Islamic State Propaganda: Key Elements of the Group’s Messaging
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 12
Following the Islamic State’s lightning-fast expansion in the Middle East and beyond, rarely a day passes without it securing a place in the headlines. This is the inevitable outcome of the group’s well-honed messaging strategy, which skillfully uses social media to project the group’s propaganda globally.  By dissecting and examining the various strands of the group’s propaganda, narrative and brand, this article will deal with the message itself, focusing on how the Islamic State has gained the international traction it has. The analysis below draws on an archive of over 1,700 separate official propaganda campaigns produced and disseminated by the Islamic State since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared caliph in June 2014. From this aggregated perspective, it has been possible to distill the Islamic State’s vast propaganda machine down into the six key narratives that are behind the caliphate brand, things that inspire fear in its enemies and awe in its potential recruits: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, belonging and utopianism. [2, 3]
Although it is by no means the sole component of Islamic State propaganda, “brutality” enjoys pride of place in the group’s messaging (as well as in media coverage, too), whether it is videos depicting mass executions by decapitation in the Syrian desert or firing squad in Libya. 
All of the Islamic State’s ideological supporters derive satisfaction from this content. It is what Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has termed “winner’s messaging” and aims to demonstrate the group’s presumed supremacy.  However, this content is not just aimed at declared supporters of the group. In fact, these are not even the primary target audience. More than gratifying supporters, this propaganda seeks to provoke outrage, even further intervention, from the group’s enemies. The Islamic State has a great many enemies, so who is being targeted varies depending on the production unit responsible for a given report, and who is being executed. For example, a video documenting the execution of members of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has a very different target audience to one in which British jihadist Mohammed Emwazi (a.k.a. “Jihadi John”) beheads a Japanese journalist.  Both videos were brutal and shocking, but only one—that which featured Emwazi—had international traction. By weaving brutality into the fabric of its propaganda, the Islamic State aims to intimidate its enemies, provoke international outrage and prompt knee-jerk responses from policymakers. Often, all three of these motivations are both sought and achieved in the same release. 
The notion of “mercy” is regularly featured in tandem with brutality. Perhaps the most striking example of this was in the idiosyncratically titled “Clanging of the Swords IV” video that was released six weeks before al-Baghdadi was declared caliph.  It presented an orgy of violence that was carefully juxtaposed with scenes in which Sunni Muslims in Iraq’s Anbar Province are seen responding to the Islamic State’s istitaaba, its appeals for repentance. Upon repenting, the footage shows them being received into the embraces of balaclava-wearing jihadists. The message is clear: the Islamic State will forgive one’s past affiliation, provided that it is wholly rejected and that said the individual can guarantee their obedience to the caliphate. If these conditions are met, then the newly repentant individual may become “one of the gang.”
It is a narrative that has been repeated countless times over the last eleven months as the Islamic State seeks to attract defectors from its enemies and rivals and win support from local tribes. In one interesting variation, for example, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army and the SAA are shown repenting and joining the Islamic State together. 
It is worth noting that this idea is not only conveyed by video: in May 2015, two Islamic State communiques were published online—one in Damascus province and one in Aleppo province—informing enemies that they will be granted clemency if they repent using the phone numbers advertised.  Furthermore, such “mercy” does not just extend to fighters, but to everyone, including former government employees. For example, in the run up to the caliphate’s inaugural school year, teachers in Syria have regularly been shown in Islamic State videos repenting en masse. 
In sum, the narrative of mercy is at least as prominent as brutality—with which it has a strong symbiotic relationship—in Islamic State propaganda. The two themes are closely entwined, and they present a stark choice to populations that are under attack from the Islamic State: resist and be killed, or repent, submit and be rewarded with mercy.
The next narrative, “victimhood,” is a timeless theme in jihadist and Islamist propaganda, and it is predicated on the perception of an alleged global war on Sunni Islam. As with mercy, the idea of victimhood is often used in tandem with brutality. For example, in the Islamic State’s most shocking video to date, in which the Jordanian Air Force pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh is burned alive before rubble is bulldozered over his body, the binary opposites of victimhood and retributive violence were strikingly manipulated.  Seconds before the sequence depicting al-Kasasbeh’s final moments, footage of the aftermath of coalition airstrikes was cut in to the video. This aimed to remind the observer of the justification for the Islamic State’s continued war of defense, while driving home the Islamic basis from which this means of execution was derived, namely qisas, or retaliation in kind.  A similar juxtaposition of violence and victimhood was also used in a November 2014 video in which 22 members of the SAA were simultaneously beheaded. 
On a fairly regular basis, too, Islamic State propagandists eschew this juxtaposition, choosing to generally solely document the immediate aftermath of air-raids instead of combining it with the Islamic State’s own violence in order to motivate support for their cause. To this end, dead babies and maimed children are routinely instrumentalized and incorporated into a catalogue of purported Crusader-Zionist-Shi’a crimes to be used as a rallying point for the group’s supporters. 
The War Machine
The Islamic State “war machine” is the fourth constituent part of its brand, with the Islamic State’s propagandists routinely focusing on the organization’s military gains by depicting military parades and frontline scenes through photographs, videos and even radio dispatches.  This output shows a particular preoccupation with ghana’im (booty)—the looting of enemies’ weapons and ammunition—something that plays well into the propagandists’ intention to portray the Islamic State’s momentum, supremacy and, crucially, the conventional nature of its military machine. 
Although this content is ostensibly aimed at instilling fear in hostile forces and raising its fighters’ morale, it also serves a more subtle, tactical purpose by disseminating disinformation. Although the Islamic State likes to give the impression that it is publicizing the whole of its war, it does not actually do so. For instance, on a number of occasions its propagandists have intensively documented fighting on one front while imposing a media blackout on another. The Islamic State’s Ramadi offensive in spring 2015 was a prime example of this. Throughout the early weeks of the final offensive, which began many weeks before the city fell, visual evidence that it was taking place was almost totally non-existent, while Islamic State propagandists saturated the airwaves with photographs and videos from a separate assault on Baiji oil refinery. In a conflict where human intelligence is scarce, open source intelligence has never been more important and, taking this into account, the Islamic State seeks to control the intelligence available to its enemies by cultivating a monopoly on battlefield reporting with which to distort media and governmental understanding of the conflict in its favor.
The next narrative, “belonging,” is one of the Islamic State’s most powerful themes for drawing in new recruits, particularly those from Western states. Through the publication of videos and photo reports depicting things like istiraahat (recreation) al-mujahideen—fighters relaxing with tea and singing with each other—the Islamic State’s propagandists emphasize the idea of brotherhood in the caliphate.  The carefully marketed camaraderie that one can enjoy upon arrival in Islamic State-held territories is, as the propagandists would have their audience believe, almost overwhelming. Indeed,, in most of its foreign-language videos, “brothers” from around the world are filmed hanging out in parks, playing on fairground rides and generally having a good time.  More often than not, their faces are a picture of serenity. It is not difficult to understand why the Islamic State distributes this footage: if it is to replenish its ranks, which are, by all accounts, being constantly depleted, the group needs to attract foreign recruits.
Understanding radicalization better than most, the Islamic State’s al-Hayat Media Center team recognizes that promises of friendship, security and a sense of belonging are powerful draws for its supporters abroad, many of whom are attracted to the Islamic State precisely because they feel isolated from their respective societies and crave a sense of belonging. Of course, it is not just international supporters that this narrative appeals to; for example, in “On the Prophetic Methodology,” the al-Furqan Foundation’s propagandists insert clips of new local recruits rapturously embracing their Islamic State brethren after pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi.  In such productions, the Islamic State turbo-charges the concept of the ummah and takes it beyond al-Qaeda’s elite vanguard narrative by democratizing the ability to engage with the struggle. Along with the aforementioned thematic elements, Islamic State propagandists incorporate the notion of brotherhood into the final component of the Islamic State brand: Islamist utopianism.
“Utopianism” is perhaps the broadest and most important narratives that Islamic State propagandists exploit. It is a theme that is fertilized with new content multiple times a day, and one that runs strongly through all Islamic State propaganda. All of the aforementioned narratives feed directly into it. Its constant presence makes sense: the Islamic State’s establishment and implementation of a perceived Islamic utopia, the caliphate, is the organization’s unique selling point and the more “evidence” of this that the group can produce, the more resilient it becomes to assertions that it is illegitimate.
Examples of the group’s desire to demonstrate its “state”-hood can be found in the group’s videos and photo reports of the most mundane-seeming activities: from fishing fighters and da’wa (proselytization) caravans to sheep cleaning and road-building.  Although this content may seem relatively benign, when it is understood in the wider context of the group’s propaganda campaign, it becomes clear that it is the most important element of all Islamic State messaging. Usually produced by the caliphate’s provincial media organizations, predominantly as photo reports, it is the group’s way of proving that it is not just talking about the caliphate, but that it is enacting it, too. Typical photo essays therefore show the group teaching children to recite the Quran, establishing Shari’a courts, implementing hudud (punishments for perceived “crimes against God”) and collecting and dispensing money raised from zakat collections. 
As noted in the discussion on “brutality,” such material affects different audiences differently, in particular when it comes to the Islamic State’s portrayal of its penal system – the amputations, stonings and beheadings. For locals, the Islamic State’s use of the hudud demonstrates that, despite the fact that it is being attacked from all sides, it can provide security and stability. In the context of crippling warlordism and rampant lawlessness in many parts of Iraq and Syria, the harsh and full imposition of law can be appealing.  For ideological supporters, this content is promoted as evidence that the Islamic State is implementing God’s will more effectively than any other group, jihadist or Islamist. And, for hostile audiences abroad, publics and governments, these punishments are simply integrated into the brutality narrative.
By declaring the re-establishment of the caliphate, the Islamic State seized the initiative and asserted itself above all other jihadist and Islamist groups as the implementer of the utopia that they all aspired to create. Seeking to amplify and sustain this conception, the Islamic State propagandists instrumentalize eschatology by arguing that, now that the caliphate has been established and, as of August 8, 2014, the Crusaders are being confronted, the Day of Judgment is looming (BBC, August 8, 2014). The resulting message to would-be recruits is simple: join the Islamic State now or miss the boat and face an eternity in Hell. 
Notably, some groups have responded to this call and incorporated themselves, at least in terms of their messaging, into the caliphate. At every opportunity, group assimilations are celebrated. Whenever a new bay’a (oath of fealty) to al-Baghdadi is announced, it is projected far and wide on Islamic State social media as evidence of the group’s divinely ordained success, even if it is just symbolic. In the weeks that follow one such pledge, supportive videos emerge from the Islamic State’s various provinces showing the population’s happy reactions.  This form of propaganda revolves around maintaining a sense of momentum. After all, the perception of continually growing power is not just symbolic, it spawns real authority.
Through its expert synthesis of the above six narratives, the Islamic State presents an intoxicating message; one that captures the imagination of the vulnerable and the disillusioned, and therefore makes its effort to randomly incite attacks far more successful than its rivals. By combining eschatological urgency and religio-political legitimacy, the imperative to act—whether through joining the group or carrying out an attack—is perceived by its followers to be greater than ever before, something that is forever emphasized by the group in its countless videos calling for new recruits to make hijra (migratation) from their home countries.  This, in combination with the easy accessibility that social media facilitates between its supporters, has been of untold assistance to the Islamic State as it has struggled to maintain the perception of its momentum in the first year of its caliphate.
None of the narratives that the Islamic State exploits are novel ideas, nor are they mutually exclusive. The group is distinct in the way that it is able to manipulate each of them into one far-reaching and ambitious media strategy that strengthens the perception of its supremacy and the urgency of its eschatological claims. It is time that the singular importance of the Islamic State’s propaganda is properly appreciated, for it is here that the organization is at once most formidable and most vulnerable. If the coalition is to stem the caliphate’s advances, it cannot do so by military means alone. Regional and international stakeholders must therefore engage in the battle of ideas and work to undermine the Islamic State brand.
Charlie Winter leads the jihadism research unit at London-based counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.
1. See, for example. J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census,” Brookings Institution, March 20, 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/isis-twitter-census-berger-morgan/isis_twitter_census_berger_morgan.pdf.
2. In an effort to quantify it, the author assembled an archive of the organization’s official messaging recorded over the course of the first eleven months of its existence. In that time, over 1700 pieces of propaganda—photo reports, radio programs, statements and videos—have been archived, within which there have been identified 75 distinct, but not discrete, types of content. Considered together, these 75 types of content were motivated by fifteen distinct themes, which, in turn, can be refined into six narratives.
3. “This is the promise of Allah”, al-Furqan Foundation, June 29, 2014.
4. “Although the disbelievers dislike it,” al-Furqan Foundation, November 16, 2014; “A message signed with blood to the nation of the Cross,” Al-Hayat Media Center, February 15, 2015; “Until there came to them clear evidence”, al-Furqan Foundation, April 19, 2015.
5. “Jihad 2.0: social media in the next evolution of terrorist recruitment,” Full Committee Hearing, Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, May 7, 2015, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/hearings/jihad-20-social-media-in-the-next-evolution-of-terrorist-recruitment.
6. “Execution of three officers from the Nusayri army,” Raqqa Province Media Office, November 6, 2014; “A message to the government of Japan,” al-Furqan Foundation, January 29, 2015.
7. “Healing of the believers’ chests,” al-Furqan Foundation, February 3, 2015.
8. “Clanging of the swords IV,” al-Furqan Foundation, May 17, 2014.
9. “From the darkness to the light,” Khayr Province Media Office, April 16, 2015.
10. “Statement 779,” Damascus Province, May 5, 2015; “To all besieged soldiers in Kuwayris Airbase,” Aleppo Province Media Office, May 7, 2015.
11. “Istitaba of teachers in the east al-Karama region,” Raqqa Province Media Office, March 6, 2015.
12. “Healing of the believers’ chests,” al-Furqan Foundation, February 3, 2015.
13. “What is the ruling on burning the kafir until he dies?,” Office for the Research and Issuance of Fatwas, January 20, 2015.
14. “Although the disbelievers dislike it,” al-Furqan Foundation, November 16, 2014.
15. “The bombing of the Crusaders on Muslims,” Aleppo Province Media Office, May 3, 2015.
16. “Parade of the army of the caliphate in Barqa Province,” Barqa Province Media Office, November 16, 2014; “Correspondents’ program – the raid to liberate Baiji refinery,” Salahuddin Province Media Office, May 13, 2015; “Battles in Ayn al-Islam,” Aleppo Province Media Office, December 9, 2014.
17. “Some of the booty from al-Karmeh,” Anbar Province Media Office, May 13, 2015.
18. “Photographic report of the break-time of the mujahideen on the Euphrates river,” Raqqa Province Media Office, December 29, 2014.
19. “Eid greetings from the land of the caliphate,” Al-Hayat Media Center, August 2, 2014.
20. “Upon the Prophetic methodology,” al-Furqan Foundation, July 28, 2014.
21. Fishing: “From inside Halab,” Al-Hayat Media Center, February 9, 2015; “Da’wa caravan for cubs of the caliphate,” Nineveh Province Media Office, April 20, 2015; “Taking care of livestock,” Jazira Province Media Office, April 27, 2015; “Overview of the work of the Services Bureau in the southern region,” Khayr Province Media Office, March 20, 2015.
22. “Honoring the cubs that have memorized two parts of the Quran,” Raqqa Province Media Office, March 29, 2015; “Establishment of hadd for theft in the city of Dar al-Fath,” Aleppo Province Media Office, February 17, 2015; “Establishment of hadd for drinking wine in before the door of the Shari’a court,” Barqa Province Media Office, October 22, 2014; “Distribution of zakat in one of the mosques of Raqqa Province,” Raqqa Province Media Office, July 9, 2014.
23. “Establishment of hadd for banditry on two individuals who erected checkpoints for theft in the name of the state,” Aleppo Province Media Office, April 30, 2015.
24. In Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s latest statement, for example, he speaks of “the signs of the Malahim,” urging Muslims to join the Islamic State to “feed the winds of victory within them”; see “Go forth, whether light or heavy,” al-Furqan Foundation, May 14, 2015.
25. For example, see “Joy of the monotheists regarding the bay’a of Nigeria’s mujahideen,” Dijla Province Media Office, March 11, 2015.
26. For the most recent example of this, see, “Message to the Muslims of Somalia,” Furāt Province Media Office, May 21, 2015.