Editor’s Note: The Islamic State has long issued a steady torrent of sophisticated propaganda to demonize its enemies, inspire its followers, and advance its cause in general. How does the Islamic State think about its own propaganda efforts? Through serious sleuthing and impressive analysis, Charlie Winter of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has unearthed the Islamic State’s media guide for its own operatives and explains to us its three-pronged strategy.
Two years ago, the Islamic State published a video about its propaganda operations. The 12-minute clip, which was produced by its Wilayat Salahuddin Media Office, celebrated strategic communication in a manner that was unprecedented. It framed offensive and defensive “information jihad” as an aspect of the Islamic State’s warfare that was easily as important as any of the material battles it was waging at the time.
The video wasn’t just interesting because of its hyperbolic exaltation of propaganda—there was something else, too. Right at its outset, a young man—one of the Islamic State’s media officials—was shown casting his eyes over a pocket-sized booklet titled Media Operative, You Are a Mujahid, Too. It was the self-proclaimed caliphate’s field guide for information warfare, a document that I’d heard rumours about, but never actually seen. After this video finally confirmed its existence, I spent months trawling through encrypted chatrooms and password-protected forums looking for it, but to no avail. Until, that is, 2016, when its second edition finally appeared on of the Islamic State channels I monitor on Telegram.
If the international community is ever to meaningfully challenge the so-called caliphate’s information supremacy, it must begin by better comprehending the strategic logic that underpins it.
Media Operative makes for fascinating reading. The authors use the 55-page Arabic-language monograph to wax lyrical about information warfare, offering theological exhortation and strategic advice in equal measure to their target audience, the media operatives employed by the group to document battles, produce radio shows, photograph schools, and film ultraviolence. Its authors don’t just contend that information warfare is instrumental to jihad—part and parcel of Islam for over a thousand years—they give advice as to how Islamic State media operations should actually be constructed. In so doing, they shed light on the very essence of its propaganda strategy, a tripartite approach to communication that has given the group an edge over its rivals and transformed its war against the rest of the world.
If the international community is ever to meaningfully challenge the so-called caliphate’s information supremacy, it must begin by better comprehending the strategic logic that underpins it. To that end, I put together a research paper on the matter, using the Media Operative document’s innumerable insights as a lens through which to dissect its component parts.
Broadly speaking, the Islamic State has three information principles. First, present an alternative narrative, a comprehensive offer of existence; second, counter the “intellectual invasion” being conducted by the mainstream news media; and, third, launch propaganda “projectiles” against the enemy. Combined, these three facets form the foundations of the group’s propaganda strategy.
The Islamic State Alternative
Regarding the first principle, the authors write that the Islamic State brand must be implicitly positive, an offer of an attractive lifestyle as well as an outright rejection of the status quo. “The Islamic ummah [community of believers] today,” they write, “is waiting for you to lead it by its hands to the sharia and rid it of the inferiority and injustice from which it suffers.” If presented with the “right” information and the “correct” narrative, they contend, Muslims everywhere will inevitably end up rallying around the caliphate’s banner.
In this pursuit, the authors repeatedly call upon media operatives to transmit “to the simple people a true picture of the battle without exaggeration and with no lies” to “paint a brighter picture” of the jihad without dwelling on any one issue. It is this idea that underpins the Islamic State’s remarkably comprehensive utopian propaganda, which ranges from depictions of grazing livestock, bustling markets, and sunsets, to dentistry clinics, mosques, and public amputations. According to Media Operative, propaganda must simultaneously address and water down the negative aspects of living under the Islamic State, while also conveying a rose-tinted image of its positive facets. In this way, the Islamic State can sell itself as a utopia to which Salafi-jihadists can go to live as heroes, rather than an insurgent group to which new adherents go to die as martyrs.
Undermining the Global Conspiracy
The next component consists of propaganda that directly “responds to the frenzied media campaign” and “deceptive ways” of the “enemy,” and “exposes the deviances of secularists and hypocrites, responding to those who dishearten, alarm or discourage the Muslims [and] call for tolerance and coexistence with the unbelievers.” In other words, it is propaganda explicitly designed to counter and discredit narratives about the Islamic State promoted by its opponents in the West and in the Muslim world.
The authors note that, while a positive central narrative is a necessary foundation upon which to build the caliphate brand, this counter-propaganda is an “especially critical” complement to it “given the rise and acceleration of the propaganda war that the Crusaders—led by America and its allies—are waging against the Islamic State today.” Media operatives are obliged to work to form a reservoir of arguments and rebuttals with which to repudiate claims made about the organization. In recent weeks, this kind of media has been more salient than ever, chiefly appearing as a way for the group to navigate through its seemingly inevitable undoing in Mosul.
With this in mind, the “monotheist media operative” who “says what is just and true in an era in which there are few companions of the truth and even fewer sincere ones,” is regarded as being on the intellectual frontline, charged with working constantly to counter the “daily lies and professionalized falsification” of the modern mainstream media.
The final prong of the Islamic State strategy—media “projectiles” —is regularly referenced in the document. These “weapons” are “anything that angers the enemies of Allah,” from ultraviolent videos like the Mohammed Emwazi beheadings to statements and videos put out in the wake of terrorist operations.
If launched effectively, they assert, “media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs.”
The authors explain that these explicit and incendiary messages can “shatter the morale of the enemy,” noting that a well-conceived media “bomb” has the power to complement, and sometimes even substitute for, military operations. Indeed, if launched effectively, they assert, “media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs.” Not only do media attacks offer a way to “intimidate and threaten with violence,” they can make the Islamic State’s adversaries act irrationally by “infuriating them” and ensnaring them in ill-conceived knee-jerk responses.
To this end, the Islamic State uses offensive information warfare to attack not only military targets, but civilian ones, too. After all, in its eyes, there is no such thing as civilian status beyond the caliphate’s boundaries. Thus, its media “missiles”—be they video executions or mass-mediated terrorist attacks—are calibrated to strike disengaged publics as much as they are towards hitting engaged militaries.
This form of propaganda has emerged as one of the most important components of the Islamic State’s asymmetric arsenal and, through it, portions of the global media and even some within the analyst and academic community unwittingly end up being co-opted as conduits for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s media puppeteers.
By stripping away the field guide’s exhortative veneer, it is possible to illuminate the strategic underpinnings of the Islamic State’s staggering outreach success, not to mention forecast what might happen in the months and years to come.
While many interpret the group’s dwindling territorial prospects, diminished recruitment of new members, and disintegrating leadership as indicators of its impending demise, it would be wrong to imagine a post-Islamic State world at this time.
The organization has systemically used propaganda to cultivate digital strategic depth and, due to this, the caliphate’s ideas will be able to exist long after its proto-state collapses. In years to come, this resilience will enable the Islamic State to prolong—and perhaps even worsen—the terrorist menace it already presents.