Lighting the Path: The Story of the Islamic State’s Media Enterprise
“…[it will be] the new beacon that will light the path of the monotheists, and revive the negligent minds so that they may join the caravan of jihad…” – al Furcan Media, Islamic State of Iraq, October 2009
The Battle for Mosul kicked off earlier in the fall and this campaign to end Islamic State control of the historic city continues. As Patrick Ryan and Patrick Johnston noted recently in War on the Rocks, this will not be the end of the Islamic State movement any more than its defeat in 2007 in the face of the “surge” and the Awakening movement. It is likely that nothing can convince this movement’s core leadership and dedicated members to give up their political vision of achieving the Caliphate. While its products are often examined by analysts for its influence on foreign fighter migration or macabre efforts to terrorize its enemies, the Islamic State’s media department itself is understudied — a remarkable oversight since it was a crucial part of keeping the dream of a Caliphate alive during the dark years of 2008 to 2011.
A number of analysts and scholars who have written for War on the Rocks, including Charlie Winter, Haroro Ingram, and J.M. Berger, have joined an effort by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism– The Hague (ICCT) to examine different aspects of strategic communications in the counter-terrorism field. While some of these writings deal with the new and unique problems that the Islamic State has posed to countries around the world in the social media realm, other recent reports have discussed broader historical trends and the growing influence of white nationalist propaganda. As part of this effort, I co-authored an ICCT report on the history of the Islamic State media department. Our aim was to explain its evolution and growth, key historical figures, and how they innovated to achieve such impressive results.
Without a doubt, the story of the Islamic State media operations is full of intrigue, explosive secrets, and death. And yet, as we struggle to adjust to the bewildering speed of the information age and its daily surprises, we can mistakenly assign too much importance to the role of media organizations in general. The Islamic State understands this dynamic well. Its media men and women can only “light the path” for its followers, not build it. To be successful in the end, the revolutionary movement will have to demonstrate success as a functioning state – something that once again looks increasingly doubtful. With this in mind, I have six main findings to share.
1. They are who they say they are.
More specifically, what the leadership of the Islamic State has learned in their media experimentation is that credibility is imperative in an ideological struggle and to camouflage in any way their doctrine and method (manhaj) would be counterproductive to achieving their political goals. The Islamic State has achieved what many organizations struggle to do: They developed cadres that think enough alike that policymaking, strategy execution, and strategic communication become much simpler when compared to the U.S. government — whose bureaucracies are often more interested in fighting each other than a common foe. For the Islamic State, media releases remain more important than the action they are depicting — a true realization of the concept of propaganda of the deed. The formula is simple: generate a consistent and comprehensive message broadcast in tremendous volume, selling attractive products like stability and order to humans that are craving normalcy in the midst of chaos.
The Islamic State simplifies the world and its complex human interactions for its prospective Sunni constituents: “We are the righteous, upholding the true and prophetic methodology.” “They are the Rafidha (Shia), Salibiyin (crusaders), murtaddin (Sunni not aligned with them), and Jews.” The chief marketers of this message since 2003 have been spokesman steeped and educated in the intricacies of the Salafi trend like Abu Maysara al Iraqi, Muharib al Jubouri, and Abu Mohammad al Adnani. Their job is to bend reality to fit the above narrative.
2. The media department is the special operations of the Islamic State.
The United States has special operations forces that are the best in the world and are especially known for their relentless and global kill-and-capture machine. As one measure of their success, some of their most successful manhunters have ascended to some of the most powerful positions in the military command structure — from Gen. (ret.) Stanley McChrystal commanding U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan to Gen. Joseph Votel commanding U.S. Central Command after leading U.S. Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command. By contrast, the Islamic State puts its most talented commanders into the media department. It is quite remarkable how the movement has always gravitated toward educated professionals with doctorates (Muharib al Jabouri, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, Ahmed al Tai, and Wa’el al Rawi), politically connected leaders from newly coopted insurgent groups (Khaled al Mashadani and Muharib al Jubouri), and future potential emirs (Abu Bakr and al Adnani) to enhance the appeal of its influence campaign, a critical area of revolutionary warfare.
Like U.S. special operations forces, the rapid growth, decentralization, and successful product launches of the Islamic State’s media department have produced an inexorable mission creep for the leadership to manage. Al Adnani’s likely involvement in external terrorist operations is one example of the spreading tentacles of the media department. J.M. Berger’s extensive analysis on Islamic State recruiting and grooming of future members online points toward a fine blending of two functions — recruiting and media — that become hard to peel apart to outside investigators. While an analysis of the recruitment of people from outside of the core territory of the Islamic State is beyond the scope of this report, it is undeniable that disseminating Islamic State products on popular social media sites greatly increase the reach of Islamic State recruiters. The media department’s innovation has most likely inspired new clients (volunteer online recruiters) whose inputs and demands undoubtedly impact and shape future products in a beneficial feedback loop.
3. The media department is the first line of the Islamic State’s operational security.
By 2006, the Islamic State movement had transformed itself into a decentralizing hierarchy and bureaucracy to defeat the massive decapitation campaign opposing it. By dispersing its overly centralized command structure into a provincial-run system with central oversight on certain issues, it could quickly replace leaders taken off the battlefield while still controlling the quality of operations. The media department, as usual — particularly because of its close connection to the leadership — was at the center of this effort.
Growth meant expanded capabilities and increased production for the media department and a measure of resiliency when it lost key personnel or facilities. At the same time, the media was the vulnerability that could lead manhunters back to the leadership who needed to interact with the department for strategic messaging — and such a relationship led to the death of their emir Zarqawi. The Islamic State movement for the most part solved this problem, and early media officials protected their leadership’s identity and often paid the price for this role. Certainly this dynamic has changed little in the recent Islamic State. Al Adnani was making speeches long before Abu Bakr felt it safe to get more exposure, and after the announcement of the Caliphate, it was al Adnani who shared most of the operational level decision-making with Abu Ali al Anbari. Both are now dead, but Abu Bakr is still alive.
4. For the Islamic State media department, experimentation and failure are key to success.
The Islamic State has long been a learning organization. While the Islamic State cannot claim to have invented any of the successful formulas that have contributed to their media success, its process of trying new methods and discarding ones that were unsuccessful would be the envy of a Silicon Valley tech firm.
The use of intense, up-close combat footage, execution videos, martyr farewells, biographies of martyrs, operational summaries, and original music were not invented by the Islamic State. But, each concept has been refined and used in different combinations, in different formats (written or visual), until the media workers and their supervisors were satisfied that they had a product that met the demands of their audience. The ability to mass-produce copies of these formulas is a tribute to the immense structure that accompanied the work of a growing raft of skilled individuals.
Experimentation is most obvious in the way the media department presented the Islamic State to the world. Early on, it leaned heavily on the image of the group as a militant band of brothers focused on maximizing terror in their enemies while shoring up support from its base. Later, the pressure upon the Islamic State to prove that it was a functioning state in the years after 2007 led it to artificially mimic Western and Arab media outlets — an idea that fell flat due to its inauthenticity. New leaders like Abu Muhammad al Adnani and others arrived in 2009, and soon that format was gone, replaced by products with a newer, more exciting tempo, all exemplifying excellence in combat as the true legitimacy of the jihadist.
Today, the Islamic State’s adoption of formerly independent Salafi movements in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have led to the exportation of this expertise in strategic communications, video editing, and branding. The adoption of the new format in producing videos and media releases is a telling sign to the world that a group or a territory is being absorbed by the Islamic State — as seen in the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria or the much improved media productions of the Libyan or the Yemeni Islamic State provinces.
That standard format also generates continuity, and that is valuable for a group intent on creating the impression of an ineluctable historical progression on the path to the Caliphate. The subtle message is that they can keep tolerating military defeats and keep replacing their commanders and soldiers, as long as the stream of official and high quality videos continues unabated.
5. Controlling the message is a goal onto itself.
The Islamic State’s desire to expand required an intensity and quantity of messaging that might have invited failure due to a lack of control. The key question was, and still is, how does the media department increase output from around 1000 releases a year in 2007 to that much in a single month? The biography of Abu Zahra al ‘Isawi illustrated that the editorial workload in 2009 was exhausting for the emir, and that was during a period of declining fortunes and media output. The workload in the current environment must be dizzying.
The media department serves a key role in validating media, disputing fakes, and developing external surrogates who can assist in policing frauds. To maintain control of subordinate franchises, the department must fight the decentralizing effects of the Internet and reconstruct the hierarchy in a new form to be effective in message quality control. One way the central office found to influence its subsidiaries was to set the parameters for ultra-violent videos which were emulated and replicated by lower levels after an appropriate time lag. Much like the “Overton window,” here the media leadership created the boundaries of acceptable levels of violence and justified their use with religious citations, in effect virtually training its subsidiaries according to research by Omar Alhashani. In fact, some of this conforming pressure involves competition between provinces, a dynamic that can be seen in the “top ten” video section of any Dabiq magazine.
6. The media department and the future of the Islamic State.
The leadership of the media department has balanced their presentation of the Caliphate’s institutions and its success in governance with an acknowledgment that their enemies are always plotting against them and that the fighters of the Islamic State are prepared for never-ending insurgency. For every video explaining something esoteric like the fiscal regime of the Islamic State, there is another video from the frontline, complete with suicide bombers driving ad-hoc armored vehicles right out of a science fiction movie. The death of Dr. Wa’el al Rawi (information emir) and Abu Mohammad al Adnani (spokesman), while impactful, will create the opportunity for someone else to manage what has been an outstanding example of an insurgent media enterprise to date, and will most likely continue to be in the future.
There is every indication that the men of the current generation of the Islamic State (since 2010) are more grounded in reality than those in the past (2006 to 2010), and they prefer to present themselves more like a state in progress than the rigid, definitive version of it. This way, they maintain some of the necessary elasticity to face the looming regression to their past of guerrilla fighters and to absorb the inescapable losses of leaders and territory. They will soon readjust their rhetoric, adapting their words to the facts on the ground. Spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani said as much in the last speech before he died, that neither the deaths of key leaders in the past nor temporary defeats would impact the existence of the organization, which would conform to a new environment and fight on.
The larger question after the next defeat of the Islamic State — this time of its Caliphate — will not be about whose media is better, but instead, whose governance is? Will the future political leaders of the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq be able to craft a narrative that is more attractive than the soon to be out “in the desert” Islamic State movement, one that fulfills what Ingram calls the Sunnis’ pragmatic needs for food, water, shelter, and jobs, as well as their perceptual needs related to their identity as the dominant political actors in the Sunni majority areas? Influence campaigns do not produce anything of value in these regards but do craft narratives that speak to which possible solutions could work, as well as narratives that speak to the success or failure of any government’s efforts to provide for their people. In the end, the Islamic State media, or any media for that matter, can only light a path for its followers. It cannot forge it.
Craig Whiteside is a professor for the Naval War College Monterey, and teaches national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a fellow at the ICCT – The Hague, and a member of the counter-terrorism strategic communications project.