The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has most likely reestablished itself in Syria, Iraq, and around the Middle East. Despite losing a considerable amount of territory in northern Iraq and central Syria, ISIS very likely remains an underground insurgent threat with the capacity to launch covert attacks in the Middle East. In January 2020, ISIS spokesman Abu Hamzah Al-Quarashi formally called for violent militia attacks on Israel and the United States, posing an external threat to the Middle East and the West. ISIS has probably heighted recruitment of guerrilla soldiers to conduct insurgent operations in Syria, Iraq, and around the Middle East. Free from the financial burden of administering a large state, ISIS may also have access to large funds of illegally seized money, gold, and other illegal monetary assets at their disposal. ISIS may also have access to illegally seized U.S. weapons from the Iraq and Syria conflicts from roughly 2003-2017. Wars against the Islamist State have crippled the Syrian and Iraqi economies and reduced most developed areas of Syria to rubble. Additionally, anti-U.S. protests in Iraq may pose an internal threat to peace in the region. Lastly, ISIS is probably expanding its extensive network of propaganda techniques to bolster recruitment and project power in Iraq and Syria. This paper will assess and analyze the current status of ISIS’s propaganda network.
The Islamic State is primarily located in and operating out of Iraq and Syria, where ISIS has new leadership in the form of radical Islamic cleric Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Al-Qurayshi was appointed to leadership within the Islamic State in October 2019, creating cause for heightened concern for the safety and security of the U.S. On January 27, 2020, ISIS’s social media division, Al-Furqan, posted a 40-minute audio recording on the instant messaging app Telegram (JTTM, 2020). His message was clear: “ISIS is not only surviving, it is also expanding” and “war against its enemies now spans the globe” (JTTM, 2020). Later in the speech, al-Quarayshi called for jihadi insurgents to attack prisons in Syria housing known ISIS members to free them. He goes on to call for “the slaughter of all Jews” and his wish to spread radical Islam “across the world, to Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Sinai, to Libya… (JTTM, 2020).”
ISIS’s agenda as directed by al-Qurayshi is of great concern to the U.S., the Middle East, and the rest of the world that does not agree with the practices of their radical branch of Islam. The prevalence of ISIS propaganda online and on social media has the potential to facilitate a number of dangerous attacks by ISIS members that would greatly increase their strength and numbers. The Defense Times reports over 10,000 ISIS soldiers being held in detention in northern Syria alone (Szuba, 2020). With little over 500 U.S. troops stationed in northern Syria—most of which are falling back into the interior of the country—detentions centers are by and large guarded by Syrian or coalition forces (Szuba, 2020). This intelligence is of low to moderate confidence. After years of fighting with the Islamic State, coalition forces are weakened with less resources at their disposal and may be prone to unsuspected guerilla attacks. As the new defacto leader, al-Qurayshi is tasked with building credibility amongst prospective followers, retaining current followers, and developing avenues for recruitment and expansion. By this token, it is very likely al-Qurayshi is using propaganda tools on the internet and social media to maintain and expand ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and abroad.
There is further concern of retaliation by jihadists towards the U.S. and the West after the U.S. ordered killing of General Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi’s death has rejuvenated the Islamic State who have publicly announced their intentions for attacks as a response to Baghdadi’s assassination (Mekhennet & Warrick, 2019). In his January 2020 speech, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi himself also claimed that the death of al-Baghdadi at the hands of the “infidels” began a “new war” while ordering his men to double their efforts against the enemies of ISIS (JTTM, 2020). Although there are growing concerns of retaliation, ISIS is probably no more powerful in resources or attack power than before Baghdadi’s death; however, the Islamic State’s concern for growth is related to their increasingly prevalent propaganda-based outreach and recruitment programs. The U.S. and countries in the Middle East must remain vigilant in counter-terrorism efforts, as retaliation by means of terrorist attacks or guerilla campaigns may be imminent if we are to believe the rhetoric produced by current ISIS leaders (Mekhennet & Warrick, 2019). Amidst many imagined injustices perpetrated by the U.S. on the Islamic State, the assassination of General al-Baghdadi is very likely potent motivation for ISIS fighters to make attacks on the U.S. and other countries in the Middle East.
The immediate concern regarding ISIS propaganda is the proliferation of the jihadi ideology openly promoted via media outlets readily accessible around the world; most importantly to U.S. citizens and people living in Africa and the Middle East (Breland, 2018). Increasing internet access across Africa and the Middle East has also expanded the digital reach of ISIS’s social media propaganda campaign. ISIS is most likely targeting prospective recruits in these less-developed areas to bolster their numbers and possibly regain lost territory closer to Iraq and Syria. Social media recruitment by ISIS reflect ISIS’s bold propaganda strategies and the openly stated intentions for the Islamic State. A recently released report by the United Nations (UN) suggests that ISIS is currently using social media platforms like Twitter, Telegram, and Google Plus to recruit, radicalize, and coordinate attacks around Africa (Ward, 2018).
Attacks in Africa are of great concern to the U.S., as any territory gained by the Islamic State increases their influence in the region and the total assets at this disposal. Antonia Ward of the Georgetown Security Studies Review reports that 147 million people in Africa and the Middle East have access to the internet, and nearly 93 million are active social media users (Ward, 2018). This intelligence is over moderate confidence. If they lose more territory and suffer military failures in the future, ISIS will most likely continue to use online social media propaganda to improve their image in the public eye and spread their contrived narrative. ISIS’s aggressive recruitment campaign has the potential to reach millions of individuals interested in the Islamic State and is pivotal in making first contact during the early stages of radicalization.
According to a study by Suleyman Ozeren at George Mason University, media is the primary space that public opinion is formed. (Ozeren, 2019). Ozeren et al theorize that media is essentially a platform to project power and influence individual thoughts and identities. Moreover, social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook “highly mediate this identity construction process and allow individuals to communicate with one another without dependence on traditional organizational hierarchies (Ozeren, 2019).” ISIS’s propaganda network has proven adept at overwhelming its social media followers with incredible amounts of visual and textual information advocating their plans to spread their ideology through violence. The goal of these media campaigns is to reach the broadest viewer base possible. This includes Arab and non-Arab people that may be susceptible to indoctrination. One of ISIS’s official media channel, Al-Hayat Media, specifically targets non-Arabic-speaking audiences and distributes materials in several languages, including Turkish and English (Ozeren, 2019). ISIS has made it clear it aims to wage a global war, and they very likely hope to accomplish this by recruiting foreign fighters. The production, translation and dissemination of those resources is aided by volunteers around the world who disseminate the information provided by the Islamic State to ensure it can be viewed by as many people as possible—possibly millions of people (Ozeren, 2019). ISIS’s surprisingly sophisticated network of domestic and foreign propaganda on the internet is especially problematic for the U.S., as it threatens to imbed ISIS sympathizers through the internet and social media.
ISIS’s propaganda system would not operate without money. At its roots, the ISIS propaganda machine is driven by a sophisticated system of funding through several illegal avenues as well as donations. ISIS may still maintain a strong financial status that is similar in structure to that of their Iraqi predecessor, al-Qaeda. ISIS’s loss of territory from 2013 to present has allowed them to focus their monetary power on propaganda activities rather than the administration of a large caliphate and the associated costs that come with it. The major source of ISIS’s current income is the extortion of the region’s oil supply line (Kenner, 2019). ISIS has also been using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin as a means of financing terrorist groups (Katz, 2019).
Anyone can open a Bitcoin address, without providing a name or address, and anonymously send any amount of cryptocurrency to ISIS representatives and authorities can do little to monitor or prevent those transactions (Katz, 2019). Otherwise, most of the organization’s wealth was accumulated during the height of their power around 2013. The Atlantic reports that most of the Islamic State illegal assets are transferred to Turkey. Some of the funds are held in cash by Turkish individuals and some are invested in gold or other legitimate business with the help of a sympathetic middleman who funnels profit to representatives of the Islamic State (Kenner, 2019). This intelligence is of moderate confidence.
In addition to illegally obtained funds, ISIS also receives aid through crowdfunding, which raises funds through internet donors. Donations made to ISIS further distort the distinction between civilians and soldiers, making it very possible ISIS is using ‘donors’ as a system to launder and move money around. The imaginary community online, which supports ISIS combatants morally and financially through peer-to-peer funding platforms such as Facebook’s network and GoFundMe, suggests a stark deviation from traditional organizational structures by terrorist organizations (Grove, 2019). ISIS likely aims to exploit the collapse of the country by funding propaganda and inciting political violence to destabilize the government and sow decent in order to gain power during the chaos. Such violence further weakens the nation and provides more financial opportunities for terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. It is uncertain how much income ISIS generates by crowdsourcing donations.
As of January 2020, a series of large-scale protests in Iraq are advocating for the removal of U.S. and coalition troops from Iraq (Loveluck, 2020). Like in Syria, the situation in Iraq is a perfect breeding ground for ISIS recruiters to indoctrinate and recruit young Arab men against their American oppressors. The tension in Iraq was elevated further after the assassination of Iranian General al-Baghdadi, which lead to an overall anti-U.S. sentiment amongst the Iraqi people. It is uncertain how ISIS is influencing the political turmoil in Iraq, but it is likely they are increasing efforts in their propaganda strategy to exploit the situation to their advantage. Since October 2019—the same year as the ascension of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi—the U.S. has slowly began withdrawing troops from Syria and Iraq, providing less to no resistance to ISIS operatives in those regions. According to the prime minister of Kurdistan Masrour Barzani, ISIS is still managing to carry out up to 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone against security forces and local rivals (Giglio, 2020). According to prime minister Barzani, ISIS is able to thrive due to the persistence of the very issue that precipitated their rise: Syria is in chaos (Giglio, 2020). This intelligence is of high confidence.