The Rise of an ISIS Affiliated Media Unit: A’maq
The highly publicized battle for Kobani, Syria, beginning in September 2014, was significant due to its longevity, location on the Turkish-Syrian border, and participation by a range of anti-ISIS forces, including the U.S., the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and Kurdish forces. However, a lesser-acknowledged byproduct of the Kobani campaign was the rise of a key ISIS-affiliated media unit: A’maq.
Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact date on which A’maq was launched, Flashpoint analysts first started taking significant note of the organization during the battle for Kobani, when ISIS fighters in northern Aleppo regularly documented their activities in and around the embattled city as well as its rival’s efforts to push the group back, via grainy video and photo releases posted on social media.
What was once a series of glorified home-movies from the battlefield, stamped with the now-iconic black and blue A’maq watermark, has now become a main player in the ISIS media cycle.
After months of capturing compelling footage from the ground with increasingly polished visuals at more prolific output rates, the media unit’s popularity and legitimacy boomed within the community, which is perhaps best exemplified by users’ mentions of A’maq on ISIS’s official and top-tier Deep Web forums. This implicit endorsement of A’maq among the “big fish” within the jihadi community who operate on these shadowy forums was a significant turning point in the media unit’s growth.
Furthermore, although no explicit statements have been made regarding the relationship between A’maq and the official ISIS media apparatus, the evidence of coordination between the two has become compellingly apparent. Despite ISIS’s undeniably authoritarian controls over the news coverage that flows from its operational territories, A’maq appears to have gotten the inside scoop, repeatedly reporting information that shortly precedes ISIS’s coverage of the same developments.
In late October 2015, for instance, following the joint U.S.-Peshmerga raid on an ISIS prison near Hawijah, Kirkuk Province, in which the U.S. reportedly freed 70 prisoners, A’maq released a statement claiming that ISIS beheaded four Kurdish hostages where the targeted prison once stood. The statement indicated, “the Islamic State’s fighters have executed four Peshmerga elements in slaughter, at the same site of the prison in which American Special Forces conducted a repelling operation a week ago in Hawijah, in coordination with the Kurdistan government, which aimed at freeing Kurdish Peshmerga elements who were held captive by The Islamic State.”
Just one day after the A’maq statement, ISIS’s official media unit released a video about “the truth” of the U.S.-Peshmerga raid, culminating in the featured execution of four Peshmerga fighters.
This trend has intensified, with A’maq routinely releasing short, one or two sentence statements that precede the more detailed account from official ISIS media. In addition to the sheer volume of frequency with which this now occurs, the time gap between the A’maq news flash and the subsequent ISIS statement has narrowed, sometimes occurring just minutes apart, further indicating close coordination.
The January 14 attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, for example, was first claimed by A’maq, which reported that “Islamic State fighters” launched the assault. Only a few hours later, ISIS released its official statement, claiming that its “soldiers” in Indonesia, “targeted a gathering of nationals of the Crusader alliance, which is fighting The Islamic State.”
This sequence of releases has become so repetitive, and the timing so rapid, that it is difficult to deny collaboration between the two outlets.
It is important to note, however, that A’maq still releases information never publicly verified by ISIS’s official channels. For instance, on March 15, A’maq released a statement claiming that one of its “sources” denied the U.S. Department of Defense’s announcement regarding the death of top ISIS commander, Omar Al Shishani. Official ISIS media, however, has yet to respond to such reports.
Today, A’maq has transformed into a central player in the ISIS media output, not only releasing its exclusive scoops, which serve as the quick news flash to ISIS’s lengthier claim of credit counterpart, but also operating at an efficient and sophisticated level, demonstrating a prowess nearly matching that of ISIS’s official media logistics. To this end, in addition to the official A’maq Telegram chat channels and websites, produced in both English and Arabic, the once amateur media unit now has its own Android app, for which it has released multiple versions, servicing jihadists on-the-go.
Although it is unclear why ISIS has not explicitly claimed A’maq as its own, despite the outlet’s growth and maturation, it is abundantly clear that ISIS’s media machine is strategic, deliberate, and effective, meaning it was likely a conscious decision, perhaps done as a means of allowing ISIS supportive news to flow without the controversial brand name of The Islamic State.