Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have lost its most important territory, but the parallel information war it has waged rages on – fusing slick production values on radio, social media, print and broadcast with extreme violence, to present its flavour of clerical fascism as an alternative utopian existence on the ground.
Researcher Charlie Winter, speaking at the Wired Security event in Kings Place, London, this week, has spent hundreds of hours monitoring jihadist Telegram groups and rifling through propaganda material to better understand what he calls the ‘virtual caliphate' and the communication strategy that it employs.
"There's a lot of propaganda coming out on a daily basis," he says. "Hundreds and hundreds of unique media products, videos, magazines, radio bulletins, in lots of different languages coming out every single day."
ISIS and its central media office, Winter claims, is "really effective" at keeping up that flow of information – and the propaganda side is something that the group strongly tries to maintain. "I think some of them are addicted to this propaganda, it's something the group really tries to cultivate, the interdependence between the brand and supporters," he says.
Winter hashed out a network of the infrastructure supporting that propaganda thanks to documents that were made available towards the end of 2015, and it showed how many moving parts there were to the IS media machine.
Everything, he says, comes back to a central media office, but satellites from south-east Asia to Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria transmit their own material through that media office. That office then makes sure everything is "beautiful, everything is on brand, and everything again comes out in that constant flow".
A propaganda video played to the audience makes clear the role that the organisation sees its media officers playing: they are crucial in the fight for the caliphate. The video shows a representation of one of IS' media workers climbing into his Audi with a pouch full of material. According to Winter, in 2016, media operatives were paid as much as seven times more than the average foot soldier.
The propaganda is not just the grisly stuff we might have become accustomed to after years of the extreme violence flashed across our rolling news channels. According to a media training pamphlet for the organisation that Winter obtained early last year, what is absolutely crucial as a branding statement is offering the idea of a concrete alternative to potential recruits or supporters. That means not just the "alleged steadfastness for the people fighting," Winter says, but "also show the good things."
"Make a comprehensive offer of existence to people who may be in other countries around the world looking to the Islamic State, thinking: ‘hmm, it's interesting, but what happens if I go there? What will life be like?' This is where they really create their utopia."
A propaganda reel shows young men baking bread, others jumping into fire trucks, and one man casually perusing items at a grocery store (with packed shelves - pictured below).
Another central role for propagandists is to insist that it is only communications from IS that offer the truth – "conspiracy is very important to jihadis, they really thrive off this stuff," Winter says – everything in the mainstream media is a lie designed to undermine IS.
Another video shown was taken around the time of the loss of Mosul. Despite that being a tremendous loss for the organisation, it was spun as a strategic move, or that it didn't matter because the territory will return to IS in the years to come anyway.
"One thing jihadis are very good at doing is essentially saying: that's not what's happening, you're completely wrong, this is going perfectly for us and it's all part of our plan," he says. "It doesn't really work if you're not a jihadi, but if you're already a supporter or a true believer in the Islamic State's ideology, you see what you want to see and you believe what you want to believe."
Lastly, because the group has lost so much territory, Winter believes that to keep up momentum the media office will focus more and more on individual acts of terror. A video shot shortly after the Barcelona terrorist attack consists of various western news reels on the attack, slickly cut together, and emphasising that the attacks are difficult to spot or stop.
"This is a very clear indication of what terrorism is to the Islamic State," he says. "It is just as much a way to communicate with supporters, to show them it is still a potent force. Just to focus on the propaganda isn't just a thing that radicalises and recruits, it's much more than that – it is a fundamental way the Islamic State brands itself, and will continue to brand itself and buoy itself up in years to come."
In terms of finding a solution to stave off this flow of propaganda, the strategy requires more nuance than simply piling on the pressure on the big ISPs and social media platforms, according to Winter.
Better would be to "close the network a little bit, make it more difficult for the Islamic State to cultivate that virtual caliphate," Winter says. "We need to have a reality check that basically says there is no utopian state we'll be in one day where there is no safe space for terrorists on the internet – they will always find one – and the best we can hope for is the obstruction of propaganda."
That could mean making the parts of the internet recruits operate in inhospitable, but not "so inhospitable they start using things that it's impossible to monitor".
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