ISIL propaganda veers away from claims of caliphate

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo


A screenshot of a recent ISIL video called "Revered Glory" shows group members tying up a man in a public square in al-Raqa, Syria, before executing him. ISIL propaganda like this has witnessed a noticeable shift away from claims of building an Islamic 'caliphate' and instead has focused mainly on violence.

The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) propaganda machine is in a tailspin due to the loss of key members of its media team and the group's symbolic defeat in the Syrian town of Dabiq, analysts tell Diyaruna.

The state of affairs has had a significant negative effect on ISIL's efforts to recruit new fighters, they say.

ISIL's propaganda efforts, which helped attract more than 30,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, have dropped off drastically under military pressure, according to a recent study by West Point's Combating Terrorism Centre.

Researchers found there has been a "striking shift away from publications and social media portraying a functioning state", the New York Times said in an October 10th report on the study, referring to ISIL's so-called "caliphate".

ISIL's claims that it is building a new caliphate have "become increasingly threadbare", the newspaper reported.

Undermining ISIL's propaganda

The link between the military strikes on key ISIL targets and the decline of its powerful media machine is "very strong", said military analyst and retired Egyptian army officer Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Ahmed.

"With these strikes, the propaganda put out by ISIL since 2014, and through which it was able to recruit a large number of fighters from around the world, has been undermined," he told Diyaruna.

Through its propaganda, he said, ISIL portrayed itself as an invincible army and vaunted its establishment of a so-called "Islamic caliphate".

The visible collapse of these claims is a huge blow to ISIL, he said, as it will no longer be able to resort to these propaganda tricks to entice new recruits.

"The international coalition's command was very keen to target ISIL officials tasked with directing its online propaganda," Ahmed said.

These strikes have succeeded in taking out several ISIL elements who were key to the operation of its machine media, notably Wael Adel Hassan Salman al-Fayad, who the group admitted had been killed in an October 10th statement.

The death of ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who was in charge of foreign operations, was also announced on August 30th.

ISIL had heavily relied on these elements since its inception, he said.

To rank-and-file ISIL elements, the targeting and killing of key leaders show them they too could be killed at any moment, Ahmed said, which has undoubtedly had a deterrent effect on the group's recruitment and retention.

Role of counter-propaganda

"Counter-propaganda also played a prominent role, alongside military operations, in weakening ISIL's media capabilities that it used in recruitment," said Mazen Zaki, director of the new media department at Egypt's Ibn al-Waleed Studies and Field Research Centre.

"Weakening and exposing the propaganda and lies promoted by the group are essential in the fight against it and equal [in importance] to the military operations," he told Diyaruna.

Counter-propaganda must continue to work on refuting ISIL's ideology, which it has sought to ingrain in the areas under its control and the minds of youth around the world.

These efforts should focus on ISIL's military losses, he said, exposing the truth about ISIL and the crimes and abuses it has committed, and should support the work of legitimate religious authorities in Arab and Islamic countries.

ISIL's exploitation of religion

Since its inception in 2014, ISIL has portrayed its incursions as a "war against the infidels", said Al-Azhar cleric Sheikh Abdel Moneim Mohammed, imam of al-Nour mosque in al-Maadi, Egypt.

It has done this "in order to recruit elements and build a community that is loyal only to it", he told Diyaruna.

This sectarian and religious militarisation could have negative effects if not dealt with seriously, he added, as a human's psychological state in times of war can cause him to act blindly.

This is particularly the case if "the information he receives is infused with religious fervor, erroneous religious teachings, hatred and a sense of existential threat", he added.

"ISIL promotes the notion that the whole world is against it," Mohammed said, adding that this has driven its "caliphate" propaganda, "which may entrap those with limited intellect or limited knowledge of religious sciences".

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