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Linear Relationships Between Islamic State’s Extent of Territorial Control and its Visual Messaging Campaign

Linear Relationships Between Islamic State’s Extent of Territorial Control and its Visual Messaging Campaign
3rd November 2020 Dr. Carol Winkler
In Insights

The importance of online media campaigns to non-state, militant groups is difficult to overstate and a folly to ignore. Online media efforts spread information about attack methods (Gill & Corner, 2015; Gill et al, 2017, Gill, Horgan & Deckert, 2014), ideological worldviews (Wignell, Tan & O’Halloran, 2017; Wignell et al., 2017), and societal narratives (Ingram 2017, Kuznar, 2015; Winter 2015). They also define the boundaries of those who should identify with the envisioned community (Bean & Buikema, 2015; Bruscella & Bisel, 2018; Schoenborn & Scherer, 2012; Stohl and Stohl, 2011) in ways that facilitate fundraising (Atwan 2015; Mandaville, 2010), recruitment (Kraidy, 2018; Rudner, 2017), and radicalisation (Precht 2007; Schmid 2015; von Behr et al, 2013).

The potential impact of militant, non-state media campaigns has led to a greater emphasis by scholars on factors that correspond with changes in such group’s media output levels and strategic content. One interaction that has attracted the recent attention of several security scholars is the relationship between the amount of controlled territory of a militant, non-state group and the level of output and nature of content of media campaigns. Territorial control emerges as a critical variable due to the fact that it often functions as an explicit goal of militant, non-state groups either in the short- or long-term.

Despite interest in the topic, scholars lack a consensus view on the relationship between militant, non-state media campaigns and territorial control. Some maintain that a reduction in territorial control leads to reductions of visual content production (Milton 2016, Milton 2018), or in the capacity to consistently produce media content (Lakomy, 2017). Others indicate that the content production and distribution does not depend on territorial resources (Framption, Fisher, & Prucha, 2017). The identified changes in the nature of content changes, while more consistent, still reflect differences in outcomes. Such studies show that territorial declines place a greater focus on lone actors abroad (Wignell et al., 2017), international events and military denialism (Winter, 2018), and far enemies (Cunningham, Everton & Schroeder, 2017).

At least part of the reason for the different findings results from the study methodologies.  Some of the studies depend on data collected over only a few weeks or a few months. Others focus on only periods of extreme territorial gains and losses. Still others confound conceptions of territorial loss with periods of intensified military operations against the group, despite the fact that in some instances, intensified military efforts did not result in territorial losses to militant, non-state groups.

To begin to remedy these shortcomings, researchers at Georgia State University conducted a longitudinal study of Islamic State’s (IS) visual media campaign in the group’s print publications (Kaczkowski, et al., 2020). The study asked two questions: Does a linear relationship exist between IS’s territorial changes and any changes in the volume and/or thematic content in the group’s two non-Arabic online magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah? Do changes in the group’s territorial control also have a linear relationship with the volume and/or thematic content in the images of al-Naba’?

To assess the level of IS’s territorial control, the study extracted information from the Syrian Civil War Map and the IS Map of the Live Universal Awareness Maps because of its consistent updating pattern throughout the period of the study. To assess the visual media campaign, the study involved a content analysis of images in all issues of Dabiq and Rumiyah, and Issues 10-148 of al-Naba’ (a period covering December 2015 until September 2018). The content analysis focused on two central themes:  military (i.e., martrys, IS fighters, non-IS fighters, future military recruited, mixed, non-applicable) and state-building (i.e., social services, law enforcement, markets/currency, state-issued IDs, pristine landscapes, allegiance pledges, propaganda, mixed, not-applicable). Both content analysis categories achieved an inter-coder reliability score of more than 90 percent. The study used linear regressions and follow-up percentage of the number of military and state-building images in the issues over time.

In terms of the volume of visual output, the study found that the amount of territorial control was significantly associated with the number of images in the English-language publications, explaining 29.1 percent of the variance. The linear relationship appeared both in the military images explaining 27.7 percent of the variance and in state-building images explaining 28 percent of the variances. It also found that the amount of territorial control was significantly associated with the total number of images in the Arabic publications, explaining 49.7 percent of the variance. For military images, the extent of territorial control explained 42.3 percent of the variance, and for state-building images, it explained 37.9 percent of the variance. In terms of a long-term trajectory, the study found that declines in territorial control corresponded to declines in IS’s media output. While the group displayed some increases in image output when they began the fight for Mosul, a similar surge did not happen during the battle for Raqqa. The group, did, however, have a short-term surge of images in July of 2018, the month after IS fighters departed from Al-Hajar al-Asawd and the Yarmouk Camp.

In terms of the nature of the visual content displayed, IS shifted from emphasising military images to state-building images in periods of territorial decline in the English and Arabic publications. While the proportional shift occurred in publications put out in both languages, the quantity of state-building images in the Arabic newsletter remained stable across time.

At a recent Monetary Economics and Terrorist Governance Workshop, Ayse Lokmanoglu updated the linear relationship between territorial control and IS’s visual messaging campaign in the specific context of economic-related images. Her study examined the period from July 2014 to April 2020. It found that IS’s use of market and coin images increased during periods of the group’s territorial declines. The finding supports the findings of Kaczkowski, et al. that state-building images have become the visual focus of IS in times of territorial declines.