Since Daesh first declared the so-called ‘Islamist State Caliphate’ in mid-2014, their global communications strategy and online recruitment operations have caught most observers by surprise. The scope and seeming sophistication of their propaganda campaign soon came to represent the cornerstone of Daesh’s initial military triumphs and generated a certain a degree of alarm within western political and academic circles.
However, as the civil war in Syria now enters its sixth year and ISIS’ territorial presence across the region continues to recede, many are beginning to question the impact this has had on their messaging strategy. Strife’s Iona Allan talks to one of the leading Counterterrorism Expert (CE) in ISIS propaganda to discuss the current state of their communications strategy and the challenges facing global efforts to counter Daesh. The expert is referred to hereafter as CE. All names, titles, employers, and personal details have been withheld for security and safety reasons. All enquiries as to this article’s content should be sent to Strife Journal & Blog.
IA – How have Daesh communication strategies changed in recent months, particularly since the Mosul offensive? Has there been a notable shift in either the tone of their messaging strategy, the core theme of their message or their intended audience? Or do you see some continuity?
CE – I think what they have done is try and not focus on Mosul because it doesn’t fit into their original strategy and narrative. Either they don’t focus on it or they try to divert attention away from it. For example, in some of their magazines like Rumiyah, the current focus is a lot more on inspiring lone actor attacks and providing advice. The message is shifting attention away from what is transpiring in their so-called Caliphate, i.e. by trying to create this perception that regardless of whatever is happening on the ground in Iraq, Syria and Libya, they are still in charge and they are still strong. You can understand from a recruitment point of view why you would want to create that perception.
The other discernible trend in their propaganda is trying to blame outside powers for causing civilian deaths and casualties. Again, it is a diversionary tactic because there is quite a lot of evidence surrounding what they are doing in terms of execution or hiding amongst local civilians in eastern Mosul. In brief, one strand is the lone actor and the other is basically blaming others for what is happening.
IA – The prevailing preconception is that Daesh propaganda and recruitment are a sophisticated and well-disciplined operation. Do you feel that this is an accurate assessment? Or do you feel that the role of online recruitment in the growth and success of Daesh has been exaggerated?
CE – I think we tend to build up this sophistication. I’m not saying that they haven’t done well with their communications, but I’m always struck by why we are always so surprised that terrorist organisations operating in the 21st century digital age are using all the communications tools at their disposal. Especially if you think about the age group that they are recruiting from, and where their base support comes from, I’ve always been surprised about why we make such a big deal about their communications – it is to be expected. You can go back hundreds of years; people do use the communications tools at their disposal to advance their cause.
What I think has been very clever is where they have differentiated themselves from previous groups is that they have created a ‘call to action’ which requires someone to leave their bedroom whether they are tweeting or on Facebook. That, I think has been very clever. That is what I think is their USP. It is not enough just to support by ‘liking’ but there is an action that you need to take. The other thing – again my own observation – I think we have under-reported as an international community – is how they effectively use one-to-one contact. It is obvious that they use social media as the first point of contact; but if you speak to a lot of those who were contacted and who have now defected, or have become disillusioned by Daesh, they [say] quite a lot about the phone calls [and] about one-to-one contact. If you think about the way that states communicate to counter Daesh, that personalised approach is absent. I think this aspect hasn’t been reported enough. We therefore, attribute much of their work to the fact that they are on Twitter and produce lots of different communication.
IA – So perhaps it is a more targeted communications strategy than we tend to assume?
CE – Yes, they try to appeal to a very broad base, but then they narrow it down to a more personalised contact. And I think some people will say that what they have noticed has changed is the barrier to entry has become much lower, i.e. as Daesh’s position of strength has reduced, lost territory, fighters and finance etc., that in their communications they are really saying to anyone – ‘can you just need to commit something in our name no matter who you are’.
IA – Can you explain a little about what counter- Daesh communications actually involves? What does counter-communications really mean? Many people may assume that counter- Daesh communications strategy simply means creating a ‘counter-narrative’, is there anything problematic about this idea?
CE – Yes, I don’t really like the word counter-narrative because I think it puts you always on the back foot and I think one of the things which Daesh has done very well is they have had a very clear call to action. In terms of counter-narrative, this is focused on the three different areas of their messaging – military success, Sunni supremacy and statehood.
The global narrative has changed from ‘look they are terrible and evil’, which is what terrorist organisations like- they thrive off that publicity to a focus on their failures. When attacks happened in Paris or in Nice, the fact that you have blanket coverage for days after days that is exactly what organisations like Daesh live for. Those countering Daesh focus less on what they thrive on and try to focus on exposing the reality behind their words.
There is quite a lot of research out there to say that counter-narratives in themselves don’t work, there needs to be an alternative. Speaking to a lot of people who work in the creative industry, advertising, marketing and PR, in their experiences of whatever campaigns they have worked on and whoever in the world it may be, having a positive call to action is very important. You need to be able to harness people around something. So just countering it won’t ever be enough by itself.
IA – It seems like one of the major dilemmas for counter-Daesh communications is determining what the most appropriate channels of communication are. Would you agree with this assessment? If so, what are the risks of using the government as an official channel of communication and what alternatives are available?
CE – I think there is a tension between your domestic public expecting you to do something and wanting to know what you are doing and recognising that governments aren’t best placed, because of the credibility factor to do that type of communicating. While it is important to show that there is a very broad alliance working against Daesh, it is also imperative to work at the grass roots level. That is, working with local voices on the ground (who are better placed than governments that are far removed) to communicate and to understand what resonates with those local audiences. There are a lot of voices who do not believe that Daesh is the solution in their community in Iraq or their community in Syria and those voices are being heard more and more at the moment. But only those communities are best placed to do that.
IA – So do you think you can observe more of such voices the further the conflict has gone on?
CE – Definitely. What we see in Iraq, where Facebook is much more popular than Twitter, there are a lot of campaigns which have started quite small, but you can see that they have just gone viral because those messages from Iraqis are resonating with other Iraqi fellow citizens. If you look at good communications practice, that makes absolute sense.
IA – So counter- communications also serves a domestic purpose?
CE – We should recognise the need for the domestic public to know what their government is doing to protect them and keep them safe. The problem with the military action is that it has so many negative connotations in the region – both recently and historically. So if you spend too much time talking about the military action, you actually also provide a channel for Daesh to say ‘haven’t we always told you..? it’s them and look at them killing innocent civilians.’ So in a way, it plays into their narrative.
Image 1 source: https://www.newss.co/2017/01/06/devastated-by-daesh-3000-year-old-city-nimrud-left-to-looters-in-northern-iraq/