ERBIL, Iraq — It’s a simple design. A black flag with a line of text in Arabic, and below, a circle with more Arabic inside. It is an emblem without meaning for some, but for others, one that is deeply meaningful. These words are the declaration of faith in Islam. Over the past two years, this religious symbol has been pirated and politicised by a terror group hell-bent on horror. And for those so inclined, it is available on t-shirts, hoodies, onesies and more.
In terms of brand recognition, the Shahada (the text) and the prophet’s seal (the circular design below) have been almost fully appropriated as the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the terror group that currently rules parts of Iraq and Syria as a so-called caliphate, imposing its warped interpretation of Islam on millions of people. The flag marks ISIS’s checkpoints, propaganda videos and even some of its military gear.
It has also, as any logo might, made its way to a broader audience. You can see variations on bandanas worn by tiny child fighters in ISIS propaganda videos and on the uniforms of militants in its English-language magazine, Dabiq. The men — and, less often, women — who commit terrorist acts in ISIS’s name are often later found to have posed for photos in the same sort of headbands, flags and clothing.
The aggressive spread of the group’s message, and its persistent ability to recruit young men and women to its cause, raise questions about how these people are escalating from curiosity to action. The development and reach of the ISIS ‘brand’ is a central part of this. A logo on a checkpoint serves an immediate military purpose, but a logo on a communiqué is about brand messaging. And as with most brands, sooner or later, someone puts it on a t-shirt.
Over the past two years, ISIS-logoed hoodies and t-shirts have cropped up in stores in Istanbul and southern Turkey, a Lebanese market, and in several online shops, including one registered out of Indonesia. Last August, a man was arrested on terrorism charges in Spain for selling ISIS-branded children’s clothing and silk-screened sweatshirts depicting the murder of British aid worker Alan Henning by ‘Jihadi John’. Logo rings have been spotted across the Middle East, and insiders say clothing and accessories can be seen and sourced on ISIS fan sites.
This isn’t the only example of clothing being used to advertise or support an outlawed group or violent ideology: the Ku Klux Klan, the IRA, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and various neo-Nazi groups made their shop floor debut before ISIS did. But this time, experts say, it’s different.
Extremism researchers talk about ‘jihadi cool’: the way ISIS has framed its brand of religiously-mandated violence in the trappings of cool. Handsome fighters with full beards and flowing manes grin from the back of pick-up trucks as they race across the desert. Fit warriors in identical black combat clothing are presented as belonging to a greater purpose, fighting the oppressors together. For the troubled and the impressionable, it’s a heady mix.
“There is an arguable case that so-called ‘jihadi cool’, which might be exacerbated by these kinds of garments, may be a factor that feeds into the decisions of younger people in particular to engage in terrorist activity,” says anti-terrorism expert Fiona de Londras of the Birmingham Law School.
But not just anyone can get their hands on ISIS combat gear.
“The ISIS clothing you see in Syria is made for ISIS personnel, so either the production lines are being run by ISIS, or there is an agreement with a clothing factory,” says British extremism researcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. This has left a gap in the market for enterprising types looking to exploit a wannabe’s interest in jihadi-inspired clothing.
In late 2013 and early 2014, Al-Tamimi spotted ISIS-branded clothing in the markets of Tripoli, Lebanon. It vanished when authorities cracked down, but other items have more recently been seen in southern Turkey, a conduit for Syria-bound fighters. It is cheap, knock-off stuff: logoed headbands and t-shirts, probably printed locally for a local market. According to research by BoF, t-shirts typically sell for between $5 and $10 each, hoodies for $25 to $30. As a grassroots phenomenon, there is nothing official about the clothing and no discernible funding link to ISIS finances.
With this sort of politically-motivated, fringe clothing, location accounts for a lot. BoF was easily able to find $6 Hezbollah t-shirts in southern Beirut, but the same items are contraband in the US, which proscribes the group. For ISIS supporters and wannabe fighters further afield, online operations are key — as they are with so much of ISIS’s brand propagation.
The online shop for jihad
One person who can speak to ISIS’s online reach is Abdullah, a 21-year-old former acolyte who played a central role in propagating the group’s message online. While Abdullah is no longer an extremist, at the height of his powers he had close to 11,000 followers on Twitter and, though prevented from travelling to Syria himself, preached the message of ISIS’s violent jihad on Twitter, television — and t-shirts.
Abdullah told BoF he and three other “brothers” — one of whom, 17-year-old American Ali Shukri Amin, is now in prison on terror charges — in late 2013 started an online shop for jihadist-style street wear: Islamica Online. The site and PayPal accounts are gone, but some of the gear is still visible on Twitter and Facebook.
“When we started doing this in 2013, ISIS wasn’t a terrorist group yet. So we were supporting the insurgency,” Abdullah told BoF.
“We had all this jihadi stuff, not beheadings, but we had these quotes from people affiliated with jihadi ideology. We had shirt designs and stuff like that.”
The connection that the four Western-raised teens have to violent insurgency is tenuous, but identity-seeking adolescents are easy pickings for cult-like organisations peddling a narrative of oppression and just resistance. For the curious, it can be a cause to adopt — and an identity to try on. In Abdullah’s words, Islamica Online’s pro-jihad clothing was “definitely poseur-ish”.
But for researcher Al-Tamimi, there’s more to it than that.
“In Syria in the early stages, where you saw the flags being carried around, you could interpret that as a kind of symbol of rebellion, you know, to hell with the outside world who won’t support us,” he says.
“But the way ISIS has risen and captures global attention, it is far more likely to be ideological and actually supporting it if you wear it, rather than the rebellion connotations associated with Che Guevara [whose image is often used on clothing].”
One of the things that makes ISIS so difficult to tackle is that there is virtually no barrier to entry. Once a person subscribes to the ideology, whether privately or publicly, regardless of who or where they are, they are instantly part of the group. And according to experts and former members, this is a group that welcomes wannabes and outsiders.
As an example, the couple who killed 14 people in December in San Bernardino, California, had been radicalised online and reportedly acted in isolation from other supporters. But in the next issue of Dabiq they were praised for “terrorising the crusaders in their very strongholds”. Instantly, the poseurs became the real deal.
The legality of making, selling or wearing ISIS-branded clothing depends on local anti-terror law, and establishing jurisdiction over digital content has been difficult. In the case of the clothing listed on Facebook and sold out of Indonesia, Facebook shut the pages down.
In the UK, the Terrorism Act 2000 prohibits the wearing of clothing that arouses suspicion a person is a member or a supporter of a proscribed organisation. The offence, set out in response to terrorist activity in Northern Ireland, is a sign not just that lawmakers don’t want people walking around advertising terror groups, but that they recognise there is a spectrum of engagement with an ideology, and wearing a t-shirt may get the curious closer to taking violent action.
“Our approach is to intervene as early into these processes of radicalisation or activity in order to try and disrupt them. Making it an offence to be a member of an organisation, to glorify terrorism, to wear this kind of garb, is all a part of that trend,” explains legal expert de Londras.
“The government argues that while this is an interference with freedom of expression, it is justifiable and does not go beyond the bounds of what is necessary because police officers have discretion,” she adds.
The July 2015 incident where a man walked around London’s Parliament Square wearing the ISIS flag speaks to this discretion: police spoke with him, determined he was not a threat, and let him be.
In some cases, people know the law and their rights so well that they are able to stay just within the law, even as they get an extreme message out there. Abdullah said he and the others behind Islamica Online walked this balance in the clothing they produced and the way they advertised it.
“We wanted to be really quiet about it. We didn’t want to go full-on explicit about it because we were going to end up in jail. We were cautious,” he says.
Counter-terrorism legal expert Helen Fenwick told BoF that the British government was working to advance an extremism bill that would target this sort of softly-softly behaviour with an extremism banning order. If this happens, wearing extremist-type clothing is more likely to be an offence, full stop.
“If people are drawn into extremist ideology, it is arguable that the next step involves some kind of involvement in terrorist acts,” says Fenwick.
“If we take it at face value that various communities are saying the government should do more to prevent young people especially being drawn into terrorism, then measures against extremism, if they are handled properly, ought to be at least a part of the answer.”
More than a year after denouncing violence and outing himself as a former radical, BoF asked Abdullah if he would have felt responsible had he sold clothing to someone who ended up on a battlefield in Syria. Did he see the t-shirt as a meaningful link in a devastating chain?
“If someone actually wore those clothes and ended up fighting abroad, I would feel guilty. Because it’s a continuation of the same ideology,” he says.
The road to violent jihad
The pathways to violent jihad in Syria in Iraq, or in the cities where ISIS cells or operatives have committed terrorist acts in recent months such as Brussels and Paris, probably don’t often begin with a t-shirt.
“I’ve never seen clothing come up as, like, ‘that’s how it all started off’,” says extremism researcher Al-Tamimi.
But then he recalled an incident in June 2014 in Cardiff, Wales, when a group of ISIS sympathisers and some members raised flags and grilled burgers in a park whilst wearing their logoed t-shirts. The ‘ISIS BBQ’ wasn’t without significance: “Cardiff was one of these epicentres of groups of people from Britain who actually went to join the Islamic State,” he recalls.
Research suggests the journey to ISIS-style jihad typically begins on a social level — with a feeling of belonging. The t-shirt, headband or shoulder badge is a signifier of that belonging.
“I had a really strong sense of being with ISIS. I know many others felt this way, that ‘we belong to them’,” Abdullah concedes. Making jihadist-inspired clothing was a way for him to deepen his connection to the ideology, even if, as he readily acknowledges, wearing it in his everyday environment was a bit impractical.
In an implicit nod to the deepening engagement, from wearing the clothing to pulling the trigger, Abdullah told BoF he didn’t think any fighters in Syria or Iraq were wearing silk-screened ISIS hoodies.
“Why would they do that? They are already there.”