ISIS' propaganda machine, sources and power

ISIS actively attempts to spread propaganda via various media outlets despite the current global crackdown. They produce publications and are seemingly organised on social media, generating up to 90,000 tweets a day.

Photo by: AA
Photo by: AA

Updated Jul 28, 2015

ISIS actively attempts to spread propaganda via various media outlets despite the current global crackdown. Their media wing contributes immensely to this cause. They produce publications and are seemingly organised on social media, generating up to 90,000 tweets a day.

J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan focus on ISIS’ social media success in their study published by Brooking Institute: “By virtue of its large number of supporters and highly organized tactics, ISIS has been able to exert an outsized impact on how the world perceives it, by disseminating images of graphic violence (including the beheading of Western journalists and aid workers or the immolation of a Jordanian air force pilot), while using social media to attract new recruits and inspire lone actor attacks.” According to writers, ISIS supporters used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts between September and December 2014. With effective use of social media outlets, the organisation managed to attract outraged youth from all around the world to join and fight for their cause as “foreign fighters.”

Religio-political oriented rhetoric dominates their propaganda materials. The invasion of Iraq and mistreatment of the Muslim detainees in prison camps and torture centres; inside and outside Iraq, such as Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo provided a lot of substance.

ISIS managed to establish a successful funding system. The militant group’s daily income is reported to be at 2-3 million USD. Their main sources of income are black market oil and gas trade, taxation and extortion of local businesses, road tolls for commercial vehicles, control on agriculture, especially wheat, kidnapping for ransom and covert operation of antique smuggling. According to the Brookings Institute report about ISIS, written by Charles Lister, an Iraqi intelligence official claimed a 36 million USD sale of an 8,000 year-old antique in early 2014. During the first periods of ISIS, support of local and external donors were important, but nowadays, other more stable income sources surpassed donations by a huge margin.

Contributing factors to ISIS’ power

ISIS’ rapid seizure of land is often attributed to certain factors. The first, is the high motivation and utmost commitment of its militants. Leaders use this high motivation to justify all perpetrations, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, beheadings and political assassinations. The fear that these acts create among opponents is another contributing factor to their strength.

This fear factor was apparent during the capture of Mosul when two battalions of the  Iraqi armed forces chose to retreat instead of facing a few hundred ISIS fighters, leaving behind advanced weaponry. At a press conference, Iraqi Member of Parliament (and current Vice President) Usama Nujayfi said that the security forces "abandoned their weapons, their tanks and their bases and left them to terrorist groups, even Mosul airport."

Thus far, ISIS has an aptitude to adapt to changing political environments. It follows pragmatic approaches when it comes to relations with other entities; as long as interests coincide.

ISIS benefitted from the “de-Baathification” of post-2003 Iraq by harvesting ex-Baathist’s expertise, despite ideological differences. SETA Middle East specialist Can Acun states that “ISI declared an amnesty for the former Baathists, who were not allowed to join the Iraqi army at the time and announced that the former Baathists would be allowed into the movement if they show repentance” and that “top level men in ISIS mostly consist of former Baathists”.

ISIS and likeminded groups effectively fuelled sectarian tensions and ISIS managed to channel the resulting abhorrence for its own benefit. Attacks on prominent Shiite holy sites, such as Imam Ali Mosque attack in 2003 aimed to contribute to this policy. According to the Brookings Institute report, “Zarqawi believed his organization could take advantage of the resulting chaos to cast itself as the defender of the Sunni community.”

Another contributing factor to this rapid military advancement, was ISIS’ control over a long stretch of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Thus, they could conveniently mobilise units on both sides of the border when and where needed.