The strategic use of communication in Daesh


In the last two years Daesh has gradually gained prominence as leading group within the international jihadist scene. Beside the territory it has progressively conquered in Syria and Iraq, its wise use of media has played a crucial role when it comes to spreading a winning image of jihadism throughout the world. The restoration of such an institution as the Caliphate, established on 29th June 2014, was definitely the result of the precise purpose of reviving the ancient glories of a memorable past as opposed to the present moment which is currently facing heavy value, political and economic difficulties not only in Syria and Iraq, but also, more generally, throughout the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern region.   

Daesh’s propaganda apparatus

Daesh’s foundations rest on a propaganda system based on a well-defined and well-constructed organisation that makes it the most complex communication tool ever developed by a terrorist group. Upon closer examination, this structure responds to the basic need to further legitimate the state pattern that the Caliphate demands for the territory under its control. Unlike the other jihadism-inspired groups, Daesh clearly tends to nationalise and to directly manage the conquered regions through both an administrative and welfare network, so that its control can be uniform and centralised. Even this state structure shows how propaganda is a top priority item. Of all state departments, Communication Department benefits from a crucial focus, as evidenced above all by the subsidies it is granted. A sort of military structure has been enforced within the propaganda apparatus, where the highest authorities not only manage hundreds of video producers, publishers and operators but are also involved in strategic decision-making processes and in land management issues. Therefore, the top authorities of the communication sector hold top level offices within the administrative hierarchy and their wages are much higher than militiamen’s: “virtual” fighters have got to more prominent strategic positions than “physical” fighters have on battlefields. Thanks to the stocks of cameras, PCs and all necessary technical tools available and that are continuously supplied mainly from the porous Turkish boundaries, communication representatives are constantly engaged in shooting fighting scenes, public executions as well as all the activities which political and administrative officers are entrusted with by the Caliphate. According to the addressees and the messages that are to be transmitted, the shooting location becomes a movie set where fighters, executioners and administrative personnel must strictly follow a real script. This modus operandi responds to the need for a veritable communication strategy which can reach as many people as possible. Every video aims to capture different sensitivity levels that can interpret images in different manners. In this way, for instance, a video showing an execution by decapitation can cause a feeling of strong fear or can hint at an extremely powerful Caliphate, according to the interpretation schemes of the spectators. These communicative skills imply a high level of knowledge about how media tools can be used and they are the result of careful and intense technical activities. The analyses carried out by several IT experts on a high number of web videos by DAESH have shown that wise scenography designing skills are used to cautiously define light effects and sounds and to arrange characters in the scene.    


Even though videos represent the most important component of the wide propaganda operation the Caliphate has implemented, DAESH’s communication representatives have developed other ways to spread their ideas and, among others, the online magazine Dabiq has gained prominence. Published for the first time in July 2014 with the revealing title «The return of the Caliphate», it is now published on a monthly basis and it is available in several languages. Here again, the title of this magazine complies with the communication strategy designed by Daesh’s communication representatives and revives a number of symbolic remembrances. Dabiq seems to refer to the town having the same name located in Northern Syria which Prophet Muhammad mentions in one of his hadith as the future battlefield where Christian and Muslim armies will fight one against the other. This magazine features the same structure of any Western magazine, but the analysis of its contents highlights its specific purposes. Daesh’s needs for legitimation are satisfied when the magazine deals with the work initially led by al-Baghdadi along the red thread of the Holy War and of the fight against the infidels. In addition, and this is a totally brand-new element, the pages of Dabiq spread a message aimed at attracting not only potential young recruits but also women who can possibly become the new citizens of the Caliphate. It’s no surprise that Dabiq’s publishing line definitely aims to transmit an image of safety and stability within the territory under Daesh’s control.   

Broadcasting tools: social networking and home entertainment

As already mentioned, the Islamic State does not only use its remarkable propaganda skills in the elaboration phase, but, above all, during the broadcasting phase of its materials. From this point of view, social networks such as Twitter, Telegram and YouTube, that are part of our daily lives, have become the most powerful weapons jihadists are equipped with, a real “arsenal” available to propaganda to  reach potential followers daily. Therefore, upon closer examination, the use of the new communication technologies has greatly and positively influenced Daesh’s skills and action methods outside its boundaries and has increased the number of recruits and supporters throughout the world in a very short time. Special reference is made to the phenomenon of the so-called “foreign fighters” who are the young fighters coming from neither Syria nor Iraq, but from other countries, such as the Gulf Monarchies, Northern Africa, Russia and Europe. The fighters coming from Western countries are the children of second- or third-generation immigrants who decide to go to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh’s ranks. These guys very often live in highly-deteriorated economic and cultural contexts where the propaganda from the Islamic State has proven to take root very easy. In particular, as the notorious events of Paris on last 13th November and Brussels on last 22nd March showed, militia can now exploit young guys who face discomforts to their purposes and send a message of unsafety and global terror unveiling all the limitations of security forces against the terrorist threat. From this last point of view, the terrorist attacks in Europe have again brought to light the remarkable skills of Daesh’s Communication Department in spreading their materials through channels that European security forces and intelligence can hardly trace. The attacks have also underlined Daesh’s capacity in escaping the control systems implemented by social media providers against accounts that could be traced back to jihadist militants. Daesh’s propaganda is getting more and more agile in the space of the so-called “deep web” which can be used through specific navigation tools and chat rooms on encrypted channels, such as those of the home entertainment platforms for Playstation or Xbox.


In conclusion, the wide use that the Islamic State makes of propaganda shows that it is necessary to diversify the strategies to fight its threats. The match against the Islamic State features more and more multiple levels, from battlefields, to the web and to the most deteriorated suburbs. At this purpose, all governments engaged in the fight against Daesh should launch a strategy not only to diplomatically and militarily respond to it , but also to implement both more forceful policies against Daesh’s proselitism activities through the web and welfare programmes with the aim of rehabilitating those people who are more vulnerable to Daesh and to its ability to turn exclusion from surrounding realities into a well-defined purpose in life.

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