ISIS crisis: Setbacks bring change to media strategy

Dr. Halla Diyab

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Notwithstanding the steady increase in number of Muslims joining the terrorist group ISIS from around the world, the group has started to lose territories on a daily basis. Currently, all its routes are closed and it is unable to stem the heavy loss of life, particularly of its militants currently besieged in Raqqa. This has raised the question whether the group will be forced to change its military strategy, replacing its pattern of offensive warfare with defensive tactics to pick up the pieces of its shattered legacy.

Video in Spanish

Following the surfeit of international media reports on the Barcelona attack, ISIS released a bizarre video, titled ‘The Conquest of Barcelona’ that featured the Spanish-speaking militant Abu Layth al Qurtubi. Wearing battle fatigues and feigning a Che Guevara look, al Qurtubi speaks softly with his lithe frame shown to the waist only. The video shows how the group is reshaping its war rhetoric and its media campaign. With a ‘nasheed’ playing in the background, a Marxist revolutionary look-alike speaks in Spanish to woo new recruits to his cause. This new style of inveigling the impressionable reflects the desperation in the group to regain its popularity among the youth.

Unlike the earlier slick videos, which featured the decapitation of foreign hostages, where the camera used wide angle to then pan a vast horizontal and vertical stretch, this new video restricts itself to just a close-up of the militant and has minimal background music and no graphics. The group seems to be directing the viewer’s attention only to the message being delivered and not to any visuals. Raising a threatening finger, al-Qurtubi seeks to exploit the historical bitterness between the Spanish population and Arabs by invoking the history of the Spanish Inquisition, and its brutality against Muslims. Thus, it introduces a new dimension to the group’s militant discourse. What sets this video apart from its predecessors is the lack of bluster about the group’s globalist outreach and the alternating discourse from issuance of threat to denunciation of so-called tyranny.

The rapid loss of territory for the group has dealt a knockout blow to its propaganda machinery that was once highly effective in garnering global recruits for it.

Dr. Halla Diyab

From ‘hijirah’ to lone wolf

The rapid loss of territory for the group has dealt a knockout blow to its propaganda machinery that was once highly effective in garnering global recruits for it. But with proliferation of stories regarding the lack of security provided to militants from the group and rise in number of deserters, who are now joining rival forces in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing its credibility and popularity at a rapid clip. This situation has brought about a change in the group’s rhetoric as the mission of foreign recruits is now not linked to the performance of the so-called ‘hijra’, but to carrying out terrorist attacks wherever the group’s sympathizers may be. This implies that the group’s legacy and existence is neither connected to fighting on the front-line in Syria or Iraq, nor conditioned with their territorial expansion or loss as al-Qurtabi put it in the video: “The jihadists (sic) can perform jihad (sic) wherever they are and it will be accepted and they will triumph”.

Another change in the group’s strategy lies in its bid to make “new enemies” so that ISIS could create a facade of waging a so-called defensive jihad (i.e. we kill them because they kill and fight us). ‘The Conquest of Barcelona’ video threatens the people of Spain and states that ISIS is now going to attack them to reclaim that country back from the Crusader, even though Spain has never been in any fight with the ISIS. However such rhetoric feeds their mentality of victimization and their refrain is “we will take revenge for your massacre, the one you are carrying out now against the Islamic State.”

Playing the victim card

This marks a departure in the group’s propaganda in that its belligerent rhetoric has now changed to a more sympathy evoking message, highlighting the so-called atrocities and injustices to which Muslims are supposedly being subjected, in order to present the fight for justified and noble reasons.

The use of the indigenous language and local vernacular is another addition to the new radicalisation tactic. Militants featuring in the group’s current crop of videos speak the language of their target audience, not only to attract more foreign recruits but to demonstrate that the group has grown globally in its militant outlook. Loss of territory in the so-called bastion of the Islamic Caliphate has forced the group to redirect its fight to the territory of its foes. Although their videos have become more acerbic and vitriolic in tone, replacing the earlier poetic expressions of nostalgia, ISIS narrative is now replete with symbolism like their seven-minute film “This Fertile Nation” which features two children (Yusef and Abdullah), wherein a 10-year-old American boy threatens Trump that their battle will conclude in his land (the USA).

Nearly destroyed, but not defeated

Although ISIS has failed to prove itself a formidable opponent, its ability to change its tactics, where designated roles and methods of its personnel are not fixed or conventional, but continuously morph and change shape suggests that the ISIS threat is not going to end with the dissolution of its “territory of terror”, but the outreach of its divisive and violent rhetoric will continue to threaten the world.

Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Williams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the British and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who has spoken at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

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