Accessibility links

Breaking News

How IS Uses Invisible Ink, False Mustaches To Disguise A More Sinister Message

Beyond its amateurish advice about false mustaches, invisible ink, and spy cameras, the IS e-book contains far more sinister and dangerous recommendations. (photo illustration)
Beyond its amateurish advice about false mustaches, invisible ink, and spy cameras, the IS e-book contains far more sinister and dangerous recommendations. (photo illustration)

Invisible ink, false mustaches, colored contact lenses, and secret code words sound like the ingredients of a Nancy Drew novel or a Spy Kids movie.

But according to a new instruction manual issued by the militant group Islamic State (IS), would-be recruits who can't make it to Syria can use these simple tricks to help them operate as IS "secret agents" from the comfort of their own homes.

The 71-page, English-language manual, How To Survive In The West: A Mujahid ("jihadi fighter") Guide, was first circulated on social media in March and has resurfaced this week.

It offers a wide variety of tips, including the art of disguise, evading surveillance, Internet privacy, and "primitive weapons."

You Can Call Me Al

Chapter 1 of the manual, Hiding The Extremist Identity, suggests that IS militants change their first names to sound more Western and thereby avoid arousing suspicion.

An undercover militant named Ali, for example, could evade police attention simply by calling himself Al instead.

An alias could also open the door to better spying opportunities, the manual says, something that "might be important if you need an important position in a specific job [such as] enemy governmental positions."

The manual also offers a helpful workaround for militants who want to go undercover while adhering to IS's ruling that all men must have beards. Militants could fool Westerners by growing a "basic small goatee," the manual suggests, which people will assume is a "stylish beard" and nothing to do with IS.

Colored contact lenses could also help disguise a militant's identity and ensure people will give inaccurate descriptions to the police, the manual advises.

Women, meanwhile, are advised to ditch their black hijabs for colored ones, since "women who wear black Hijabs are searched more in airports."

Code Words & Invisible Ink

So now militants know how to disguise themselves, but what about their communications? The guidebook advises IS "undercover agents" in the West to use code words while avoiding "sensitive words" that could arouse suspicion, particularly when chatting to other militants via electronic devices.

When buying or selling weapons by telephone, for example, militants should refer to "selling the car "instead of "selling the weapon," a strategy that should fool intelligence agents who are listening in.

There is good news for militants who prefer old-fashioned, handwritten letters to telephones, too. They can evade detection by using invisible ink made from lemon juice, which the recipient can read by warming the paper first. But militants are cautioned to "use code words in case your letters are captured," presumably by an intelligence agent who remembers the lemon-juice trick from the school science fair.

Don't Be A Couch Potato

Aspiring IS militants who think they can bring down the West by calling themselves Al, wearing false mustaches, and writing coded missives in invisible ink are in for a shock when they reach Chapter 5 of the manual, headed Training. Here, militants learn that the "coming war for the conquest of Rome will mainly consist of Urban warfare within the cities and streets of Europe."

"So ask yourself," the manual says, "which type of Training will you need?"

If would-be militants were not sufficiently daunted by this challenge, the guidebook casually notes that, "Mujahideen [militants] run for a few hours, daily, on mountains before having their breakfast."

But what if there are no mountains close at hand? Once again, the guidebook has a practical suggestion, recommending alternatives like "going to the gym" and "running in the park." Fortunately, both pursuits are "considered normal in the West."

Women, meanwhile, can to go to "Female only sessions" at the gym or even just "run on a Treadmill at home to build up stamina."

To prepare fully for urban combat, trainee IS secret agents are further advised that "running up and down the stairs is a really good exercise."

When Things Go Wrong...

Chapter 10, titled What Happens When You Are Spied On And Get Raided, offers some helpful tips for what to do when, inevitably, things go wrong. (Maybe the police have seen through Al's goatee or cracked the code in his invisible-ink letter.)

The manual recommends that IS hopefuls take some tips from Hollywood, perhaps a surprising choice given IS's abhorrence of Western culture.

"You have seen plenty of spy movies in the past, its (sic) now time you implemented some things you've learned from them. If you don't know of any then watch the Bourne Films," the e-book advises, in a reference to the films based on the best-selling Robert Ludlum spy.

Always Carry A Condom

Militants are advised to carry a "survival kit" in case they are forced to go on the run or find themselves in a war zone. It should contain items for making fire, snare wire for trapping rabbits, a medical kit, and a condom, which, as the e-book notes, "can hold 1 litre of water."

Would-be militants can practice going on the run by camping locally, though they are advised to avoid suspicious behavior like "practicing archery" while on the campsite.

A More Sinister Message

Beyond its amateurish advice about false mustaches, invisible ink, and spy cameras, the IS e-book contains far more sinister and dangerous recommendations.

These include instructions for how to make and build deadly improvised explosive devices to use in terror attacks.

The manual suggests that militants make pressure-cooker bombs like those used by Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev to kill three people and injure 176 others in April 2013.

Instructions are also given for how to make nail bombs, cell-phone detonators, and "primitive car bombs," as well as how to transport them to targets.

Consistent Propaganda

Underpinning the manual is the key message that Western Muslims who sympathize with IS's aims can and should carry out "lone wolf" attacks against Western targets.

IS sympathizers need not be card-carrying IS members to carry out attacks. "Your only connection to IS is ideological," the e-book explains.

This message fits with that given by IS in recent videos and other propaganda material.

In a recent video, for example, Australian IS militant and recruiter Neil Prakash called on Muslims in Australia to "rise up" and "start attacking before they attack you."

Similar calls for "lone wolf" attacks have been put out by French, Chechen, and Canadian militants.

Praise of "lone wolf" and other attacks in the West, in particular the recent terrorist shootings at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, is another key IS propaganda strategy that is used in the e-book, which devotes several pages to discussing and lauding the Paris attacks.


While much of the IS e-book seems amateurish and even ridiculous, some of its advice on how IS "agents" should behave and look to escape detection in Western societies mirrors Western narratives about radicalized individuals.

The IS e-book, for example, advises that women wear colored, and not black, hijabs because black hijabs are stereotypically associated with terrorists. Russia's pro-Kremlin media outlet RIA Novosti reflected this view in a recent infographic advising Russians on how terrorists behave, noting that the suicide bomber who attacked a Volograd bus was "wearing a black hijab."

Meanwhile, a French guide to spotting radicalized children -- published in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings -- explained that newly recruited militants changed how they dressed and acted (the infographic illustrated this by showing a picture of a baguette that has been crossed out).

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


Latest Posts