The Islamic State: The War of Words and the Battle of Minds



Mon, 18 Sep 2017 - 05:45 GMT


Mon, 18 Sep 2017 - 05:45 GMT

ISIS militant uses a mobile to film his fellow militants taking part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa - REUTERS

ISIS militant uses a mobile to film his fellow militants taking part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa - REUTERS

CAIRO – 18 September 2017: When the Islamic State (IS) seized large swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria in 2014, the world was in shock as al-Zarqawi’s former insurgency group rose to commend a territory the size of Great Britain.

But the numbers simply didn’t add up. A CIA report in 2014 estimated between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters were loyal to IS. Yet, they were able to easily capture Iraq’s second city, Mosul, overcoming Iraq’s army at almost 200,000 strong.

There is a large gap between the military capability of the Islamic State and the success they have achieved, however this gap has been filled time and time again through propaganda and psychological warfare.

The difference between propaganda and psychological warfare is contentious. Some people contend that propaganda and psychological warfare are the same in substance yet differ in purpose. Propaganda being the messages provided to motivate the ‘home’ community, while psychological warfare being similar practices, yet utilized by the enemy. However, this distinction is highly subjective.

A more suitable distinction is to separate the two by what they entail. In this case, psychological warfare represents the entire space of indoctrination, including the use of child soldiers to stimulate fear for example, whereas propaganda exists as a subsection of physiological warfare and is limited to the message and narratives propounded. This removes a positive and negative bias.

Psychological warfare is the most effective tool the Islamic State possesses, and consequently should be the focus of the international community in an effective anti-IS fight.

Traditionally, psychological warfare has been supplementary to conventional warfare. From synchronized marching and the repetitive clashing of swords on armor, to the infamous work of Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany; methods of psychological warfare have continually developed to make use of the technology at hand. In the 21st century the tools available to disseminate information and propaganda are abundant, and can be easily manipulated by groups such as IS to pursue a disturbing agenda.

Photo 2: A painting of President Saddam Hussein. David Mabey is accused of breaking UN sanctions by making a corrupt payment to the Iraqi president's regime. Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

It comes as no surprise that IS’s propaganda machine has been invested in so greatly, and thus valued so highly. Under Saddam Hussein, psychological warfare was central to his grip on control, and this is where the sophistication of IS originates. Iraqi ex-military and bureaucracy men, who were left alienated and humiliated during Iraq’s de-Ba’athification process, provided the necessary leadership, while al-Qaeda provided nurture.

For IS, propaganda is essential in mobilizing a support base. Thousands responded to the Islamic State’s beck and call and assembled to join the self-proclaimed caliphate and defend the IS ranks. What was outstanding, however, was the many thousands of foreign nationals who risked arrest, persecution and death, to join the self-proclaimed caliphate.

The tools of propaganda used today differ from their predecessors in one influential aspect – their reach in our globalized world today is limitless. The ability to access to the internet and information is only on the rise, and IS has utilized many platforms to appeal to as wide a base as possible.

The mechanisms used to disseminate propaganda can be adopted by any group, regardless of its motive, in order to pursue and further an agenda. In reality, the social media campaigns of grassroots movements and the Islamic State are eerily similar in terms of their aesthetic, technical and multifaceted nature.

The only distinction between a campaign and propaganda is the validity of the information being provided, with the latter being largely biased.

IS’s message is channeled through several distinguishable narratives in order to increase its appeal and establish a base of support. These narratives are not set in stone, but fluid, and continually evolve over time to reinforce each other and increase the appeal of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

“The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives,” said Omar Hammami, leader of the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab, until his death in 2013.


report published

by the

Carter Center

identifies seven main narratives in the Islamic State’s recruitment propaganda, which range greatly. From anger over historical grievances, to glorifying military jihad over heretics, to the romanticism of the ‘caliphate’, these narratives have the potential to appeal to a diverse base.

Contrary to popular belief, the religious narrative only represents less than 10 percent of IS videos, according to an analysis of over 600 propaganda videos by the Carter Center.

Through these narratives, IS hopes to enforce an us vs. them dichotomy, polarizing the world into two camps: good and evil. The number of narratives adopted helps break this dichotomy down on several layers, in the hope that one narrative will appeal to an audience and thus demand their adherence to its ideology and ambitions. Whether Islam vs. West or Sunni vs. heretics, IS has been able to rally a strong support.

Photo 3: Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

The notion of a collective Islamic conscious serves to unite the Islamic State’s supporters, from all walks of life, under one cohesive banner.

The disenfranchised youth offer the Islamic State a diverse support base which has thus become the focus of its propaganda campaign. People who feel out of touch with society and feel that their life is lacking fundamental qualities, are most susceptible to the Islamic State’s message.

“They have taken advantage of the youth’s feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization in its recruitment by emphasizing the idyllic notion of utopian “Islamic State” that addresses Muslim grievances across the globe,” said Dr. Houda Abadi, associate director of the Conflict Resolution program at The Carter Center, to Egypt Today.

The Islamic State has become an expert in identifying certain groups within society which fall into this disenfranchised category, nurturing them to the values of the caliphate, and offering them a way out. However, as aforementioned, religious appeals only provide a partial explanation for the Islamic State’s appeal.

“Some of the main reasons why youth join Daesh and other extremist organizations are social-political grievances which encompass moral outrage, humiliation, marginalization, search for identity, meaning, and belonging,” said Dr. Abadi, referencing another terms used for the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliphate offers a place where anyone who desires to escape their lives will be welcomed with open arms and united in the ‘Islamic’ struggle. The rhetoric of acceptance is prevalent.

“Daesh projects an image of acceptance in which all are united under the banner of Islam regardless of race, socio-economic barrier, physical disability, and country of origin,” said Dr. Abadi.

IS has adopted simple mechanisms to project its message around the world, which have had a profound effect in increasing its prestige and popularity abroad and at home.

Through a multifaceted media campaign, the reach of the Islamic State is unlimited as it reaches out to a diverse and widespread potential base of support.

Photo 4: First two issues of the Dabiq magazine

The multi-language, multi-platform approach adopted by IS stands in sharp contrast to that used by al-Qaeda in the past. The once blurry videotapes have been replaced by High Definition, tech-savvy videos covering a breadth of subjects. Videos depicting atrocities run wild on social media platforms, and convey an image of unrestricted power – appealing to many people who feel unsatisfied by their place in society.

“It [IS] has used digital communication to build a multifaceted, charismatic, modern and sophisticated brand. For Daesh, the virtual media battlefield is as important as the physical battlefield,” said Dr. Abadi.

The use of videos to attract support and to secure obedience has been a feature of warfare since the Second World War.

“It fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal,” said Hollywood director Frank Capra when discussing Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” “It scared the hell out of me.”

This was many decades ago however, and media skills have developed drastically since then. Techniques plundered from movies, video-games and music have given the Islamic State the cutting edge in its propaganda campaign to attract and command support, as well as exhibiting its archaic practices to incite fear and display a self-proclaimed dominance.

The propaganda mechanisms adopted by the Islamic State are diverse and not simply limited to social media.

The online magazines – Dabiq and Rumiyah – serve to promote the religious values of the Islamic State, promote its atrocities, and provide harrowing guidelines for how to commit “favorable” atrocities.

“On the 27th of Sha’ban, one of the soldiers of the Khilafah detonated an explosive device in the midst of a gathering of Crusaders in the British city of Manchester at a shameless concert at Manchester Arena, killing approximately 30 Crusaders and wounding 70 others,” stated issue 10 of Rumiyah.

Photo 5: Memorial for the victims of the deadly Manchester Arena attack, in Manchester, Britain. REUTERS

The terminology used opens one’s eyes to the severely misguided, yet fundamental beliefs of the Islamic State. Among those 22 people who were tragically murdered in this abhorrent attack, was an eight-year old girl, Saffie Roussos.

A Crusader? Certainly not. A young innocent life simply enjoying a music concert? Yes.

In keeping with the Islamic State’s archaic practices, even music is outlawed in the self-proclaimed caliphate

Yet, this rhetoric comes as a result of the polarizing dichotomy promoted by IS, dividing the world into two distorted camps of good and evil.

“The objective is to create as much carnage and terror as one possibly can until Allah decrees his appointed time and the enemies of Allah storm his location or succeed in killing him,” Issue 9 stated, while discussing hostage taking.

Through such tools, the Islamic State has developed an unrivalled ability in identifying and capitalizing upon youth discontent.

These tools don’t just work to attract support and adherence to the goals of the Islamic State, they also work to instill fear in the enemies of the Islamic State.

The use of child soldiers helps to serve this goal, and children are increasingly used in videos as IS loses territory.

“The visual symbolism of having an organized army of young soldiers serves as a crucial element in Daesh’s psychological warfare,” said Dr. Abadi. “It’s also a way to shame men and tell them that if children can fight then they have no excuse.”

Not only men of traditional fighting age have been indoctrinated and forced into committing acts of brutality under the banner of the Islamic State, children have been increasingly used owing to their ability to slip under the radar.

As highlighted previously, only 10 percent of the Islamic State’s videos contain a religious message. The fight against IS is not against Islam, it is a fight against a violent military group who has hijacked a religion to falsely legitimize and advance their goals. Thus, to eradicate them from our world, we must remove the factors which led to their appeal overcoming the appeal of civilized society in the first place. This is not to say that religion has played no role, but it is secondary.

Photo 6: Screenshot of a video released by ISIS' Al-Hayat media wing.

The success of the Islamic State’s campaign of psychological warfare transpired from the dissatisfaction of the population. The Arab Spring revolutions brought hope and change to millions of people, yet for others it brought tragedy and war. It is without question that the Islamic State is detested by a large percentage of the population under its control, yet to

many they were welcomed

. A wind laced with restlessness and discontent has blown feverishly across Syria and Iraq; a wind which IS tainted through its propaganda machine to capture the hearts and minds of those who didn’t know which way to turn.

Ironically, the sovereign state portrayed by IS offered a tunnel of light in a world of darkness for many people across the region and beyond. The driving motive behind IS’s propaganda campaign was that IS offered something unique of a terrorist organization: the reality of a self-sufficient, sovereign state.

Although dictated by a brutal ideology and strict Salafi Islam, this state of utopia appealed to those who felt repressed in their own countries.

“There is a dire need for a sustainable, community-based approach in preventing violent extremism. Military power alone cannot defeat the violent ideologies or address grievances that gave rise to Daesh in the first place,” said Dr. Abadi.

The theme of social injustice and marginalization at the heart of the Islamic State’s propaganda needs to be overcome – there are many factors which lead to radicalization, meaning that a multi-faceted approach must be put in place.

The extensive appeal of the Islamic State should be a stark warning to society as a whole. Although religious and educational institutions are, and will be vital in providing the necessary education and support to respective communities, it is society as a whole which needs to take the greatest step.

We must ask ourselves how people have managed to disenfranchise with society to this extent, how they have managed to feel so marginalized and so unsatisfied that they felt joining this brutal organization would improve their situation. Preventing the popularity of a group like the Islamic State once again, requires every single person to take collective action to facilitate a more cohesive society and thus limit the push factors to such groups.

Arguing that IS has succeeded through a campaign of psychological warfare, perpetrated through ideology, makes it clear that a military campaign will be limited in its effectiveness. The more IS militants who are killed, or ‘martyred’, some would argue the greater their appeal. The only way to fight this plague of terrorism is to fight their ideology – to challenge and limit what makes them tick.

Only once this well of discontent has been drained will IS and other terrorist groups cease to exist. Yes, this notion may be utopian and idealistic, however the more steps implemented to increase human welfare, the fewer fruits of dissatisfaction will be ripe for exploitation. This remains the most important challenge for the international community.

To find out more about how indoctrination can be prevented, see Egypt Today’s interview with

Dr. Abadi in full here




Leave a Comment

Be Social