6th October 2015
Today, the Quilliam Foundation is launching “Documenting the Virtual ‘Caliphate’”, the latest instalment of its pioneering research into Islamic State’s propaganda strategy. The report is an expansion of the July 2015 paper “The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy” and is based upon an exhaustive 30 day survey of Islamic State propaganda conducted across the Islamic month of Shawwal (17 July 2015 – 15 August 2015). The paper is a direct, detailed window into the mind of Islamic State’s media strategists.
Over the course of the month, Quilliam’s Senior Researcher on Transnational Jihadism Charlie Winter used a unique methodology to compile an archive comprising of a total of 1146 separate propaganda “events” – discrete batches of media from videos and photo essays to audio statements and songs sung a cappella.
From the rigorous qualitative analysis that followed the data collection, a number of intriguing, important discoveries were made, among them the fact that:
• Over half of all the propaganda was focused on depicting civilian life in Islamic State-held territories. Economic activity, social events, abundant wildlife, unwavering law and order, and pro-active, pristine ‘religious’ fervour underpin the foundations of Islamic State’s civilian appeal. In this way, the group attracts supporters based on ideological and political appeal.
• Islamic State still markets itself with brutality. However, the intended target audiences for its ultraviolence are decidedly more regional than they have been previously. It seems that fostering international infamy could now be secondary to intimidating its population with a view to discouraging rebellion and dissent.
• A large proportion of all military-themed events is devoted to showing Islamic State’s war of attrition, with mortars and rockets being fired into the distance towards an unseen enemy. Given the locations from which many of these reports emerge, as well as the fact that the aftermath of such strikes is rarely, if ever documented, it is conceivable that these low-risk, low-cost attacks are rigged, falsely choreographed attempts to perpetuate a sense of Islamic State’s being ‘on the offensive’.
• The volume of output produced by Islamic State far exceeds most estimates, which have been, until now, necessarily conservative. Disseminating an average of 38.2 unique propaganda events a day from all corners of the Islamic State ‘caliphate’, this is an exceptionally sophisticated information operation campaign, the success of which lies in the twin pillars of quantity and quality. Given this scale and dedication, negative measures like censorship are bound to fail.
• The quantity, quality and variation of Islamic State propaganda in just one month far outweighs the quantity, quality and variation of any attempts, state or non-state, to challenge the group. All current efforts must be scaled up in order for meaningful progress in this war.
Quilliam’s Managing Director, Haras Rafiq, said:
“In many respects IS is operating like a media company. Our response has to be proportionate. We must realise 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.”
For a copy of the report, please click here.
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