ISIS’s Struggling Media Strategy

CEP Research Analyst


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ISIS’s media arm is struggling to find a way to report on the group’s recent military encounters, specifically its humiliating losses to the Syrian and Iraqi armies in Abu Kamal and al-Qaim, respectively. This problem is clearly reflected by ISIS’s coverage of recent battles in its weekly Arabic-language magazine, al-Naba. Analysis of recent articles show that the terror group is unconvincingly trying to put a positive spin on recent battlefield news coming out of Iraq and Syria and Syria for their supporters.

ISIS infamously promised the world that it was “remaining and expanding,” but the group’s media arm is struggling to adapt to the reality that the group is hemorrhaging territory, leaders, and fighters. The challenges facing ISIS’s media operatives are apparent in the latest editions of al-Naba, a valuable means for ISIS to distribute “news” pertaining to the so-called caliphate and its various branches to its Arabic-speaking followers. In particular, the magazine’s coverage of ISIS’s unsuccessful military confrontations in eastern Syria and western Iraq represents, at best, a feeble attempt to reframe those defeats.

Since ISIS lost the critical strongholds of Abu Kamal and al-Qaim in the fall, there has been an even greater divergence between ISIS media claims and realities on the ground. Al-Naba has devoted significant coverage to these battles while intentionally neglecting any mention of ISIS’s territorial losses. Articles like “Soldiers of the Caliphate Repulse the Nusayri (a derogatory term for Alawites) Army East of Abu Kamal and Destroy 17 of the Apostate’s Vehicles,” “Abu Kamal Under the Caliphate’s Authority: The Nusayri Army Incurs Heavy Losses on its Flanks,” and “Soldiers of the Caliphate Attack the Nusayri Army on the Outskirts of Abu Kamal: 14 Apostates Are Killed and A Number of Vehicles Are Destroyed” are part of a concerted attempt to convince readers that ISIS continues to make military gains in Syria and Iraq.

Similarly, the group’s coverage of events in ISIS’s so-called wilayats—other territories officially recognized by ISIS leadership—also ignores the broader story of ISIS’s territorial and leadership losses in those areas. For instance, recent al-Naba articles discuss a “martyrdom operation against a gathering of the apostate Afghan party” that left “dozens dead and wounded,” the group’s “assassination of a Somali police officer,” the damaging of Houthi vehicles in Yemen, and the “liquidation” of alleged apostates and spies in countries like Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt.

Another way that ISIS media gives the illusion of continued success is through the group’s coverage of its international terrorist attacks, including its claims of responsibility for attacks in Las Vegas and New York City. A recent al-Naba infographic entitled, “Security Operations Outside the Islamic State During the Year 1438 (October 3, 2016-September 21, 2017),” outlines the methods of attack and the casualty counts for 48 different operations that the group claimed in 19 different states, including Tunisia, Britain, Russia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Germany, Jordan, Indonesia, America, Palestine, Iran, Kenya, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, and Australia.

Additionally, the terrorist group’s Arabic-language media is simultaneously preparing supporters for hardships, setbacks, and struggles. ISIS media has framed military reversals as temporary Ibtila’a (tests from Allah) meant to purify ISIS’s ranks of hypocrites and disbelievers. Al-Naba articles draw heavily upon the group’s own history of booms and busts as well as early Islamic history in an attempt to reassure ISIS followers that if they remain committed to the group’s manhaj (methodology), vision, and mission, Allah will grant them success in the end.

A recent article entitled “O Abbas! Call out the People of As-Samurah” from al-Naba #106 uses Surah al-A’la 9-15—a Quranic verse—to frame its military setbacks as tests from Allah designed to weed out the hypocrites from ISIS’s ranks. According to the article, “Allah Almighty said. ‘So remind, if the reminder should benefit; He who fears (Allah) will be reminded. But the wretched one will avoid it–(He) who will (enter and) burn in the greatest Fire, neither dying therein nor living. He has certainly succeeded who purifies himself. And mentions the name of the Lord and prays.” The implication is that those who abandon ISIS during times of hardship will “burn in the greatest Fire” while those who remain true to its cause are upholding their obligation to Allah and will be granted final victory over Islam’s alleged enemies.

ISIS’s staying power and appeal is rooted in the group’s claims of maintaining a well-functioning Islamic state governed in strict accordance with sharia law, its battlefield successes, and international terrorist attacks. With the first two claims being increasingly difficult to convincingly fabricate, international terror attacks represent the most immediate lifeline that allows ISIS to demonstrate that the group remains active and triumphant.