The menace presented by Islamic State’s (IS) self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’ is uniquely challenging on a number of levels. Tactically, its military operations demand lateral thinking, since the group exists as a nebulous, swarming network constantly seeking to expand its reach. Strategically, too, it is pioneering new insurgent methods, establishing numerous, complex administrative and institutional foundations in Iraq and Syria that are already deeply rooted and sure to prolong the war for years to come, as the middle ground between civilian and soldier is systematically destroyed. It is in psychological terms, though, that IS has truly transformed the state of play. Its vast propaganda operation is unrivalled, involving devoted media teams from West Africa to Afghanistan who work relentlessly, day and night, in the production and dissemination of the ‘caliphate’ brand. So far, most of our attempts to meaningfully mitigate IS’s ability to globally engage have been left floundering.
Numerically speaking, it is an uphill struggle. Though there are some commendable efforts being undertaken by counter violent extremism practitioners and civil society organisations, they are dwarfed in size by IS’s media behemoth, which produces on average 38 individual batches of propaganda each day – videos, photo essays, articles and audio programmes. Apart from practicalities, the counter effort is, from the offset, structurally impaired from success. Indeed, the cult of the counter-narrative has left coalition partners working from within a reactive paradigm, something that means it is perpetually on the back foot when it comes to presenting an alternative to what IS offers.
The difficulties we face in the information war on IS are not something of which we can opt out. Hence, we need to recognise our weaknesses and circumnavigate the obstacles we face. Arguably the most damaging of those weaknesses has been a persistent tendency to misunderstand just what it is that IS is doing – myriad questions have been asked, and most left unanswered.
In the Quilliam Foundation’s latest research into IS propaganda, Senior Researcher Charlie Winter presents us with a truly ground-breaking window into the mind of the propagandist, demystifying the media war more than ever before. Between 17 July and 15 August 2015, the Islamic month of Shawwal, Charlie compiled an exhaustive archive of IS propaganda, creating not just a snapshot of its output, but a comprehensive, 30-day view of it.
Over the course of the data collection period, he recorded 1146 separate propaganda “events”, discrete batches of data that were disseminated with a view to bolstering the IS world view, be that through graphic violence or millenarian scenes of vividly lit fairgrounds. Each event was recorded according to 7 variables and then grouped by narrative and subcategory, enabling detailed analysis. By postponing any assessment until the data had been collected in full, Charlie was able to circumvent IS’s tactical saturation of the Internet and consider its messaging in an aggregated, considered manner. In so doing, as important trends, iniquities and anomalies that are otherwise impossible to discern become strikingly apparent, he has presented us with an important tactical and strategic insight into the virtual ‘caliphate’.
When it comes to IS propaganda, it is imperative that we understand it in as granular and nuanced a manner as possible. Using data to test the hypothesis of the July 2015 report ‘The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy’, Charlie has illuminated the bare bones of the IS brand. It is high time we recognised that there is no elixir that can deliver us from IS’ information supremacy, no catch-all counter-narrative to undercut its carefully cultivated and choreographed image. In this absence, we must instead seek to enrich our understanding. The IS ‘caliphate’ is marketing itself on an industrial scale. If we are to destroy its brand, we must first be able to fathom its depths.