome would meet for an epic end-times battle in the Syrian town of Dabiq. ISIS hopes to goad Western powers into invading Syria in order to confirm that prophecy and bring about the triumph of true Islam.

And though the stereotype of ISIS is that of an archaic group hiding out in the desert, in reality, said Pintak, it is a hugely sophisticated organization in its use of computers, the Internet and propaganda – as seen in its recent hacking of Newsweek magazine’s Twitter account.

Why do they do it?

On blogs and social media sites around the world, people have voiced outrage at ISIS’ ferocious brutality and have questioned why the group resorts to such measures.

“The kidnappings garner millions of dollars in ransom money,” said Pintak. “And these horrific executions frighten people – which generates news coverage, which generates fear and causes further unrest in already shaky countries.

“Take the burning of the Jordanian pilot,” he said. “The video was like a Hollywood production with very sophisticated graphics and special effects. This was not someone using an iPhone.

“The murder caused great angst in Jordan – which is already destabilized by millions of refugees from Syria and Iraq – and leads to unrest that serves ISIS’ purpose of increasing internal turmoil,” he said.

Handout videos

Such brutality also helps ISIS effectively control the type of news coverage coming out of Syria and Iraq. Pintak said it is now virtually impossible for Western reporters to spend any significant time in the region.

“Journalists are targeted because ISIS and other militant groups don’t want them there,” he said. “The Internet means they no longer need or want independent reporters; now they can tell their own skewed version.

“We’re hostage to all of this handout footage,” he said. “When ISIS releases videos of beheadings or the immolation of the pilot, the American public may not see all of it; but they see the highlights and that serves ISIS’ purposes.

“It’s a journalist’s job to look at all sides of a story and put together a balanced piece – not just show footage produced by one side,” he said.

They don’t need us anymore

It was a different world in the early 1980s when Pintak was a young journalist in Lebanon covering American kidnappings and the birth of suicide bombings.

“The bad guys needed us around to report on the bad things they were doing then,” he said. “They needed journalists as they had no other way to get the stories out.

“Now, the extremists don’t need us,” he said. “They have social media and their own ‘reporters’ who are shooting their own stories and posting them on the Web.”

Pintak said things began to change around 2005 during the Iraqi civil war.

“Each faction was shooting video of its own car bombings and other atrocities and giving the footage to Western and Arab media,” he said. “They said, ‘You have to run this,’ but when the media pushed back and said, ‘No, we’re going to cover the stories ourselves,’ journalists began to be targeted and killed in a systematic way.”


“All of this has long-term implications for the U.S.,” Pintak said.

“Whether ISIS survives is an open question. But they have literally wiped out the border between Syria and Iraq, and both countries have degenerated into fiefdoms ruled by rival militias,” he said. “And it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

“Then there’s the wild card of what happens with Israel in all of this,” he said. “There have already been some clashes with Israelis along the Syrian border. If ISIS got a complete foothold in Syria and Israel was seriously threatened, by definition, the U.S. gets involved.”


Lawrence Pintak, WSU Murrow College of Communication, 509-335-8535,
Rebecca Phillips, WSU University Communications, 509-335-2346,