Dismantling ISIL’s propaganda machine

Efforts to combat ISIL must also include a wider strategy to attack the group’s ownership of powerful symbols.

A mural depicting ISIL''s emblem outside one of the presidential palaces in Tikrit [Getty]
You can't fight an idea with brute force, writes Denselow [Getty]

The killing of some 25 Syrian soldiers in the amphitheatre in Palmyra last weekend was the latest example of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) production of high quality media products that focus on the “theatre of death”.

The executions are part of a slick and professional propaganda campaign that has regularly made global news and have been shared far and wide across social media. 

Mass coordinated and choreographed murders – whether it is homosexuals thrown from rooftops, a Jordanian pilot burnt alive, or the iconic orange jumpsuit decapitations – have allowed ISIL to push out their messages and “brand” far and wide.

The set piece killings, the iconography of using ancient sites, and the use of professionally edited film – all self-distributed and then aggregated by traditional media – is in stark contrast to other aspects of the conflict that continues to destroy Syria. 

Inside Story: ISIL’s tactics in Iraq

ISIL’s fear factor

Airstrikes, barrel bombs, and artillery strikes kill the vast majority of civilians in Syria, but they lack the same fear factor that ISIL’s broadcast executions manage to convey. Why is this?

An airstrike on Aleppo, for example, may be captured by a shaky hand-held camera trying to focus on a fast-moving glint in the sky before a wall of dust descends upon now ubiquitous scenes of rubble and people frantically scrambling for survivors. Mainstream media doesn’t show the horrific injuries or mutilated or crushed dead, and social media lacks the stomach to openly share such carnage. 

If ISIL had traditional press officers, they would be winning awards for the amount of coverage and front page news they’ve secured. As part of their global branding, this has sent ISIL right to the top of the “most dangerous terrorists” list.

It allows the franchise to indoctrinate curious outsiders, and manipulate those already under its control. They can use their constructed narrative to recruit globally and to burnish the fear factor that accompanies the black flag – fear that explains, in part, the propensity of their enemies to lay down their arms and flee before them.

Reinventing the rules  

You can't fight an idea with brute force.


ISIL’s message is only bolstered by Western leaders statements describing how evil they are.

The group are reinventing the rules of the game and are attempting their own version of “Year Zero” for Iraq and Syria in parallel to how the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia in the 1970s.

As propagandists, ISIL are light years ahead of the Syrian regime whose state-run media churns out bland statements from the presidency and appears to be completely detached from the reality of the conflict – as witnessed in their car crash “summer in Syria” campaign.  

Social media has become an echo chamber for ISIL propaganda. At least 46,000 Twitter accounts were actively promoting the work and ideology of ISIL between September and December 2014, according to a new study from the Brookings Institution.

Increasing numbers of articles are exposing the grooming tactics that ISIL uses to draw in recruits, financial and propaganda support. Despite nominally looking to restore a Caliphate of the past, ISIL are pioneers in the tactics of the present.

You can’t fight an idea with brute force. In addition to the live debates in Europe on renaming ISIL to “Daesh” there should be a sustained and organised campaign to remove and ignore the propaganda that ISIL puts out.

Electronic propagandists

The international community is waking-up to this, as reflected by the establishment of a Europe-wide police team which aims to find key figures amongst ISIL’s electronic propagandists who are producing 100,000 tweets daily.

Yet whilst governments can deploy intelligence and criminal apparatus to counter ISIL’s messaging, this needs to be complemented by a wider strategy to attack ISIL’s ownership of powerful symbols.

Instead of being purely reactive and focusing on technical preventative measures, there needs to be a wider and more ambitious fight back against ISIL’s messaging.

An early example of this was launched in the UK today by the “Fightback Starts Here” coalition which includes 100 charities, campaign groups and community organisations, as well as Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh groups.

In addition to civil society boycott of the ISIL’s media products, there needs to be creative, organised and similarly determined efforts to undermine ISIL’s seeming monopoly over symbolism.

At the moment those aligned against ISIL may control the military airspace but they have yet to win the airwaves.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.