If you want to know how the Islamic State group is doing, you don’t have to follow the Mosul offensive. Just take a look at the recent output of the terrorist organization’s propaganda machine. A 34-minute audio recording from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released Thursday — the first message from Baghdadi in nearly a year — emphasized violence and war, themes that have become increasingly common in the group’s messages as its attempts at statehood falter.
From its very inception, IS has built its legend through its robust propaganda arm. But as the terrorist group loses ground on its caliphate (its interpretation of an Islamic state) and the territory in Iraq and Syria it spent the last two years conquering, IS is running out of clear, tangible successes to promote. The once-feared propaganda operation has suffered as a result, showing a dramatic dip in production and a telling shift in content since January, according to two recent analyses by U.S. counterterrorism researchers.
“Statehood is essential to the IS brand,” said Mara Revkin, a resident fellow at Yale Law School’s Center for the Study of Islamic Law and Civilization who studies Islamic legal systems and governance by militant groups. “But as IS prepares to lose Mosul, the question is whether this brand will remain attractive to potential recruits and financiers now that the group has failed to live up to its slogan of ‘remaining and expanding.’”
A study published in early October by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point gives some insight into how these ground losses have already affected IS propaganda exercises. Researchers focused on “official” visual media produced by IS and distributed through its official online channels since January 2015, analyzing roughly 9,000 images and videos. What they observed in that period paints a stark decline for the once expanding caliphate.
In raw numbers, the report charted a significant year-over-year decline to 194 posts in August from the robust propaganda machine’s peak the year before, when it released more than 700 posts through its official media channels. Overall output since January has trended down, coinciding with a 16 percent territory loss over the same period, according to an October report published by IHS Conflict Monitor, a London-based research firm.
Increased efforts from Twitter and other social media networks to restrict and remove the flow of IS propaganda likely contributed to the significant dip in releases, but the CTC study suggested greater advancements were still needed to counteract the group’s efforts.
“The caliphate is in many respects getting weaker and [is] under severe pressure,” Dan Milton, director of research at the CTC and the study’s author, said. “This pressure and reduced amount of resources has led to less ability to govern the way that they would like to govern.”
Military-oriented videos have been the bedrock of IS propaganda, but the group’s ability to govern once featured heavily as well — on average accounting for one-fifth of the media analyzed by Milton and a quarter of IS videos reviewed in separate research by Javier Lesaca, an analyst at the Counter Extremism Project.
The caliphate was the group’s signature accomplishment, simultaneously presenting the clearest vision of its nation-state ambitions while providing sharp differentiation from its more shadowy and amorphous forefather, al Qaeda, which had failed to establish a state itself.
At the height of its production, in the summer of 2015, IS had established the infrastructure for an advanced propaganda machine that comprised six central media production and distribution outlets and 33 regional bureaus. But it wasn’t simply the group’s ability to produce a wealth of content that factored into its growth. As Milton writes in his study, the propaganda’s “diverse array of themes” offer a “likely explanation” for its “ability to attract such a diverse group of fighters and supporters from around the world.”
Lesaca identified four central themes in IS video propaganda: interviews with terrorists, success in battle, good governance, and theatrical violence. (The CTC study identified similar themes across the group’s media propaganda, plus two more: “commercial” and “lifestyle.”)
Theatrical violence may be the theme associated with IS in the minds of most readers, thanks in large part to the infamous video of the 2014 execution of journalist James Foley, which doubled as the group’s entrée to the world outside of Syria and Iraq. But Lesaca found it accounted for a smaller share of the group’s video output from January 2014 to September 2016, only 15 percent on average. In fact, good governance and interviews with IS militants accounted for more than half of the group’s videos on average, his research found.
The CTC study uncovered similar trends. Many of the group’s videos and other visual media depicted soldiers holding hands with children, friends swimming together in a river, or men preaching the greatness of IS philosophy before huddled masses. Much in the way a vacation ad for Disney World appears like a great idea at 1 a.m. on Sunday to worn-out young parents, these videos were meant to seduce disenfranchised young men and women searching for an alternative. Put simply, IS was selling something greater than a brand of terror; it was selling the appearance of a functional and thriving nation-state.
As the U.S.–backed Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga coalition encircle the IS stronghold city of Mosul — where the group’s leader first announced the caliphate — and as it loses symbolic territory like Dabiq, the town where IS prophecy holds an apocalyptic battle will take place, IS’ key message of governance increasingly rings hollow. As a result, its once utopian vision, however manufactured, has trended back toward the apocalyptic.
Lesaca’s research noted a move away from narratives of hopeful state-building and governance to the more sensational scenes of war and sadism for which the group first drew global attention. Battlefield and execution scenes accounted for 18 of the 24 videos IS released in August and 12 of the 20 it put out in September.
“September saw one of the highest ever amount of on-camera execution videos by ISIS since it started this macabre practice,” said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a researcher at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “So it certainly does appear that the focus has shifted to more violent, militant imagery.”
Lesaca said the group is simply getting practical. “They need to keep doing propaganda, but they only have resources to do what they’re doing,” he said.
IS released only nine videos in October, Lesaca said, seven of which comprised scenes of battles or executions. The recent territorial setbacks have prompted experts and military personnel to undertake the intellectual exercise of exploring what IS propaganda might look like post-caliphate.
“ISIS attracts recruits through positive messaging about defending its existence,” Meleagrou-Hitchens said. “If it loses the ability to make these claims in the future, the effectiveness of its messaging will likely be severely weakened.”
But Milton cautions those eager to advertise the group’s total demise. “Although the propaganda has declined as of late, the Islamic State is still a potent player on the ground and in cyberspace,” he said.
IS is already attempting to put forth a digital narrative that is durable enough to withstand its losses on the ground. “They’re preparing for defeat in Mosul and Raqqa,” Scott Atran, senior research fellow at Oxford University, said. He cited recent shifting propaganda that presents current ground defeats as “temporary” while bolstering the belief that the caliphate will survive “in the hearts of the coming generation.”
Revkin made a similar, if more skeptical, observation: “Its media apparatus does not depend on territorial control, and IS propagandists are already trying to spin recent and future military losses as merely a temporary retreat on the path to eventual victory.”
But she questioned the group’s ability to continue courting new recruits and retain existing ones amid a withering and potentially “stateless” caliphate, especially as alternate, strengthening terror groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan capture new territory. Revkin relayed a recent conversation she had with a former IS member in Turkey who was planning to join JFS. “It’s the new IS,” he told her.