Terrorist Propaganda: Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

1. Introduction.

Terrorists groups Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) have become adept at using propaganda to help spread the message of jihad and to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. Propaganda is used to drive recruitment and to secure funding from those sympathetic to its cause.

2. The internet and its role in propaganda.

When it comes to the internet the use of social media by AQ and IS is of huge significance. Especially for recruitment and the dissemination of propaganda.

IS is at the forefront of recruitment through social media over the last 10 years. So much so that in 2015, it drew in 1000 recruits each month. (source) This was achieved by publishing different forms of propaganda online.

Using social media also allows groups like AQ and IS to bring in funding that is key to their ability to conduct operations and spread their message. The videos posted online are used to inspire potential donors to contribute to the group’s objectives. (source)

It would be a fair assessment to say that AQ and IS are better than states at utilising the power of social media. Because the internet has allowed these groups to be better at utilising social media for the dissemination of propaganda and also the conduct of their intelligence activities.

3. The terrorist propaganda machine – controlling the narrative.

Unquestionably, propaganda plays a significant role in the intelligence work of AQ and IS. It is the mechanism by which they recruit new members and secure funding.

We can describe IS as being a machine for its ability to churn out propaganda materials. (source) This includes videos of attacks against ‘infidels’ and magazines that are published weekly and monthly. Its use of white propaganda is overt. White propaganda is that which does not hide its origin or creator. IS wants those viewing to know who produced it. IS and AQ use propaganda to create several narratives. The narratives they seek to create include:

  • mercy
  • victimhood
  • war or military gains
  • belonging
  • utopianism


IS and AQ’s success stems from the ability to make those who feel isolated, in the communities they live in, feel accepted and that they belong.

The propaganda that IS and AQ produce is successful because it invokes an emotional response. This is to support or vilify. But with publicity, for AQ and IS, there is no such thing as adverse publicity.

4. How the West aides the machine.

Undoubtedly, the West aided in the propaganda that is disseminated by AQ and IS. The West unintentionally feeds these groups with images that they can use in propaganda videos.

Most notably, this was the case with the leaked images of prisoners being abused in the Abu-Ghraib detention facility. IS used these images to legitimise its violent attacks in Iraq. The images leaked from Abu-Ghraib increased IS ability to draw in recruits, framing it as both American aggression and Shiite betrayal.

Terrorists propaganda
Abu Ghraib images (Source)

5. IS: the marketing agency of terrorist propaganda.

We should note that IS shows intelligence that is akin to that of a marketing agency with the group’s ability to create powerful propaganda material. This is acute with including Westerners in its posts online. (source) It used Westerners as both the recipients of cruel actions and the perpetrators.

Using Westerners in its propaganda videos serves two purposes.

  1. The video that showed the execution of James Foley struck fear in the hearts of those who would vilify the group.
  2. It shows potential recruits that they can be an important part of IS as the executioner was British.

The media gave him the nickname Jihadi John. (source) Everything that IS does with its propaganda builds the brand.

We subsequently saw evidence of this brand-building in the Paris attacks of 2015. This was an act of propaganda by deed. (source) The brutal and coordinated attack in Paris showed the world how IS can adapt to its ever-changing circumstances. Because it highlighted to the West that although it was defeating IS militarily in Iraq and Syria, the group could still strike at the heart of Western society.

6. Using the West’s withdrawal for terrorist propaganda.

IS and AQ have used the West’s withdrawal from Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan to push their message out to the world. Both AQ and IS have framed the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan as victories against the infidels. IS in particular frames the withdrawals as America’s unwillingness to stay and fight over the long term. (source) However, IS also took this opportunity to reignite its dispute with the Taliban, accusing them in multiple propaganda pieces of abandoning the true jihad.

Furthermore, AQ, on the day of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, produced several propaganda pieces. It praised the Afghan people, the Taliban and its leaders for a decisive victory of the US. AQ congratulated the Taliban on its steadfastness on the ‘path of jihad and martyrdom’. (source)

7. Islamic State and emojis in terrorist propaganda.

IS have become increasing clever at using the internet and social media to spread its online presence and propaganda. The group’s latest tactic has been to use emojis on social media platforms such as Facebook. (source) This is to get around the tight restrictions that Facebook put on content and descriptions associated with the content. For example, IS is using emojis instead of words like “bomb” or “explosion”. This allows them for a while to get around the stringent rules that Facebook places on content. The goal is to maintain an online presence without being caught.

8. India’s political climate and terrorist propaganda.

Following the scandal in India in which prominent members of the ruling BJP insulted the Prophet Muhammed, both IS and AQ used this as an opportunity to send the propaganda wheels into overdrive. As soon as Muslim countries denounced the action of the BJP members, AQIS released a propaganda video. (source) The video released threatens India with attacks by AQIS. It also urges Muslims in India to take up a cultural war in India.

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K) has also used Indian space when publishing propaganda online. It released a 55-page document that targeted the Hindu nationalist movement in India. (source) However, interestingly, it was more focussed on the Taliban, and denouncing its meeting with Indian officials. Although there is no direct link between this IS-K propaganda and the number of recruits, the growing religious tensions in India will probably play a part in the next 12 months.

9. AQ vs Islamic State – terrorist propaganda comparison.

AQ uses several different tactics in its propaganda. First, it plots and executes spectacular attacks against the US. These are designed to gain new followers and increase the beliefs of those who already follow the group and its ideology. The 9/11 attacks were one such event. Here, AQ released a flood of propaganda that was aimed at convincing Muslims that Jihad was an obligation and to follow the AQ banner.

AQ continues to rely on older forms of dissemination on the internet, such as websites and online forums. This makes sense as at the height of its powers in 2001. The first iPod had not been released let alone Facebook and Twitter.  Affiliates of AQ, especially AQAP, are the group behind the magazine Inspire. Have tried to change this approach and has adapted its propaganda to keep up with the proliferation of social media sites.

IS’s meteoric rise to prominence can be attributed to its ability to convince tens of thousands of young men and women to join its ranks. They did this through a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign. IS use of social media to disseminate its propaganda and target young people was a drastic difference between IS and AQ.

IS compared to AQ, rose to power in the age of the smartphone and social media. The group issues propaganda in multiple languages, across multiple social media platforms. Even hijacking social media hashtags like #WorldCup2014 in order to get its message out. (source) It is also reported that IS openly encourage fighters to bring their smartphones with them, so they can distribute its battlefield exploits on social media.

10. Summary.

Ultimately, IS and AQ uses their propaganda machines to disseminate the message of jihad. Both groups do this effectively through video production and clever online tactics to evade detection. AQ and IS have used the West’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and the political climate in India to further the dissemination of propaganda on social media. Both groups effectively use the internet as a tool to exploit. IS and AQ use social media and propaganda to drive recruitment and increase funding in the universal struggle as they see it, between good and evil. (source)

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