The question of IS’s remarkable propaganda success became a topic of major interest for many researchers in the last five years. Namely, it is connected with several factors, including the sophisticated use of social media, the particular type of message it used, momentum gained from the chaos of the Syrian civil war, etc. Nevertheless, it remains unclear how IS managed to gain such overwhelming support in such a short period of time, and how it managed to convince potential recruits to join despite the public demonstration of its brutality.
To understand this, I examined the group’s magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah through the framework of narrative advertising – a type of advertising based on storytelling. The following blog post represents a short summary of my study highlighting the main findings and their possible consequences for counter-terrorist activities.
In recent years, IS has been repeatedly called a brand. If we accept this comparison, it means that like a brand, IS also uses advertising techniques to promote its message and gain new ‘customers’ (i.e. recruits). One of the most effective advertising techniques that a brand can rely on is called narrative advertising.
Its effectiveness is explained by the fact that this type relies on a customer’s emotions. A narrative here is simply a story told by someone to describe a certain event or development. Consequently, narrative advertising tells a story, which allows a customer to envision themselves in the shoes of the advertisement’s character and thus match their experience.
The use of storytelling triggers the process of narrative transportation, which is a mental process in which people become absorbed in a story and thus transported into a narrative world where they temporarily lose access to real world facts. Narrative transportation gives a brand several important benefits, namely it helps to establish an emotional connection between a brand and a customer which leads to warmer feelings and a more favourable evaluation of a brand by a customer.
I argue that IS used this technique in its propaganda i.e. it created stories that helped the group establish a stronger connection with its recruits by appealing to their profound psychological demands and desires. To demonstrate this, I conducted narrative analysis of IS’s magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah and attempted to identify what kinds of stories the group used and to what kinds of potential supporters’ feelings the group tried to appeal.
IS stories and their role in recruitment
The analysis demonstrated that the group consistently used at least four stories in its propaganda:
- Awakening and finding the path to the Khilafah
A Muslim person lives in the West but is constantly suffering; they feel alien there and they are unhappy. But then something great happens – the so-called Caliphate is established. The Caliphate shows them that the West is a sinful place, where people are “filthy” and immoral, and this is why Muslims feel alien: they are “strangers” in this sinful world. That is why they need to move to the Caliphate, a place where they can finally feel at home, as it is pure and welcoming and free of sin.
- Finding the mujahid’s glory
A young Muslim man leaves a land of disbelief (which can be either the West or a Muslim country), travels to the Caliphate, and becomes a mujahid (jihadist fighter). He fights enemies bravely and dies a hero. He becomes a martyr and Allah awards him with jannah (paradise).
- Finding female destiny
A woman is a misfit in her country of residence (usually, it refers to the West), because women there have forgotten their female identity. But in Islamic State, she finds her real feminine destiny and the treatment she deserves.
- Remaining and expanding.
IS is a righteous state, the only goal of which is to protect the believers, and it is being constantly attacked by enemies who want to destroy it. IS fights fiercely, more and more people recognise its status as the protector of believers, and eventually it defeats its enemies.
The stories discussed above have several recurring themes that serve as “hooks” for its followers (i.e. things that grasp their attention and appeal to their inner desires), and facilitate a strong connection between them and the group:
- The feeling of exclusivity and specialness
In all stories, IS strongly emphasises the fact that Muslims, and particularly those Muslims who support the group, are unusual and special, unlike other people. They are better than people in the West and they are better than their fellow Muslims, as they are true believers, unlike those who mix Islamic principles with a Western lifestyle, or who neglect their obligations.
- The moral transformation
In the first three stories, there is a narrative of humiliation and a lack of appreciation that Muslims experience all over the world, particularly in the West. Joining IS in this sense is portrayed as a gateway for this transformation. Muslims are offered a chance to take up the place that they deserve, to take revenge for mistreatment, and also – for particularly special people – to gain the highest reward, jannah.
IS tries to make its followers feel like superheroes who have not just escaped their lives because they were unsatisfied with them and could not adjust to the society they lived in, but were called upon for a special mission, which only they have the power to complete.
- Strength in femininity
This “hook” is about the idea that a woman can maintain her femininity and, at the same time, be powerful. Of course, this is possible outside IS, however for many young Muslim women, there are more obstacles to that: they are often forced to choose whether to adopt Western values, sacrificing some of their cultural and religious norms; or resort to following their traditional role, as required by their family. IS offers them both.
These four “hooks” transmitted through IS’s stories make its followers, in a manner similar to a brand’s customers, absorb the group’s narrative, become fascinated with it, allow themselves to dream about the ideal image that the group offers, and form a strong emotional bond to it. All four “hooks” appeal to the recruits’ psychological needs, such as self-image and self-perception, rather than to their political and/or socio-economic grievances. As with other brands, for some of the people among the group’s target audience, this connection becomes strong enough to make a decision whereby they want to make the story a reality.
From a counter-terrorism perspective, this study shows that unlike many online efforts to counter IS propaganda that are very straightforward and can be limited to an idea such as “don’t join, IS is lying,” IS propaganda is constructed in a much more sophisticated way, and thus requires a more sophisticated response. Appealing to the audience’s logic and rationality works less effectively compared to narrative messages that establish an emotional connection. Counter-terrorism professionals should, therefore, consider using this technique in an effort to produce counter-narratives.