- Islamic State stratcom reveals a consistent, structured strategy
- The loss of the caliphate on the ground will not end the media war
- The asymmetry in this contest favors the jihadis
The increasing technical sophistication with which ISIS and other jihadi groups wage war over the internet has been much commented on, but is there a strategy behind all this? Or is it just furious, incoherent propaganda? Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London, and a fellow of the International Centre for Counter Terrorism in The Hague, has looked at this by going to the Islamic State’s own speeches and manuals on this very subject. They reveal a consistent, structured strategy.
Some of the first work on this was done by a German lieutenant colonel, Carsten Bockstette, back in 2008. He showed that they were pursuing three basic strategic objectives: recruitment of volunteers and donors, legitimization of the violence, and intimidation of the enemy. In pursuit of these objectives they seem to be following a fairly standard model:
- strategic end-state assessment
- communication infrastructure evaluation
- target audience analysis and channel selection
- plan and execution
- monitoring and evaluation
Building on this, Winter has examined two key IS sources. The first was an early speech from pre-2010 by Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, a successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and a former prime minister of the Islamic State of Iraq. The second was an internal field guide for media operatives published in 2015 by the Himmah Library, the Islamic State’s own press. He found that these largely restated the model that Bockstette had identified. They emphasized that media operatives were just as much jihadis as the fighters. As the field guide put it, the propaganda aim was “to buoy the morale of the soldiers, spread news of their victories and good deeds, encourage the people to support them.”
How will they encourage people to support them? By “bringing the glad tidings to the believers’ hearts,” “transmitting to the simple people a true picture of the battle,” and “steering others towards [the ideology] and opening their eyes to it”.
There is no doubt that the campaign was also to serve to deepen the sense of commitment and unity throughout the embattled organization, Winter finds. As Abu Hamzah put it, the media campaign should make the group and its supporters “appear as one ummah [Islamic community of the faithful] fighting for one objective on many front lines.”
They saw the need to defeat what they considered to be the “intellectual invasion” being conducted by Western nations against Muslims, and positioned the fight as being not just for the reputation of the Islamic State, but for the very future of Islam.
And in terms of the intimidation objective, Abu Hamzah in particular spoke at length about the need to “sow terror in the hearts of our enemy using everything permitted by shari’ah for this purpose.”
As recently as 2018 the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reinforced these points in a broadcast.
Winter observes that in 2010, when Abu Hamzah’s speech became known in the West, the Islamic State was not the triumphant force it later became at the time of the publication of the 2015 field guide. It follows that the recent collapse of the caliphate does not necessarily mean the end of the media war. Perhaps it will intensify, as in this, unlike on the battlefield, the jihadis have the asymmetrical advantage. They are unconstrained by the political, ethical and moral considerations that still, mostly, constrain the West. And they still believe. As Winter observes, “Military defeat and ideological failure are not one and the same thing for this organization.”
In this regard, Winter identifies a worrying fourth objective that has emerged in recent years: instruction. Material produced often includes information on how to commit terrorist acts. This can range from knife and car attacks to complex operations like bomb-making and hostage-taking. We in the West know how dangerous this can be, as we have seen the growth of hard-to-detect lone wolf attacks.
Understanding this, and being aware of the enemy’s strategy, means that better countermeasures can be developed. These may be urgently needed. As far as jihad goes, as Winter concludes, the Islamic State “is down but it certainly not out.”