In the two decades following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the international community has largely focused on countering the terrorist threat posed by groups like al- Qaeda and later, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), and their respective affiliates around the world. In addition to efforts to degrade the groups and deny them control over territory and resources, policymakers and practitioners also turned to understanding the strategic communications of such groups and the narratives they used to successfully radicalize and mobilize supporters.
The phenomenon itself is not new. Margaret Thatcher famously spoke of terrorists’ need for the “oxygen of publicity.” But al-Qaeda and ISIS leveraged new communications technologies and invested human and financial resources into media capabilities to recruit, finance, and terrorize on an unprecedented level, recognizing their importance alongside battlefield operations. In April 2016, the official ISIS propaganda channel on the social media platform, Telegram, shared a document called, “Media Operative, You are a Mujahid, Too.” In it, followers were instructed that pushing propaganda is the same as fighting and that media operations can be “more potent than atomic bombs.” The document lays out the three elements of ISIS’s strategic narrative: a positive narrative on the group’s successes, counter-speech against critics and enemies, and weaponizing propaganda.