Over the past month, pictures of passports allegedly issued by the newly declared Islamic State began circulating online. One version is a beautifully crafted, dark green leather edition with the words "State of the Islamic Califate" imprinted on the top in Arabic. Underneath it says: "If the holder of the passport is harmed we will deploy armies for his service." The other one is a rather makeshift looking black paper version — its aura seriously compromised by the fact that it looks like it's been printed on an old Epson color printer and wrapped in a clear plastic jacket, like the one you'd use for a Metrocard.
Local media and the National Post reported in early July about the jihadists' plans to start issuing passports and implement other state services for their new "citizens," in an attempt to make their self-declared new Islamic State appear more legitimate. On August 12, Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College, tweeted an image of the paper version with the caption "Illusions of a Caliphate. ISIS issue passports as part of psychological warfare."
Immediately, discussion started on the authenticity of the documents. Is this passport really issued by the Islamic State? The Daily Mail seems to believe that because it came from Ranstorp, "a Swedish academic who regularly briefs senior government and security officials on the threat of Islamic terrorism," it might be real after all. The image was also shared by Ghaffar Hussain, managing director of the world's first counter-extremism think tank, Quilliam. Ghaffar had retweeted the image with the joking caption: "ISIS now issuing passports, I'm sure they won't create panic and alarm at airport check in desks."
The British news site i100, on the other hand, showed it to Shiraz Maher, an expert at King's College in London, who said it's definitely a hoax: "If ISIS were issuing passports [it] wouldn't say the Islamic State of Al Khilaf in English on them, for starters," Maher told the site. "And of course they call themselves the Islamic State now. A passport at the end of the day is a travel document. No countries are recognizing the Islamic State. It's entirely meaningless."
Ranstorp told VICE News from his office in Sweden that he had found the image on a Scandinavian website published by supporters of the Islamic State, but he couldn't recall exactly which one it was.
"I don't know if it's real," he said. "I cannot verify that from the picture. I just know it came from someone who is connected to ISIS."
Ranstorp said he never intended to claim the passports were authentic, and he instead just wanted to point out how the Islamic State is using different strategies and symbolic gestures to appear legitimate.
"There are lots of ways in which they try to endow themselves with an illusion of statehood," he said. "Whether it's real or imaginary is not the critical issue. The issue is that they are trying to project themselves as a state."
His caption, "Illusion of a Caliphate" and "part of psychological warfare" was meant to convey this. Obviously the academic subtlety was lost on Twitter — and across the media.
In the end, whether the passports are actually authentic documents issued by Islamic State officials or just an elaborate hoax by someone with a Twitter account and too much time on their hands, doesn't really matter all that much. Certainly not in terms of an actual travel document: The Islamic State is not recognized by any other state in the world, and the US, the European Union, Canada, and most other countries in the world officially regard it as a terrorist organization. So as a passport, these aren't worth more than the paper they are printed on — or perhaps whatever collectors of weird mementos are willing to pay for this kind of stuff online.
If the passport is "real," it is part of the ongoing efforts of the Islamic State to build its "illusion of statehood," as Ranstorp has called it. And it is part of the ongoing effort of the Islamic State to build its global brand. In terms of deciding on and sticking to a name, this effort has to be considered quite a fuck-up — with most global news agencies and governments now utterly confused over what the hell to call the group — ISIS? ISIL? Islamic State?
In just about every other aspect, it is an overwhelming success. As a commentator for the Washington Post wrote: "the Islamic State 'brand' actually seems pretty solid — and worryingly global." The very recognizable black and white flag is being flown in Britain, Germany, and many places outside the current "borders" of the caliphate. Islamic State hoodies and t-shirts can be ordered online from several shops. According to Ranstorp, a ring with the Islamic State logo is circulating for sympathizers to express their support. Soon there will probably be mugs, baseball hats, and key chains.
Talking about an extremist Islamic group — whose ideas and horribly brutal methods are something straight out of the Middle Ages — in terms of a brand might sound cynical. But regarding it's branding strategies, the group is unfortunately very much in the now. It does have its own media outlets producing everything from DVDs to podcasts, and apparently it has its own Twitter app. The group is expertly utilizing social media on all other levels. As Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute, told the Financial Times: "When it comes to using platforms such as Twitter, the Islamic State is "probably more sophisticated than most US companies."
The brand is what draws recruits from all over the world to its ideas, and it's what finances the Islamic State, and so the Islamic State — and its supporters — are very actively building it. The passports — whether real or not — are just the latest coup in this merchandising scheme.
Follow Chris Köver on Twitter: @ckoever