The vaunted propaganda operations of the Islamic State, which helped lure more than 30,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, have dropped off drastically as the extremist group has come under military pressure, according to a study by terrorism researchers at West Point, The New York Times reports:
In addition, the researchers found, there has been a striking shift away from publications and social media portraying a functioning state with competent bureaucrats, thriving businesses and happy citizens. The Islamic State, also called ISIS and ISIL, claims that it is building a new caliphate — or unified Muslim land — a claim that has become increasingly threadbare.
“It’s not just the numeric decline,” said Daniel Milton, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the author of the new report. “The caliphate was their big selling point. Now there’s an inability to say we’re doing the things that make us a state. And that was behind their broad appeal.”
It was inevitable that terrorists, eager to spread their message, would be among the first to recognize the promise of social media, analysts Emerson T. Brooking and P.W. Singer write for The Atlantic:
William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution, has tracked the evolution of terrorist propaganda, from audiotapes passed around by hand to hour-long sermons on VHS snuck out of Afghanistan to digital videos that look like movie trailers, tailored for sharing. isis mastered the latter, and this mastery, McCants says, helped it supplant al-Qaeda as the brand in favor among a new generation of jihadists.
“Al‑Qaeda videos look like something you’d see on Charlie Rose or PBS NewsHour,” he says. “isis videos have more of a Vice feel about them: They’re very visceral, very immediate. They’re from the battlefield.” But McCants downplays the suggestion that this formula makes isis some kind of social-media innovator. The technologies to create these types of videos are now cheap and readily available. “It’s not mind-blowing—it’s what a normal PR firm might do.”
Prior to his assassination earlier this year, ISIS propaganda chief Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s multimedia jihadist career was a repudiation of the staid techniques of an older generation of jihadi leaders, such as Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s boss, who for years used smuggled cassette tapes to reach the faithful and painstakingly seek out new recruits. Adnani lived and thrived online, notes Foreign Policy
“He put in place a communications apparatus that suited the times and matched the technology,” said Professor Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “He recognized the immense power and role of social media.”
Thinly veiled within the organization lie doctrinal and ideological tensions and divisions — notably, the tension between proponents of an expansionist caliphate on the one hand and former stalwarts of the Iraqi Baath regime on the other, notes analyst Joseph Braude.
The movement’s ideologues have meanwhile worked to nurture an outlook of flexibility toward people of differing political, ethnic, and sectarian backgrounds whose expertise or resources may be of value, enabling the leadership of the organization to set aside doctrinal purity for expediency’s sake when necessary, he writes for The Huffington Post:
Such is the impression I formed through discussion with three Americans who specialize in ISIS and have knowledge of American policy deliberations over how to defeat the group: Scott Stewart, Vice President of Tactical Analysis at the American global intelligence company Stratfor, had been a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations. Jacob Olidort, a scholar of Salafism and Islamist movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has briefed a range of US Government divisions and branches. The online Syria journalism portal Syria Deeply lists him as one of the “top 8 analysts of ISIS to watch” in the United States. And Michael Weiss, a prominent researcher and media voice on the Islamic State, is coauthor of the New York Times-bestselling book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.
J.M. Berger, co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror” and associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-terrorism in The Hague, said that other researchers had witnessed the steady reduction in Islamic State media production, The Times adds.
“Everyone who watches this is seeing the drop-off,” he said. “They’re dropping the utopian sales pitch they started with. And that’s hurting their recruiting effort.”