Identifying Radical Videos Online

Primary Contributors:

Logan Macnair
Dr. Richard Frank

Given the ubiquity and permanence of the Internet in today’s increasingly connected world, it should come as no surprise that terrorist and extremist organizations such as the Islamic State (IS) have found a powerful and useful tool in the Internet. In a relatively short amount of time, the IS has established a notable online presence and, like other terrorist organizations, have since continued to use the Internet as a means of data gathering, planning and coordination, networking, fundraising, recruitment, and administering propaganda.

In particular, the IS has shown to be alarmingly effective at both recruiting new members from all around the world, with an estimated 20% of these new recruits coming from Western nations, and at maintaining a sophisticated and productive propaganda machine that is run by savvy technical professionals with incontestable expertise. Part of this effectiveness is due to the IS creating and disseminating propaganda and recruitment materials that are aimed at specific audiences and demographics, taking into account the unique social and political circumstances of different nations and locations, then tailoring the content of their message accordingly. This tendency is exemplified by the al-Hayat Media Center, a media arm of the IS that produces content aimed almost exclusively at Western audiences. Since its inception in 2014, the al-Hayat Media Center has released several videos, all professionally produced and shot in high-definition, as well as an equally high-quality periodical magazine, Dabiq, currently in its 14th issue and printed in several languages including English.

Content produced by al-Hayat is easily accessible and can be found online with no more than a little light Googling. Consequently, it is not unrealistic to think that those who may be more receptive or sympathetic to the message of the IS, and potentially more prone to radicalization, may come across al-Hayat content at some point, and although watching a few videos is almost certainly not enough to lead to full-on radicalization, that exposure may well be the start of a slippery radicalization slope.

PROJECT 1: A Thematic Analysis of Videos Produced by the Islamic State’s al-Hayat Media Center

This study examines videos produced by the al-Hayat Media Center, a branch of the Islamic State’s larger media campaign aimed specifically at Western audiences (see Table 1). Using a thematic analysis approach, recurring themes of ten (n=10) al-Hayat videos were identified with conclusions made regarding the specificities of the message and the target audience. It was found that al-Hayat videos cater to potential Western recruits and sympathizers by portraying life in the Islamic State as spiritually and existentially fulfilling, while simultaneously decrying the West as secular, immoral, and criminal. By utilizing well-produced propaganda videos that tap into the dissatisfactions of Western Muslims, al-Hayat was shown to deliver a sophisticated and legitimate message that may play a role in the larger radicalization process.

Table 1. Descriptive Information of al-Hayat Media Center Videos 

Relevant Publications:

Macnair, L., & Frank, R. (2018). The Mediums and the Messages: Exploring the Language of Islamic State Media through Sentiment Analysis. Critical Studies on Terrorism.

Macnair, L., & Frank, R. (2017). "To My Brothers in the West...": A Thematic Analysis of Videos Produced by the Islamic State’s al-Hayat Media Center. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice.