Selling the Long War: Islamic State Propaganda after the Caliphate
Abstract: As the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate crumbles, it is reverting to insurgency in Iraq and Syria and refocusing its media narrative from its triumphs to its commitment to a ‘long war’ against its enemies in which it will ultimately prevail. In this new phase where it controls less territory and has fewer battlefield successes, the Islamic State’s media network will be important in selling this long-war narrative and trying to rally support among Sunni Muslims locally and worldwide by enflaming sectarian animosity. Although greatly diminished from its peak, the Islamic State media network remains dangerous, continuing to spread its message to sympathizers across the internet and among Sunnis in territories where it maintains a presence.
As its territorial control dwindles, the Islamic State will likely rely on its media network to retain support among Sunni Muslims locally and globally. Despite significant losses among its media cadre, the network remains resilient and continues to publish new propaganda. The Islamic State appears intent on following a strategy of insurgency in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, coupled with a worldwide terror campaign against Western interests, as evidenced by recent attacks by sympathizers in Europe and the United States. Reflecting this strategic shift, a new ‘long-war’ narrative is emerging in Islamic State propaganda that portends the media network’s future trajectory.a This narrative incorporates the following themes that are likely to be featured in the future:
- The Islamic State is embarked on a long guerrilla war of attrition in which ultimate victory is guaranteed by God. Territorial control is not necessarily important.
- Attacks against coalition and local forces, particularly in Iraq and Syria, will be highlighted to portray an unrelenting insurgent campaign.
- The Islamic State’s presence in other regions, such as Yemen and the Philippines, shows that it retains global appeal and cannot be defeated.
- Supporters should make hijrah to more accessible areas, such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.b
- The coalition will become exhausted and leave Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State will rise again and be unstoppable.
- Continuation of calls for terror attacks in the West and the provision of attack guidance. Every attack—even failed attacks—will likely be publicized to maintain the appearance of an unceasing campaign.
- The Islamic State is the vanguard of Islam and the only group that will defend Sunnis against oppression.
- Sunni Muslims are under attack by apostate sects that seek to oppress and annihilate them in Iraq and Syria. Alleged atrocities by local forces in liberated areas will likely receive great emphasis.
- Cooperation with regional governments or coalition-backed forces will lead to the subjugation of Sunnis by sectarian adversaries. Sunni tribal militias that fight or collaborate against the Islamic State are traitors and will be dealt with accordingly unless they repent.
- Allegations of civilian casualties caused by the coalition will continue to be highlighted.
The Long War
The Islamic State’s long-war narrative portrays an image of a strong movement headed toward an inevitable victory guaranteed by God. When the group was expanding, its media conveyed images of conquests in Iraq and Syria. Now that the tide has turned against it, the Islamic State claims to be waging a war of attrition in which it will outlast its adversaries. It has shifted to widespread guerrilla operations in much of Iraq and Syria while its forces in other regions continue to operate as guerrillas. In a November 2016 speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stated that God was with those with patience and that the Islamic State, though outnumbered, would prevail in the end.1 Where once Islamic State media trumpeted reports of battlefield victories, in recent months, simply surviving is heralded as success by the Islamic State. Its propaganda emphasizes that losses of cities or leaders will only strengthen its fighters’ resolve.2 In August 2018, al-Baghdadi cemented this shift in narrative with a speech titled “Give Glad Tidings to the Patient,” in which he stated: “The scale of victory or defeat with the mujahedeen, the people of faith and piety, is not tied to a city or a village that was taken.”3 He further remarked that the United States had celebrated its “so-called victory in expelling the [Islamic] State from the cities and countryside in Iraq and Syria, but the land of God is wide and the tides of war change.”4
Islamic State media now focuses on demonstrating the group’s persistence in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and the toll it is inflicting on regional governments and factions. At the peak of the Islamic State’s power, its propaganda focused as much on selling the idea of its caliphate as on battlefield developments.5 Now, the focus is almost exclusively on combat and terror operations.6 Media outlets provide daily reports of guerrilla operations to make it seem that the Islamic State is inflicting terrible losses on its enemies and demonstrate that local security forces cannot maintain security in liberated areas. Videos show the indoctrination of youths and the training of new generations of fighters. Media products ignore defeats, highlighting instead the capture of minor villages, tactical counterattacks, and attacks against government or sectarian targets. Islamic State propaganda and online supporters discuss how the group previously was thought to have been defeated in Iraq and waged a guerilla campaign until it reemerged and established the caliphate.7 In February 2018, the Islamic State’s Al Naba newsletter announced the group had resumed its “war of attrition” in Libya.8 Recent media releases have claimed the United States is becoming exhausted by fighting the Islamic State.9
Seeking to deflect claims of its decline, the Islamic State maintains the façade of its self-declared caliphate despite no longer controlling a significant amount of territory in Iraq or Syria. It continues to claim divine authority over all Muslims and demands that other Sunni extremist groups accept its leadership. Islamic State media once routinely published idealized pictorials of life in its territory in online montages and monthly magazines like Dabiq and Rumiyah, showing aspects like religious education, governance, agriculture, and charitable activities. Now such pictorials are infrequent, reflecting the loss of much of its territory in Iraq and Syria. The few such products that are released tend to focus on religious celebrations and enforcement of religious laws (like destroying opium plants and cigarettes) rather than economic or governing activities.c With its caliphate largely dismantled in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is placing greater emphasis on publicizing operations by branches in other regions, like the Sinai and Afghanistan, to make it seem that it remains powerful and determined to continue a worldwide struggle. For example, in the spring of 2017, the Islamic State trumpeted news of militants aligned with it in the Philippines storming the city of Marawi, publishing videos of its fighters battling government forces there for months. Since 2017, Islamic State propaganda has claimed a resurgence by its branch in Libya and an emerging presence in Somalia by emphasizing operations conducted by its fighters in those countries, even titling Somalia a “wilayah” (province) in its recent releases.d
Transitioning to a guerrilla force within Syria and Iraq requires the Islamic State to shore up support among local Sunnis and its fighting force and puts additional pressure on its media wing. Seeking to deter dissent among the populace, Islamic State media publicizes gruesome executions of spies and rebellious tribesmen.10 Media products are also aimed at maintaining the morale of its fighters and distributed to them by Islamic State media teams.e Articles warn fighters against abandoning jihad and implore them to obey their commanders, have patience, and persevere through hardships.11 Islamic State propaganda tells fighters that true victory lies in attaining paradise through martyrdom rather than controlling cities.f
An image posted by Islamic State propagandists on Telegram around early 2017.
Needing to replenish its ranks, it can be assumed Islamic State media will continue efforts to recruit new fighters. It releases products in a multitude of languages exhorting Muslims to join its caliphate, claiming that hijrah, emigration from non-Muslim lands to the Islamic State, and jihad are obligatory because Muslims are being attacked by the disbelievers.12 The frequency with which Islamic State media releases products has diminished dramatically since its peak in 2015, with the decline beginning as early as 2016 as the group suffered increasing military setbacks in Iraq and Syria.13 Media production declined even further as the Islamic State lost much of its territory there in 2017 and early 2018. Even in its diminished capacity, however, it still attempts to attract new members, both foreign and local. Islamic State propaganda still features foreign fighters.g Videos and articles extoll their virtues and show them smiling as they prepare to conduct suicide attacks. With travel to the Islamic State’s remaining pockets in Iraq and Syria now very difficult, media products encourage foreign supporters to make hijrah to join the Islamic State in more accessible regions such as Sinai, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.14 h In September 2017, Islamic State media released a video urging Muslims to travel to join its branch in the Philippines.15 In August 2018, the Islamic State claimed that a Moroccan fighter had carried out a suicide bombing against a military checkpoint in the Philippines.16 In March and August 2018, the Islamic State Khorasan Province released videos that advocated for Muslims to travel to Afghanistan if they could not make it to Syria or Iraq.17
It seems likely that an essential component of the Islamic State’s long-war strategy will be to continue a terror campaign against Western countries and regional governments in retaliation for their participation in operations against the group. A plot in which the group allegedly air-mailed bomb components to a terrorist cell in Sydney in summer of 2017 and directed them via long distance communications to blow up a passenger plane is a case in point.18 Islamic State media will likely serve as a terror weapon to try to weaken its enemies’ resolve to continue military operations against the group. It has released an ongoing stream of videos and articles calling for Muslims to attack Western citizens worldwide, promising rewards for the attackers in the afterlife.19 In January 2018, Al Hayat Media released an English nasheed video titled “Answer the Call” that aimed to incite lone-wolf attacks in the West.20 In the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018, pro-Islamic State media sources released a stream of threats against the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, including calls for sympathizers to kill players and fans at the tournament.21 In March 2018, Islamic State media claimed that an attacker who carried out a deadly hostage attack at a supermarket in southwestern France was one of its soldiers. Islamic State propaganda implores Muslims to assassinate ‘apostate’ rulers of Muslim coalition states. Al-Baghdadi’s August 2018 speech called on followers “in the countries of the crusaders, in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere” to carry out attacks against Westerners, saying that one attack in the West was equal to 1,000 in Iraq or Syria.22 In addition, he called for Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula to “shake off the dust of humiliation” and fight against the Saudi government.23
Media products like Rumiyah have provided instructions for target selection and simple attacks using knives, firearms, and vehicles.24 No new issues of Rumiyah have been published since September 2017, but past releases of Rumiyah and other media products containing attack guidance continue to be recirculated online. Even as the raw number of Islamic State propaganda products has dropped sharply, the emphasis on calls for attacks and provision of technical guidance is likely to remain a centerpiece of official and unofficial propaganda as the Islamic State attempts to compensate for diminishing military power. Al-Baghdadi even assumed the role of terrorist mentor in his August 2018 speech, offering advice for extremists in the West to “carry out an attack that breaks their heart, and rip them apart … either with gunfire, or a stab to their bodies, or a bombing in their countries … do not forget about running people over on the roads.”25 With a decline in official media releases, unofficial pro-Islamic State media groups, such as Wafa Media Foundation, and online supporters have taken up some of the slack in urging terror attacks, providing tactical advice and identifying targets.26
Islamic State media will most likely try to maintain the image of an unrelenting terror campaign against its enemies. The goal is to “make examples of the Crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbor fears his neighbor.”27 As evidenced by calls for attacks during the 2016 U.S. and 2017 French elections, Islamic State media will post threats related to important events and holidays in the West.28 In the fall of 2017, a media group aligned with the Islamic State threatened to strike the West during Christmas, publishing posters of American and European cities in flames.29 Islamic State media points to terror attacks against the West as evidence of its continued global influence, even claiming unsuccessful attacks that fail to kill or injure anyone.i Islamic State propaganda will continue to glorify perpetrators of such attacks as heroes and urge Muslims to follow their examples.30 As shown by its spurious claims that the Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 people in October 2017 had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, Islamic State media will claim credit for violent actions it did not conduct to provoke fear and portray an ability to strike anywhere.
With Islamic State forces conducting guerrilla operations, the media network will likely seek to intimidate local security forces and to sow instability to discredit local governments. It continues to produce videos and pictorials of gruesome executions of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers and anti-Islamic State militia fighters. Islamic State videos show sniper attacks, drone attacks, or assassinations of security force personnel to sow fear in their ranks and sap their morale by showing that death could come at any time and from anywhere. Such media releases will no doubt continue as the Islamic State attempts to drive local security forces out of areas to establish new safe havens. In the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections in Iraq in May 2018, Islamic State media released several products publicizing its threats and attacks against election workers and facilities.j Recent announcements and photos of Islamic State operations in liberated areas of Iraq and Syria—such as Kirkuk and Raqqa, respectively—appear intended in part to discredit local government and paramilitary forces’ claims of control over those regions.31
Having alienated many local Sunnis with its brutality and intolerance, the Islamic State is trying to rebuild support by enflaming sectarian tensions and presenting itself as the protector of Sunnis against oppression and annihilation by ‘apostate’ regimes and paramilitary forces. It has long painted Assad’s Alawite regime and the Shi`a-dominated Iraqi government as apostates seeking to exterminate Sunnis. The Islamic State media machine has produced numerous products detailing the alleged apostasy of Shi`as, as well as alleged current and historical crimes by Iran against Sunni Muslims.k Recent Islamic State releases have highlighted operations against Iranian forces and Shi`a paramilitary elements. Most notable was a September 2018 video, complemented by an infographic, in which the group claimed credit for an attack by several gunmen on an Iranian military parade in Ahvaz, Iran—an audacious attack in the heart of Iran.32 The Islamic State has accused the Syrian military—and its Russian allies—of widespread destruction of civilian buildings and of killing women and children.l Kurdish and other Syrian opposition groups are likewise painted as apostates, secularists, and Western or Iranian proxies. The goal of this campaign is to dissuade local Sunnis from supporting regional governments or coalition-backed forces, stoke Sunni anger worldwide, and demonstrate that Sunnis need the Islamic State to protect them. A prime example of this theme was a speech by Islamic State spokesman Abu al-Hasan al-Mujahir on April 24, 2018, in which he claimed that Iran was taking over Sunni areas of Iraq, executing Sunni women in Iraq, and using Hezbollah and Shi`a militias to purge Sunni Muslims from Syria and Iraq.33
Moreover, the Islamic State has consistently characterized Sunni tribal militias who cooperate with the Shi`a-led Iraqi government, the coalition, or opposition forces, as traitors and murtaddin (apostates), labeling them as Sahwa (a pejorative reference to the Sunni “Awakening” militias that turned against the Islamic State in Iraq in the late 2000s).34 At the same time, the message of the Islamic State, reiterated in al-Baghdadi’s August 2018 speech, is that Sunni militias will be offered forgiveness if they repent from their opposition to the Islamic State before the group captures them.35 To be an insurgent force, the Islamic State must be able to take sanctuary in Sunni areas, and thus it is likely to continue propaganda efforts to peel Sunni tribes away from the Iraqi government or the coalition.
Seeking to enflame the anger of Muslims and undermine public support in coalition countries, the Islamic State makes allegations of civilian casualties and damage resulting from coalition operations. The Islamic State’s propaganda arm Amaq frequently publishes announcements of civilian casualties.m During the battles for Mosul and Raqqa, Islamic State propaganda alleged that coalition aircraft used white phosphorous munitions against civilian areas and published photos of damaged schools and hospitals. In the spring of 2017, Islamic State media spread false stories that coalition strikes had seriously damaged a major dam over the Euphrates River.n The viral success of such fabrications among online audiences make it likely that the Islamic State will utilize such tactics in the future.
As the Islamic State transitions to a long-war strategy of insurgency and terror, its media network will be essential for it to remain relevant and retain support among Sunni Muslims. It will likely be its media operators’ responsibility to spin events on the ground in a positive light to give hope to its supporters, woo would-be recruits, and terrify its enemies. As the Islamic State persists in its insurgent efforts in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, look for the media network to double down on its long-war rhetoric, framing everything the group does—every IED attack, every ambush of local security forces, every terror attack against Westerners or sectarian rivals—as part of the war of attrition that will pave the way to ultimate victory.
Having lost its strongholds in Iraq and Syria and suffered major losses to its media personnel, the Islamic State will likely need to reconstitute its media cadre and ensure that its message gets out.o It could seek to find new talent locally or recruit extremists from outside to assist remotely. Arrests of Islamic State media and cyber operatives and supporters in the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany, and elsewhere illustrate the group’s ability to use extremists outside of Iraq and Syria for media and hacking activities.36 Pro-Islamic State groups have posted announcements seeking individuals to assist in media production.37 Research by Charlie Winter and Jade Parker has revealed that as official media production has dwindled, the Islamic State is relying more heavily on a “virtual caliphate” consisting of unofficial munasir networks of online supporters to sustain its propaganda efforts. These networks run channels and unofficial media organizations, such as Nashir News, to amplify official propaganda and produce their own unofficial releases.38 The proliferation of threats to the recent World Cup and events in the West published by unofficial pro-Islamic State groups, such as Wafa Media Foundation, seems to add further credence to this trend.39
Islamic State media continues to seek out new online vectors for propaganda. It maintains multiple channels on Telegram and proliferates numerous links for every propaganda release to ensure its message gets out.40 Despite frequent deletions of content, the group remains persistent in publishing videos and other products on a wide array of media and file-sharing sites, such as YouTube, Archive.org, and Justpaste.it, to name a few.41
While Islamic State media production has been slowed to a relative trickle, there is a danger the taps may open again as the group attempts to regenerate in a post-caliphate environment and sell ‘the long war.’ Combating the group’s media network needs to remain a priority for the international community. Sustained military pressure against media operatives in combat theaters is important for continuing to suppress official media organizations. The potential use of extremists outside of Iraq and Syria will require cooperation among security services worldwide to track them down. That said, completely shutting down Islamic State propaganda is not a realistic goal.
The coalition must counter the Islamic State’s long-war narrative with public and concrete actions. The long-term solution lies with creating a political arrangement in liberated areas that confers greater economic and political power to Sunnis. This cannot be accomplished overnight, but publicizing tangible steps toward a post-Islamic State arrangement inclusive of Sunnis—such as raising local Sunni security forces—could undercut the Islamic State’s theme of protecting Sunnis from oppression and help convince local Sunnis that siding with the Islamic State is a dead end. Acknowledging abuses by Iraqi security forces could reduce the resonance of Islamic State propaganda among Iraqi Sunnis, especially if public punishments are administered upon those responsible. Allegations of civilian casualties will have less impact if the coalition is upfront in admitting mistakes and outlining measures taken to avoid casualties. In the end, coalition governments must be committed to a long campaign involving coordinated military, intelligence, and law enforcement efforts to disrupt the Islamic State’s media network and counter its messages. CTC
Michael Munoz, Ph.D., is a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) working on counterterrorism issues. He completed his B.A. in Political Science at Princeton University and received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Munoz has previously served as an infantry officer in the reserve components of the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the FBI, Department of Justice, or U.S. government.
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