The quantity of IS propaganda decreased in 2016 due to lower production rates and containment of dissemination

IS messages shifted from the rhetoric of victorious Islam, to calls for retaliation for alleged attacks on Islam

Terrorists have an interest in ensuring that their messages reach the audiences that they want to address. As they perceive themselves to be fighting for a legitimate cause, they need to justify their violent actions to supporters and opponents. Public communication is used to attract potential recruits, procure material and financial support, and intimidate opponents. At present, large volumes of people use online services to communicate. Terrorists are compelled to maintain an online presence and compete for visibility with other actors in public communications, including individuals, civil movements, governments, political opponents, and competing terrorist groups.

In 2016 terrorist groups continued to use online services for communication in targeted and diverse ways. Terrorist propaganda was spread primarily through social media platforms and file sharing sites. Encryption and anonymisation technologies freely available online, and a multitude of platforms, enable terrorists to spread propaganda while maintaining their anonymity. However, measures taken by some social media platforms started to have a disruptive effect, in particular on IS communication, with the volume of messaging gradually decreasing in the course of the year. In 2015 IS had devised a strategy to counter the increased suspension of accounts, which relied on posting identical messages through a multitude of accounts (TE-SAT 2015). In 2016 this strategy reached its limits as detection capabilities increased.

For example, in late 2016, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google (YouTube) created a joint database to quickly identify and remove images and videos promoting terrorism from their platforms. When one company identifies and removes such a piece of content, the others will be able to use a unique digital fingerprint (hash) to identify and remove the same piece of content from their own network in accordance with their own policies. See “Partnering to Help Curb Spread of Online Terrorist Content”, Facebook Newsroom, 5 December 2016.

At the same time, IS and other terrorist groups increased their use of other encrypted social media platforms, most notably Telegram. IS used the platform for networking and dissemination of information among its community of supporters. Telegram is a closed communication space; its contents are not indexed in search engines. As such, it is not suited for outreach to individuals that are yet to be initiated into terrorist ideology. IS supporters use Telegram as a space for preparation, discussion and collaboration as well as a virtual training camp and Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform . However, supporters are enjoined by IS to use it as a starting point to move to platforms that have a stronger impact, in particular Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook. IS praised its supporters on Telegram for being part of its propaganda apparatus.

A MOOC platform allows online learning and its content is accessible to any person who wants to take a course, with no limit on attendance.

To reach out to audiences beyond closed circles, IS supporters on Telegram organised coordinated campaigns that aimed to flood Twitter and other major social media platforms with messages within minutes of new propaganda items being released. Before the release, IS supporters were told to create Twitter accounts to advertise the new propaganda production. Once published, the item was spread in a great number of messages. To achieve wide dissemination, the messages contained hashtags referring to current events unrelated to terrorism, such as political rallies or sports matches, in languages of regions of interest, including Europe and other Western countries, but also hashtags used by IS opponents in the Middle East. Simultaneously, the original files were replicated from their original source of publication to a great number of download sites to ensure continued availability despite containment efforts made by online service providers.

In addition to the increased difficulties in dissemination, the volume of IS propaganda production also experienced a setback in 2016. After a peak in mid-2015, the number of new videos produced by IS slowly decreased. In the second half of 2016, the frequency of new releases dropped even further. This seems to indicate that IS’s propaganda apparatus was severely degraded due to the increased pressure on the group in its areas of activity; leading figures in its propaganda apparatus and media production infrastructure in areas under IS control were targeted. The group struggled to counter the loss of iconic leadership figures, propaganda officials and production capabilities, and to maintain the reach of its messages by adapting its communication strategies to use remaining capacities more efficiently.

These losses notwithstanding, IS’s propaganda apparatus remained highly stratified. Its central media outlets continued to be mainly reserved for messages from the central leadership. Their statements were amplified by a second layer of media outlets named after IS’s purported “provinces”. These “provincial” media offices issued videos but also “urgent” messages, generally in picture format, claiming military victories in their area of operation. Starting in 2015, IS’s Arabic weekly news bulletin al-Naba’ (“the news”) acquired increasing importance in 2016 in IS’s attempt to maintain a continued flow of propaganda messages. Initially unattributed, starting in October 2016, al-Naba’ was labelled as an official production of IS’s central media office. The publication focussed on military successes of IS and contained some moralistic or ideological articles. Its primary audience was IS fighters on the ground, and IS published pictures of al-Naba’ being disseminated to and consumed by these. Its subsequent wide dissemination on the internet is likely to be an attempt to create synergies in order to counter diminishing production capacities.

In addition to the officially acknowledged media outlets, IS had several outlets pretending to be journalistic organs, most prominently the A’maq News Agency and al-Bayan Radio. Within IS’s propaganda machinery, these entities have the role of acting as purportedly independent media entities providing information from IS territory. Al-Bayan Radio is an online radio station that issues daily news bulletins in several languages. The A’maq News Agency was created in 2014 to counter reporting by mainstream media opposed to IS, and broadcasts from the conflict area through short media-style messages and videos proclaiming IS military successes. To maintain the appearance of independence, IS did not acknowledge A’maq News as an official media outlet. Official IS publications referred to it as a source, in an effort to elevate A’maq News to the status of an independent information provider. For example, al-Naba’ articles combined information taken from mainstream media with information spread by A’maq News.

Efforts by IS to reach out to non-Arab audiences continued in 2016. During the first half of the year, the al-Hayat Media Centre, an officially recognised IS media outlet specialising in propaganda in languages other than Arabic, continued to publish glossy magazines in English (Dabiq), French (Dar al-Islam), Turkish (Konstantiniyye) and Russian (Istok). These elaborate publications were produced separately, with contents that specifically targeted the respective language community. In mid-2016, these formats were abandoned and seemingly replaced with a new publication named Rumiyah, in reference to the city of Rome which, according to a Prophetic tradition, would be conquered by Islam after Constantinople. Starting in September, Rumiyah was issued in eight, and later 10, languages including English, French, German, Russian and Turkish, on a monthly basis for the rest of 2016 and into 2017. While the magazine perpetuated the glossy style of its predecessors, Rumiyah’s texts were for the most part translations of articles published previously in Arabic in al-Naba’. To these are added a small number of articles that occur only in one or a few language versions and that serve to adjust the magazine to particular audiences.

Around this network of propaganda entities acknowledged by IS or acting as purportedly independent news outlets reporting from IS areas of operation, there are a number of IS-supporting entities which are not officially recognised as mouthpieces by IS but are left to represent the base of IS supporters. These translate IS propaganda into different languages and produce additional material in different formats, including videos, graphics and texts, with a view to multiplying the messages of the official IS propaganda entities and creating the impression of a large global following. In 2016, it appeared that these IS-supporting media outlets are not as independent or autonomous as the IS leadership would like the general public to believe; they apparently have access to raw footage from IS’s areas of operation and respond to official releases in a speed that suggests central coordination, for example by publishing a video in support of an official publication within less than a day’s interval. In addition, production from these purportedly independent media outlets decreased in 2016 at the same rate as official IS propaganda. To a significant extent, therefore, these entities are part of the centrally coordinated IS propaganda machinery.

As the volume of IS propaganda diminished, al-Qaeda and its affiliates attempted to take advantage of the situation and increased their efforts to reach new audiences. The nominal head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in several video messages in 2016, trying to position al-Qaeda as a credible alternative to IS. This was supported by a multitude of written material published online. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates published new issues of established English glossy magazines, such as Inspire and Al Risalah, with justifications and practical advice for terrorist attacks. Like IS, al-Qaeda also moved increasingly to Telegram to avoid suspension. Some ideologues effectively restricted their activity to the encrypted chat platform.

Jihadist terrorist propaganda

The origins of practically all major jihadist terrorist groups can be traced to regions outside the EU. Consequently, online propaganda is an essential part of their attempts to reach out to audiences in EU Member States, as it enables them to make the link between the grievances of potentially vulnerable people living in the EU with the armed struggle that they conduct in their areas of operation.

Jihadist online propaganda has developed over some two decades. The methods used today are tested and optimised to achieve the greatest possible impact. They have been tailored for specific audiences. This long experience notwithstanding, jihadist propaganda has adapted quickly to new forms of communication and design, most recently incorporating graphical elements and styles copied from youth culture and online gaming, in an attempt to attract younger audiences in particular.

Likewise, the contents of jihadist propaganda vary over time, always aiming to achieve the greatest impact at any given point. Following the claim by IS that it re-established the caliphate, IS propaganda in 2014 and 2015 aimed to create the impression that the group represented victorious Islam. Its main topics were the purported defence of Islam, the creation of an Islamic state under IS leader Abu Bakr alBaghdadi in his arrogated function of caliph of all Muslims. IS’s claim to success in this endeavour was supported with the display of IS policies that ostensibly guaranteed justice, welfare and services for the population under its control. Videos showed the implementation of social policies, consumer protection, religious education, but also military victories and the execution of enemies.

In 2016 the topics dominating IS propaganda shifted. The most remarkable change was the replacement of the narrative of a victorious Islam, embodied by IS, with one that depicted Sunni Muslims as being under attack by an alleged Western-Jewish-Shi’i alliance that aimed to eradicate Sunni Islam. The IS leadership claims that its fight against its enemies is part of the final battle, detailed in the sources of Islam, in which Islam will prevail on the Day of Judgement. In August 2016, the Dabiq magazine, whose name refers to the location in which Islamic tradition locates the last battle between Good and Evil, claimed that IS was not fighting the West due to its policies but on account of its “unbelief”.

In an effort to suppress and deter any attempt of dissension in territories under its control, IS published a large number of videos showing individuals labelled as traitors and spies for the anti-IS coalition. Other videos showed the killing of members of armed opposition groups fighting against IS. The victims were made to confess deeds that were alleged to be crimes against Muslims and then assassinated, generally by beheading or shooting from a close range. Videos showing these killings used repetition, multiple cameras and slow motion to increase the impact of the killings. In one video published in late 2016, two Turkish soldiers captured by IS in Syria were burnt alive. With regard to the West, IS told its supporters that they were obliged to seek “retributive justice” for attacks perpetrated by the international anti-IS alliance. Muslim scholars opposed to IS were also identified as targets of lone actor attacks. IS also called for the killing of prominent representatives of Sunni Muslims in Europe, including Salafist preachers opposed to it.

In an attempt to restrict access to independent information in areas under its control, in early June 2016 IS conducted a media campaign, including a series of videos, urging people to destroy their satellite dishes and receivers.

IS tried to compensate reports about military setbacks by continuously projecting a propaganda image characterised by a combination of military victories and utopian views of orderly daily life and undisturbed functioning of the administration and services provided under IS rule. That the situation did change, and with it IS’s priorities with regard to recruits, is illustrated by its attitude towards women. In 2016, as in previous years, IS formulated rules for women’s behaviour in areas under its control that aim to give men control over every aspect of their lives. IS expected women to marry IS fighters. They were obliged to obey their husbands, a duty that, IS insisted, also applied to foreign women, who cannot pretend to be privileged because of their travelling to join IS (Hijrah). Women have no right to question their husbands’ decisions in their or their children’s regard. Their principle role under IS is to bear children, keep the household and educate the children to become fighters in line with IS ideology. Women are enjoined to stay at home and not go out without their husbands’ permission. If they do go out, they must cover their body entirely, including face and hands.

Despite this puritanical code of behaviour, IS used the possibility to acquire women as an incentive to attract male fighters. To this end, in 2014 IS declared the re-introduction of slavery, so that IS members could capture or purchase women from the Yazidi community, which had been declared pagans by IS for that purpose. Possibly after the expansion of IS came to a halt in 2015, the supply of women for enslavement decreased. In 2016 IS publications tried to persuade women that polygamy, i.e. the marriage of a man with up to four Muslim women, was the right of men, probably as a means to maintain the sexual stimulus for IS fighters. Another new aspect in IS propaganda targeting women was the request to provide material support to IS from their private property which, contrary to fighting, it described as a form of jihad that is obligatory for women. In the past, IS had tried to attract recruits with the promise that all their housing and salary needs would be catered for.

Propaganda targeting Western women in principle contained the same messages as for Arab audiences. In addition, however, it tried to give the impression that under IS rule women were able to play more active roles, which is at odds with the proclaimed restrictions on women’s freedom. At the same time, IS propaganda portrayed life in the West as corrupted, denigrating for women and contrary to human nature.

In late 2016, IS added a new topic to its messages to ensure the organisation’s survival: in case of defeat in Syria and Iraq, IS affiliates in other geographical areas should continue the struggle. For example, in a 3 November 2016 speech following the launch of the military campaign to end IS control of Mosul in Iraq, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called upon IS members to be steadfast in the face of the attacks of the anti-IS coalition, describing its members as enemies of Sunni Muslims. He urged IS fighters in areas outside Iraq and Syria to continue the fight, even if the IS leadership was killed, and asked IS sympathisers to move to these regions rather than trying to join the group in Iraq and Syria. In 2016 the most active IS affiliates outside Syria and Iraq with regard to video production were in Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.