About Talia Whyte

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ISIS: The Art of Terrorist Media & Marketing

Dabiq Magazine covers

While the United States begins its airstrikes campaign in Syria, ISIS may have already won the media campaign.

As I was researching this topic, I stumbled upon an article about security intelligence firm The Soufan Group analyzing the brand strategies of ISIS and al-Qaeda.  (Yes, they study terrorist marketing!)  According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent, there is a generational clash between the two terror groups.  To be more precise, al-Qaeda is Microsoft, a once powerful organization that is now struggling to stay relevant, and ISIS is Apple, the new group for young hipsters.

ISIS is light years ahead of the days when al-Qaeda produced home videos of Osama bin Laden speaking in a cave somewhere.

It’s pretty obvious that ISIS takes their “brand” seriously.  From the high production value of their beheading videos, to their sophisticated social media strategy, to their slickly designed propaganda magazine “Dabiq,” which is named after a Syrian town where the last Islamic caliphate flourished during the 16th century.  In the multilingual online publication there is imagery of the “coming apocalypse” and calls on all Muslims to fight the “apostates” and “bring about the complete collapse of the modern American empire.”

ISIS clearly has a whole marketing team of writers, designers and videographers working behind the scenes.  As a matter of fact, it is believed that the whole media strategy is being run by Ahmad Abousamra, a 32-year-old Syrian-American man from the Boston area with a computer science degree from UMASS Boston.  Now there are reports that Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis are “jihad-pipeline” cities for recruiting new ISIS fighters.

ISIS’s marketing strategy has been compared to youth media brands like Vice or Buzzfeed.

From The Independent:

…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…

One problem ISIS (or ISIL or IS) has, according to Soufan, is that they might be “struggling” online because of the multiple names.  The U.S. government refers to them as ISIL, while most media outlets use ISIS.

From The Soufan Group:

In the last 30 days on English Twitter, “ISIS” was mentioned 1,371,277 times, while “Islamic State” was mentioned only 193,222 times (the less common English variation and term of reference, ISIL — the L for Levant — was mentioned 55,000 times in the same period).

Regardless, the group is still winning the branding war.

Soufan also notes that it might be difficult for ISIS to keep the momentum going over the next few months as they expand, just like how Apple has to keep people excited every time a new product is released.

The United States and its coalition now has to not only begin thinking about the known violence by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but also the unknown domestic terror that can by struck by lone wolves who are inspired by ISIS’s inflammatory message. You know we are living in fascinating (or corrupted?) times when we are analyzing the marketing habits of a terrorist group!

Reproductive and Sexual Health is an Economic Issue

Reproductive Rights are Human Rights - Image credit: Secular Pro-Life PerspectiveI had a discussion with a group of teenage girls I mentor last week about the recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby, which allows private firms to opt out of paying for contraception for its female employees based on religious grounds.  Most of them were actually surprised that the decision came in favor of the Christian focused company.

These young girls are used to living in a country where their reproductive rights are fully protected.  In the United States females have access to safe abortions, birth control pills and other contraceptives and education for proper family planning and sexual health.

As a business owner myself, I have been torn on this issue since the decision.  While I support the right of privately-held businesses to do what they please, as a woman, I could never see myself denying those rights to my female employees.

As a matter of fact, access to proper reproductive and sexual health rights is an economic issue that affects female workers worldwide.

I have worked in international development for the last 12 years, mainly in media development for journalists in the developing world.  However, one of my first jobs in this field was working in reproductive and sexual rights in Africa and Southeast Asia.  I saw firsthand many of the injustices women and girls faced on a regular basis.
In many countries women and girls simply don’t have any rights when it comes to their bodies, such as when they get pregnant or protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Obstetric fistula, female genital mutilation and, of course, HIV/AIDS are corrupting the lives of many females in these regions.  Sometimes this is due to cultural or religious traditions, but much of the time it is caused by poverty and lack of education.

I told my mentees that in many poor countries some women and girls usually have to stay home from work or school when they menstruate.  They literally have to sit on a rag at home for the duration of their flow because they can’t afford feminine products.

Women can play a big role in global market over the next decade, especially in the developing world, where GDPs can significantly increase and current rates of female workers are below 30 percent.  Economically empowered women also raise healthier, better educated families.

When women and girls can’t go to work or school, it affects economy in the long run.  Women and girls shouldn’t have to worry about losing their job or not receiving an education because of an unwanted pregnancy, a sexually transmitted disease or even a lack of maxi pads.

My girls were shocked when I told them this because for them their rights is something that is taken for granted.  It is really important to educate others about these issues and make sure women’s reproductive and sexual health worldwide moves forward, not backwards.

Power Africa Initiative: One Year On

NASA satellite photo of Europe and Africa at night.

NASA satellite photo of Europe, Africa and the Middle East at night to contrast electricity access.

Last year President Obama launched the Power Africa Initiative, an ambitious plan to bring electricity to rural areas that lack access.  The initial projection was to provide US$7 billion over five years in on-grid, mini-grid and off-grid solutions to 20 million households and businesses.  Last month the Obama administration increased the financial commitment to US$20 billion to serve 60 million households and businesses.  The power solutions will eventually develop geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy.

More than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity access, and more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lack access.  Most people without power use candles and even cow dung, which can be very dangerous.  Currently, for those who can afford it use diesel generators.  The lack of electricity is quite possible the greatest barrier to development on the continent.  Electricity is something those of us in industrialized countries take for granted.  Better access to it will help the continent move forward both socially and economically.

Food security is impacted because better power access leads to better technological solutions to processing and distributing food.  Electricity access also supports better international security.  Poverty fuels extremist behavior worldwide.  Power access provides more job creation, which in turn creates better economic opportunities for all.  Many of these new jobs will be in the STEM fields, and will help Africa compete better on the global market, as well as improve ICT capacity in general.

I found this interesting VOA program that gets into what Power Africa has accomplished over the last year, and most importantly, what Africans think of the Initiative:

According to USAID, Power Africa has accomplished the following:

  • Transactions brought to financial close will generate 2,792 MW
  • 25% of total goal reached in first year
  • Over 5,000 MW in process
  • Nearly 3:1 leveraging of funds — $7 billion USG investment to more than $18 billion private sector financing
  • First year results represent projects with a potential to power more than 5 million connections to African homes, businesses, schools, and clinics

Read the Power Africa annual report.

Mobile STEM Truck Closes Education Gap

Projected STEM Job Growth

As you already know, America’s standing as a leader in the global economy is endangered by the lack of American students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

STEM fields are seeing the highest rates in job growth, yet not many students are going in this direction. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of American high school students are proficient in math and have interest in pursuing a STEM career. “The United States is falling behind internationally, ranking 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations.”  AP computer science is only taught in five percent of American high schools.

One of the main problems here is the lack of resources in public schools, such as trained STEM teachers and equipment like computers to instruct students.  Also, 63 percent of K-12 schools still lack adequate Internet connectivity and infrastructure.

I happened upon this story about this innovative idea that might be a partial solution to the STEM education gap.  Aditya Kumarakrishnan, a physics and math major at Queens College, was awarded $10,000 from an incubator contest to assist him with launching his idea for Tesla Truck, a hands-on, mobile STEM lab and mobile maker space that will bring courses like robot-building, flight design, 3D printing and vocational training to schools and local communities.

He came up with the idea for his business last year while he was mentoring a group of students from the Bronx on robotics when he realized they didn’t have any resources.  Kumarakrishnan had to buy his own tools to use for his instruction.  He believes the Truck will be useful and cost efficient for schools that lack the resources to teach such classes.  Kumarakrishnan plans to use the money to purchase his first truck.

This is a great idea, and I would love to see where Kumarakrishnan goes with his truck both in physical distance and in creativity in the near future!

Here’s a short commercial for Tesla Truck: