Beyond the slick, Hollywood-style cinematics, the Islamic State is targeting Western recruits with videos suggesting they, too, can be heroes like Bruce Willis' character in Die Hard.
That's the conclusion of The Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which analyzed some 1,400 videos released by IS between 2013 and 2016. Researchers who watched and catalogued them all said there is more to the recruitment effort than just sophisticated videography, and it's not necessarily all about Islam.
Instead, Robert Pape, who directs the security center, said the extremist group is targeting Westerners — especially recent Muslim converts — with videos that follow, nearly step-by-step, a screenwriter's standard blueprint for heroic storytelling.
"It's the heroic screenplay journey, the same thing that's in Wonder Woman, where you have someone who is learning his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero," Pape said.
The project at the University of Chicago separately has assembled a database of people who have been indicted in the United States for activities related to IS. Thirty-six percent were recent converts to Islam and did not come from established Muslim communities, according to the project. Eighty-three percent watched IS videos, the project said.
The group's success in using heroic storytelling is prompting copycats, Pape said. The research shows al-Qaida's Syria affiliate has been mimicking IS' heroic narrative approach in its own recruitment films. "We have a pattern that's emerging," Pape said.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials aren't sure the approach is all that new. They say IS has been using any method that works to recruit Westerners. Other terrorism researchers think IS' message is still firmly rooted in religious extremism.
Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks messaging by militant groups, agrees that IS makes strong, visual appeals resembling Hollywood movies and video games, making its media operation more successful than al-Qaida's. And IS videos can attract hero wannabes, she said.
"However, these features of IS media are only assets to a core message it uses to recruit," Katz said. "At the foundation of IS recruitment propaganda is not so much the promise to be a Hollywood-esque hero, but a religious hero. There is a big difference between the two."
Promise of martyrdom
When a fighter sits in front of a camera and calls for attacks, Katz said, he will likely frame it as revenge for Muslims killed or oppressed somewhere in the world. The message is designed to depict any terror attack in that nation as justified and allow the attacker to die as a martyr, she said.
The promise of religious martyrdom is powerful to anybody regardless of whether they are rich or poor, happy or unhappy, steeped in religion or not at all, she said.
Pape said he knows he's challenging conventional wisdom when he says Westerners are being coaxed to join IS ranks not because of religious beliefs, but because of the group's message of personal empowerment and Western concepts of individualism.
How else can one explain Western attackers' loose connections to Islam, or their scarce knowledge of IS's strict, conservative Sharia law, he asked. IS is embracing, not rejecting, Western culture and ideals, to mobilize Americans, he said.
"This is a journey like Clint Eastwood," Pape said, recalling Eastwood's 1970s performance in High Plains Drifter about a stranger who doles out justice in a corrupt mining town. "When Clint Eastwood goes in to save the town, he's not doing it because he loves them. He even has contempt for the people he's saving. He's saving it because he's superior," Pape said.
"That's Bruce Willis in Die Hard. That's Wonder Woman. ... Hollywood has figured out that's what puts hundreds of millions in theater seats," Pape said. "IS has figured out that's how to get Westerners."
Pape said the narrative in the recruitment videos targeting westerners closely tracks Chris Vogler's 12-step guide titled "The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers." The book is based on a narrative identified by scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama and other storytelling.
Step No. 1 in Vogler's guide is portraying a character in his "ordinary world."
An example is a March 25, 2016, video released by al-Qaida's Syria branch about a young British man with roots in the Indian community. It starts: "Let us tell you the story of a real man ... Abu Basir, as we knew him, came from central London. He was a graduate of law and a teacher by profession."
Vogler's ninth step is about how the hero survives death, emerging from battle to begin a transformation, sometimes with a prize.
In the al-Qaida video, the Brit runs through sniper fire in battle. He then lays down his weapon and picks up a pen to start his new vocation blogging and posting Twitter messages for the cause.
'Zero to hero'
Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it doesn't surprise him that IS would capitalize on what he dubs the "zero to hero" strategy because the organization is very pragmatic and accepts recruits regardless of their commitment to Islamic extremism.
Heroic aspirations are only one reason for joining the ranks of IS, he said. Criminals also seek the cover of IS to commit crimes. Others sign up because they want to belong to something.
"I've never seen a case of radicalization that was 100 percent one way or the other," Levitt said.