Islamic State (IS) Propagandists Have Their Own Christmas Tradition

Gilad Shiloach explores how the Islamic State propagandists mark the Christmas holidays.

Poster from Islamic State affiliated Telegram account.
Poster from Islamic State affiliated Telegram account.

In late December, when the Christian world celebrates Christmas and the New Year, IS supporters on social media maintain their own recent "tradition" of threatening to attack Western targets during the holiday season. The group's followers online disseminate posters showing a beheaded  Santa Claus, churches exploding and erupting in flames, and blood-soaked knives waiting for visitors in Christmas markets.

The photoshopped posters, some of which are rather amateurishly produced, were posted on Telegram, which is known as the IS's favorite messaging application. They featured threats like "The Caliphate's presents are on their way" and "Wait for us, we meet at Christmas in New York soon," and also called upon "lone wolves" to target worshipers across the U.S. and Europe.  Parallel to their distribution, other pro-IS groups on Telegram posted a list titled "Hints for the lone wolves." The 17-point list, published in both English and Arabic, included tips and guidance for would-be attackers in the West, including instructions to burn churches and markets.

Notably, the IS's Christmas campaign is not led by the IS's official media apparatus, but by the dozens of "unofficial" propaganda groups which have been operating on behalf of the Jihadi organization for years and constitute an "alternative" propaganda arm. The importance of those supportive media units is increasing these days when the official media apparatus has entered one of its worst periods and has experienced a significant decline in its output since the group's resounding defeats in Mosul and  Raqqa, as well as in  other parts of Iraq and Syria.

This campaign serves two purposes. First, it aims to inspire "lone wolves" and other individuals living across the United States and Europe to carry out attacks on behalf of the IS in their home countries during the sensitive festive season. In the past, such calls led to deadly attacks: last  December, the IS managed to inspire a successful attack when the Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri killed 12 and injured 48 while ramming a cargo truck into a crowd of shoppers in a Berlin Christmas market. Before his attack, he pledged allegiance to the group in a video released by the group’s Amaq News Agency. Also last year, the group published the names and addresses of thousands of churches in the United States and called on its adherents to attack them during the holiday season.

Second, although the beheaded Santa posters might seem ridiculous at first glance, the use of such symbols is part of long-time Jihadi attempts to sow fear and terror among Western audiences. The fact that some Western media outlets have reacted hysterically to this year’s threats demonstrate that that these posters were at least a partial success.