Stripping ISIS of its arsenal: understanding ISIS’ media communications

By Dmitry Dobrovolskiy


Thomas Friedman, the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has previously suggested that modern day terrorism is essentially a “cocktail of half-truths, propaganda, and outright lies about America.” This article will elucidate the ingredients of this so-called cocktail and discuss how the messages ISIS sends through different media channels led to its rise.

ISIS arose partially because of the failed nation building program in Iraq by the US and the escalation of an internal conflict in Syria into a bloody civil war, which contributed to the destabilization of the region thus allowing ISIS to propagate its propaganda and establish a fairly stable rule of law. Capitalizing on the power vacuum left by war and sectarian conflict in both countries, ISIS developed its quasi-government quickly.

The use of different media platforms by ISIS represents the increasingly popular trend of media globalization. By moving away from a territory-specific narrative and appealing to people’s grievances worldwide, ISIS could recruit on a never-before-seen global level for a terrorist organization.

ISIS is not the first terrorist organization to use media for its purposes; magazines and newspapers were distributed by terrorist groups in 19th and 20th century Russia, Al-Qaeda in Yemen has been issuing Inspire, an English language online magazine since 2010, and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, has broadcast the channel al-Manara al-Bayda for over three years. Nevertheless, none of these attempts to use media by terrorist groups equal the scale and immensity of the ISIS media machine. ISIS took a completely different approach to media and promoted its image instead of simply maintaining it. Part of its success is attributable to different media content in English, German, Russian, and French in addition to Arabic.

One of the main sources of media coverage and recruitment used by ISIS in English-speaking world is Dabiq, though it also issues magazines in other languages such as Istok (meaning: cradle) in Russian targeting the Muslims in the Northern Caucasus. In 2015, ISIS also started recruiting sign language interpreters to expand its reach to the deaf and mute.

Similar to its groundbreaking use of hardcopy recruitment tools, ISIS also uses many social media platforms to spread its propaganda. ISIS operates an Android application to share posts and photos called Fajr al-Basha’er (Dawn of Good Tidings), strongly exploits Twitter (40,000 tweets/24 hours after the seizure of Mosul) and YouTube.

Overall, the media expansion of ISIS and its subsequent brand recognition represents the globalization of our society and highlights how interconnected the world is today. How else could the Maldives, a system of islands in the middle of Indian Ocean, have produced the largest number of ISIS foreign fighters per capita according to Amal Clooney, a notable human rights lawyer and activist. 

ISIS propaganda draws upon many of the grievances that exist in the Muslim communities worldwide by using anti-US and anti-Western sentiments. In the 12th issue of Dabiq, an ISIS magazine, the West is referred to as an amalgamation of “crusader nations” and the president of France, Francois Hollande is referred to as a coward. This anti-Western sentiment reinforces the grievances that some in the Muslim world still have towards Europe and the US. Dabiq also uses classic Islamic texts such as the Quran to explain and justify the nature of the caliphate, its institutions, goals, legitimacy and political and religious authority over all Muslims. Through these methods, ISIS justifies the social position women hold in its ‘caliphate.’

Unlike terrorist movements of 19th century Russia or modern day al-Qaeda, ISIS does not simply spread terror, but relies on media image of just governance over its controlled area to boost its popularity and effectiveness. Addressing this public messaging campaign could help identify the propaganda on different social media platforms more easily. In one of its propaganda videos, ISIS emphasizes its good governance and “jihad against the enemies,” which makes a viewer consider jihad as only a temporary means of achieving prosperity and justice. This idea, once planted, gives rise to many Muslims joining ISIS and encourages them to bring their families along. It appeals to people who feel like the justice system in their country is corrupt or biased. In Russia, for instance, the idea of equal justice, including members of the ruling party, could be quite appealing to many people. In the case of the US, many might consider the system to be biased against minorities and perceive ISIS to be more just. Hence, ISIS harnesses national grievances to lay the foundation of ISIS’s image of attractiveness.

Western governments quickly realized that massive take-downs of ISIS-affiliated accounts on Twitter, like the one in April 2015 when Twitter deleted 10,000 accounts in one day, are not the most effective way to deal with ISIS. In the wake of that crackdown, thousands of new ISIS accounts reappeared in just a few short hours. This realization led to some Western countries, especially the US, to attempt to “fight fire with fire.”

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, notes that in summer of 2015, the United States and the United Arab Emirates created an online counter-messaging center to address ISIS propaganda on different social media platforms. While it initially appeared promising, this campaign proved to be ineffective. Nevertheless, it remains hard to evaluate the positive effects such activities. as one of the invited experts of Brookings Institute put it: “the work of the special operators at CSCC [Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications] deserves respect and support.” CSCC remains severely underfunded, and the lack of proper interactions between different global centers makes the messaging ineffective. The US additionally lacks the legitimacy among many global audiences to talk about what is and is not Islamic.

One of the possible solutions could be the creation of a global hub for counterterrorism communications, where the messaging content would be overseen primarily by Egyptian and Saudi scholars and officials from other Arab States, and the production and visual media effects would be produced by a Western team.

Despite its territorial losses, ISIS is a far bigger threat today than it was two or three years ago and is unlike other terrorist organizations that have historically targeted the West. One of its most unique aspects is its use of globalized media to attract its supporters. Its propaganda spans many languages to appeal to the global community, exploits societal grievances, relies on an alluring image of just and good governance, and is addressed and acknowledged by the West. Hence, it is not only the people of the MENA region who are in danger due to their geographical proximity to ISIS, but also the countries far away from the physical reach of ISIS made vulnerable due to the globalized media channels that ISIS exploits. The West needs to understand the communication techniques used by ISIS in order to effectively address its rise, as every day ISIS attracts more and more supporters. Traditional notions of propaganda as simply persuasive communication fail to address the new information war. Now, propaganda is an essential part of “a larger information armory” and the world should make great efforts to strip ISIS off this part of its military arsenal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *