This interview with Senior Research Fellow Charlie Winter first appeared on the blog Musings on Iraq and can be accessed in full here
1. In your previous research on Islamic State media releases you noted that most of its output wasn’t focused upon their martial activities but their governance and its state. Has that shifted since the Battle for Mosul started?
The Islamic State has changed narrative tack profoundly over the last 17 or 18 months. Since its 2014/15 zenith, the organisation has been forced to accommodate its brand to the less than favourable circumstances it faces in Iraq and Syria.
While depictions of utopian governance remain central to its propaganda, they were appearing much less frequently by the beginning of 2017, forming just under one fifth of the group’s total output – that’s less than half as much as in the summer of 2015. It’s clear as daylight that the Islamic State’s propaganda machine has been hit hard by coalition-backed forces over the last year or so, too – as things stand, the group is producing 48% less propaganda than it was eighteen months ago.
With this as a backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Islamic State’s strategic communication response to the Mosul offensive has been irregular at best and incoherent at worst. For a while, the group continued to peddle their utopian tale, but they’ve more or less given up on that these days. Now, its Mosul media is almost uniquely devoted to depicting the Islamic State at war.
2. IS has often portrayed itself as being victims of an international conspiracy against Islam. Have they been playing up that theme lately with their losses on the battlefield?
The centrality of the victimhood trope has fluctuated significantly over the last four months. Initially, the Islamic State went to great pains to communicate as much civilian damage as possible from Mosul, trying to make the coalition’s “crimes” as accessible to the outside world as possible.
It’s been interesting watching that change as the city has been wrested from its control. Indeed, the more territory it lost since October 2016, the less the propagandists showcased the damage being caused by this battle. It’s as if they are worried about overplaying the victimhood card.
This shift is perhaps indicative of the fact that the Islamic State has recalibrated its propaganda targeting metrics. No longer is its media geared towards drawing in new recruits. Now, it seems to be focused much more on sustaining the morale of true believers than drawing in fresh blood. I think it’s important to note that the group’s propaganda has never just been about “recruitment” – in the current context, its other functions are more important than ever.
3. Has IS changed its messaging from when the Mosul campaign first started in October to when east Mosul was attacked and liberated to now when west Mosul is under siege?
Whenever I glance back through my Mosul media archives, I’m struck by the differences between the Islamic State’s east bank propaganda vis a vis its west bank propaganda. Contrary to what was happening a few months ago, its media regarding the fight for the west is reminiscent of what it was doing during the second half of the battle of Fallujah in 2016 – focusing on occasional skirmishes and avoiding investing too much time on inexorable loss. That wasn’t the case when coalition-backed forces first approached the east in October last year. Then, the Islamic State propagandists spent much more time “countering” the mainstream news agenda.
It’s as if they are communicating about two different battles in two different parts of the world. Since Iraqi forces began to pile into the southwest, the Islamic State has had an almost muted response, albeit one that remains laced with angry denialism. There are no two ways about it – the group is communicating much more conservatively now than it was a few months ago.
4. The Iraqi forces are claiming all kinds of IS leaders and commanders being killed and captured in the Mosul fight. How much of this has the group publicly acknowledged?
Not at all. The Islamic State is more opaque than ever when it comes to this kind of thing. While it does commemorate suicide bombers and propagandists – not to mention the odd low-level commander here and there – these are always low-key propaganda products, geared towards being forgotten almost as soon as they’re released. For anyone that actually matters, the Islamic State is keeping quiet.
This isn’t unusual, though. Even outside the context of Mosul, it usually only acknowledges the death of senior leaders months or even years after the fact. For example, the group only just officially confirmed the death of Abu Wahib (the military commander with the terrible hair and slug-like monobrow), and he was killed almost a year ago.
That being said, when big hitters Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and Abu Muhammad al-Furqan were struck down in fall 2016, the announcements comes pretty quickly, so it will be interesting to see what happens if and when the coalition locates Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
5. Mosul is ultimately going to fall, how do you think that will change the Islamic State’s overall propaganda and messaging?
We often hear that Mosul is of existential importance to the Islamic State. I don’t think that’s the case – far from it, in fact.
In my opinion, the Islamic State gave up on Mosul months ago, possibly even years ago. Holding the city was always just a propaganda play for it, one that will allow it in years to come to continue its utopian boast, even if it doesn’t control it any more.
The Islamic State isn’t a “normal” political movement working towards “normal” political goals. More than territory, it wants to accommodate the world to its ideology and, if that means taking over massive amounts of territory only to lose it a few months further down the line, then so be it.
Charlie Winter is a Senior Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow him on Twitter at @charliewinter