What Kind of Animal is the ISIS Cat?

Curator's Note

The images that you are looking at are screenshots taken from a now-suspended Twitter account called @isilcats or Islamic State of Cat. From June of 2014 until its disappearance in August of 2015, the account posted pro-ISIS propaganda combined with images of ISIS militants posed with cats and kittens. These tweets were written in a humorous LOLspeak vernacular and identified their subjects-- in a bit of clever wordplay-- as "mewjahids." As such, these unusual images combined two of the most popular genres of the Internet age: the selfie and the LOLCat. Journalists and terrorism experts have so far understood Islamic State of Cat as an attempt to "soften" ISIS' fearsome and violent image, in a coordinated strategy to boost the recruitment of Westerners to their ranks. While I agree that these images are most certainly propaganda, I argue that the pictures shared by Islamic State of Cat should also be understood as self-portraits. These photographs construct a hybrid image, composed of human and animal characteristics; I call these assemblages of man and cat “ISIS Cats.’’ In ISIS Cats, the cat is endowed with human properties, while the militant acquires some of the supposed qualities of his feline companion. This dual process of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism conducts a trade between human and nonhuman animal, queering the boundaries between them. Western media has long resorted to metaphors of animality to portray the racialized Other; this is especially true in the modern War on Terror. What could it mean when a racialized “enemy” like ISIS uses cats to represent themselves? What roles do the aesthetics of the uncanny and cuteness play in these images? And finally, what kind of animal is the ISIS Cat?


Thanks for an interesting post. I wasn’t aware of the ISIS cats but, on the other side, the Brussels lockdown cats received a lot of attention last November: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/23/europe/paris-attacks-brussels-lockdown.... To your knowledge, were the Brussels cat tweets purely coincidental, or a knowing response to the earlier ISIS cats? The Brussels cats seem to draw on the conception of cats as both conventionally cute and unexpectedly resilient (given their size and tendency to scare easily).

Thank you for reading! It's funny that you mention the Brussels Lockdown, because many of the same images used by Belgians for that meme were of cats also used by ISIS supporters in #catsofjihad and other memes. I think that ISIS cat memes are actually fairly obscure, so I do not believe Belgians were responding to ISIS. Rather, I propose that the Internet is one big cat rendering plant. Cats are reliably flexible avatars, capable of conveying a broad range of affective, political and autobiographical messages on behalf of their human counterparts. As you note, their cuteness is contradicted by their resilience. Or rather, cats reveal something about the alterity and animality domesticated beneath the cute image. I should also add that their aloofness and independence make them ideal neoliberal subjects, a theory I have explored a bit more in this piece on Nekp Atsume. https://overland.org.au/2015/12/purr-ideology-the-neoliberal-pleasures-o...

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