How The Islamic State’s Propaganda Feeds Into Its Global Expansion Efforts


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bridget Moreng, and Nathaniel Barr

War on the Rocks

Even before the dramatic blitzkrieg the Islamic State launched through northern Iraq in June 2014, the group had been focused on expanding its presence beyond Syria and Iraq. The group has by now declared wilayats (provinces) in West Africa (Wilayat Ifriqiyah, the organization formerly known as Boko Haram), in the Caucasus region of Russia, and in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Though the campaign of expansion launched by the Islamic State (known in the U.S. government by the acronym ISIL, after its previous incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has been fraught with setbacks, the group also achieved real successes. Its move into Libya, where ISIL controls the city of Sirte, justifiably piqued international fears. ISIL’s ability to attract thousands of foreign fighters — and the significant danger they now pose to Europe — is another success story for the group outside of its Syria-Iraq stronghold. As ISIL seeks to establish new wilayats abroad and pull more foreign fighters into its ranks, one of its most potent weapons is its robust propaganda apparatus.

In every country where ISIL has established a presence, it has drawn on a general propaganda playbook consisting of its most powerful themes and narratives that resonate with its global audience, but ISIL also tailors its message to each new theater. The movement is adept at fitting its narratives to local political and social conditions, and exploiting societal grievances and fault lines. ISIL’s localized messaging helps bolster the group’s legitimacy, fuel recruitment, and amplify (and often exaggerate) its strength in countries where the group is fighting for a foothold.

ISIL’s Global Propaganda Playbook

ISIL’s slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding) is more than just a motto. It is an organizational imperative. ISIL’s strength, legitimacy, and viability hinge to a considerable degree on the group’s expansion and foreign fighter recruitment campaigns.

In declaring its re-establishment of the caliphate, which by definition is global in scope, ISIL staked its religious and political legitimacy to its ability to create and maintain a functioning Islamic polity that can claim to represent and ultimately encompass the broader Muslim world. In contrast with al-Qaeda, which maintains that the conditions for declaring the caliphate have not yet been satisfied, ISIL has no choice but to aggressively pursue constant and visible global expansion.

For ISIL, expansion and religio-political legitimacy are mutually reinforcing. As it gains new “provinces,” and advertises these gains through its propaganda, the organization appears more credible to other jihadist actors. More organizations and foreign fighters may be inclined to join the group. John Cantlie, a former British journalist forcibly conscripted as ISIL’s mouthpiece, explained the group’s momentum-based strategy in the group’s English-language magazine Dabiq:

“The Islamic State is now truly moving with great momentum. As an entity enjoys success, it attracts more to its fold, thereby causing expansion and breeding more success until it achieves some sort of critical mass, the point at which it becomes self-perpetuating, self sustaining.” 

But the reverse is true, too: A lack of momentum can diminish the amount of recruits and external militant organizations ISIL is able to attract, thus magnifying its losses.

With much riding on the outcome of ISIL’s global expansion campaign, the group has adopted a multi-pronged propaganda strategy to facilitate its growth. This campaign draws on various themes, including religion, domestic and international politics, and intra-jihadist dynamics (since ISIL’s expansion often comes at al-Qaeda’s expense). The breadth and diversity of ISIL’s messaging is impressive and defies the common conception that the group is exclusively focused on violence and brutality (an observation previously made here at War on the Rocks by Charlie Winter).

ISIL’s propaganda advances three core arguments:

  1. ISIL has successfully restored the caliphate, which implements sharia as it was practiced during the time of al-salaf al-salih (the “pious predecessors,” a reference to the first three generations of Muslims), qualifying it as the only authentic Islamic state in the world.
  2. To that extent, from a theological, legal, and politico-military standpoint, ISIL is the only legitimate Islamic organization in the world. Its expansion annuls all organized rivals, including existing militant groups and governments. In ISIL’s view, clerics and other religious leaders who either do not subscribe to its hardline version of Islam or fail to recognize ISIL’s authority have apostatized themselves.
  3. ISIL is growing in strength. It is more capable and unified than al-Qaeda, which has experienced scant success and is on the verge of disintegration, at least as told by ISIL.

To support these arguments, ISIL has developed what can be described as a propaganda playbook of core narratives. These narratives are mutually reinforcing and target several different audiences, including prospective foreign fighters and “migrants” (i.e. individuals who travel to Syria and Iraq to live in the caliphate, rather than to fight), political Islamists in the Middle East, al-Qaeda members and supporters, and adversaries such as the international anti-ISIL coalition and state security forces. The nine narratives discussed below are particularly ubiquitous in ISIL’s messaging.

A winner’s message. At the heart of ISIL’s propaganda lies a winner’s message, wherein the group constantly publicizes its battlefield gains and organizational successes to create a perception of strength and expansion. ISIL produces a flood of content to highlight its triumphs, ranging from Hollywood-style videos to pictorial reports to grandiose audio statements. This content is circulated and amplified by ISIL’s social media supporters, who serve as a propaganda force multiplier (albeit a diminishing one, now that platforms like Twitter have been pulling down pro-ISIL accounts).

ISIL frequently employs its violence and brutality instrumentally to further its winner’s message. Instrumental brutality is particularly critical as ISIL expands into new theaters, where it must immediately demonstrate its strength and viciousness to allies and adversaries alike.

Disinformation campaigns have also been used to advance ISIL’s winner’s message. Because ISIL operates in areas where journalists are reluctant to venture (often because ISIL deliberately targets them), the group can influence media narratives by concealing its losses and embellishing gains. In this manner, for example, ISIL convinced various major media outlets that it controlled the Libyan city of Derna when this was not the case. An article released in April 2015 by ISIL supporter Sheikh Abu Sulayman al-Jahbadhi sheds light on the group’s desire not to display its weaknesses. Jahbadhi implored residents of cities controlled by ISIL not to depict the hardships that sieges against their cities impose, such as lack of food, water, and gas. Warning that such imagery undercuts the “psychological war with the enemy,” Jahbadhi said that ISIL’s approach to featuring the “crimes” of its enemies is that it should also show “the retaliatory attacks, that is, the slaughter of a spy or punishment of soldiers.” In that way, even in showing its enemies’ crimes and brutality, ISIL intended depictions of the group “to reflect the absence of weakness.”

The Caliphate as an Islamic utopia. ISIL presents its caliphate as a thriving and pious state with bustling cities, abundant resources, and a booming economy. This depiction is meant to convince potential recruits that the caliphate is the only place on Earth where Muslims can live devoutly and harmoniously.

In a study examining a month’s worth of ISIL propaganda, Charlie Winter found that more than half of ISIL’s output highlighted various components of the utopia narrative. Winter concluded that the concept of “utopia is of existential importance to” the group.

Discrediting the competition. In order to expand into new theaters where rival jihadist groups already have a firm foothold, ISIL seeks to demonstrate to local militants its superior jihadist credentials and military strength. ISIL’s messaging machine has focused in particular on undercutting the religio-political legitimacy of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. ISIL has frequently attacked al-Qaeda for failing to establish the caliphate, and for deviating from true salafi jihadist methodology. In the first issue of Dabiq, ISIL asserted that al-Qaeda had given “preference to popularity and rationalization,” and had become “embarrassed of acknowledging undeniable sharia fundamentals such as takfir,” or the excommunication of other Muslims. ISIL has accused the Taliban of possessing a nationalist worldview, following a corrupt creed in Deobandism, and cozying up to Pakistani intelligence.

Sowing discord in enemy ranks. ISIL has actively sought to foment and aggravate rifts within rival jihadist groups. This strategy was spelled out in an October 2015 audio statement featuring ISIL spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who called for ISIL to “divide the groups and break the ranks” of organizations opposed to it. If rival jihadist organizations are seen as splintering, foot soldiers and mid-level commanders may be persuaded to jump ship and join ISIL.

Similar to its winner’s message, ISIL relies heavily on disinformation and exaggeration to create the perception that its rivals are fragmenting. ISIL saturates social media with oft-inaccurate stories about key jihadists from rival groups either defecting to ISIL or leaning in favor of doing so. ISIL used this ploy numerous times on al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate al-Shabaab, which has repeatedly rebuffed ISIL’s entreaties. In one instance, an ISIL social media supporter posted a picture on Twitter claiming that Mukhtar Robow, who previously served as Shabaab’s spokesman, had pledged allegiance to ISIL along with 1,700 fighters. Though this pledge was clearly fabricated, ISIL’s decision to single out Robow, who is influential but estranged from Shabaab’s central command, was a strategic move intended to accentuate pre-existing schisms.

The illegitimacy of Islamists who embrace electoral politics. ISIL has also taken aim at Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that are willing to engage in electoral politics, accusing them of polytheism (shirk) for placing the rule of man above the rule of God. Indeed, the most recent issue of Dabiq is entitled “The Murtadd Brotherhood,” murtadd being Arabic for apostate. There are both theological and strategic components to ISIL’s attacks on electoral Islamists. ISIL views the rank and file of these Islamist groups as a potentially fertile recruitment pool. This is particularly the case in Egypt, where young Brotherhood members are pushing the organization’s old guard to embrace a more confrontational approach to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime. ISIL calculates that it can peel away young hardliners inclined to the embrace of violence.

Exploiting sectarian tensions. ISIL’s effort to aggravate and exploit conflict between Sunnis and Shias has been a core component of the group’s strategy since the mid-2000s, when ISIL was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). At that time, ISIL calculated that if it could incite a sectarian civil war, it could present itself as the defender of Iraqi Sunnis, and rally them to its cause. AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi explained this strategy in a 2004 letter to Osama bin Laden: “If we succeed in dragging [the Shia] into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger.” ISIL has attempted to export this strategy to other countries with mixed Sunni-Shia populations, such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, targeting Shia sites of worship while inundating local populations with anti-Shia propaganda.

Jihadist adventure and camaraderie. ISIL advertises the jihad in Syria and Iraq as an opportunity for adventure and camaraderie, tailoring its propaganda to appeal to young thrill-seekers. Some ISIL propaganda mirrors the style of popular video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, suggesting that ISIL provides an opportunity for wannabe jihadists to live out their violent video-game fantasies in real life. ISIL has also emphasized the social bonds that connect foreign fighters, a narrative that targets at-risk youths searching for meaningful religious, political, or personal identities.

Driving a wedge between Muslims and the West. ISIL has sought to create a divide between Muslims living in the West and their societies, believing that this will compel Western Muslims to join the caliphate in order to escape persecution. In an article in the seventh issue of Dabiq, ISIL stated that its strikes against Western countries would create a hostile and intolerant political climate for Muslims.

Religious obligation to join the Caliphate. ISIL pressures Muslims to join the caliphate by presenting hijra (migration) as a religious obligation. ISIL complements its religious arguments with emotional appeals and exhortations, challenging the masculinity of those who have not migrated. In the third issue of Dabiq, ISIL explains that “abandoning hijrah — the path to jihad — is a dangerous matter. In effect, one is thereby deserting jihad and willingly accepting his tragic condition of being a hypocritical spectator.”

Libya: ISIL’s Exploitation of a Civil War

Libya’s chaotic civil war gave ISIL an opportunity to both draw on its playbook of narratives that resonate globally and adapt its messaging to the local environment. The civil war pitted armed forces aligned with the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) against the House of Representatives (HoR), the internationally recognized rival government based in eastern Libya.

A winner’s message has been at the forefront of ISIL’s propaganda strategy in Libya, including in its entrance into the eastern Libyan city of Derna. In the spring of 2014, Libyan militants who had previously fought for ISIL in Syria and Iraq — and who were likely tasked by ISIL’s senior leadership with establishing an ISIL outpost in Libya — arrived in Derna and announced the establishment of the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). The group immediately showcased its strength, parading military equipment throughout Derna and posting images on social media of dozens of Libyans “repenting” to IYSC. Instrumental brutality also factored into ISIL’s early strategy in Derna: IYSC militants posted photos and videos on social media of militants carrying out a public execution and flogging residents for consuming alcohol. In October 2014, after IYSC officially pledged allegiance to ISIL, the group conducted a show of force, parading through Derna’s streets while militants waved black flags.

ISIL’s ostentatious messaging created the perception that the group was in full control of Derna, and mainstream press outlets reported that ISIL had captured the city. But the city in fact remained divided among a variety of militant factions, including pro-al-Qaeda factions opposed to ISIL’s intrusion. ISIL’s fragile hold in Derna became apparent in June 2015, when the group was forced out of the city by rival armed factions. (Pro-ISIL fighters completely withdrew from their position on Derna’s outskirts in the latter half of this month.) The media’s erroneous reporting illustrates how ISIL’s triumphalist messaging and saturation of social media allowed the group to shape the story in Derna.

ISIL similarly employed a winner’s message when it expanded into the central city of Sirte in early 2015, though its messaging was more aligned with events on the ground there than it was in Derna. Shortly after ISIL seized territory in Sirte, its social media supporters posted images of former Libyan security officials in the city “repenting” before the group’s fighters, mirroring early images from Derna. Subsequently, ISIL militants conducted a military parade in Sirte similar to the previous shows of force in Derna. Such processions have become a trademark of ISIL’s global propaganda, distinguishing the group from al-Qaeda, which generally maintains a much lower profile in areas of strength.

After gaining a foothold in Sirte, ISIL initiated another component of its messaging strategy: attacking and delegitimizing Libya’s electorally-active Islamists, including the GNC, the Libya Dawn coalition, and Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood wing, the Justice and Construction Party. ISIL attacked Libya’s these Islamists on religious and political grounds, accusing the GNC and Dawn coalition of wearing an “Islamic shroud” that masks their democratic agenda. ISIL took on the GNC’s most prominent religious figure, Mufti al-Sadiq al-Gharyani, calling him a “charlatan” and the “head of the abode of falsehood and democracy.” ISIL also painted the Dawn coalition as a puppet of the West. Abu Abdullah al-Libi, a former high-ranking Ansar al-Sharia religious official who defected to ISIL, accused Dawn and the GNC of handing Libya “over to the West on a gold plate.”

ISIL’s rhetorical onslaught against electoral Islamists is indicative of the organization’s growth strategy in Libya. By painting Dawn as a Western proxy force, ISIL hopes to delegitimize the group, and persuade rank-and-file Islamists to defect. ISIL can also capitalize on schisms within the Dawn coalition, appealing to hardliners. Though Libya lacks the kind of sectarian divisions that ISIL exploited in places like Iraq and Yemen, rifts within Libya’s Islamist community may provide the group another opportunity to expand its support base.

Conclusion: Countering ISIL Messaging, Locally and Globally

ISIL’s global propaganda apparatus has proven invaluable to the group as it tries to expand beyond Syria and Iraq. With a diverse array of narratives in its propaganda playbook, ISIL can engage with multiple audiences across the globe. At the same time, the group’s ability to tailor its messaging to local environments enables it to capitalize on the grievances and concerns of communities across the Middle East and North Africa.

The United States and other members of the anti-ISIL coalition will have to similarly adopt a “glocal” messaging strategy in order to denude ISIL of its appeal. One important part of effective counter-messaging is possessing a deep understanding of local political and social conditions in order to build persuasive counter-narratives that address local grievances and drivers of radicalization.

Most importantly, the coalition needs to continue to challenge ISIL’s narrative of strength, a ubiquitous feature in its global propaganda. Articulating ISIL’s recent losses, territorial and otherwise, could powerfully challenge the group’s claims of ascendance. Effectively publicizing ISIL’s losses and exposing the group’s efforts to exaggerate its victories could drive a stake through ISIL’s winner’s message, furthering magnifying the group’s losses as the impression of ISIL’s weakness deters future recruits and supporters.

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