“Complete victory is coming – just not any time soon”

The headline quote is not only an extract from the most recent issue of ISIS magazine Rumiyah, but also a clear illustration of a shift of focus in their messaging. As the symbolically important city of Dabiq was lost for ISIS last month, the place which was prophetically announced as the place for the apocalyptic battle from which ISIS would prevail – the first incarnation of a less aggressive and more bouying-of-morale emphasis in their propaganda was visible.

The same type of messaging characterized ISIS loss of Fallujah. Currently they are providing hard resistance on the ground around and in Mosul, and continously, the propaganda coming out of both official- and supporter networks of ISIS, is of the nature of sustaining interest and whatever form of momentum they once had. Not much sensationalism or graphic beheadings, but more of instant news updates of the acclaimed “success” on the battle field.
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Without a doubt the pointing towards an apocalypse is still present, however the time-line appears to be flexible. The prophetic nature of this apocalypse also seems to have been played down (basically saying that their return of God’s kingdom on earth is no longer a prophecy fulfilment, atleast not to the extent that Baghdadi pushed for in the initial phases of declaring the caliphate). Instead there is a boosting of belief in the morale that the survival of the Caliphate will be a long one, with ups and down. In this matter ISIS messaging reflect similar trajectories as they suffer on the ground
From a media scholary perspective it is also interesting to follow the development and propaganda during the current battle of Mosul, as the hybridized digital warfare of ISIS for the last three years has been characterised by extreme forms of ‘news management’ (to borrow a term from the marketing and strategic communications sector). The events on the ground and their operative strategies were closely synched and correlated with online operations and messaging, which in turn were synched as a counterpart to western news media logic. In practice this has for a long time meant that propaganda content has been chosen, designed and published at strategically important times when western news media narratives push for setbacks for ISIS. Minutes or hours later, the ISIS outlets are coordinated to publish counter narratives, only to regain the image of themselves as successful in battle, acting from a position of strength or simply heroic portrayals of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the Caliphate (i.e. killed by the coalition).
As the battle of Mosul continues and seemingly push ISIS back and into Syria for re-grouping, the online messaging of the group now clearly functions mainly as moral boost, rather than replicating an image of acting from a position of strength. The Caliphate is shrinking slowly. The influx of foreign fighters have decreased since Turkey closed the border to Syria. ISIS looses populations to rule, hence also tax revenues. It is a matter of time before our understanding and experience, in particular their physical presence was a state project, of ISIS will change.
But just as its predecessors lost during the first insurgency in 2007-2008, ISIS will not disappear. Not after the battle of Mosul nor of Raqqa. And above all, the now so widespread and strategic network of official as well as “fanboys” propaganda will continue to flourish.
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The ideology is ISIS is not unique nor is it time-situated.
We (I) can continue to daily follow their messaging, see what focus they have, how it corresponds to the military operations on the ground, try to figure out not only their overall media strategies but also explicit content and form of the propaganda. Journalists can continue to cover the group with a critical stance and understanding of their agenda and implementation of media tactics to achieve it. And the military struggle may be over within a few years. But the most important long-term lesson, and argument for developing ideological counter measures –  the ideological messaging will however continue long after the so called Caliphate has been erased.

Beyond media headlines

The current political debate about the Islamic State (ISIS) is to a large extent characterised by claims that the terrorist group is loosing territories, capabilities and means to expand its self-declared Caliphate, hinting that its days are numbered as the military coalition fighting them on the ground is advancing. This is however a simplified take on reality and risks to obstruct a necessary focus to rapidly advance efforts, research and strategies to counter the ideological warfare.

 

As the geographical loss of territory does cause problems for ISIS, especially for loosing the ability to connect controlled areas and loss of population from which the group can collect taxes, there is an ideological spread as well as administrative growth in other countries around the world. The sophisticated and massive propaganda coming out os ISIS media departments primarily functions to amplify the physical presence of the Caliphate and appeal to new recruits. Considering the influx of foreign fighters, primarily from European countries, to Iraq and Syria during the last two years, this propaganda strategy must to a large extent be regarded successful. But since the military efforts of the coalition against ISIS during recent months have increased and gained momentum, the number of propaganda products from ISIS media industry have been reduced.

This does not however mean that the media strategy of ISIS has lost its significance. On the contrary, the more population and territory ISIS loose from its Caliphate, the stronger efforts to reach new population and support in other countries. Much if the propaganda is published in several languages and in recent months several radical islamist groups in Asia have sworn allegiance to ISIS and started expanding their areas of control. Same development in several countries in North Africa. In Europe we have seen more or less inspired or directed attacks in Brussels, Nice and Paris. ISIS are targeting audiences not solely for the purpose of travelling to the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but also to establish networks of ideologically likeminded in countries around the world. With a western-style visual imagery and sophisticated production techniques, the propaganda is designed to appeal to mainly alienated muslim youths living on different continents.

And whilst western mainstream media tends to emphasize the brutal beheading videos and horrific torture of ISIS when reporting on the topic, the vast majority of propaganda messages are about the complete opposite. It is in the nature of propaganda to create alternative views on the world, on politics, on religion and on other people. Despite their extreme and violent ideology and the enterprise of violence that it has become, ISIS put much efforts in trying to portray itself as something completely different. Concepts of brotherhood, belonging, significance, equality and religion are used as key motivations and are all vital in the propaganda for gaining support and recruits from around the world. It is highly important to realize that in the media world of ISIS propaganda, the brutality aspect so widely known to the general public is only a tiny fraction of the entire corpus of ideological messages. The violence itself might appeal to a small number of ideologically likeminded, but the promise of significance and belonging to something is by far more dominant. Images of happy children, caring fathers, a functioning state with education and healthcare are flourishing online – produced and spread to create a competative system of meaning that challenges the western portrayal of a brutal death cult. That also goes for ISIS heroistic portrayal of their fighters, emphaisizing how ”cool” and adventourus it is to go to battle for the Caliphate and retaliate on western governments and their aligned shia-muslim leaders in the region (Iran, Syria, Iraq). The online presence and networks of supporters helping to market and brand ISIS, are both significant and complex. However as over two years have passed since the declaration of the Caliphate and much of the world had to open their eyes to ISIS advancements in Iraq and Syria, the necessary tools to deconstruct their apocalyptic vision and end goals are starting to be seen. But there are still gaps.

The international community has reached a level of good knowledge about how ISIS employ propaganda, through which channels and with what purpose. Efforts to counter this and political action to prevent radicalization and recruitment are however still of a fumbling nature. It is fair to assume that a main reason is our continously lack of deep knowledge about the role of Internet in radicalization processes. It is one thing to understand how propaganda is being produced and disseminated, but a totally different thing to realize the individual experience of possible supporters when consuming this material. Therefor, in the continuing work for preventing radicalization, it is if high importance to combine political, cultural, academic and social efforts to enhance the understanding of radicalization and above all; to develop effecient strategies for preventing groups like ISIS to spread their violent ideology, to expand to new regions and countries and promote fear in our society.