ISIS propaganda drive wanes as military pressure rises

Loss of territory and crackdown by social media platforms hurt militants' sales pitch

Pro-government forces in Iraq preparing on Monday to retake the northern city of Mosul, the last Iraqi city held by ISIS.
Pro-government forces in Iraq preparing on Monday to retake the northern city of Mosul, the last Iraqi city held by ISIS.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • The vaunted propaganda operations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which helped lure more than 30,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, have dropped off drastically as the extremist group has come under military pressure, according to a study by terrorism researchers at the United States Military Academy.

In addition, the researchers found, there has been a striking shift away from publications and social media portraying a functioning state with competent bureaucrats, thriving businesses and happy citizens. ISIS claims that it is building a new caliphate - or unified Muslim land - a claim that has become increasingly threadbare.

"The caliphate was their big selling point. Now there's an inability to say we're doing the things that make us a state," said Dr Daniel Milton, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy and the report's author.

When in 2014 ISIS first riveted the world's attention, its messaging was unexpected - inviting Westerners to move to the caliphate. One slick video showed a Canadian recruit: "Your families would live here in safety, just like how it is back home."

ISIS photos showed bustling commerce in Raqqa, Syria, and a message of normalcy: factories humming, store shelves well-stocked, children swimming and playing. That began to shift after ISIS publicised its gruesome beheadings and the coalition air strikes began.

At the peak of the ISIS media output, in August last year, the group released more than 700 items from Syria and several other countries. During August this year, after a year of air strikes and other assaults, that number had declined to under 200, according to the study.

Over the same period, the share of items devoted to military reports doubled to 70 per cent, eclipsing governance, commerce and other topics portraying civilian life.

The findings reflect a cascade of failures for ISIS, reversing its sudden rise both in territory seized and propaganda reach in 2014. Experts caution, however, that ISIS ideology, portraying Muslims in an apocalyptic contest with non-Muslims, is likely to continue to inspire terrorist acts long after its caliphate is gone.

Beginning in 2014, ISIS propaganda was effective not just because it was sophisticated and well-produced, but also because of its message of inevitable victory, urging Muslims around the world to join the successful state-building effort.

As long as the group was expanding by seizing cities and territory, that message resonated with some young Muslims. Now it has started to look less like a religious state with a future and more like an eroding terrorist army.

The output may also have slowed because of efforts by social media companies, notably Twitter, to thwart ISIS' use of their platforms.

In April, the Pentagon reported that the flow of foreign fighters into Syria had dropped from 2,000 to about 200 a month. In late June, Mr Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama's envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, said it had been driven out of nearly half the territory it had occupied in Iraq, with the number of foreign fighters dropping from 33,000 to about 20,000.

Mr J.M. Berger, co-author of ISIS: The State Of Terror and associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism - The Hague, said other researchers had witnessed the reduction in ISIS media production.

"They're dropping the utopian sales pitch they started with. And that's hurting their recruiting effort."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS propaganda drive wanes as military pressure rises'. Subscribe