The image is Instagram-worthy: handsome young men throw their arms around each other’s shoulders in an unselfconscious, brotherly gesture. There’s even that distinctive blur at the edges of the photo, drawing the eye more strongly to the men’s smiling faces.
Any echoes of the popular photo app are not accidental, because this is indeed an image designed to go viral. It appeared in Dabiq, a glossy magazine distributed by Isis, the terror group that has claimed responsibility for recent attacks in Paris and on a Russian plane.
For years, journalists have been bemused by the existence of Inspire, a forerunner of Dabiq distributed by al-Qaeda. It’s hard to imagine the nitty-gritty of magazine production being undertaken by terrorists, and there is something darkly comic about the idea of a “jihadi sub-editor” (that said, most subs do have deeply held beliefs, even if they are usually about the correct placement of commas). But there is a thriving tradition of jihadi magazines, including several targeted at women, published as PDF files to allow decentralised distribution across the globe.
The Dabiq picture is captioned “Wala’ and bara’ [loyalty and disavowal] versus American racism”, a reference to an Islamic concept of friendship between Muslims. Professor Shahira Fahmy of the University of Arizona came across it during a year-long secondment to study Isis propaganda for Nato. Looking at Dabiq, she found that images promoting the idea of an “idealistic caliphate” far outnumbered photographs of killings and torture. Overall, she estimates that only 5 per cent of imagery produced and distributed by Isis is violent.
“What gets disseminated in media organisations could be considered a misrepresentation of the volume of the visual content that gets produced and disseminated by the organisation on a daily basis,” she told me by email from Riga in Latvia, where she is currently based. “These [idealistic] images might be more important in terms of branding the organisation and recruitment purposes than the images of violence that we regularly see in the news.”