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.