Notable trends in the use of images in online terrorist magazines

As a new member of Cyberterrorism Project, I have been very eager to assist in the latest research projects. One of these projects involves the large dataset, collected by previous Project interns cataloguing thousands of images taken from the online magazines of terrorist organisations. These organizations have been creating and disseminating online magazines for some time; well known examples include so-called Islamic State’s Dabiq, and Al Qaeda’s Inspire. During my search for existing literature regarding images in online terrorist magazines, I became aware that the majority of the current literature focuses on the text of these publications, and there is at present relatively little research into their use of images. Having read the small amount of academic research that has investigated this topic, I found that it revealed some noteworthy themes.

The first theme was noted in research by Winkler, El Damanhoury, Dicker and Lemieux (2016) who researched the recurring use of death-related images which they have termed ‘about to die images’. Although some death-related images are a display of martyrdom, the overwhelming majority contain the terrorist organisation killing their enemies. Some images are taken pre-death and are accompanied by a tagline confirming that the killing took place; others are taken post-death. Both the former and latter types of death-related images aim to instil fear and terror in the readers by displaying that the death of their enemies is not a threat, it is a reality. Images that are taken pre-death without the confirmation of a tagline, such as prisoners walking towards terrorists armed with weapons aim to instil fear and terror differently. These images leave the fate of the terrorists’ prisoner to the readers’ imagination, which in turn encourages the reader to consider their own vulnerability to death and the organisation. The last types of death-related images are those that showcase the range of weaponry and methods of killing (e.g., guns, fire, bombs) that the terrorist organisations have access to, and the traumatic aftermath that follows (e.g., destroyed homes). These images provide the least amount of information regarding the outcome of the image, and thus invite the reader to engage even more than other images in interpreting the deadly potential of the organisation.

The second theme, which was found across more than one article, is the use of techniques to create a positive portrayal of the ‘in-group’ (the terrorist organisation) and a negative portrayal of the ‘out-group’ (e.g., the West). The most common technique noted in portraying the in-group positively was the display of photographs of the organisations carrying out ‘charitable’ work (Wright & Bachmann, 2015). Noted examples include photographs of bags of food that are accompanied by taglines explaining that the organisation will donate them to individuals in need,  members of the organisation ensuring that no spoiled foods are sold at market, and that there are no harmful substances in slaughterhouses (Greene, 2015). These photographs present the idea that these organisations care about the health and welfare of the communities in which they live (Greene, 2015), and could potentially appeal to individuals around the world in desperate need of a sense of belonging and responsibility. A common technique noted that negatively portrayed the out-group was the use of photographs displaying innocent civilian victims killed by the out-group, including children. These photographs are likely to elicit feelings of sympathy towards the cause, and anger towards the West (Lyer, Webster, Hornsey, & Vanman, 2014). Lastly, there were notable differences in the photographs of terrorist leaders and Western leaders. Terrorist leaders are often photographed from an angle that results in readers ‘looking up’ at the leader, the photographs are usually staged with the leader wearing religious or military attire, and they are portrayed as being in control of the situation. On the contrary, photographs of, for example, President Obama, are often unstaged where he is captured with a worried or unhappy facial expression which portrays him as vulnerable, weak and unable to handle difficult situations (Otterbacher, 2016).

The last theme that was noted was highlighted in research undertaken by Sivek (2013) that images are often displayed in the style of Western pop culture. Noted examples are photographs of international leaders captioned with funny quotes in a handwriting-style font not dissimilar to the style found in weekly Western fashion magazines, and photographs displaying the steps to bomb-building not dissimilar to the style of home improvement instructions. This style is also found in the magazines advertisements with pictures of terrorists laid out in a style similar to how a Western movie poster would lay out pictures of actors. The use of this Western style is most likely used because it is familiar to those the magazines are aimed at and thus could potentially help to normalise the jihadi content and make the ideas it presents appear acceptable. Once something is normalised to an individual, the chances of that individual incorporating those views into their own worldview is increased. Moreover, this style could add to the ‘street credit’ of the content by making it appear ‘cool’.

The three themes noted all have the same underlying potential to radicalise and recruit those who are exposed to them. Although a start has been made, there is still a great deal of work to be done to better understand the use of images by terrorist organisations in their online magazines. This understanding could be crucial to the creation of new counter-narrative and counterterrorism strategies. I am excited to further explore the dataset we hold and to contribute to this emerging area of research.

Amy-Louise Watkin is the Cyberterrorism Project’s new Project Officer. You can follow her on Twitter @CTP_ALW


Greene, K. J. (2015). ISIS: Trends in Terrorist Media and Propaganda. International Studies Capstone Research Papers, 3, 1-577

Lyer, A., Webster, J., Hornsey, M. J., & Vanman, E. J. (2014). Understanding the power of the picture: the effect of image content on emotional and political responses to terrorism. Journal of Applied Social Psychology44(7), 511-521.

Otterbacher, K. A (2016) New Age of Terrorist Recruitment: Target Perceptions of the Islamic State’s Dabiq Magazine. UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research, 19, 1-21

Sivek, S. C. (2013). Packaging inspiration: Al Qaeda’s digital magazine Inspire in the self-radicalization process. International Journal of Communications, 7, 584-606

Winkler, C. K., El Damanhoury, K., Dicker, A., & Lemieux, A. F. (2016). The medium is terrorism: Transformation of the about to die trope in Dabiq.Terrorism and Political Violence, 1-20.

Wright, J., & Bachmann, M. (2015). Al Qaida’s Persuasive Devices in the Digital World. Journal of Terrorism Research6(2).

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