The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy
By Charlie Winter - Foreword by Haras Rafiq
For too long, the immensity of Islamic State’s propaganda machine has obscured a rational understanding of it. The organisation’s media strategists are producing high-definition depictions of the most abhorrent brutality on an industrial scale, ensuring that jihadism is digitalised and brought firmly into the 21st century. The days when we saw grainy video footage played on Al Jazeera and propaganda was limited to stagnant speeches made by terrorist leaders are long gone.
Islamic State has revolutionised jihadist messaging, by jettisoning operational security in the pursuit of dynamism, so that it can produce propaganda that tells a story, exciting or appalling its viewers, depending on who they are.
This has not gone unnoticed, it is forever being discussed in the pages of our newspapers and on the screens of our televisions – ‘high production value’ and ‘high definition’ are the new buzzwords of today’s terrorism. While they may be appropriate terms, they have stopped us from rationally assessing the organisation behind the glossy propaganda.
This report seeks to redress that situation, presenting the most extensive analysis of the organisation’s propaganda strategy to date. It demonstrates that Islamic State’s media operation is carefully calculated, with jihadist videographers producing bespoke content for a wide range of audiences. It shows that the group’s brutality is a red herring; that the violence depicted is a result of the propagandists’ desire to outrage hostile audiences abroad and gratify their supporters at home.
It is only after we have achieved an understanding of the motivations and objectives that drive the Islamic State media machine that we can begin to challenge it effectively. How, for example, can we be expected to develop a counter-narrative without knowing what narratives we are countering? How can we propose effective counter messaging strategies unless we understand what and how exactly the messages that we are countering are being disseminated, and to what purpose?
With hundreds of citizens from across the world travelling to join Islamic State’s terrorist bastardisation of the ‘caliphate’, the situation has never been more critical. Extremist supporters of Islamic State have already carried out attacks in countries around the world, from North America to Australasia, and the threat of their intensification increases every day. It is imperative that we – practitioners, policymakers and publics – better understand just how the messages of indoctrination are delivered and hence what drives these individuals to waste life in the name of Islamic State’s violent Islamist fantasy.
With this report, Quilliam’s Senior Researcher on Transnational Jihadism, Charlie Winter, has made a most important contribution to the global effort to counter Islamic State. Through his systematic research – which, over the course of the ‘caliphate’s’ first full year, involved daily monitoring of terrorist activity on both Arabic- and English-language social media – he has been able to critically assess the Islamic State media machine, both up close and from afar.
Through his assessment of Islamic State propaganda in aggregate, after his documenting of well over a thousand individual propaganda campaigns, Charlie has been able to distil its unprecedented jihadist brand into six key narratives: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, belonging and utopia. With these themes and their relative prevalence in mind, it was possible for him to determine which audiences Islamic State targets in each of its campaigns: active opponents, international publics, active members, potential recruits, disseminators, proselytizers and enlisters. Evidently, the Islamic State propagandists know their game.
This war cannot be won through military and political means alone; it is as much a war of information and propaganda as anything else and, currently, it is fatally imbalanced to the advantage of Islamic State.
What this report makes very clear is that we need to respond in kind – relying upon someone else to produce a panacea to it, a single counter-narrative that is universally appealing to all audiences, is a fruitless pursuit. If the international community is to effectively approach the Islamic State crisis, it must do so in a synchronised, comprehensive manner and revolutionise its approach to terrorist propaganda.
Whether it is by matching the approach that Islamic State use or the sheer quantity of the content they produce – an average of three videos and more than fifteen photographic reports are circulated per day – we must respond to 21stCentury jihadism by ensuring that we too are operating in the same century.