I downloaded Islamic State’s Arabic alphabet app. I was surprised at what I found

When I heard yesterday that Islamic State had released an Android app for children to learn the Arabic alphabet, I was intrigued. Did this mean that I was now in direct competition with Islamic State? I reassured myself that my Arabic alphabet app is aimed at adults, so I didn’t need to worry about the competition.

I went straight to the Google Play store to look for the app but when I couldn’t find it, I assumed the existence of the app was just a joke that had circulated on Twitter. It wasn’t long before an Islamic State sympathiser (member?) tweeted me with a link to where I could download the app file. The first link I was given was soon removed but my contact delivered again, with a new link.

I hit install with trepidation. What unofficial and potential virus-laden file was I installing on my friend’s Android tablet?

Before giving you all the details of what’s in the app, let me tell you what I was expecting. I’d read that there were some pictures of weapons in the app, so I was expecting a heavy focus on that. I was expecting it to be badly made and look amateur. In my three years of keeping a close eye on apps about the Arabic alphabet, I’ve seen a lot of unprofessional ones – I assumed this would be another.

What I actually discovered was a beautifully made and high quality app, with a lot of attention to detail. It has great illustrations, nice animation and good quality audio. And most of the audio is recorded by a child.

There are three main areas to the app:
1. Listen through each letter of the alphabet and see three examples of words that begin with that letter.
2. Listen to the alphabet sung as a song.
3. Play a game where you hear the name of a letter and have to pop a balloon containing the correct letter.

How ‘Islamic State’ is it?

The truth is – much less than other media reports would have you believe.

Of 84 words used as examples of letters, only 8 are of weapons – including a bullet, a sword, a rocket, an axe and a cannon. I felt the canon was an unusual choice – who’s used a cannon since the 1500s?

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The presence of weapons does not feel overwhelming. If anything, they’re very easy to miss. I don’t think that seeing 8 images of weapons is going to be enough to brainwash a child into an Islamic fundamentalist ideology. The images made most prominent in the app are things like the ones below.

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The only other nod to Islamic State is that black flag that’s on the main menu. And according to this article there’s some jihadist vocabulary in the alphabet song (I missed that, my jihadist vocabulary is not so hot).

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Who’s the intended audience for this app?

It’s all in Arabic so it’s clearly aimed at parents who are Arabic speakers. Given the nature of the illustrations it’s aimed at quite young children, probably under 8.

One of the key things is that it’s not available in the Google Play store, therefore no one’s going to stumble across it by accident. And therefore it can’t really be used to ‘recruit’ any children unwittingly. To get it, you have to actively search it out, so it’s likely to only be downloaded by people who are already interested in Islamic State (or inquisitive idiots like myself).

What is the point of this app? And what does it say about Islamic State?

In a lot of ways the app is very similar to many existing Arabic alphabet apps for children. It doesn’t really do anything new. (But perhaps it does it a little better than some of its competitors.) It’s also not easy to get hold of and no one’s going to come across it by accident.

Initial reports I read about the app said it was intended to indoctrinate children into a violent way of thinking. I honestly don’t believe that’s possible – 99% of it looks, cheerful, colourful and innocent.

Why make an app like this when similar ones already exist and are easier to get hold of? I think the purpose is to send a message that says – we’re a capable bunch and we can do more than just chop people’s heads off.

I know from personal experience that producing a mobile app is no easy task. You need access to a lot of resources and a lot of skills. To produce an app of this quality would not have been cheap. It’s clearly been produced by an experienced and professional team of designers, developers and content producers.

I’d really like to know more about that team – where are they and how did they get involved with this?

I feel that this app says that Islamic State are not just a raggle taggle bunch of morons aimlessly shooting at people in a desert. It shows that they have a vision reaching beyond that – something that could be interpreted as quite scary.

Disclaimer

When I downloaded this app to review it, I was expecting there would be lots to criticise and I would totally slate it. As it happens, I’ve ended up writing quite a glowing review of it. This does not mean that I have any type of admiration for Islamic State. As someone interested in the culture and politics of the Middle East, the activities of Islamic State are something I naturally keep an eye on.

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