Oct 24, 2015

The Hypnotic Power of ISIS Imagery in Recruiting Western Youth

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.
October 20, 2015

The Hypnotic Power of ISIS Imagery in Recruiting Western Youth

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. : is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com


A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a commonly accepted piece of wisdom—one that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS understand all too well when trying to recruit Western youth into their ranks. Images often speak directly to our right brains, activating the limbic system, and potentially bypassing rational thought. This results in statements that are subtly, or overtly embedded, alongside emotionally evocative images, highly suggestive—if not downright hypnotic.

Both al Qaeda and ISIS have built their terrorist narrative upon hijacked verses from sacred scriptures of the Quran and hadiths arguing that militant jihad is a duty incumbent on all Muslims. After declaring its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS declared even more strongly than ever before, that hijrah—or moving to the battleground—is also incumbent on all Muslims, and for those Westerners who cannot come, one is enjoined to “stay and attack” at home. This was an argument put forward in English years earlier, prior to ISIS even being formed, by Anwar al-Awlaki (of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).[1] Although al-Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, he continues to inspire from beyond the grave—enjoying eternal life over the Internet via his preserved sermons of hatred for the West.
Al Qaeda argued early on, and ISIS has taken up the same line of reasoning, that the worldwide Islamic jihad is a defensive one, a line of argument that is made by showing graphic images and video from conflict zones to demonstrate undisputed tragedy. The West in militant jihadi propaganda, is held responsible for propping up tyrannical dictators, states; and in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, even overtly invading Muslim lands, hurting Muslim people, and attacking Islam itself. As a result, these groups call for so-called “defensive” jihad.

In its propaganda, ISIS defends its savagery and bloodshed as a necessary evil. Its leaders and ideologues argue that building the Caliphate involves a worldwide revolution to bring in a new utopian system to rule according to Islamic ideals and that all revolutions require blood to be spilled. Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, seeming to understand that gruesome savagery was not perhaps the best marketing tool, did however, recently order that graphically violent images and videos of the group’s atrocities no longer be posted, in favor of videos that demonstrate successes of the Islamic State in building a new, peaceful, and well-running society. [2]
While one would hope that Westerners would be capable of critical thinking and not easily succumb to the visual propaganda of groups like ISIS, we know that other enterprises such as business like Coca Cola (Share a Coke) and Nike (Just Do It), and humanitarian missions like World Vision (starving child surrounded by flies) also successfully use imagery coupled with catchy slogans in much the same way—to bypass critical thinking and engage emotions to gain a sale, or in the case of humanitarian organizations, a donation.

ISIS is no different in that regard. An examination of the propaganda imagery found in Internet posters, videos, and media campaigns demonstrates the same use of images and emotional appeals as that used so successfully in Western advertising. The following is an analysis of some of their emotional and visual appeals of materials produced by al Hayat Media Center, the media arm of ISIS, and Rayat al Tawheed, a group of British foreign fighters representing ISIS.


Fuman beings are a social species. Relatedness and belonging in youth to one’s parent, if not larger family, determines our survival and ability to thrive. In adulthood belonging to groups often greatly influences our level of psychological, economic and social wellbeing.

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