As its territorial control dwindles, the Islamic State will likely rely on its media network to retain support among Sunni Muslims locally and globally. Despite significant losses among its media cadre, the network remains resilient and continues to publish new propaganda. The Islamic State appears intent on following a strategy of insurgency in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, coupled with a worldwide terror campaign against Western interests, as evidenced by recent attacks by sympathizers in Europe and the United States. Reflecting this strategic shift, a new 'long-war' narrative is emerging in Islamic State propaganda that portends the media network's future trajectory. (a) This narrative incorporates the following themes that are likely to be featured in the future:
* The Islamic State is embarked on a long guerrilla war of attrition in which ultimate victory is guaranteed by God. Territorial control is not necessarily important.
* Attacks against coalition and local forces, particularly in Iraq and Syria, will be highlighted to portray an unrelenting insurgent campaign.
* The Islamic State's presence in other regions, such as Yemen and the Philippines, shows that it retains global appeal and cannot be defeated.
* Supporters should make hijrah to more accessible areas, such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. (b)
* The coalition will become exhausted and leave Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State will rise again and be unstoppable.
* Continuation of calls for terror attacks in the West and the provision of attack guidance. Every attack--even failed attacks--will likely be publicized to maintain the appearance of an unceasing campaign.
* The Islamic State is the vanguard of Islam and the only group that will defend Sunnis against oppression.
* Sunni Muslims are under attack by apostate sects that seek to oppress and annihilate them in Iraq and Syria. Alleged atrocities by local forces in liberated areas will likely receive great emphasis.
* Cooperation with regional governments or coalition-backed forces will lead to the subjugation of Sunnis by sectarian adversaries. Sunni tribal militias that fight or collaborate against the Islamic State are traitors and will be dealt with accordingly unless they repent.
* Allegations of civilian casualties caused by the coalition will continue to be highlighted.
The Long War
The Islamic State's long-war narrative portrays an image of a strong movement headed toward an inevitable victory guaranteed by God. When the group was expanding, its media conveyed images of conquests in Iraq and Syria. Now that the tide has turned against it, the Islamic State claims to be waging a war of attrition in which it will outlast its adversaries. It has shifted to widespread guerrilla operations in much of Iraq and Syria while its forces in other regions continue to operate as guerrillas. In a November 2016 speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stated that God was with those with patience and that the Islamic State, though outnumbered, would prevail in the end. (1) Where once Islamic State media trumpeted reports of battlefield victories, in recent months, simply surviving is heralded as success by the Islamic State. Its propaganda emphasizes that losses of cities or leaders will only strengthen its fighters' resolve. (2) In August 2018, al-Baghdadi cemented this shift in narrative with a speech titled "Give Glad Tidings to the Patient," in which he stated: "The scale of victory or defeat with the mujahedeen, the people of faith and piety, is not tied to a city or a village that was taken." (3) He further remarked that the United States had celebrated its "so-called victory in expelling the [Islamic] State from the cities and countryside in Iraq and Syria, but the land of God is wide and the tides of war change." (4)
Islamic State media now focuses on demonstrating the group's persistence in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and the toll it is inflicting on regional governments and factions. At the peak of the Islamic State's power, its propaganda focused as much on selling the idea of its caliphate as on battlefield developments. (5) Now, the focus is almost exclusively on combat and terror operations. (6) Media outlets provide daily reports of guerrilla operations to make it seem that the Islamic State is inflicting terrible losses on its enemies and demonstrate that local security forces cannot maintain security in liberated areas. Videos show the indoctrination of youths and the training of new generations of fighters. Media products ignore defeats, highlighting instead the capture of minor villages, tactical counterattacks, and attacks against government or sectarian targets. Islamic State propaganda and online supporters discuss how the group previously was thought to have been defeated in Iraq and waged a guerilla campaign until it reemerged and established the caliphate. (7) In February 2018, the Islamic State's Al Naba newsletter announced the group had resumed its "war of attrition" in Libya. (8) Recent media releases have claimed the United States is becoming exhausted by fighting the Islamic State. (9)
Seeking to deflect claims of its decline, the Islamic State maintains the facade of its self-declared caliphate despite no longer controlling a significant amount of territory in Iraq or Syria. It continues to claim divine authority over all Muslims and demands that other Sunni extremist groups accept its leadership. Islamic State media once routinely published idealized pictorials of life in its territory in online montages and monthly magazines like Dabiq and Rumiyah, showing aspects like religious education, governance, agriculture, and charitable activities. Now such pictorials are infrequent, reflecting the loss of much of its territory in Iraq and Syria. The few such products that are released tend to focus on religious celebrations and enforcement of religious laws (like destroying opium plants and cigarettes) rather than economic or governing activities. (c) With its caliphate largely dismantled in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is placing greater emphasis on publicizing operations by branches in other regions, like the Sinai and Afghanistan, to make it seem that it remains powerful and determined to continue a worldwide struggle. For example, in the spring of 2017, the Islamic State trumpeted news of militants aligned with it in the Philippines storming the city of Marawi, publishing videos of its fighters battling government forces there for months. Since 2017, Islamic State propaganda has claimed a resurgence by its branch in Libya and an emerging presence in Somalia by emphasizing operations conducted by its fighters in those countries, even titling Somalia a "wilayah" (province) in its recent releases. (d)
Transitioning to a guerrilla force within Syria and Iraq requires the Islamic State to shore up support among local Sunnis and its fighting force and puts additional pressure on its media wing. Seeking to deter dissent among the populace, Islamic State media publicizes gruesome executions of spies and rebellious tribesmen. (10) Media products are also aimed at maintaining the morale of its fighters and distributed to them by Islamic State media teams. (e) Articles warn fighters against abandoning jihad and implore them to obey their commanders, have patience, and persevere through hardships. (11) Islamic State propaganda tells fighters that true victory lies in attaining paradise through martyrdom rather than controlling cities. (f)
Needing to replenish its ranks, it can be assumed Islamic State media will continue efforts to recruit new fighters. It releases products in a multitude of languages exhorting Muslims to join its caliphate, claiming that hijrah, emigration from non-Muslim lands to the Islamic State, and jihad are obligatory because Muslims are being attacked by the disbelievers. (12) The frequency with which Islamic State media releases products has diminished dramatically since its peak in 2015, with the decline beginning as early as 2016 as the group suffered increasing military setbacks in Iraq and Syria. (13) Media production declined even further as the Islamic State lost much of its territory there in 2017 and early 2018. Even in its diminished capacity, however, it still attempts to attract new members, both foreign and local. Islamic State propaganda still features foreign fighters. (g)...