In 2015, the Islamic State’s official propagandists were at the height of their bloody influence, producing slick content from thirty-eight different media offices from West Africa to East Afghanistan. Come December 2017, though, and over three-quarters of these outlets have been almost totally silenced. Only the Afghanistan-based team made more noise than it had before. It is almost as if someone has pressed the mute button on the Islamic State.
And that’s not all. Back in 2015, propaganda about the ‘utopia’ in Iraq and Syria was the order of the day: over half of all its media output was geared towards painting a vivid picture of civilian life in the caliphate, from schooling and agriculture to social welfare and bird conservation. The Islamic State was framed as a place you could go to live and thrive, not just somewhere to die as a martyr. Fast forward two and a half years, and the brand had transformed to become distinctly less appealing. Today, depictions of the caliphate ‘utopia’ have all but evaporated and no less than 92 per cent of its propaganda revolves around war, and war alone.
Clearly something has gone wrong for the Islamic State, a group for which, by its own admission, communication is not just a tool, but a mode of governance and military planning. Through propaganda in recent years, the Islamic State has waged psychological warfare on enemies, comforted its ailing support-base, challenged the ‘Islamic’ credentials of its rivals, and clutched at that most precious political commodity, credibility. That its official media output now seems to be drying up is hugely significant.
To understand why – and what it will mean for the future of the group – you need to get inside the head of the organisation. To do this, I’ve spent the last four years immersed in its ‘virtual caliphate’. I’ve seen many things in my time there – ridden its ebbs and flows, migrating from Twitter to VKontakte and Telegram in tandem with its media officials.
There is one thing I can be certain of: the Islamic State’s media strategy has shifted. While the intent is still there, the tactical means have changed and strategic goal been recalibrated. Instead of trying to cultivate mass appeal and draw new recruits to the caliphate territories – as it was in 2014, 2015 and, to a slightly lesser extent, 2016 – it now appears to be focusing merely on survival. Indeed, having taken stock of its new circumstances and limitations, the group’s media officials have gone to virtual ground, privileging a new approach towards the online environment that focuses more on logistics, instruction, and incitement than conventional recruitment.
Let’s go back to the data: two and a half years ago, when the self-proclaimed caliphate was at its territorial zenith, its media operatives used Twitter to publish about two hundred propaganda ‘events’ in a single week – a broad range of photograph reports, documentary-style videos, radio bulletins, and even a capella songs. By December 2017, though, its media arm were struggling to produce even twenty-five products in a week, and most of those that did emerge were military updates lacking the usual lustre of Islamic State propaganda.
The decline has not just manifested in quantitative terms. Across the board, editorial capabilities have also collapsed: previously impressive translation efforts have fallen apart after being outsourced; daily radio bulletins, which once appeared like clockwork in Arabic, French, Turkish, Kurdish, English, Russian, and Uyghur, are now few and far between; and, with rare exceptions, high-spec video standards have been abandoned for a policy of anything-and-everything.
The caliphate is more secretive about media operations than it is almost any other facet of its existence – not even its own soldiers had knowledge of how its propaganda was crafted – and this means we have no way to know the exact tone of the conversations going on inside its media headquarters. However, it is possible to take an informed punt as to what has caused this deterioration and recalibration.
First of all, it is clear that the territorial and virtual caliphates are more enmeshed than has been suggested. One cannot go on without the other. Indeed, there can be no questioning the fact that the Islamic State’s media capabilities largely relied on its territorial clout between 2014 and 2017. Over the last few years, not only has it been losing its media centres and top strategists to coalition airstrikes; it has been running out of people and things about which to make propaganda in the first place. The loss of Raqqa – after which its daily output caved in – illustrated this dynamic particularly clearly, but that was not the only city that mattered. Similar – albeit less striking – drops in propaganda quantity and quality occurred after battles in Tal’afar and Mosul, too.
Besides these in-theatre developments, there is the small matter of what has been happening online, too. While the details of the cyber-war are few and far between, Cyber Command’s Joint Task Force Ares and its partners have been staging attacks against the Islamic State since mid-2016. Add to this the litany of DDoS and spear-phishing infringements made against it by volunteer hacking groups, and the impact mounts up.
Underpinning all these efforts have been increasingly effective measures taken by private companies, foremost among them the counter-propaganda algorithms deployed by tech firms from Twitter to Facebook, which have made the biggest platforms largely inhospitable to Islamic State media operations in their current iteration. Nowadays, and much to the chagrin of the most important jihadist influencers – many of whom regularly decry this sad state of affairs – the Surface Web is a pretty hostile place. It is still used, but not in the way it once was.
There are no two ways about it: the Islamic State today is worlds apart from the Islamic State of two and a half years ago – and that is just as true in the context of its online operations as it is in view of its offline insurgency. Consistent with this, the way it uses propaganda has also changed. Now, it is less geared towards recruitment and more towards instruction and instigation. While the raw thematic materials that constitute its brand remain the same, the central promise is radically different to what it once was. For the time being at least, its claim to still be realising the jihadist utopia has become a (much-vaunted) thing of the past; so, too, has its demand for hijrah – that is, migration to Iraq or Syria.
Something more violent has replaced it. Nowadays, terrorism—wherever, whenever, whoever, and however—seems to be the caliphate’s new lifeblood. Indiscriminate violence against the “enemies of Islam” fills the ideological hole left by its lost utopia. It animates, enlivens, and excites Islamic State supporters; it reminds them that they are on the “right path,” that the group they dedicated themselves to years ago is still potent, still able to fight its “worthwhile” cause.
To this end, the Islamic State has been prioritising operational education over recruitment propaganda in recent months. Now, it’s expending more energy than ever on dishing out bomb- and poison-making recipes, providing theological coaching on why murdering civilians is permissible, and advising on encryption and information security. The official propaganda is still out there, but, at least for now, it has become increasingly scarce.
Nowadays, to paraphrase a recent Islamic State video, “the jihad has entered a new phase,” one in which “retributive” terrorism is the new priority. Facilitating this change in tack, so too has its approach towards propaganda altered course.