Winter Considers Digital ISIS Operations

On April 5, Charlie Winter, Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for Study of Radicalization, gave a lecture on the Islamic State’s doctrine for information warfare. Winter’s research mainly focuses on the propaganda of Islamic States, especially online communication and technology.

Winter began his lecture by giving his audience a bigger picture of the situation. According to Winter, although much of his lecture was going to be about social media, ISIS’ propaganda does not just happen online. In fact, their propaganda offline is potentially more important. Winter made clear that in his lecture, he would discuss the propaganda’s infrastructure, medium and message. His sources include ISIS’ official propaganda, unofficial propaganda, published documents, leaked legislation and interviews.

Winter first talked about the infrastructure of ISIS’ propaganda. According to him, there are three basic features of its operation: it is choreographed, centralized and unspontaneous. ISIS has its central media office and auxiliary offices for the dissemination of information. The content of propaganda, carefully choreographed, includes indoctrination, military training and media access.

ISIS uses as many media outlets as possible. Besides the Internet, they utilize radio, TV, posters, videos, newspapers, magazines, sermons and murals. They also create public spectacles, which resemble trials, and they try to attract as many people to these spectacles as possible. 

By organizing these spectacles, they want to scare people into acquiescence, and through their presentation of themselves on these trials, they aim to come across as a massive organization. What is the message of the propaganda, anyway? Winter provided three perspectives when answering this question. 

First, in their propaganda, ISIS creates an alternative narrative. They paint a bright picture of the jihad, creating an almost utopian world. They make a comprehensive, alternative offer of existence. This kind of propaganda is not a response, but a statement. They create their own Islamic State Utopia. 

Second, ISIS often creates their propaganda through the frame of counter-propaganda. They deem everything non-ISIS as propaganda, and theirs as a fierce response to the frenzied media campaign of the enemy. 

Third, ISIS often uses “media projectiles” in their propaganda. One example of this media projectile involves a video where a man is beheaded. This video was released by ISIS, and it was soon shown in its entirety on ABC News and Fox News. This kind of transmission was exactly what ISIS wanted. 

The spread of these gory scenes increased the fear as much as possible, creating catastrophes. 

“Narrative is everything,” Winter said. “The clickbait is weaponized by ISIS. ISIS uses propaganda to dictate its story in its own words to a mass audience. It is not just about recruiting people, but also about scaring people. The purpose of their propaganda, initially mainly recruitment, has now mainly become the creation of fear.”