Last week, a top propagandist for the Islamic State extremist group (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) was reportedly killed in an airstrike. The death comes as new details of the group’s internal propaganda instruction strategy are emerging. Despite such setbacks for the media-savvy terrorist organization’s psychological warfare initiatives, however, ISIS’ propaganda continues to threaten the West disproportionately to its military or territorial strength, while the U.S. and its allies continue to largely flounder in attempting to counter the group’s message.
ISIS essentially follows a three-pronged plan in waging its “information jihad,” as laid out in an ISIS propagandist training manual titled “Media Operative, You Are a Mujahid, Too,” according to Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London who recently reviewed and translated the manual. “First, present an alternative narrative, a comprehensive offer of existence; second, counter the ‘intellectual invasion’ being conducted by the mainstream news media; and, third, launch propaganda ‘projectiles’ against the enemy,” Winter writes. “Combined, these three facets form the foundations of the group’s propaganda strategy.”
Propaganda is so integral to the “Islamic State” idea, Winter contends, that the damage done by media content already produced by ISIS is likely to long outlive the terrorist group’s control of physical territory in Iraq and Syria.
“Propaganda is essential to the Islamic State’s survival,” Winter writes, “both as a group and as an idea; it has been an invaluable mechanism with which to enforce acquiescence in its proto-state and a penetrating weapon with which to assert its terrorist hegemony abroad. What is more, in years to come, it will likely serve as a flag around which true believers in the caliphate project nostalgically rally, even after the group’s territorial ‘state’ is no more.”
It is no secret that ISIS is an adept organization when it comes to spreading its message, whether through armies of Salafi jihadist social media trolls or slickly-produced “Jihadi John” beheading videos. Indeed, al Qaeda would likely still remain the greatest Islamist terrorist threat to the U.S. were it not for the Islamic State’s rise through the innovative use of online media as a recruiting tool. Within the organization “media people are more important than the soldiers,” according to one former ISIS member.
The revelations regarding ISIS’ propaganda strategy come amidst reports of the death of Ibrahim Al-Ansari, a top ISIS propagandist, in an American airstrike. Despite these developments, however, the terrorist group remains dangerously capable in the field of information warfare. The U.S., meanwhile, has also had its share of losses in the psychological fight against ISIS, and continues to grasp for an elusive grand strategy.
It was revealed earlier this year, for example, that the Pentagon’s “WebOps” program of targeting and attempting to de-radicalize would-be ISIS sympathizers online had become a colossal mess, lacking competent translators and infected by bureaucratic corruption. Meanwhile, even as some argue that ISIS’ ability to recruit is being impacted by its territorial losses, others are already warning of the rise of an “ISIS 2.0,” and in the U.S. and elsewhere, aspiring ISIS terrorists continue getting caught attempting to travel to the Middle East to fight for the group.
“Whatever the case, while many have interpreted the group’s dwindling territorial prospects, diminished intake of new members and disintegrating leadership as indicators of its impending demise, it is wrong to imagine a ‘post-Islamic State’ world at this time,” Winter writes. “The organisation has used propaganda to cultivate digital strategic depth and, due to this effort, the caliphate idea will exist long beyond its proto-state. If compelled to, the group’s true believers will simply retreat into the virtual world, where they will use the vast archive of propaganda assembled by the group over these past few years to keep themselves buoyant with nostalgia. In years to come, this resilience will enable it to perpetuate – and perhaps worsen – the terrorist menace it already presents.”
The U.S. and its allies can “bomb the shit out of” Mosul and Raqqa, as President Trump puts it, and kill as many ISIS fighters as they want to. Ultimately, however, the West also has to win the battle of ideas if it hopes to defeat the “Islamic State.” Despite the intellectual bankruptcy of ISIS’ interpretation of Islam, winning this propaganda fight remains a greater challenge for America than the physical military campaign. Thus far, ISIS’ understanding of the importance of the psychological dimension of conflict has given it incredible asymmetric advantages, while the West has paid a heavy price for neglecting these same considerations.