By Charlie Winter
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Weeks after its capture of Mosul in 2014, the Islamic State set about transforming its strategic trajectory. Through an avalanche of media products, it worked to aggressively insert itself into the global public discourse and, in turn, popularise its brand, polarise adversary populations and drive rivals into the ideological side-lines. This research paper presents new, empirical insight into this troubling phenomenon, which has set a benchmark for insurgent strategic communications the world over. Comprising the translation and analysis of a 55-page document compiled and published by the Islamic State in 2016, it offers a unique window into the mind-set of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s propagandists.
• Due to the secrecy in which the Islamic State shrouds its information operations, our understanding of their underpinnings is limited. This paper seeks to close this persistent knowledge gap and shed light on the thinking behind its media strategy.
- The caliphate brand is entirely unspontaneous. Fluctuating in response to directives issued by the central media of ce, it revolves around three axes – a coherent narrative that is at once positive and alternative; comprehensive, rejection-based counterspeech operations; and the launching of occasional, carefully calibrated media “projectiles.”
- For the Islamic State, the mainstream media is considered to be an effective weapon that, if leveraged correctly, has “far-reaching” power that can exceed that of the most powerful bombs.
- The Islamic State sustainably incites activism, whether from of ine operatives or online volunteers, by venerating information warfare in a manner unparalleled by any other sala -jihadist actor. As the document attests, in its eyes, propaganda production and dissemination is at times considered to be even more important than military jihad.
- Islamic State media activists are articially absorbed into a symbolic system of barter that is proactively nurtured and fertilised by the central media of ce. The cocktail of emotional, theological and ideological appeals delivered in the document is a potent derivation of this system, which is suf cient to keep volunteers active and interested inde nitely.
- Central to the Islamic State’s outreach success is its exible de nition of what constitutes a “media operative.” As the document attests, the line between of cial and unof cial activism is deliberately blurred, something that renders the organisation’s offer of participation all the more alluring.
- Observers must not misdiagnose the problem. The Islamic State
is where it is today because of strategic, innovative thinking, not just technological advances. The international community must be equally as creative and strategic-minded in its approach towards counter-communications.
- Like the Islamic State, practitioners and activists must recognise that audiences, whether enemies or supporters, are heterogeneous and best accessed through a rangeof channels.
- Counter-strategic communications must rest upon implicitly positive foundations and avoid targeting the Islamic State alone. Moreover, refuting sala -jihadists’ claims to legitimacy is not enough – and will never be enough – to degrade the brand.
- The Islamic State champions the offensive use of information to “infuriate the unbelievers.” With this in mind, media organisations must resist the production of nuance-less ‘clickbait’ articles derived from the Islamic State’s propaganda. If they do not, they run the risk of becoming unwitting instruments of its media strategists.