Despite its territorial losses, the so-called Islamic State group (IS) still commands a number of branches worldwide and continues to inspire thousands of dispersed supporters around the world who proclaim their support for the group online.
A new Europol study reveals that 2018 took its toll on the group’s digital presence, although to a lesser extent. The following excerpts from the report detail how propaganda produced by official IS media outlets has visibly declined – both in terms of quantity and quality.
The digital battlefield
The takedown operation coordinated by the European Union in April 2018 and targeting the A’maq web infrastructure had a significant impact on the organization’s online resources. This was followed by an intense suspension campaign carried out in late 2018 by Telegram, the current app of choice of IS and al-Qaeda sympathizers.
As a result, IS supporters redoubled their efforts to remain relevant online. Despite frequent deletions of content, the group remains persistent in publishing videos and other products on a wide array of media and file-sharing sites. Through their ongoing exploitation of both new and old hosting service providers (HSPs), both IS and AQ have amassed a broad dissemination network for their propaganda.
While certain platforms are more abused than others, the sheer number of HSPs exploited for terrorist purposes presents a challenge for disruption efforts. Between 2015 and 2018, the EU IRU located jihadist content on 146 platforms. These include forums, file-sharing sites, pastebins, video streaming/sharing sites, URL shortening services, blogs, messaging/broadcast applications, news websites, live streaming platforms, social media sites and various services supporting the creation and hosting of websites.
IS-affiliated websites that act as repositories for the organization’s propaganda have responded to recurrent suspensions by creating new domain names and re-emerging at new locations from backup copies.
Dwindling technical capabilities
One of the few regions where IS appears to be growing in strength and capability is in its Khorasan branch with the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK) becoming an increasingly prominent actor in the Afghan conflict. ISK’s operational reach even extends beyond Afghanistan to Pakistan. ISK boasts a steady propaganda machine. While ISK propaganda has focused heavily on the local conflict, it also released a few videos over 2018 suggesting Khorasan as a new haven for those wishing to join IS but who are “unable to immigrate to Iraq and Syria”.
IS sympathizers mostly resort to recycling older material to produce their supporter-generated content (SGC). In fact, the most notable speeches used for SGC purposes in 2018 date back to 2016 and were delivered by former IS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. This contrasts heavily with Al-Qaeda (AQ) – both core and affiliates – who issue topical speeches grounded in the context of current political developments on a more regular basis.
2018 also saw a decrease in IS videos featuring high-production values and high-definition drone footage of the battlefields contested by the organization. Official IS videos were unable to feature much beyond blitzed-out towns and the occasional forays into enemy territory. A rare exception to this was the group’s attack on Iranian forces during a national military parade in Ahvaz, Iran in September 2018.
Another audio-visual production which attempted to highlight IS’ kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities was the video series entitled “Harvest of the soldiers”. The series consisted of detailed statistics and information regarding the types and the results of operations conducted by IS over a given week. Released in Arabic and English by the al-Hayat Media Center, the first episode in the series appeared on 2 August 2018 and the 22nd episode on 27 December 2018. Ironically, while the production aimed to showcase IS’ relevance and technical proficiency, the reutilization of the same graphics and special effects from one video to the next illustrated instead the dwindling capabilities of the organization.
The group nevertheless continues to galvanize a significant amount of online supporters. A flurry of new media outlets burgeoned in the wake of IS’ loss of territory and there was a noted increase over 2018 in SGC publications that were not officially linked to any terrorist organization but which were obviously sympathetic to the IS. Posters were the most recurrent type of SGC visual propaganda and covered a wide range of topics, including doctrinal texts and the familiar glorification of martyrdom. The most significant group of SGC posters called for lone-wolf attacks and featured Western landmarks alongside exhortative quotes by IS leaders. The posters were produced in an array of languages and featured varying levels of refinement.
Conscious of their disjointed appearance, the spin-off media outlets are increasingly aware of the need to appear more united and aim to project the image of an IS franchise. With this in mind, they are careful to produce propaganda that carries the hallmarks of IS and mimic the group’s official braggadocio.
However, an online dispute pits a radical IS Media Department against two more “moderate” media foundations formerly supportive of IS: al-Wafa’ and al-Turath al-‘Ilmi. Supporters of the two camps exchange insults and refutations online, with the former arguing that the IS Media Department is too radical in its approach to issues such as takfir (excommunication), and the latter accusing al-Wafa’ and al-Turath al-‘Ilmi of being spies and calling into question their support for the caliphate. It is currently unclear which group has the upper hand online.
The overall result is an energetic media campaign increasingly divorced from realities on the ground. The loss of a coherent narrative in light of the organization’s territorial losses, its weakened branding and waning credibility, underscore a general state of confusion in the ranks of IS and a lack of cogency in its arguments.
al-Qaeda’s quiet, more moderate propaganda remains constant
IS’ loss of significant territory in Iraq and Syria stands in stark contrast to AQ’s lack of major change over the same period. Indeed, while the IS has dominated headlines and preoccupied national security officials for the past four years, AQ has focused on ramping up military muscle and consolidating its influence in new and existing theatres. Furthermore, despite boasting a less diversified online infrastructure than its rival, AQ’s propaganda output has remained constant.
The organization is currently focusing more on local concerns as opposed to global jihad and couches its speeches in the context of political realism.
IS and AQ are vying for the same audiences in a number of theatres, and online is no exception. AQ’s success in a number of theatres appears to be the result of two main strategic policies: 1) strengthening and devolving more authority locally; and 2) renouncing mass casualty operations, thereby enabling AQ to present itself as more moderate than IS. The two areas in which IS still trumps AQ is the power of its brand and its apparent ability to inspire and perpetrate attacks on Western soil. It is however possible that AQ is purposefully choosing to remain under the radar while the group rebuilds.
While jihadist discourse bays for the blood of “crusaders” in general, a number of states are singled out as being more valuable targets. This is especially the case for France, the UK, and the US. France in particular has been the focus for a plethora of jihadist organizations over the past year. Media outlets supportive of IS and AQ have focused on targeting France both for attacks and what appears to be recruitment purposes.
Both IS and AQ will continue to seek out new online vectors for their propaganda. It is vital that the international intelligence community and tech industry players come together to close down the online propaganda before IS and AQ achieve their objective to recruit the next wave of foreign fighters.