Running A’maq: The Practice of Western Media Citing Islamic State Propaganda

Leon Bystrykh 6 Oct 2017

On 17 August 2017, terrorist organisation so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the terror attacks in Barcelona through its A’maq News Agency. The agency has claimed many attacks on behalf of IS long before Barcelona, and have since claimed several others that occurred soon after. Western news agencies consistently cite information provided by A’maq following an attack, which raises several questions: should Western media be using A’maq? By citing the agency, is this a shortcut for investigative reporting? Finally, is Western media reinforcing violent extremist propaganda by citing A’maq?

A’maq was established in 2014 by Syrian journalist and IS sympathiser Baraa Kadek, and seven others, who all originally worked for the Halab News Network. A’maq was first noticed by SITE Intelligence Group during the 2014 battle for Kobanî, when IS fighters were sharing A’maq updates amongst each other. Although the agency’s messaging pattern was initially unclear, A’maq had gained notoriety when it was the first to claim IS responsibility for the shootings at San Bernardino County Health Department.

Today A’maq has become well known for consistently being the first to publish IS claims of responsibility for an attack – usually before IS released an official statement. In addition, A’maq provides exclusive coverage of events on the ground through its encrypted mobile app on Telegram such as a video of an attack made by IS on the Iranian parliament in Tehran, on 7 June 2017 – coupling breaking news with live footage provided by the attackers. IS does not place A’maq under the auspices of its official media department, and it has never acknowledged there being such a relationship between them unlike its other propaganda outlets like Al-Furqan Foundation. Instead, for its part, A’maq positions itself to be an ‘independent’ state-owned news agency of IS in an attempt to appear more credible. It often does so by issuing statements devoid of the hyperbolic language typical of other IS propaganda outlets, such as calling their militants ‘soldiers of the Islamic State’ rather than the IS preferred ‘soldiers of the Caliphate’.

The International Centre for Counter Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) has written extensively on the effect of media serving as an amplifier of violent extremist propaganda, as part of the Counter-Terrorism Strategic Communications (CTSC) project. As Craig Whiteside wrote in his ICCT Research Paper, “A’maq serves as an allegedly legitimate source for […] international print and cable outlets to cite, which in turn amplifies the official message of IS.” It is prudent for journalists to be aware that although citing A’maq as a source produces the appearance of transparency, they must also understand how and why their stories can be used by IS against the West for propaganda purposes. It is the strategic logic of IS to ensure that Western media sources continue citing their propaganda, particularly now that they are steadily losing ground in Iraq and Syria.

The attacks in Barcelona are some of the most recent attacks claimed by IS through A’maq. Examples of Western media outlets which have cited A’maq in their coverage of Barcelona while acknowledging the propagandistic nature of the outlet in some way include: ABC News; CNN; El Mundo; The Guardian; The Globe and Mail; The Independent; Newsweek; NRC; Reuters; The Sun; The Telegraph; De Volkskrant; The Washington Post and Weekly Standard. Whilst other outlets such as CBS News and failed to point out A’maq’ link to IS in this case. These examples show the diversity and sheer number of Western outlets which cited A’maq when reporting on Barcelona, and many of these have done so when covering other IS attacks as well.

While the examples of news outlets citing A’maq’ statements following the attacks in Barcelona almost all acknowledged its link to IS, this may prove insufficient because the militant group is still receiving vast media exposure as a result. By journalists consistently citing A’maq as a source, this gives the agency undue legitimacy because it is treated like any other press agency. According to the ‘Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalism’, by UNESCO, “[t]he media should not restrict themselves to serving as a communication channel however and whenever a terrorist group wants. They must select the genuinely newsworthy clips, cut out propaganda, [and give] context.” This statement reflects that reporting on terrorism can lead to many grey areas, because it is difficult to determine the boundaries of what is propagandistic and newsworthy.

Using A’maq proves a bit too convenient for journalists covering terrorism in several ways. Given that it provides footage directly from events on the ground, A’maq is a unique and accurate source of information. The agency has even been known to claim attacks on behalf of IS before the group issued an official statement, such as the attack in Jakarta on 14 January, 2016. It is important to note that there have been occasions where news agencies have cited A’maq statements that were unverified, even though this is not the case for the Barcelona attack.

In addition, following the arrest of IS-linked Mohammed G. in June of 2017, German prosecutors discovered that A’maq has a rigorous fact-checking system where it seeks to confirm the motivations of an attacker before issuing an official statement claiming responsibility for the attack. Although there have been examples of A’maq exaggerating information about IS gains and issuing half-truths in their statements, the agency cannot survive without consistently providing generally correct information because IS is dependent on Western media outlets continuing to cite them as a news source.

It is well past time for journalists and news outlets who regularly cite A’maq to critically evaluate whether information provided by the outlet will truly make their work fairer, more truthful and have greater integrity. A’maq’ allure is understandable because it is not overtly propagandistic compared to other IS media outlets, but this makes A’maq arguably the most dangerous form of IS propaganda. By pretending that A’maq is a news source, journalists inadvertently legitimise the outlet by continuously citing it once a terrorist attack occurs. I share the views of Media Ethics scholar Stephen J. A. Ward who argues that transparency is useful only to the extent that the information provided does not compromise journalistic independence, and that sources used do not weaken journalists’ primary goal of informing the public in a responsible and ethical manner. After all, Western media – not IS – have the power to determine to what extent IS propaganda reaches their audiences. They would be wise to use this power more responsibly, especially now that the so-called ‘caliphate’ is crumbling and IS attempts to stay relevant within Western news cycles.