By Jan Stehlík
“Don’t think I am just talking, for such a thing existed once before, a long, long time ago. It was called the Sun State.”
– Spartacus addressing the crowd. Arthur Koestler (1938): The Gladiators.
With European governments now dealing with droves of returning Islamic State fighters, it is a good time to reflect on the extraordinary propaganda machine that attracted thousands of Western European citizens to join the jihadist organization in the first place.
As the self-styled state expanded throughout 2014, seizing territory comparable in size to the United Kingdom, its coffers swelled with income. Some of this war loot was used to build a multi-faceted media organization tasked with the dissemination of the nascent state’s message around the world and the recruitment of even more foreign fighters.
In many respects, the group’s recruitment methods in Europe echoed established propaganda strategies, but with new twists.
To gain notoriety, Islamic State used shocking images of torture and executions. Violent images have long been central to war propaganda, of course, but the group tried to surpass the competition, so to speak, by using a variety of gruesome execution methods and appealing specifically to Western audiences. The resulting content helped the group to dominate the headlines.
For persuasion, the group used the old trick of justifying military operations and political positioning by recourse to Islamic discourse. Like other jihadist organizations before it, Islamic State claimed it was fulfilling a “neglected duty” in reclaiming paradise lost.
However, unlike the competition, the group was not willing to wait for an opportunity to strike before building its utopia. Instead, it proclaimed the Caliphate in the here and now. The proclamation then framed its call on all “true” Muslims to undertake the hijrah (migration) to the Caliphate as soon as they were able to. The appeal was not to fighters alone – doctors, engineers, scholars and other professionals were also called.
Alternatively, the group called on Muslims who did not make hijrah to pledge bayah (allegiance) to the self-styled Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and act in support of the movement in their countries of residence.
Here too Islamic State was stretching an old concept to gain an advantage: it portrayed itself as the winner and thus rose above the fray in the eyes of prospective supporters.
The propaganda was further distinguished by meticulous attention to detail. The Dabiq magazine, targeted at Western audiences, compared in editorial quality to mainstream periodicals in Europe. Execution videos and other films were captured from multiple angles with professional equipment, cleverly edited and presented in captivating and polished formats.
The quality of this propaganda marked a major break with al-Qaeda, which struggled to meet the expectations of Europeans accustomed to daily exposure to professional graphics. Once again, Islamic State took up an established practice and improved it to gain an advantage.
The inventive spirit of the group’s propaganda effort can also be seen in the use of online social media. Twitter and Facebook allowed Islamic State operatives to distribute thousands of short but memorable messages to the wider public on a daily basis. Bots and mobile apps were used to boost reach. Content publication was carefully timed and coordinated to maximize impact. Language hurdles were overcome with regular streams of content appearing in French, German and other languages alongside English. As a result, the group quickly took over existing Islamist extremist channels and significantly expanded them, creating a growing network of active supporters.
Once attracted, the would-be jihadists were engaged directly via WhatsApp, Telegram and other encrypted services. This enabled the group to draw sympathizers further down the path of radicalization, including the provision of useful advice on how to travel to Iraq and Syria; maintain internal cohesion; and execute operations in real time.
The result? Over 40,000 people flocked to the Islamic State from some 110 countries, with almost 6,000 estimated to have come from Western Europe. The global attraction is without parallel and the number of European foreign fighters is truly ground-breaking.
Of course, they were all sold a lie. The shining dawla (state) on a hill was nothing but an illusion from the very beginning, gift-wrapped and sold on the assumption formulated by William Thomas that if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
The consequences were certainly tangible, and Western European governments must now deal with thousands of combat-hardened returnees in various stages of mental disarray, with some still holding dangerous ideological convictions.
That said, some are not dangerous. Instead, they are disillusioned after witnessing the dark and brutal reality of the pseudo-Caliphate. Their voices can play a key role in eroding Islamic State’s remaining legitimacy and must be amplified. This is crucial when EU member states must do their utmost to discourage the creation of yet another generation of European jihadists. It is also urgent – now is the time to construct networks of disheartened fighters who lost faith in the cause and now defend liberal democracy.
At the same time, internet service providers must be held to account for Islamist extremist content hosted on their platforms. Considerable advances in this field have already been made by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Yet overwhelming amounts of jihadist propaganda remain readily available for mass consumption. Rape and murder, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, is just a click away.
Finally, EU member states must get real about tackling extremism before it turns violent. Islamic State successfully recruited thousands of Europeans because it could tap into existing networks of non-violent extremists who are sympathetic to establishing a shariah-based political order. The accumulated energy was there for the taking, and all that was needed was to unify it under a single banner.
Those networks continue to exist. They will undoubtedly be exploited in much the same way in future unless action is taken not only to discourage violence, but to promote the fundamental values of individual liberty, human dignity and the rule of law, the bedrock of European societies.