ISIS’s military retreat accompanied by propaganda defeat
London - With the Islamic State (ISIS) on the back foot as an internationally backed coalition seeks to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul, a report revealed that the Islamist group’s slick propaganda efforts are being abandoned in favour of an increased focus on military efforts.
The report, Communication Breakdown: Unraveling the Islamic State’s Media Efforts by researchers at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, said ISIS propaganda had been effective in recruiting fighters and supporters when it could promote the idea of a “functioning, expanding caliphate”. With ISIS barely holding on in Iraq and in retreat in Syria and Libya, the group’s propaganda efforts have taken a serious hit, the report concluded.
“Analysis showed that the number of [media] releases has declined since the late summer of 2015, which can be seen as the high-water mark of the group’s public online distribution activities… most likely a function of the increased amount of counterterrorism pressure faced by the group across the territory it claims for its caliphate,” the report, which was written by Daniel Milton, director of research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, said.
“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,” Milton explained in comments to the New York Times.
“The Islamic State’s media people are fighters, too, and, when they’re fighting, they can’t put out their message,” he added.
The international coalition against ISIS has been targeting those leading its media effort, with ISIS seeking to make much of its so-called media martyrs but ultimately being unable to replace them in its elaborate propaganda machine. ISIS information minister Wail al-Fayed was killed in a US strike on Raqqa in September, with a Pentagon statement stressing that the killing of senior leaders such as Fayed “degrades [ISIS’s] ability to retain territory and its ability to plan, finance and direct attacks inside and outside of the region”.
Another major blow to ISIS’s propaganda efforts came on October 16th after Turkish-backed rebels captured the symbolically important Syrian town of Dabiq from the group. Dabiq — which is also the name of ISIS’s infamous online magazine — will be the supposed site of a climactic battle in Islamic eschatology.
“The news of Dabiq’s fall would be unremarkable — the final battle lasted hours and the casualties were low — but for the fact that ISIS spent the last two years proclaiming the town to be the site of an end-of-days showdown with the infidels. This isn’t quite what the group had in mind,” William McCants, senior fellow at Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in a posting titled Apocalypse Delayed.
The group was roundly mocked on social media after a statement from the Amaq News Agency, which is affiliated with ISIS, said that the apocalypse had been “postponed” due to “unforeseen circumstances”.
“ISIS promised ‘final victory’ in Dabiq but today its fighters fled in defeat at the hands of Syrian supported by @coalition,” tweeted Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the global coalition to counter ISIS. “Did I miss the apocalypse?” asked New York Times Middle East correspondent Ben Hubbard.
It is on social media, more than anywhere else, that the reversal of ISIS’s propaganda efforts can be seen. Twitter and Facebook have become more adept at removing ISIS content, the report said, forcing the group to rely more on its own websites.
The West Point report analysed propaganda published by ISIS between January 2015 and August 2016, noting the presence of more than 52,000 photographs and 140 hours of video clips embedded in Twitter posts. Twitter had been the biggest tool used by ISIS until July 2015, when it was eclipsed by ISIS websites. This lines up with when Twitter began utilising a more proactive strategy to remove ISIS-related accounts, necessitating the group to change its procedures.
“Distribution accounts on Twitter are being removed in greater numbers and quicker than ever before,” the report noted. Researchers identified 51 Twitter accounts as posting content on behalf of ISIS on June 15th-16th. More than 80% of those accounts had been removed within 48 hours of posting ISIS content, a far quicker rate than before July 2015.
Despite increasing success countering ISIS’s military and propaganda efforts, the report concluded that even greater investment must be made to “more fully engage ISIS and other organisations on the media battlefield” as a “critical part of diminishing the threat” it poses to the rest of the world.