EICTP Expert Paper: IS communication on the 2020 Vienna terror attack

Shortly after the terror attack in Vienna on 2 November 2020, photographs and videos from eyewitnesses were circulating on social media. Sympathizers of the Islamic State (IS) quickly capitalized on the availability of such material and continued their circulation in Arabic in IS communication channels, like the platform Telegram. Following the typical modus operandi of IS propaganda, relevant news reports and multimedia content were quickly adapted, professionally processed and re-distributed in the respective communication channels to promote IS’ violent agenda.

This article examines the communication within IS-networks as well as other IS-affiliated media at the time of the Vienna terror attack and shortly after November 2, 2020. It provides an overview of the communication channels used by IS as well as an analysis of the Arabic content on the Vienna terror attack. By combining this analysis with an examination of how theological arguments are being used in jihadist literature and equally with a relevant network analysis, a comprehensive overview will be given on jihadists’ strategic communication and on how they use social media.

The IS has a professional propaganda apparatus with wide-reaching social media and classical media activities, such as the Amaq News Agency. This propaganda machinery involves the production of its own multimedia content that quickly reacts to terrorist attacks around the globe. Similarly, the video of the perpetrator of the attack in Vienna was quickly adapted to portray him as a glorified martyr and to call out Austria as a legitimate enemy due to its participation in the international anti-IS coalition.

Broadly, the different communication stages can be divided into four different phases:

1) Open Source Intelligence on Telegram,

2) Adding an IS nasheed to the video showing the murder of a woman during the attack

3) Adaption of existing IS-multimedia content with theological references, and

4) The IS-media machinery kicks off with self-produced multimedia content and theological references.

In order to better understand the communication of jihadist networks, it is essential to examine the ideology of violent jihad as well as the appropriation of Islamic-theological arguments for that purpose. Modern jihadist communication networks transport some highly intellectual theological writings together with a multitude of pictures and videos. Using clear visual codes for their multimedia propaganda, they combine them with theological references to promote their belief system and their theology of violence. With an abundancy of Salafi jihadi literature accessible online, they can easily be appropriated by terrorist actors to theologically justify violence.

Since Muslim citizens all over the world, not only in Austria, are the target of this propaganda, they should be better shielded against it. For most Muslims in the world, this theological understanding has no validity, which is why jihadist define them as apostates. At the same time, Muslims in Europe and Austria are oftentimes the target of repression and hate speech which portrays Islam itself as a danger. Taking this into account, a meticulous study of the propaganda, Arabic scriptures as well as their translation into other languages is necessary to clearly identify theologically problematic content and to resolutely counter both militant and non-militant threats.