Islamic State Recalibrates Online Message as Territory Lost in Syria, Iraq

In this image taken by an Iraqi Counterterrorism Service photographer on Sunday, June 19, 2016, soldiers pose with an Islamic State militant flag in Fallujah, Iraq after forces re-took the city center after two years of IS control. Thousands of civilians are fleeing Fallujah after the city was declared liberated …
Iraq Counterterrorism Service via AP

Sky News reports on data from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) that shows a remarkable decline in the volume of online ISIS propaganda in concert with the recapture of territory from the Islamic State, particularly in Iraq.

According to the ICSR, ISIS propaganda declined by 36 percent in February 2017, compared to its volume of 892 propaganda pieces in February 2015.

More intriguingly, the content of that propaganda has changed dramatically:

In 2015, 53 percent of IS’ output focused on Utopian depictions of life under the so-called caliphate, with 39 percent glamorizing jihad.

This year, as the battle for Mosul raged, 80 percent focused on jihad and only 14 percent on Utopian imagery.

Sources in UK counter-terrorism confirm that the quantity – and quality – of IS propaganda has declined, but their focus has shifted to lone wolf attacks.

The ICSR contends that ISIS online propaganda exploded after Mosul was captured, pumping out a mixture of bloodthirsty jihad snuff films and “soft-focus features about life under Islamic State rules.” A surprising amount of that utopian propaganda has been directed at women.

The terror state seems to be having a hard time selling positive visions of caliphate life as caliphate real estate is torn away from them.

This is very different from theories floated during the Obama administration that ISIS online propaganda was an entirely separate phenomenon from the “junior varsity team’s” acquisition of physical territory. The prescription was to combat the Islamic State’s online presence to choke off its stream of recruits in a very long process that would eventually make military victory over ISIS relatively easy or even break up the caliphate without intense “kinetic action.” The importance of ISIS boasts about battlefield victory and territorial conquest was downplayed.

Instead, this data suggests fighting the Islamic State in both cyberspace and the physical world was crucial, with the two battlefronts deeply linked. Territorial conquest was a vital component of bringing ISIS into the big leagues of global terrorism. Raqqa in Syria is not just the functional capital of the Islamic State – it is a location of profound significance to their Salafist Islamic mythology, the site of an apocalyptic battle to come between believers and infidel armies. Mosul is where the Islamic State was born. We can hope that losing each of those cities will be as devastating to ISIS as capturing them was beneficial.

Sky News quotes Ross Frenett of counter-extremism consultants Moonshot CVE saying that the campaign to push ISIS sympathizers off Twitter, Google, and other massive open platforms had a positive effect because the audience for extremist propaganda is much more limited on complex secure platforms such as Telegram.

“If someone is in a closed Telegram channel for IS, or Daesh, they are most likely already quite far down the path of believing in the ideology,” Frenett points out. It is good that ISIS’s appeal to the “jihad-curious” has been reduced by forcing them into encrypted cyberspace, but it also says something uncomfortable about the effectiveness of their old appeals that having broader distribution channels made them so much more effective.

The UK Independent quotes analysts who say ISIS is claiming the Westminster attacker as one of its “soldiers” in an effort to distract from how much territory it has lost in Syria and Iraq. However, some of those analysts note that ISIS vets “lone wolf” terrorists to ensure its claims of influence will be plausible because it fears losing credibility within the global extremist network.

“Isis supporters are trying to show their reach is wider than many would have assumed. As Isis loses more and more territory in Iraq and Syria, it needs to find another narrative to show its success,” said Chatham House fellow Renad Mansour, fearing this week’s attack on the “hugely symbolic” Houses of Parliament would fill that bill.

The UK Express notes that ISIS propaganda films urging an attack on the Houses of Parliament began circulating through what remains of the Islamic State’s social media network at least eight months ago.

Another interesting point about the current state of ISIS propaganda — as the New York Daily News very grudgingly admits, after several paragraphs of gratuitous invective — is that hardly any of it mentions President Donald Trump or his executive order suspending visas from six highly insecure Middle Eastern nations. For months, the American public was assured by critics of the president that he and his travel ban would be a boon for ISIS recruiters.