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Business Analysis & Features

Jim Armitage: Isis is refining terrorist marketing

Global Outlook: They know all about corporate branding in war zones

When it comes to media and marketing, Islamic terrorists are a savvy bunch. And it’s easy to see why. With the various movements all trying to get new recruits and jostling for recognition on the world political stage, it’s understandable that they should deploy similar techniques to sophisticated corporate brands to get their message heard.

A private intelligence outfit called The Soufan Group this week issued an excellent dispatch from Afghanistan about this very subject, in which you could quite easily have substituted the words “Coca-Cola” or “Pepsi” for “al-Qaeda” or “Isis”.

Or, perhaps more fittingly, “Microsoft” for al-Qaeda and “Apple” or “Google” for Isis.

For Soufan argues that the al-Qaeda brand, so massively dominant around the world since the 9/11 attacks in 2004, is in a long, slow decline. Even if the terrorist ideology behind it is spreading, the power of the name is now seriously reduced.

In its place, Isis, which has just undergone a rebranding of its own to proclaim itself as plain “IS”, or the “Islamic State”, is now massively in the ascendent.

Like many a young, disruptive entrant into a marketplace, the Isis “product” – the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq – was sneered at by the establishment (moderates and regional leaders). But, as Soufan points out, the establishment was never the target audience; the Isis leaders were sending a message to young potential extremists that here was a devout fighting force that had achieved tangible success, massively disrupting the old order.

You can see the equivalents in the corporate world: the holy grail for many advertisers is to find ways of connecting to the next generation of young adults. Hence the success of the expletive-laden media group Vice, or the whacky irreverence of BuzzFeed.

The extent of Isis’s success in this is matched by al-Qaeda’s failure, Soufan argues. Like all terrorist groups and, for that matter, consumer brands, al-Qaeda needs to find young, impressionable recruits but is struggling badly. Many of the potential Kalashnikov wielders, in their late teens to early twenties, can barely remember 9/11 or even much of 7/7 – since when, increasingly effective intelligence and military assaults have stymied al-Qaeda’s attempts to pull off other “spectaculars” in the West, where it chooses to wage its struggle.

At the same time, it tries and, in the case of Isis, fails, to keep upstart splinter groups in line. In fact, Soufan argues: “Al-Qaeda is increasingly seen as the scolding grandfather of terrorist groups.” The ageing Nokia to the upstart Samsung, perhaps.

To hammer that point home, see how IS has been promoting the profiles of its teenage recruits, clearly encouraging them to publicise the outfit’s brand through their Facebook accounts and other social media.Using the marketing techniques of media monitoring, Soufan points out that on Twitter, a massively influential recruitment and publicity tool for Islamic extremist groups, IS is “crushing” al-Qaeda. Savvy use of hashtags and clever – if warped – videos makes Twitter the perfect tool for the IS product, while al-Qaeda remains relatively silent on the social network. And, while Isis mentions on Twitter rocketed after its early capture of Mosul in June, al-Qaeda mentions increased far less – and that despite the massively heightened global conversation about Islamic terrorism. In recent weeks, al-Qaeda is barely getting mentioned more than it did before the fall of Mosul.

In a way, however, winning big publicity for a new product – in IS’s case, a victorious military offensive – is not difficult. The troublesome part is retaining the profile. Whether IS can sustain that level of online branding success remains to be seen and depends largely on how its expansionism progresses in the coming months. This could prove difficult, given that the spectacular easy wins against Iraq’s troops may have mostly been had already. Even Apple has struggled to keep its brand pizazz since the paucity of groundbreaking new products following the death of its founder, Steve Jobs. Another al-Qaeda parallel, perhaps?

As for al-Qaeda itself, intelligence groups like Soufan claim the once fearsome terror network faces its biggest threat since the US invasion of Afghanistan. Like Yahoo!, SonyTV or Peugeot/Citroen, it is proving unable to combat the combination of a rising upstart in IS and the arrival of a new generation of consumers less familiar with its previous (in al-Qaeda’s case, awful) successes.

Its leaders must be aware of this danger to its very existence.

Like all those other marques, it desperately needs to come up with something new and devastating to get its brand back in the ascendant and differentiate itself from its young rival.

Soufan concludes that this could well be a near-term attack on a Western target to show it remains focused on the “real enemy” rather fighting fellow Muslims.

That’s a thought to chill us all.

Zambian bank leaves a long trail on the road to AIM

 I wrote here a year or so ago about an effort by the Zambian businessman Rajan Mahtani to float shares in his Finance Bank Zambia on AIM, London’s junior market.

The piece was suggesting regulators have a decent poke around this new would-be arrival to British shores.

You see, Finance Bank Zambia was awarded to Mr Mahtani on the orders of his close ally, President Sata, after it was stripped from its previous operator, South Africa’s FirstRand Bank.

Mr Mahtani’s camp argue that it was wrongly expropriated from him and fellow investors in the first place by the previous president. FirstRand should never have been given the bank, they say.

Inevitably, the whole process has put more noses out of joint than the late, great light-heavyweight Zambian champ Lottie Mwale. Some investors say they have been left out of pocket and are less than impressed by Mr Mahtani’s recent pronouncements that he will have his bank floated in London by the end of the year.

One such Zambian dickie-bird has now dropped off on my desk documents appearing to show a US judge authorising American assistance in a Zambian criminal investigation into Mr Mahtani’s business dealings. The request for help was made by the previous Zambian government in early 2011 and eventually granted 18 months later, by which time the new Sata administration had arrived. I’m told the request was subsequently reversed and the case abandoned.

The existence of such documents should not be taken as meaning Mr Mahtani has done anything wrong, of course. Calls for comment to the bank’s Lusaka head office went unanswered, but I’m sure he would respond that any previous investigation was politically motivated. It’s true there was clearly no love lost between Mr Mahtani and the former president, Rupiah Banda.

I suppose all I’m saying is, on behalf of future investors in this bank, AIM beware. Particularly as Mr Mahtani’s 76-year-old champion, President Sata, has been in an Israel hospital recently amid speculation about his health. Who knows what would happen to Finance Bank if another government swept to power?