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Negative self-representations for recruitment? A critical multimodal approach to understanding terrorist materials

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Despite being known for propagating violent ideologies and carrying out brutal actions, the terrorist group under study has managed to expand their influence through their propaganda materials that are viewed as “slick” to attract and recruit followers from all over the world (Farwell, 2014; Greene, 2015). Due to the concern over this group’s continual effort to disseminate their terrorist ideologies, this research aims to shed light on these materials, specifically their videos and magazines that are hosted on and shared via numerous digital platforms. It is worth pointing out that although previous studies have succeeded in discussing the various ideologies underpinning these materials, a detailed analysis on how these ideologies are constructed (verbally and non-verbally) has not been given much attention yet. Therefore, my research attempts to address this gap, and to do this, I have created a framework that draws on several different approaches from critical discourse studies (CDS) and social semiotics (i.e. Reisigl and Wodak’s (2016) discourse historical approach (DHA) and Kress and van Leuween’s (2006) grammar of visual design, respectively) to study the various elements used in the construction of these ideologies. In addition to analysing the materials and categorising them in terms of this framework, I also attempt to discuss my findings by juxtaposing them with the reasons for radicalisation based on past scholarly work which include finding solutions to personal, social and economic crises (see King & Taylor, 2011; el-Said and Barrett, 2017). For this talk, I have exclusively focused on demonstrating: (1) instances of the discursive and semiotic strategies that Daesh use in putting together the different multimodal elements to construct their messages, (2) how the identities of the different actors in the materials are reflected through these elements, (3) how they justify the claims they make and their actions, as well as (4) how the literature on radicalisation can help explain the messages in the materials further. Significant findings include a contrast in the typical “us vs. them” dichotomy when it comes to labeling and describing the actors and their actions, in that the perceived in-group is not always associated with positive terms (e.g. target Muslim audience and Daesh members described as deviants). There are also attempts made to turn negatives into positives (e.g. deceased fighters’ past criminal acts seen as useful for the group’s cause). In terms of argumentations, the findings reveal that they are mostly theological (e.g. references to Quranic verses), but there is unsurprisingly evidence of manipulation, such as through recontextualization (e.g. verses isolated from historical contexts). Ultimately, this research aims to contribute to the body of knowledge about Daesh recruitment and manipulation strategies from the linguistics perspective, and further a detailed understanding of digitally mediated recruitment processes which may help to reduce the risk of radicalisation among vulnerable groups and inform public policy.

External organisation

NameNATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE)