The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy

For too long, the immensity of Islamic State’s propaganda machine has obscured a rational understanding of it. The organisation’s media strategists are producing high-definition depictions of the most abhorrent brutality on an industrial scale, ensuring that jihadism is digitalised and brought firmly into the 21st century. The days when we saw grainy video footage played on Al Jazeera and propaganda was limited to stagnant speeches made by terrorist leaders are long gone. Islamic State has revolutionised jihadist messaging, by jettisoning operational security in the pursuit of dynamism, so that it can produce propaganda that tells a story, exciting or appalling its viewers, depending on who they are. This has not gone unnoticed, it is forever being discussed in the pages of our newspapers and on the screens of our televisions – ‘high production value’ and ‘high definition’ are the new buzzwords of today’s terrorism. While they may be appropriate terms, they have stopped us from rationally assessing the organisation behind the glossy propaganda. This report seeks to redress that situation, presenting the most extensive analysis of the organisation’s propaganda strategy to date. It demonstrates that Islamic State’s media operation is carefully calculated, with jihadist videographers producing bespoke content for a wide range of audiences. It shows that the group’s brutality is a red herring; that the violence depicted is a result of the propagandists’ desire to outrage hostile audiences abroad and gratify their supporters at home. It is only after we have achieved an understanding of the motivations and objectives that drive the Islamic State media machine that we can begin to challenge it effectively. How, for example, can we be expected to develop a counter-narrative without knowing what narratives we are countering? How can we propose effective counter messaging strategies unless we understand what and how exactly the messages that we are countering are being disseminated, and to what purpose? With hundreds of citizens from across the world travelling to join Islamic State’s terrorist bastardisation of the ‘caliphate’, the situation has never been more critical. Extremist supporters of Islamic State have already carried out attacks in countries around the world, from North America to Australasia, and the threat of their intensification increases every day. It is imperative that we – practitioners, policymakers and publics – better understand just how the messages of indoctrination are delivered and hence what drives these individuals to waste life in the name of Islamic State’s violent Islamist fantasy.

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