What Happens When ISIS Becomes an Online Caliphate?

Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division are photographed with an Islamic State flag, claimed after fighting with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

After the fall of Mosul, devising effective ways to combat Islamic State propaganda will be critically important.

No longer merely against the ropes, the Islamic State is on the canvas. After months of bloody urban warfare, the Islamic State’s uprooting from Mosul represents the latest and most significant blow in an eighteen-month period of disastrous losses. It seems like only a matter of time before the Islamic State loses its already tenuous grip on the Syrian capital of Raqqa. Yet we have been here before. A decade ago, an earlier iteration of the group had appeared decimated by the efforts of coalition forces and the Sunni Awakening. The difference today is that while the Islamic State is indisputably weaker compared to its 2014–15 boom, it is indisputably stronger than after its 2007–08 bust.

Something else that is indisputable: the Islamic State will deploy its propaganda machine to the frontlines of an epic battle for survival and relevance until, once again, the foundations for another resurgence are set and it is ready to ascend the politico-military phases of its campaign strategy. Craig Whiteside and Daniel Milton have clearly shown that loss does not diminish the importance of propaganda in Islamic State’s strategic calculations but accentuates it. Put simply, devising effective ways to combat Islamic State propaganda will be as important as ever.

Recent events in Mosul gifts government, private and civil-society actors with opportunities to strike decisive blows to Islamic State’s propaganda machine. However, precedence shows that certain responses may inadvertently help to shut this narrow window of opportunity. Letting actions and facts “speak for themselves” will create vacuums in the information theater that a battered Islamic State will rush to fill with its propaganda. Equally, seeing strategic communications as a panacea guarantees the types of “say-do” gaps that Islamic State’s propagandists relish exploiting. Yet an overly cautious approach that waits for a perfect strategic-communications strategy to develop on paper will prevent the expedited implementation of an adequate one. Trial and error will not suffice either.

Fortunately, an enormous corpus of multidisciplinary research and cross-sector institutional knowledge exists that can inform strategic-communication efforts. This principle has driven the work of researchers at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in the Hague—including JM Berger, Colin Clarke, Alastair Reed, Craig Whiteside and Charlie Winter. Those researchers have sought to identify trends in violent-extremist propaganda and, upon that basis, develop more effective approaches to CT-CVE strategic communications. For example, a recently published strategic framework for CT-CVE strategic communications—the linkage-based approach—draws on five bodies of research:

Historical analyses of strategic-communication campaigns during conflict, including what worked and why. Indeed, many of these core lessons featured in a previous article for the National Interest.