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Drone imagery in Islamic State propaganda: flying like a state

Veilleux-Lepage, Yannick and Archambault, Emil (2020) 'Drone imagery in Islamic State propaganda: flying like a state.', International affairs., 96 (4). pp. 955-973.


This article provides a comprehensive analysis of the Islamic State's use of images taken by drones, drawing on a dataset of ISIS propaganda images from October 2016 to December 2018. Analysing the three principal uses of drone imagery by ISIS—images of drone strikes, images of other attacks and observation—we argue that ISIS's use of drones distinguishes itself from other state and non-state uses of drones primarily by its communicative and symbolic value. While ISIS’ use of drone strikes takes place in a tactical rather than strategic setting, its employment of drones to film VBIED attacks allows them to achieve a strategic effect. After outlining ISIS’ use of drones for combat air support and to film ground (particularly VBIED) attacks, we argue, drawing on political geography, that ISIS employs drones in propaganda to stake and reinforce a claim to sovereign control of territory, performed through the flying of aircraft. The use of drone imagery, we argue, taps into long-standing visual and discursive strategies which associate vertical hierarchy and flying with mastery and control, allowing ISIS to display attributes of aerial sovereignty. This article, through an analysis of ISIS drone propaganda, provides a rare insight into non-state actors’ perception of drones and the communicative value of drone images, in addition to suggesting further avenues for the incorporation of political–geographical studies of verticality into the study of political violence and rhetoric.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:© The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Date accepted:16 January 2020
Date deposited:18 November 2020
Date of first online publication:01 July 2020
Date first made open access:18 November 2020

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