ISIS and Iraq: The T-Shirts, the Cats, the App, the Hasbara

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war. –William Randolph Hearst

Even though I’m not a Middle East expert — and perhaps that’s a good thing — I like to know what’s really happening when our famously free press starts hinting that The Drone King could be getting ready to whack somebody, or when SecDef Hagel starts tossing around the phrase “imminent threat.” Except with ISIS — the (putatively) Islamic state, not AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile’s now rebranded mobile wallet — I don’t think I can know. And even if it would be irresponsible not to speculate that ISIS is creation of the United States government, heck, I’m going to go ahead, be irresponsible, and not speculate. All I can say is that poking at a few of the recent ISIS stories is really unsettling — at least to anybody who remembers the successful disinformation campaign the Bush White House ran on WMDs to get us into Iraq before the 2002 midterms — for reasons I’ll explain by looking at four recent episodes in the media.

The T-Shirts

ISIS, apparently, sells merch. Not just T-shirts and baseball caps, but — gasp — toys for children! Here’s a CNN video from June 24. (I say “seems” because I came in late on this story and Google is a horrible research tool, so, readers, feel free to correct any of my misapprehensions.) Here’s the video:

(If the player doesn’t embed, here’s the original.)

We have pictures of the T-shirts, for sure, and its evident that they were produced by a fully staffed graphics department:


The announcer begins by asking “Who’s behind selling this merchandise”? and CNN correspondent Samuel Burke answers that “We can’t be certain that it’s ISIS making this merchandise” “it does bear all the hallmarks of ISIS,” and that Facebook is playing “whackamole” taking down pages that are selling it. Alrighty then. Asked where this marketing collateral is manufactured, Burke says that “more than likely” it’s made in Indonesia, citing to one J.M. Berger (author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, long-time “author, analyst and consultant on Al Qaeda and domestic U.S. extremism” (for example). Googling on “Berger ISIS Indonesia” we get no confirmation that Berger said any such thing, but the New York Post’s June 24 article on the same story gives us an additional lead:

Hate merchants are peddling hoodies, T-shirts and dolls branded with the logo of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The ghoulish gear is available on the websites of several Indonesian retailers — which advertise their wares on Facebook.

At this point, the attentive reader will not that we have no evidence of whatever that ISIS T-shirts were manufactured and sold; all we have are digital images of T-shirts on Facebook pages that were promptly taken down. More:

The Islamic State’s brutal campaign in Iraq has won plenty of supporters among Sunni Muslims in Indonesia, local terror expert Solahudin told the website Vocativ, which first revealed the vile trend.

OK, let’s go to Vocativ, on June 19:

The T-shirts, which are being offered by Indonesia-based websites, sell for $7 to $13 and have apparently been on the market for several months, according to Facebook posts from Indonesian vendors.  The swag began gaining ground on social media this month after ISIS’ string of brutal victories in Iraq.

Zirah Moslem, a company that calls itself purveyors of “Islamic style,” offers merchandise promoting various terrorist causes, including ISIS. The company’s website, which has more than 9,000 likes on Facebook, says its T-shirts feature “a design that is…always up to date,” which apparently means having a group of kaffiyeh-wearing jihadis pose as if they’re promoting a Hollywood blockbuster. (Update, 6/23: The Facebook pages for Zirah Moslem and the other sites hawking jihadi merch have now been removed from the social network for violating terms and conditions. Their website is still online.)

Hmm. More digital images vanishing from Facebook. Readers, if any of you know anybody who actually purchased one of these T-shirts, or can find a story online about somebody who did, will you post in comments? Meanwhile, I’m sure you’re curious, just as I’m curious, to get an answer to this question: Who’s Vocativ? Forbes answers, and I can’t forbear from quoting the headline:

Vocativ Brings The Tools Of The Spy World Into The Newsroom

If you were to eavesdrop on social-media conversations all over the world involving the term “NSA” and run a sentiment analysis on the results, you’d probably find that the wire-tapping spy agency is none too popular with just about anyone these days.

A new digital news startup called Vocativ has the technology to run just that analysis. Yet its founder, Israeli-born security mogul Mati Kochavi, invites the comparison. He’s organized his newsroom along the lines of an intelligence agency in the belief that journalism needs to undergo the same transformation that’s already swept the field of spycraft….

Kochavi is a multiple entrepreneur whose companies include the security firm AGT International and 3i-MIND, a data-mining outlet whose areas of expertise range from finance to intelligence to urban planning.

Over the past year, Kochavi has been putting his theories to the test, assembling in midtown Manhattan a newsroom of 50 reporters, editors, data analysts, producers and engineers. Overseeing this force is CEO Scott Cohen, formerly the head of digital for the New York Daily News and a veteran of ABC News. The journalists and analysts work in two-person teams to sift the “deep web” for nuggets of news using a proprietary data tool adapted from 3i-MIND’s technology.

The setup is based on standard practice in intelligence agencies, Kochavi says. He worked in intelligence during his mandatory stint in the Israeli military but says his intel background is “modest.”

Well, er. I think at this point I’ll pause, because the combination of a terrorism expert with one book on Amazon and an Israeli data miner and social media maven with an intelligence background who made his fortune in real estate is too much for my simple mind. Frankly, this is beginning to feel like Richard Smith’s beat, not mine. Back to CNN, where the announcer — responding to what we can only assume is the fact that ISIS is selling jihaadi-branded children’s toys — reacts, and file this away for a bit later: “It would be very scary if this caught on as some kind of sick trend.” Indeed!

The Cats

Believe it or not, “Can Haz Islamic State Plz” is a thing; here’s the first tweet, on June 25, from Islamic State of Cat:

Propagation Coverage begins at the conservative site Brietbart:

The Twitter account “Islamic State of Cat” (@ISILCats) appeared on Twitter on June 25, and it is exactly what it sounds like: an account which posts photos of cats alongside terrorist jihadists. Some photos merely showcase the kittens themselves, while others shows jihadists snuggling or playing with kittens– cat in one hand, automatic weapon in the other.

Islamic State of Cat is yet another sign that ISIS, unlike its predecessors, is not only fluent in Western internet language but willing to engage with Westerners in their language….

[The glossily produced ISIS magazine] Al-Hayat is … run by Western Islamists that left their home countries to fight jihad in Iraq and Syria, which is the key distinction between ISIS and similar groups. As the recently released ISIS production “There is No Life without Jihad” shows, ISIS’s audience is disenchanted Muslim men in places like Australia and the UK, who will hear fellow young men their age state how happy killing and waging jihad makes them and be enticed to join the battle. Given the exceptionally high number of Westerners joining ISIS, the promise of the joys of jihad appears to be working– and the free play time with kittens can’t hurt, either.

(See a link on the “exceptionally high” number of Westerners fighting for ISIS? No, me neither.)

Alex Jones’ InfoWars reprints Breitbart on the same day, and the conservative PJ Media picks up the story, embedding a number of the tweets, without citing either.

The (mainstream) Global Post picks up the story on June 26, setting the cat tweets in the larger context of the ISIS media architecture:

How ISIL is gaming the world’s journalists

ISIL’s social media strategy has wowed the masses. VICE called them “total social media pros” and lauded the group’s multi-pronged approach.

Other jihadist groups have made use of online platforms, including Facebook, independent forums and Twitter, but ISIL [another acronym for ISIS] has earned a name for having the most internet success so far. The group has added Android apps, professionally shot and edited videos, and multilingual media outlets to its online arsenal — not to mention their own line of commercial products [the link is to the CNN video we looked at above. Are you getting a kinda hall of mirrors sensation? A certain sense of circularity? –lambert].

Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy [WINEP], says Al Janabi, and others like him, are part of a broad yet relatively centralized network of online ISIL amplifiers. The network centers on three official media outlets: al-I’itisam, Ajnad, and al-Hayat [mentioned above at Brietbart] for multilingual updates.

“Under that, there are key influencers, who are members of the organization in Iraq or Syria, pushing specific content to grassroots supporters,” Zelin said.

Then come the “foot soldiers in theater”: ISIL’s fighters in Iraq and Syria who regularly tweet about their experiences and talk to other fighters online. “From there, you have the fanboys in the Western countries that are online cheerleaders,” Zelin added.

Alrighty. France24 picked up the “fanboys” verbiage on 6/27, although it may have originated at Buzzfeed on June 16. But did you catch any mention of how many of those “key influencers” there actually are? How about “grassroots supporters”? “Fanboys”? No? And the figures of “in theatre” (sense 9) “foot soldiers” turn out to be noticeably sketchy:

And what, I am sure you are asking, is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy? Via MJ Rosenberg at Media Matters Action Network:

The Think Tank AIPAC Built: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard had an excellent piece in Foreign Policy this weekend which alluded to the fact that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP or “The Washington Institute”), often featured on PBS and other news outlets as an “independent source,” is an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) cutout.

Walt is right about the origins of WINEP; it was created by AIPAC. How do I know? As an AIPAC staffer, I was in the room when AIPAC decided to establish WINEP.

It was Steve Rosen (later indicted under the Espionage Act, although charges were subsequently dropped) who cleverly came up with the idea for an AIPAC-controlled think tank that would disseminate the AIPAC line in a way that would disguise its connections.

There was no question that WINEP was to be AIPAC’s cutout. It was funded by AIPAC donors, staffed by AIPAC employees, and located one door away, down the hall, from AIPAC headquarters (It has its own digs now).

But wait! Let’s go back to the question of how many “foot soldiers in theater” ISIS has. The Lebanon Daily Star has sourcing that may surprise you:

But experts believe their military capabilities may have been embellished, and that they are not as strong as their slick media campaign makes out.

“ISIS just don’t show me a real strong combat capability,” said Jeff White, defense expert at the Washington Institute [see above; that’s another name for WINEP], who specializes in the Middle East.

“They are good at ambushes, and good at planting mines, killing civilians and driving through the desert. But that’s not fighting.”

ISIS is estimated to have somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 members, but, as White pointed out, many thousands of these are in Syria, and “there is always a difficulty in counting these irregular forces” as some may be part-time members.

When Iraq’s second-biggest city fell to ISIS, White believes it wasn’t a question of serious fighting, but that the mass desertions on the part of the Iraqi army allowed ISIS to take Mosul.

“If the accounts are true that they took Mosul with 700 or 800 people, that certainly doesn’t reflect any serious fighting,” he said.

(More here.) So, you’d think that AIPAC’s cutout would be blowing ISIS all out of proportion, no? Or is that too simple-minded? Or perhaps the knock-on effects of a social media focus are more important than boots on the ground?

The App

Yes, ISIS has an app (apparently now removed from the Google store). The redoubtable JM Berger once again, in The Atlantic:

One of ISIS’s more successful ventures is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn. The app, an official ISIS product promoted by its top users, is advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the jihadi group.

Hundreds of users have signed up for the app on the web or on their Android phones through the Google Play store.

The app first went into wide use in April 2014, but its posting activity has ramped up during the group’s latest offensive, reaching an all-time high of almost 40,000 tweets in one day as ISIS marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last week. On Sunday, as the media reported on the group’s advance toward Baghdad, hundreds of Dawn app users began sending thousands of tweets featuring an image of an armed jihadist gazing at the ISIS flag flying over the city, with the text, “We are coming, Baghdad”

The volume of these tweets was enough to make any search for “Baghdad” on Twitter generate the image among its first results, which is certainly one means of intimidating the city’s residents.

So ISIS was sending message. But to whom? One answer is to foreign recruits. (Rupert Murdoch’s) VICE:

“Everyone needs a social media campaign today, even political movements in the Middle East it seems. The type of highly focused marketing and social media community building as exhibited by ISIS is something that brands strive for to get their message across,” Dinah Alobeid, a spokesperson for social analytics company Brandwatch, told VICE News.

“From a marketing perspective, it’s obvious ISIS has a calculated approach to social media that looks to recruit new members and connect interested individuals to create a united front. They are positioning themselves as a transparent entity that shares news and updates for their cause.”

Also too, cats. But was the message reaching Iraqis, as Berger implies? The missing fact here is Twitter penetration among the Iraqi users. Did the message even reach them? As it turns out, there’s a study, and Iraq doesn’t show on the charts. Guess who does:


So, it looks like the ISIS Twitter surge wasn’t directed at the Iraqis at all; they don’t use it! And the surge might have been directed at foreign recruits, but if you ask yourself who in the neighborhood is really going to get the message, it’s the Saudis. And would the Saudis be enthusiastic about the Caliphate? Or the breakup of Iraq? Your guess is as good as mine.

Conclusion: ISIS and Hasbara

If there’s a common narrative hook in these episodes — involving as they do a one-man terrorism expert, a wealthy Israeli-born social media expert, two experts from an AIPAC cut-out, a lot of very hip new media operations (Breitbart, VICE, Vocative), Facebook, Twitter, and digital evidence that, darn it, just keeps disappearing — it’s the theme of ISIS recruiting foreigners via social media. In the T-shirts episode, that’s what the CNN announcer exclaimed at — “very scary” — when she thought of teh childrenz being sucked into jihad by toys, the horror; in the cats episode, that’s what the “fanboys” are supposed to do. In the app episode, that’s what VICE’s social media expert thoughts was happening. And that seems to be the agenda at the Heritage Foundation (you know, the folks who invented ObamaCare, though I have to admit I’m not au courant with the hottest foreign policy think tanks):

Cutting Off ISIS Foreign-Fighter Pipelines

It’s called the “pipeline” problem. Ferrying warriors to the war and also returning them home to spread the war elsewhere has become part of the stock and trade of how transnational terrorists do business. The new front in Iraq creates new opportunities for another wave of attacks against the West, either from “lone wolves” or cells organized or supported by the veteran extremists

The United States can plan on two tasks for its future efforts combating transnational terrorism.

First, there is bound to be a new wave of transnational terrorist attacks. That is one big problem. The Obama counterterrorism strategy has predictably failed. Into that void, Al Qaeda and its affiliates will push for the next offensive against the West. To make matters worse, the homeland-security enterprise created after 9/11 to deal with this threat is not in the best of shape. It’s distracted with immigration and borders issues, while many key programs—from Real ID to terrorist watch lists—are under siege from critics, Congress and the courts.

Second, the fact that extremists are so adept at setting up these pipelines, even though the West knows this is a predictable tactic, suggests that the United States and its allies are doing a pretty poor job of anticipating and degrading them. The United States ought to be spearheading a global strategy to preemptively choke off foreign-fighter pipelines, rather than finding out on CNN that they’re popping up.

(Translation: I smell funding!) If we look at the Council of Foreign Relations, however, we get a far different picture:

I am sorry to spoil the party, but the caliphate fantasy being peddled by Isis in Iraq and Syria is not of importance to most Muslims around the world. When I read western newspapers [as we have been doing, with the exception of the English-language Daily Star], I sense an urgency and significance that is out of sync with reality.

Isis may take pride in its ragtag army, commanding what it calls a caliphate, but no Muslim scholar worth his salt has supported this entity. Even Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a major Jihadi cleric, has rejected the group’s experiment. No Muslim government has recognised it.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now calling himself “Caliph Ibrahim”) this week invited Muslims to migrate to his war zone, a call given prominent coverage by most Western news outlets, but the fact that most Muslims ignored his invitation went unnoticed. He called for doctors and engineers to build the caliphate, but not a single Muslim country has seen a mass exodus of people keen to live under his version of sharia.

This is the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. While the Western media fervently pursues the story, at iftar – the breaking of the fast – from Morocco to Indonesia, Muslims are discussing other things.

(Translation: If this guy smells funding, it’s elsewhere.)

So, while “ISIS is recruiting foreigners!” (possibly through social media) is of great concern to one conservative faction of the political class in the United States, it’s of little concern to the other conservative faction. That says little about policy outcomes, of course; the far right often drives the debate, and its always possible for different factions to find a happy “compromise,” a generous meeting of the minds. So at this point, we ask ourselves, cui bono? Who would benefit from a panic and subsequent focus on stopping ISIS from recruiting foreign fighters via social media? Off the top of my head, and thinking only of the United States:

1) The NSA and Obama’s surveillance panopticon, since they’d now have carte blanche to watch domestic Twitter, Facebook, etc. (“rather than finding out on CNN”). At this point, we think of Glenn Greenwald’s story on now the NSA surveilled Muslim American leaders. Guess they’ll have to keep doing that, except more of it!

2) The FBI and organs of state security in this country, and equivalents elsewhere, since agent provocateurs will always be needed;

3) The national security apparatus generally, because the Caliphate is world-wide threat, especially given the pivot to Asia (remember the Indonesian T-shirts);

3) Facebook, Twitter, etc., who bill the government for access to their users (if the deal is like the deal the telcos had with Bush);

4) Our famously free press, because terror drives circulation, share, hits, dollars;

5) Candidates in marginal seats in the mid-terms, who can take “strong stands” (and, if Democrats, punch the hippies);

6) Creative class types generally; consultants, academics, social media experts, talking heads, and so on.

In other words, the usual suspects. Party like it’s 9/12!

Oh, and hasbara. Here’s a fine discussion:

Before I get to specifics, let me provide a general description of hasbara and its purposes. Hasbara is usually translated as “explanation.” That does not do the concept justice. Hasbara links information warfare to the strategic efforts of the state to bolster the unity of the home front; ensure the support of allies; disrupt efforts to organize hostile coalitions; determine the way issues are defined by the media, the intelligentsia, and social networks; establish the parameters of politically correct discourse; delegitimize both critics and their arguments; and shape the common understanding and interpretation of the results of international negotiations. Hasbara is multifaceted and well-adapted to the digital age. It embodies a public-private partnership in which the state leads and committed volunteers follow in implementing an information strategy. In its comprehensiveness and complexity, it bears the same relationship to unidimensional public diplomacy as grand strategy does to campaign plans.

I think if you review the three episodes, it’s clear that they all share the characteristics of hasbara. However, it seems likely to me that there are multiple hasbara campaigns going on, which would make the United States government only one of several actors. The episode that really puzzles me is the app. If my logic is right, ISIS, and/or its backer(s), was sending a big message to the Saudis via Twitter. But what message, and why? Readers should feel free to speculate in comments.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Worker-Owner

    Nice, Lambert. The whole story has stunk like a fine French blue cheese since its inception. We will probably only begin to get some clarity when we see which oil Giant gets control of the “liberated” fields. Clearly, the Kurds have been working hard to liberate themselves as part of some deal … and Turkey is rewarding them for good behavior. The rest of the story? Who can sort out the blizzard of smog?

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘We have pictures of the T-shirts, for sure, and its evident that they were produced by a fully staffed graphics department.’

      Someone should examine the metadata. Prolly authored by the same guy who did Obama’s 10-layer Adobe Illustrator birth certificate.

  2. DakotabornKansan

    Noodle Incident?

    Hobbes: What about the noodle incident?

    Calvin: No one can prove I did that!

    —Calvin and Hobbes

    Using only noodle implements?

    “Kim, PeeJee is our friend. And if someone is worth caring about, they’re worth the effort of a long, convoluted solution that doesn’t actually address the problem. Now, I need four cellphones, ten balls of yarn and two nights worth of cigarettes. I’ve got a miracle to perform.” – Aubrey Chorde, Something Positive

  3. mmckinl

    Excellent reporting Yves … There’s no business like show business …

    ~Mysterious ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vs Osama bin Laden

    ~The dubious IS (Islamic state) vs Al Qaeda (“the list” in Arabic)

    88 pounds of untraceable uranium vs 19 hijackers, of which 8 are known to be alive …

  4. Otto

    I would think the Saudi’s would be rather excited to export their jihadi’s to die in Syria / Iraq. Less troublesome youth in the kingdom.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      And so, I would imagine, with the Brits, the Germans, the French, and possibly the US. After all, you not only kill them off, you get to tighten your domestic surveillance apparatus, so it’s a two-fer.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      They might at first, but potential agitators might wonder about Saudi power with the breakdown of the Iraqi Army. by ISIS. There are only 15,000 Sauds. Why does ISIS need the royal family? Why does the army need the royal family? Would the army fight if the throne was vacant and wealthy Saud clan members skipped town? What is the real strength of the army versus fancy toys?

      The other issue is who exists out there to take over. How long can Saudi Arabia function without a king? I think the ISIS campaign in Iraq will prove to be a disaster as the non-Western aligned Assad military is winning despite an array of heavy hitters supporting the insurgency. I think challengers to the order will be everywhere especially violent ones now that they have seen American “trained*” and equipped troops break.

      *I knew a guy who did one tour at the start of the war, but the Marines decided he was a world class instructor and assigned him permanently to a training range. Did we even send our instructors? Not anyone can do it.

  5. Banger

    ISIS does stink of intel agencies. We have to remember that during the Soviet/Afghan War there was an alliance between U.S., Saudi and Pakistani intel that, in my view, carried over with the addition of others, the Israelis, the Turks, the Brits and the French at the very least. I believe this directorate runs so-called “terrorist” organizations recruiting true-believers as cannon fodder and hiring criminals and mercenaries to do much of the dirty-work. I believe the “terrorist threat” is a lie from beginning to end. ISIS exists precisely to keep the heat on and spread general chaos in the region for the benefit of the ruling elites–all we have to do is to do as the Lambert says–cui bono? Who has benefitted over the past decade and a half? That should always be the start of all our investigations.

    1. Paul Niemi

      I happen to have met Prince Bandar bin Sultan in 1980, when he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and came to speak at a colloquium hosted at my school. The guy I remember was charming, warm, and gregarious, not the evil genius some detractors now describe. I was told to watch Bandar’s career, because he was destined to be an influential mover and shaker. Absolutely true. Now, depending on who is talking, Prince Bandar is either a hero or the personification of evil. I do think ISIS is his brainchild. He failed in overthrowing the government of Libya, succeeded overthrowing the government of Egypt, failed to overthrow the government of Syria so far, and is working to overthrow the government of Iraq. Wow. Two links, one why Bandar was supposedly fired, the second on his quick return to influence:

      Now, should I risk people calling me out for saying I still think Bandar is one of the good guys? It’s OK, because I think it has to do with the way otherwise honorable people may conduct themselves in difficult or hopeless situations, or in war. If you believe that the clock can not be turned back to medievalism, and that governments must observe modern, normative values of human rights, then the process by which the government of Egypt under Morsi was overthrown and the ascension of El-Sisi was orchestrated makes sense. It is not the ends justifying the means, because Morsi and the militant Islamists were already at war with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well the other states in the area. A democratic election of a Morsi is not a baptism, and if a leader is too radical then his neighbors will work to change that and harness popular support to do so. It’s what the person does in office, not how he got there, so he has to continuously work to keep his legitimacy and reach out. I think this doctrine applies to the Baathists, of which Bashar Assad is perhaps the last one, representative of ruthless dictators who wouldn’t hestitate to starve their people, as well as to the “turn back the clock 1000 years” crowd, who imprison women in their houses and blow up everything remotely beautiful. Here’s a link called “Bandar Bush is Back” (it’s impossible to verify this stuff that is being published as true, and it’s pretty amazing to read):

      1. Carolinian

        I’m sure you are familiar with Pepe Escobar who says “Bandar Bush” is behind just about everything including much of the Syria opposition and the fake Syrian gas attack (fake in that it was staged to put the blame on the government). In other words mostly the same info as the Wayne Madsen link although I would take Madsen with a grain of salt as a rule.

        Just to be clear, you are saying that Saudi Realpolitik is justified? Would that also apply to American Realpolitik (even though ours is run by idiiots)? Isn’t the totally autocratic Saudi government the opposite of everything we’re supposed to stand for except that they are very rich which is something we do stand for?

        1. Paul Niemi

          The Pepe Escobar link is nice. He manages to be sarcastic without the world weary tone. When you asked if I meant to advocate Realpolitik in the Middle East, I had to think a minute. The best definition I know is from Boss Tweed: “You heps yer friends, and you hurts yer enemies.” In practice, Harry Truman had amended Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” foreign policy with a policy of “Containment” (of the Soviets). LBJ had used containment to justify intervention in Vietnam, and Nixon introduced Realpolitik to essentially say we would do business with whomever we wanted, starting with China. In essence, Realpolitik is not a foreign policy so much as it is an absence of a policy, a statement saying we will do anything we want, with anyone we want, whenever we want. I don’t agree with that. Especially when dealing with cultures that are strikingly different, we need to be able to articulate what we can do and what we can not do as a representation of our values. Call that Liberal Internationalist, or whatever, but we need to be able to be trusted and honest in our dealings. And the fact is we can be, because we are that big. I don’t like the idea that we might consider spreading chaos to be a goal. In the big picture we can have good relations with Iran, for example, because it is one of the four oldest civilizations in the world and talking to Iran is so rational. Maybe we will step back and let Middle Easterners handle their own problems. Perhaps we can say to Russia, “If you stay out of the conflict, we will stay out of it as well. We can both provide humanitarian aide and accept refugees when necessary.” One thing we know for sure is that war is costly, doesn’t work as intended, and a majority of our people are also against it.

      2. Fiver


        Yours is one of the most revealing comments I’ve ever read anywhere.

        Bandar is ‘one of the good guys’ in the same sense as his good friend, the ‘charming, warm, and gregarious arch sociopath and consummate war criminal Kissinger.

        1. Paul Niemi

          I looked up what Henry Kissinger has said recently, and here he is on the Arab Spring in a 2011 interview with Time: “Its a tremendous historical event that the people in these countries are asserting a claim to participate in government. But the history of revolution shows that the first outburst of the revolution is a coming together of various resentments that don’t necessarily agree with each other. After the first outburst the challenge is how to sort out these resentments and establish a common direction. That is why almost invariably in the history of revolution the first group of revolutionaries get overtaken by some other groups. So the challenge we have now is to see how we can contribute to a democratic revolution that is the first scene of the first act of a five act play.”

          I decided to post that quote after realizing what he said in 2011 is more or less what has played out in Egypt and what is happening now in Iraq. The first revolutionaries have been or are being “overtaken by other groups.”

      3. Banger

        I don’t see world-characters as “good” or “bad” they are just people who pursue their interests and visions. We need to decide whether or not we support these visions and interests. As far as Bandar is concerned, I do not favor his policies or visions–this has nothing to do with and inndividual’s virtue or lack thereof. We like to view things in those simplistic ways and it just doesn’t work that way.

        The Saudi royals represent regressive policies and a general policy of deception, skullduggery, and funding of Islamic extremists. The Saudis are continually allied with the U.S. and the NATO as well as Israel. I oppose the general foreign policy of all those countries–if you support those countries then Bandar is your guy. The Saudis were also key actors in the creation of the 9/11 attacks which helped destroy the U.S. as a Constitutional Republic.

    2. Yonatan

      The British were involved in training ‘moderate’ rebels at the intelligence headquarters in Amman, Jordan. In late 2013 a British Chinook helicopter crashed in a minefield near Jericho in the West Bank whilst flying from Amman to Cyprus. The British government said this flight was just a ‘routine exercise’. A British military aircraft flying through Israeli airspace, particularly within the Occupied Territories, would need Israeli government / military approval. They therefore would have been fully informed on what was going on.

  6. Leviathan

    I’d like to add a slightly different twist to the conversation. What if ISIS is what it says it is (sort of) but also more? What if it is, at its core, a group of millennials: underemployed, over educated, entrepreneurial, social media obsessives, looking to “disrupt” jihadism’s stale model? This is not your father’s fatwa, etc.

    There’s a great subplot in (of all things) 22 Jump Street that involves a drug kingpin’s dynastic troubles with his college aged child. He is nostalgic for traditional drugs like cocaine and heroin, while she wants to push trendy drugs with hard to pronounce names and shows no compunction about killing and violence (as well as a psychotic take on sexual tension/resolution). If you transpose this from drugs to terrorism (and farce to “fact”) you may get a glimpse of a brave new world in which Big Brother can snarkily tweet you whilst also making off with your constitutional rights while you look on, dumbstruck.

    It’s a psyops/social media world now. The kids have twitter handles and guns. You have popcorn and tattered remains of laws overseen by a corrupt global plutocracy. Who do you root for?

    1. William

      Nice post! Well, we’ve been hearing for a long time how many millions of Egyptian, Spanish, etc. young people are unemployed. Like any young person, they yearn for excitement and an outlet for their energy and ideas. The ISIS campaign is providing exactly what many are looking for.

  7. Tony

    To: Saudi Arabia
    From: ISIL
    RE: Operations in (the nation-state formerly known as) Iraq
    Look at us! We’re driving out the Shi’a Iranians! Send money and gear! Don’t tell Washington! (wink, wink)

    1. cwaltz

      Sounds about right. Meanwhile our idiots probably helped train them because – freedom fighters!(unless of course they’re working for people we don’t like then they’re terrorists.)

  8. William

    What a fine, fun, rollicking read.

    T-shirts aren’t scary. What ought to scare the simpleton anti-terrorism, anti-Muslim side is that they cannot claim ownership of a concept half as complex and broad as “hasbara.” And they are up against THREE hasbara campaigns? Maybe time to talk to these “folks” (as Bush might say).

  9. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

    “Jeff White, defense expert at the Washington Institute” probably needs to experience a well-laid ambush and that should change his BS “expert opinion” that people who are good at ambushes are not good at combat. I can just imagine his g’g’g’g’grandfather evaluating the American Revolution:

    “Those American militia, they’re good at shooting from behind rocks and trees, and good at ambushes, but they’re not really good at lining up shoulder-to-shoulder and firing volleys on command, so I would have to say they’re not very good at combat.”

    Jimminy Freakin’ Christmas, what does he think 4G fighters DO to win but “conduct good ambushes” and continue their existence in the face of opposition???

  10. TarheelDem

    Whatever the real threat of ISIS/ISIL to the Iraqi regime, it lies in the capabilities of what follows the ISIS/ISIL tip of the spear. Currently reports are that is an alliance of ex-Baathists, militant Sufis, and Sunni Bedouins who have been left out of power in the Maliki government and treated as second-class citizens. But no one really knows; when combatants do not respect journalistic neutrality news cannot get out. When journalists do not respect journalistice neutrality, news is not helpful anyway.

    The fact remains, however, that ISIS will face the same reality that faced the US after they toppled Saddam Hussein. Someone has to govern and that involves politics; outsiders, either US troops or ISIS fighters, are at a disadvantage in controlling that process. And operating the resulting government as a sectarian spoils system will not provide control for long, as both Morsi and Maliki have found out.

    Regardless of ISIS’s ideology, they finally will not be in control of 25 million Iraqis.

    As for the T-shirts, any IT person who can do a knockoff of Cafe Press and with a way to transfer funds to movements could act as a sales front for a variety of movements, some in conflict with each other and all supposedly promoting Islam. And they could operate it as a topic of a larger general store for themed gear. After all the the Second Amendment fundamentalists and neo-Confederates in the US have been using Cafe Press and other similar operations for this for almost a decade.

    My suspicion is that ISIS is making some Gulf country entrepreneur a very rich man in managing the groups money. The usual suspects have put out the rumor that ISIS holds a billion in assets because they do strict accounting and management of their funds; that has to occur away from the battle front. And since Gulf countries are implicated in the support anti-Assad and anti-Iran groups like ISIS, the likely support location is Gulf countries, to which the Pakistani Mehsudist Taliban warriors are reported to be heading after the Palistani army campaign in North Waziristan.

    Some very good questions about “who are these guys”, Lambert. Thanks for this analysis.

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘After all the Second Amendment fundamentalists and neo-Confederates in the US have been using Cafe Press and other similar operations for this for almost a decade.’

      You mean the constitution allows THAT?

      If the First Amendment gives such bad people a voice, maybe it is not such a good idea after all, huh?

    2. hunkerdown

      Cafe Press? Mass-customizable propaganda is an interesting thought — “just” hook up a different kind of printer to the back end of the canvassing cause sites du jour — but overcomplicated unless you really do want people running around Riyadh with “Yahya al-Majnoun, #114, ISIS” jerseys. News of the World is a more direct answer.

  11. EmilianoZ

    They crossed the line. They shouldn’t drag cats into this. Cats are the most peaceful tolerant creatures.

  12. Katniss Everdeen

    So the idea here is that ISIS is using t-shirts and “hoodies” and “apps” to create a “cool” brand and get believers to join up? Are “logo” t-shirts and hoodies that powerful? Didn’t the US Army try to use NASCAR to get recruits and didn’t get ANY?

    And since this is being “analyzed” as capitalism American style, I’d have a few questions, particularly about the logistics. How do these things get paid for? Visa, Mastercard, Paypal? Maybe more important, how do they get delivered? Post office, FedEX, pony express? I was under the impression that the Middle East was kind of an infrastructure mess these days thanks to 2+ decades of war, sanctions and Halliburton. Where’s the fulfillment center and how do they bullet/fire proof the shipping packaging? How is a shipping address, or billing address for that matter, determined?

    And pretty helpful of these jihadist designers to put ISIS in English, along with an AK-47, the international symbol of terrorism, so that all us Americans could understand it. The rest of that scary Arabic lettering might as well say “I heart my dachsund” for all I know. Now there’s some savvy “branding” for you. It’s the “target market” that’s somewhat obscure.

    Seems like this exercise is tailor-made for gullible Americans, many of whom have never been out of this country, and have absolutely no idea how the rest of the world lives or thinks.

    This has all the hallmarks of that little vial full of deadly yellow powder that Colin Powell held up at the UN over a decade ago that got us into this mess. If memory serves, it was all a hoax. A tragic, expensive, destructive hoax.

    1. MtnLife

      I don’t think these aren’t meant for those in the war zones. It’s for the rest of their “supporters” to “feel good” about supporting a cause while raising money. Think “Boston Strong” t-shirts with mock-terrorist flair.

    2. Jim Haygood

      ‘How do these things get paid for? Visa, Mastercard, Paypal?’

      Of course. And the names go straight onto the NSA ‘suspected terrorist’ surveillance list.

      Any serious jihadi wannabe is gonna pay with a stolen credit card, yo!

    3. NotTimothyGeithner

      I wouldn’t bet against anti-Assad group putting out the shirts. They are being pulled now because it’s a reminded the U.S. and NATO at least indirectly created these monsters in their quest for global supremacy.

  13. MtnLife

    You can tell the whole thing is American by the merchandizing. Those anti-Westerners are just soo materialistic. Where’s my ISIS drink coozy, car shade, and lunchbox/thermos combo? Hey, not only can we meddle in foreign affairs but we can make a buck selling propaganda merch! It must be that fun sect of government who pays for most of their own activities through things like drug running. The CIA needs to be profitable, just like the Post Office.

    I have to say they so stole my cat idea. I was going to make a bunch of cat pics with populist sayings like “I can haz Wall St prosecushunz?”, “I canz stopz polar meltingz”, and grumpy cat all over the MIC because, as we all know, no one pays attention to anything important unless it is over the picture of a cat.

  14. Jackrabbit

    ISIS media coverage exploded after several weeks of media straining to ignore Ukraine and just as the Uki ethic-cleansing of White Christian People was about to get under way in earnest. Just a coincidence?

    Not that they aren’t ‘real’ (sectarian war seems to be the plan), just that their faux success (taking Mozul with 800 troops?) and ‘horror PR’ seems a bit . . . convenient.

    Hey look over there . . . ISIS!!! Oh the horror!

    H O P

    1. Jackrabbit

      Its funny (in an ironic and sad way), I remember Banger and I musing that the media quietude was disturbing . . . two or three weeks later, ISIS hit the headlines.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Yeah, ISIS didn’t destroy an Iraqi army either. At the start of the year, the groups we pressured to get rid of our dirty laundry thought they had surrounded and broken ISIS who moved to isolate and starve the “moderate” rebels into submission. It was a fairly impressive action, and they have been taking credit for violence in Iraq for some time.

      At the time, it was still deemed as rebel infighting, and MSM outlets weren’t going to impunity any hawks by suggesting they may not have a clue even if they could locate Syria on a map.

  15. Keith Ackermann

    Outstanding report. I’d love to know how long it took to put together because it drills down to a surprising depth (how large is your Rolodex getting, Lambert?)

    As to hasbara, the potential for screw-ups and subterfuge is enormous. Jon Stewart occasionally shows montages of on-message “experts and leaders” spouting the same dog whistle phrases, to the point of embarrassment. It makes you seek deeper to find out what is being hidden. The Guardian newspaper now rarely allows comments on stories involving Israel. Their stories might be factually correct, but they don’t allow any alternative viewpoint. It makes one suspicious. It drives one to sites such as 972 Magazine, Haaretz, and others. They can’t control it all (or can they?)

    This quest for total information is already backfiring in unexpected ways. Verizon just lost a major contract in Germany directly due to NSA meddling, and our bugging of the UN is probably costing us dearly now during trade negotiations (everyone else assumes we already know their position).

    Politicians no longer need burglars like Nixon did. They have access to NSA. From now on, the noise of election conspiracy will be deafening. The knowledge that one side has total access to all information and the other side doesn’t will have a chilling effect on trust and the truth. Paranoia is basically fear, and fear is a powerful tool against the uninformed.

    Again, outstanding report. Thank you.

    1. lambert strether

      Thanks for the kind words. My Rolodex is pretty small, actually. This is just straight-forward media critique, like old school bloggers used to do, back in the day, when we thought “more and better Democrats” was the answer.

    2. Fiver


      Good comment.

      You pose ‘those with all the information vs those without” quite correctly as a profound and dispiriting challenge for those desirous of change for a brighter, peaceful future. I rather expect that just as real Islamist ‘jihadists’ would no more wear the stupid shirts, or tweet, or post a running scoreboard of ‘kills’ with video atrocities from who-knows-what-war-or-‘set’, the political movement that finally emerges within the US to challenge the nexus of State/corporate power will do so at the ballot box via a return of real, face to face, hand in hand, grass roots activism if it is to occur at all.

  16. PopeRatzo

    ? Who would benefit from a panic and subsequent focus on stopping ISIS from recruiting foreign fighters via social media? Off the top of my head, and thinking only of the United States:

    I can think of one middle-eastern country that stands to benefit. One that is of the habit of using overwhelming, expensive force and expansionism in reaction to “threats”.

    And they’ve been at this “hasbara” business for quite a while now. It’s an apartheid state with a right-wing government and money to spend on US-produced weaponry.

    Any guesses?

    1. Keith Ackermann

      Well, at least they are not overrepresented in their ownership of US media.
      (/ snark)

  17. fresno dan

    You forgot the porn site.
    They said its all amateur, but some of those ladies look familiar…..
    I’d post a link, but I know this is a family blog….

    1. lambert strether

      You’re kidding. The mind reels. This is “not your father’s jihaad,” I guess. If you’re not kidding, please send me the link — you can use the contact form at my blog…

      1. Peter Pan

        Well, if ISIS really wants to “penetrate” the internet with it’s propaganda, it could use the free porn sites to achieve mind blowing results. Just imagine a video titled “Jihadist martyr meats 40 virgins in heaven”.

  18. Ben

    Am I the only one who can’t find the article linked to in the opening paragraph?
    This link appears to be “broken”: ISIS is creation of the United States government
    Is everyone else having this problem as well?

  19. issac read

    Factor in this interview after min 38, (it’s longish) with a 30 yr contract intelligence employee who flew for Iran Contra and now lives in NM. He believes there are important connections with whats going on on our southern borders and the Middle East. “Russians,” indeed.

  20. Fiver

    You’re on a roll, Lambert.

    This is the most transparently manufactured entity, ‘threat’, goal and tactics we’ve ever witnessed, so evidently a ‘Plan B’ following the horrific debacle in Syria it is at great risk – to US/Saudi/Israeli intelligence operations and Governments – of unraveling right in front of the cameras. In fact, it is hard to believe the people running these operations in Syria, and then Ukraine, would even attempt another one so quickly, and with so very many gaping holes in the logic, the various official claims, and media support.

    If it can be demonstrated that ISIS is what amounts to a fraud – lethal though it may be – the independent press will have high-level political and intel/security heads on platters in several countries, and enough perhaps to determine who runs in the next elections. This is a very, very big deal and we just may have Them where we want them – out on their butts.

  21. ess emm

    Nice reporting, Lambert. A+
    Hasbara is running wild in the most propagandized nation on earth, the US.

  22. Yonatan

    Irrespective of who is funding ISIS, how it was formed, what are its real objectives, etc, etc. there is no doubt that the US military could replay, should it wish, the Iraq Highway of Death against ISIS at anytime of its choosing. It does not does so because the actions of ISIS are in line with current US in this area of the ME. ISIS will continue to exist until it ceases to serve the interests of the US government.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      If Obama were to go into Iraq, his polls will drop to 20% and Democrats will face the same drop or have to oppose them.

      It’s important to remember the conduct of t he Iraq War was propaganda. We went into Iraq because knocking out the state and traditional military would be easy if they didn’t create a fortress Baghdad. The Iraqis more or less surrendered. Half the ordinance in the first three weeks was just meant for nightly news broadcasts, but dead civilians in Iraq caused by Obama’s bombs will destroy his lie about leaving Iraq.

      How many assets do we have in the region? It’s not what it was. Constant surveillance and follow up bombing is probably impossible against a low tech outfit with decentralized leadership.

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