Propaganda and Technology: ISIS propaganda and how to combat it

Propaganda and Technology:  ISIS propaganda and how to combat it

Andrea Auteri

Dottore in Scienze della Difesa e della Sicurezza, Università degli Studi “Kore” di Enna

ABSTRACT: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made great use of the Internet and online social media sites to spread its message and encourage others, particularly young people, to support the organization; to travel to the Middle East to engage in combat, fighting side-by-side with other jihadists; or to join the group by playing a supporting role, which is often the role carved out for young women who are persuaded to join ISIS. Today, in the field of fighting the ideology of extremism and terrorism, the main concern is that of the vast spreading of propaganda of the "Islamic State" primarily through the Internet. ISIS propaganda is now more frequently aimed at Westerners and more specifically at the “Millennial generation”, spreading i.e. the idea of what the real Salafi Islam is and how to fight and destroy the "unconventional Islam” which takes on board western principles. Clearly, social media has proven to be an extremely valuable tool for the terrorist organization and is perfectly suited for the very audience it intends to target. Increasingly, ISIS’ posts on websites include sophisticated, production-quality videos and images which incorporate visual effects.

Which messages from jihadists induce young Westerners to become involved with the terrorist group? What convinces young people from Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States, many of whom run away from home still in their teens, to leave their homelands to join ISIS on the battlefield? Which risks does a home country face when its nationals communicate and establish relationships with members of ISIS? Could the jihadist social network propaganda machine be shut down? Weighing all factors, is stopping ISIS rhetoric on the Internet the best course of action?  To understand the project, several propaganda documents coming from sources inside the Daesh were analysed to identify the online grooming to recruit Jihadists and the instructions to follow to win respect in the Arabian world.

PAROLE CHIAVE: Islamic State - Jihad – Daesh – Online grooming – Propaganda – Deep Web – Clear Net 

1.    What is Propaganda?

Any systematic attempt to influence public opinion over a vast area is a form of communication which aims at promoting or discouraging specific attitudes as a mean to allow the progression, or destruction, of an organization, an entity or purpose. Propaganda proceeds slowly and with calculated effects; usually it speaks to a mass audience through mass media or to a specific audience. Propaganda is a targeted form of communication intended to influence the emotions, actions and ways of thinking of a "group" through careful selection and manipulation of facts. According to Harold D. Lasswell, propaganda is the realisation of a declaration, intentionally unilateral, pointed to a mass audience. Michael Balfour defined the term "propaganda" as the "art" of persuading people to jump to conclusions without considering the evidence. Historically speaking, propaganda was a powerful tool in conflicts; a negative term associated with half-truths and even lies. The term "propaganda" has been associated with Fascist Germany and the Soviet Union (USSR), where propaganda has been widely used to spread their ideologies. Nowadays, the main powers put, considerably, their trust in the communication tool to achieve the consent of citizens and to obtain their support – especially in times of war. Academics categorise "propaganda" as:

- white: typical of modern democracy, which reports the facts truthfully;

- black: a propaganda that includes false information and half-truths whose sources are counterfeit.

IS (Islamic State) practises black propaganda through specialized media centres located on the territory of the "Islamic state" creating propaganda content (primarily videos and magazines in PDF format). The creation of propaganda materials and translations are carried out by the media center Furat, founded in May 2015. Also, periodically, videos and other materials are produced by the media center Al-Hayat, known as the mouthpiece of the IS, aimed at spreading rhetoric and false news i.e. during their negotiations with Jordan for the release of the captured pilot named Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh, the Caliphate secured the release of this pilot in exchange for the release of prisoners of Jordanian prisons; in the meanwhile, a clip of the pilot burned alive was released. This happened on February 3. The Jordanian Government found out that al-Kasasbeh was killed on January 3, and this would confirm that the IS never planned to release the hostage using the pilot’s homicide as propaganda for grooming young muslims online, on the deep web. On June 28, 2014, a State project developped by a strict administration able to establish itself, for an unlimited period, by a totalitarian ideology of the territory and population was put in place. Islamist propaganda contents are regularly removed from social networks, which is why the employees of the media structures of the Islamic State are forced to upload propaganda materials to various file-sharing services and to cloud storage, thereby facilitating the group's distribution of video material (propaganda materials can therefore always be found on file sharing, and employees can upload them again on social networks after their removal).

Once the new situation was formalised after the Mosul and Tikrit Conquest, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of the IS Organization, proclaimed himself Caliph of Maghreb, Iraq and Levante and the Prince of the Faithful, being a political and theological authority over all Muslims from all over the world and the Islamic Ummah, corrupted by an unorthodox and heretic Islam. Villages and cities, hit by the Daesh tsunami, were shaken by Edicts of the Caliph which contemplate decapitations, amputations, crucifixions towards thieves, Shi’a traitors and religious minorities such as Christians and Jewish. Ideologically, the IS is coming like a successor of a tradition: the Jihad tradition. The advent of the Caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who has the title of Caliph Ibrahim) acts as a sort of response to the jihadist movement failure which has allowed the creation of a "hypocrite project". The Caliphate ambition, as previously said, doesn't focus only on jihad but chooses to consolidate the entire community of the faithful under a single Muslim identity. This must be a system that, satisfying the community needs, is intended to change society and educate future generations on the Koran’s law precepts, to enable them to get away from the damaging dependency on the West, Arabian nationalism and tribalism. The ambiguity of the Sunni-Islamic world produces a lot of doubts about the legitimacy of this leader, who proclaimed himself Caliph: indeed, Husayn Shrine, Karbala's Imam, on the one hand accuses Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi of having distorted the Koran and having no legitimacy in calling for the continuity of the Prophet; but, on the other hand, he considers him an interpreter of Islam who, despite the violence and barbarity perpetrated on his own brothers, represents the core of the faith. This ambiguity of the Sunni-Islamic world and the folk, jihadists and foreign fighters support shows how the coming of IS might be the opportunity to reunify the Islamic Ummah into the al-Sham and to delete those geographical borders imposed during the post-colonial period. Determining all those evils which affect muslims and using the Mohammed Arabian reign and nostalgia for the four Just Caliphs with the support of an impactful rhetoric, he proposes a single solution: devotion to IS that will bring salvation to all men who will pin all hopes and faith on this dystopic project.

Redefining the concepts of "terrorism” and of all the actions that the "good Muslim" must take during his life on earth, Al-Baghdadi provides a dogmatic political program that, as if it was a Grundnorm, is imposed on the Universal Ummah, inviting all muslims (worthy of taking part in the ISIS project) to follow the Hijrah and enroll in this jihad from whatever corner of the world. Islam, by dividing the world between Islam Home (land of muslims) and War Home (land of non-Muslims), emphasises a spiritual focus of fundamental importance: living in peace and unity with the world. The Koran guides its followers and exhorts them «not to kill, because doing this the Will of Allah, that have made sacred the gift of life, will be denied». However, according to some schools of thought, power and violent actions are admitted and considered necessary to defend the faithful. Salafists, for example, refer to the offensive jihad and consider it legitimate to revive military and political skills with the intention of confirming the purity of Islam.

2.    A Case-Study

To understand the objective of the project of the "faithful's Prince" there are a lot of propaganda documents on DarkNet[1] coming from sources inside the Daesh, in which the life into the Islamic Caliphate to recruit Jihadists and to win respect in the Arabian world is emphasised. One of the most important IS propaganda documents is “The Islamic State. A reality that we would like to talk to you”, a sort of guide to join the Black Caliphate jihad. It is therefore important to understand how the IS propaganda works by analysing the opportunities offered by the Black Caliphate to young men and women in this document.

Men begin to study Shari’ah and jihad’s principles since the age of 6 to become Ansar, warriors of IS’s jihad. At the age of 9 they are ready to join the army training that includes shooting training (with pistols, assault rifles and rocket launcher), chemical lessons to understand, for example, how to build a bomb and social communication aimed at eluding, for examples, the airport security. Boys, at the age of 13, become Ansar by killing a prisoner; only when they accomplish this, they are acknowledged as men. The promise of Paradise, The Garden, for killing others isn’t present in the Torah but it is strictly an IS concept.

Women are another matter. Indeed, there are are two types of women, according to IS propaganda:

·      Ansar’s Wives, the Angels of dal al-Islam. Usually, they are not natives of IS. They get married at the age of 16 and should lead sedentary lives as mothers, as per the female manifestos: “It is always preferable for a woman to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil,” and “stay away from beauty salons and fashion boutiques”. They are recruited by the female Hisba from social network on the clear net to the DN forum, with the promise of a life full of excitements and adventures.

·      Female HISBA police. They start studying at the age of 7 the Shari’ah, Quranic Arabic and science. From 10 to 12, they learn about laws on marriage. Girls between ages 13 and 15 become female Hisba police officers, which govern day-to-day Islamic life and supervise Ansar’s wives.

3.    The online grooming strategy

The Islamic State operates in each of the most popular social networks as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. According to Pew Research Centre’s Social Networking Fact Sheet, 89% of adults aged 18-29 use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and even YouTube, in order to allow ISIS propaganda to reach across the globe in real time. The grooming process used by ISIS in recruiting teenage girls over the Internet is analogous to the tactics used by online predators. A paedophile gains the trust of the victim over time and persuades the victim to keep the relationship secret. “When the time is right he convinces the child to leave her family and join him. The process is identical in radicalization by ISIS.” With the rising number of young people being lured into joining the extremists, Anwar argues that the problem should be regarded as a child protection issue. For the most part, officials have not disclosed how they have come to identify many of the would-be ISIS recruits, stopping them at airports as they are attempting to leave the country. It is possible, though, that authorities are tracking communications between ISIS and the foreigners who are “following” them, and perhaps even more likely, posing as ISIS members or ISIS supporters to draw in followers[2]. This approach seems quite reasonable. The IS is well-known for its gruesome videos. This strategy is repeated in their online strategy, for example, using Twitter and the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS[3] to ensure the highest visibility. A procedure such as beheading arouses shock of terror and fear in any person who “considers the human body desecration more terrifying than an atomic holocaust”. The jihadists’ aim is to appeal to the second and third generations of Western Muslims (with a common feeling of marginalisation caused by unemployment, illiteracy and lack of welfare from the State) suggesting a sort of "return to the origins" and a common affiliation to something great destined to remain popular forever and ever. A small group of these third generation muslims (often implicated in drug possession and illegal arms trafficking) has been prisoned. In jail, they met a lot of muslims prisoners returning from a very long imprisonment period. These muslims, after a gangster life experiment and after many years of imprisonment, felt alienated by drugs and band culture, elements that were against their religion. This identity crisis has stimulated, in this Muslim generation, the need to rediscover their own religion and origins. Compared to the first-generation Islam interpretation (more educational and pacific), this new generation would have started studying the life of Allah, of Muhammad and the greatness of the Arabian empire, comparing their condition with the social situation and scenery proposed by Europe. This study has permitted a qualitative development of the third Muslim generation and this development enabled them to "see the world" from a fresh perspective: unlike the previous generations, the "homecoming" and "seeing the world" through the eyes of the global Ummah has become the new aim of this third muslims generation. Aided by the lack of school and religious education, the lexical approach of the IS attracts approval to legitimise the brutalities perpetrated against those who repudiate the legitimacy of Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Khilafa.

4.    Results from the IS propaganda

According to Fred Donner, the intelligence of Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in building consensus, lies in the cyclic and nostalgic reference to a territory governed by the radical sharia, such as the Salafists wished for, managed by a Caliphate; when his project comes to an end, the Halal Caliphate supported by the Khalifa Al-Baghdadi, will become the unique and legitimate Ummah agent and proponent of “sha' Allah” (the Allah will). The consent doesn’t arrive only from kufr but also from the faithful inside the Ummah. In fact, the IS maximizes all resources to help population and every territorial conquest and wealth are used to guarantee the correct functioning of the public space.

     Every scenario in which the Caliphate was overthrown evokes a sense of upset of balance because the coherent management and control of the public space and Ummah is replaced by a dominion of apostate rulers who don’t adopt the “law of Allah” and Shari’ah principles, taking advantage of Muslims resources and wealth to satisfy their own profits. For example, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi accuses the West of having donated Egyptian gas to the Zionists. The al-Dawla al-Islamiyya was established to give back to Muslims what is rightfully theirs; the IS defines itself as a revolution with the “help” of the Koran, Sunnah and Tawhid under the permission of Allah. War, violence and the high misinformation from the Islamic Caliphate prevent an understandable vision of what is really going on. According to a UN Report[4] many Syrian citizens, who considered the IS and its politics unlawful, didn’t understand the situation until the IS soldiers arrived intending to vacate the area from Western evil forces. Thanks to this type of propaganda, the Caliph presents himself as an “innocent muslims liberator”. The reiteration of this concept is used to amplify the message. The self-proclaimed Caliph, exhorts all Muslims “to get their hands on the guns” giving them a purpose: this is a crucial point because Al-Baghdadi triggered a cognitive process that persuades the soldiers of Allah to believe that everything is in their hands and only by their work will it be possible to restore and purify Islam.

     This type of rhetoric increases Al-Baghdadi’s power and charisma. The development and success of the IS organisation have contributed to increase Al-Baghdadi’s self-assurance, persuading him to declare publicly, like a Caliph legitimised by Ummah, that he is the only one and only to have the authority to create an Islamic State as established by the "prophecy" of a restored caliphate. Into the organisation of the Islamic Caliphate, the process of approval and consensus doesn't take shape by only the Jihad "call" and a type of propaganda called "political-dogmatic": to reinforce his own supremacy and the Khilafa crucial institution for his IS building project, the Faithful Prince resorts to an extreme violence justified by references to the first followers of Mohammed the prophet followers and successes on the battlefield abundantly promoted attracting thousands of new recruits by the use of a vocabulary called "a hook".

Propagating Islamic knowledge, correcting people’s comprehension of Islamic religion and explaining the truth: these are the main targets of IS policy. For this reason, learned sages and du’āt, of the Islamic State strive to clarify the Prophet’s truth methodology. This State project led to the creation of a central administration which consists of 16 ministries reproduced in every Caliphate territory under the authority of an Emir. Their general principles are divided among several rules and regulations that discipline everything (from militaries to the economic, social, cultural and politics organisation). The success of this feat denies the Western and Arabian countries idea that deems the Islamic Caliphate as a sort of Al Qaeda "living dead", and so, destined to failure. During November 2015, the US President admitted his own error in underestimating the enemy; the jihadist group, now, dominates a third of Syria and Iraq and a population of nearly ten million. This group has come into possession of a "financial manna" and natural resources that make this "group" the richest terrorist organisation in the world.

5.    Conclusion

The Internet has the potential to provide information to people and to unite society while at the same time remaining susceptible to misinformation and exploitation. The IS, thanks to their redundant propaganda, captures the interest of the youngest muslims, inciting them against civilians as a final and cleansing solution against unfaithful. Young people are sensitive to be attracted by the IS propaganda and unfortunately, it is a losing battle to shut down every Twitter account operated by suspected terrorists, delete their Facebook accounts, or take down YouTube videos posted by ISIS, unless the content specifically violates those platforms’ Terms of Service. On one side, their frightening videos and movies are constantly suppressed but, on the other hand, they go viral and get thousands of views. Indeed, their strength is the number of views on social networks, the reposts and shares which create a situation of “Whack a Mole” (as soon as one account is shut down, there’s another popping up) foreclosing every possibility to understand what Islam actually is and what not. In addition, the social vision of the Islamic world that, usually, associates the paternity of barbarian and cruel acts to Islam is aggravating the situation. In fact, associating an idea of Islam to the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi IS project is wrong because, as proven in this essay, one can notice that the Caliphate, although in their extremist forms, is a typic Islamic public law phenomena. If the purpose is to understand the IS, it is necessary to understand and explain, rather than judge, what "Islamic" really means. This implies a sort of neutrality, to be understood in an "hermeneutic" vision: saying that the Caliphate is an Islamic phenomenon doesn't mean that Islam is to be condemned, because it is as saying that Fascist Germany and the Nazism are a European phenomenon, implying a conviction of the entire West.

The best option against this phenomenon is the appropriate use of counterpropaganda that should not in any way turn into propaganda that fuels interest in the "Islamic state" or islamophobia, but should create instead an interesting background spreading awareness of the IS danger by addressing to susceptible people a disenchantment of the Islamist radicalization, spreading the halal Islamic principles. In conclusion, Islamophobia cannot be fought using simplified and reductive visions of Islam because doing this would bring us to think on one hand to a strictly warmongering culture and on the other hand to a "religion of peace". We are in front of a complex and structured culture. The dialogue with this culture needs to be improved on strong and solid bases and with an open mind.


AL-RAZIQ, Islam and the foundations of Governance, New York, Russell&Russell, 1968.

BALFOUR, Propaganda in War, 1939-1945, Oxford, Faber and Faber, 1979.

HORGAN, The Psychology of Terrorism – Political Violence, London, Routledge, 2015.

LASSWELL, Propaganda Technique in the World War, Eastford, Martino Publishing, 2013.

MANDAVILLE, Global Political Islam, Londra, Routledge, 2007.

TAYLOR; GAUCHET, The Disenchantment of the World: a Political History of Religion, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1997.

Website citations

BAKER, The Islamic State ’s Use of Online Social Media, Military Cyber Affairs,, 2015.

BERSON, Grooming Cybervictims: The Psychosocial Effects of Online Exploitation for Youth, University of South Florida,, 2016

BOGHDART, Defeating the Islamic State: The Economic Campaign, The Washington Institute, 2016

CORERA, What is the dark web and is it a threat?, BBC Guides,, 2014

DONNER, What ISIS's Leader Really Wants, New Republic,, 2014.

GHOUSE, Degrade and Destroy IS, The Huffington Post,, 2015.

NABIL, A major campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant "Daesh", Akhbarak,, 2015

PEW RESEARCH CENTER, «Social Media Fact Sheet», Pew Research Center – Internet&Technology,, 2017

SBAILÒ, «126 studiosi musulmani contro l’ISIS», Alexis. Mediterranean Journal of Law and Economics,, 2015.

SHERLOCK, «Inside the leadership of Islamic State: how the new 'caliphate' is run», The Telegraph,, 2015.

[1] The BBC defines the Dark Net as anonymous, virtually untraceable global networks used by political activists and criminals alike. The Dark Net is a “new” generation network inside the Deep Web, the old internet Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). The Dark Net, is the large part of the Internet hosted by the «Onion domain host» that is inaccessible to conventional search engines.

[2] This “impersonation” tactic is like the Dateline NBC feature, “To Catch a Predator,” in which child sex predators were rooted out on the Internet by authorities who—in online chat rooms—pretended to be underage girls or boys who had agreed to meet adults (the suspected predators) for sex


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