Click here to read our latest report: Going Dark: The Inverse Relationship between Online and On-the-Ground Pre-offence Behaviours in Targeted Attackers

Islamic State’s Quest for Legitimacy through Contradictory Messaging

Islamic State’s Quest for Legitimacy through Contradictory Messaging
9th February 2022 Sahar Rasoulikolamaki
In Insights

Leveraging upon cyberspace has been a seemingly effortless and integral part of Islamic State’s (IS) tactics since its inception to extend their war far beyond the actual territorial arena, as well as broadcast their messages online. The group has been successful in recruiting fighters from outside its territory. There has also been a lot of encouragement on lone-wolf attacks, which is called a leaderless jihad or individual contribution to the war against the perceived enemies.

Academics across a range of disciplines attempted to provide explanations for IS’s recruitment methods, the role of the Internet and the factors that led to the flow of foreign fighters. In explaining the motivation behind the act of terror, adopting a deterministic view that violence is simply derived from ideology (i.e., sacred texts or cultural experience provide rationale for the individual or collective acts of terror) simplifies a complex web of determinants of terrorist behaviour. Instead, there is a range of other possible factors (besides ideology) that tie events and practices and are equally important. That is the reason why different Islamic movements act differently despite their shared common ideological underpinnings. Critical engagement with terror organisations’ communicative productions and propaganda releases, in turn, is crucial for understanding the contesting (multimodal) discursive means employed by them to offer a desired lens to their intended audience to view events and act in certain ways.

IS’s media outlets as part of their resource mobilisation actively (re)construct meanings and ideological framings through various modes to assemble desired pieces of reality while repressing others in their own interests. Framing processes as part of social movement theory has a great explanatory value in providing prospects in the analysis of the group’s workings. We recently published an article on IS’s dynamics of legitimation and persuasion integrating Social Movement theory with multimodal discourse analysis to build upon the existing research and unpack the group’s conscious communication choices that functioned as a strong magnet in attracting fighters and supporters. Our study focused on IS’s official English-language online magazine, Dabiq, which was active from 2014 to 2016. Dabiq’s circulation has been extensive because its content was, and is still being shared widely through IS-affiliated social media platforms. Their psychological war, so-called media jihad or modern jihadist propaganda, has been an amalgamation of texts and images by which they attempted to manipulate susceptible individuals and facilitate mobilisation.

By employing certain analytical tools provided by Socio-semantic Inventory on the textual and visual representation of social actors and actions, our study unfolded how IS enhanced its status by lionising its jihadists and boasting of their fierceness, yet simultaneously justified its ruthlessness by adopting the language of victimhood, and ultimately how the coexistence of these strategies contributed to increasing visibility and persuading the audience to follow their path.


Throughout Dabiq, the in-group members are predominantly activated and assigned agent roles. IS’s fighters are textually represented as fearless and potent agents who ‘fiercely’ rage upon the perceived hostile enemies. In the similar vein, in the majority of photographs, they are either standing while carrying their guns or pointing up as a sign of triumph or unity among them, or performing an operation, liberating cities, advancing, celebrating, destroying statues, executing or burning enemies or their barracks, capturing enemies or taking them hostages as an act of revenge, or even reading the Quran, and praying. Similarly, the in-group practices are textually embodied as actions using transitive verbs (which require objects), such as to kill, bring down, and fight, with observable and tangible outcomes; whereas only a small number are reactions as mental processes including affective (e.g., feeling, liking, fearing, etc.), cognitive (e.g., thinking, knowing, understanding, etc.), and perceptive processes (e.g., seeing, hearing, etc.). Transitivity foregrounds agency and efficacy in nature and serves as a catalyst in making them more visible and arousing admiration and approval.

In addition, IS strived to gloss over some aspects of reality with regards to its members. In fact, those mujahidin of Islamic State who are killed, injured or imprisoned have rarely been contextualised in Dabiq and their failures are basically backgrounded with the double aim of lionising its fighter and simultaneously representing their opponents as ineffectual. In fact, the casualties are deliberately described or shown as so-called Shuhada or martyrs, which implies their sustenance in the presence of their lord despite their biological destruction. IS’s systematic focus on the beneficial notion of jihad seems like an ideological campaign embedded in the social and political context that provides religious and moral justifications in an attempt to persuade people to become involved for a greater cause such as the afterlife rewards or socio-political gains. Both strategies of excluding its setbacks and losses, and foregrounding martyrdom and divine reward are parts of IS’s motivational framing practice to encourage its adherents not to fear about risking their lives and take actions. Enhancing their status and portraying themselves as a well-discipline army act as a rationale for their call to arms and may eventually facilitates action mobilisation.

Another argument that discloses the group’s endeavour for a positive and powerful self-depiction was the concept of statehood and governance, which was constructed with the intention of establishing community cohesion and further recruitment. Propagating the whole concept of the Islamic State as a nation state (whether geographical or imagined) was an action itself that falls into the strategy of lionisation, by which IS aimed to proclaim statehood for itself with territorial authority and military capacity, and an idealised Islamic society. This involved presenting their capability of offering state-like services to lure people to leave what they call dar-al-kufr or the territory of disbelievers and migrate to Islamic State. Thus, proclaiming the authority of ‘statehood’ and projecting an idyllic image of their governance is another compelling motivational strategy that aimed to foreground the group’s strength and longevity with the intention of legitimation and persuasion. However, with the emergence of territorial losses on the ground, it is to be noted that IS reflected less on the notion of statehood in Dabiq, and eventually shifted their communications more towards building a ‘virtual caliphate’.


Simultaneously, IS has implemented the representational strategy of victimisation to act unimpeachable through passivation. Nonetheless, passivity is not visible with reference to the mujahidin who are fighting at forefronts, but rather, to Islamic state itself as a territory, which is presumably under hostile attacks from far and near enemies. Also, Muslims are mostly described or depicted as reactants to the atrocious enemies and are plagued by the calamities of their attacks and injustice using mental verbs of being angry, grieving, facing, suffering and so on. Therefore, they are represented as vulnerable masses who are presumably in need for protection and liberation.

In sum, IS diagnoses the problem by delineating the existing threats through trumpeting victimhood to trigger the realisation that the need for intervention seems relevant and necessary. They strategically manipulated individuals’ emotions through triggering collective anger as a powerful means of mobilising masses. Furthermore, it also emphasises IS’s moral responsibility to get involved and confront the perceived offenders. Therefore, victimising the masses of Muslims is a propaganda tool that enables the group to justify its extremism through arousing emotional resonance among susceptible individuals, who expect to be treated with fairness and justice. As a prognostic strategy, the group declares jihad as a defensive action or the legitimised (mutual) response to enemies’ assaults against the Muslims. However, merely delineating the problems and the remedies is insufficient to persuade the readers to fight for IS. Therefore, the victimisation narrative is coupled with the lionisation message as the motivational framing. This entails elaborating the rationale and constructing the motive to neutralise the fear of death and impel the potential recruits to engage in the violent actions as well as the divine reward of shahadah (martyrdom) as an appealing religious incentive.


In conclusion, the interplay of the contradictory representational choices, namely lionisation and victimisation in Dabiq has enabled IS to dynamically tailor their narrative towards a diverse range of audience and optimise their propaganda. It is to be noted that their choices of these strategies seem to be in accordance with the circumstances on the ground. As a cost- benefit rationale, they responded logically to opportunities and constraints occurring on the ground and calibrate their narratives accordingly. That is, they constructed their content differently in times of boom when the group was at the peak of its power or during the period of bust when it was struggling with territorial defeats and losses. Hence, the representation of violence may seem fanatical, but it is typically and likely calculatedly deployed with the intention of achieving specific strategic and propagandistic aims.