August 8, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: ISIS Rebranding Efforts Struggling

• While achieving significant success on the ground in Iraq and Syria since its late June rebranding from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to the Islamic State (IS), the terrorist group hasn’t had the same success in its rebranding efforts to sway public perception

• In English, the group is still overwhelmingly referred to as ISIS versus IS, in both traditional media and on social media such as Twitter

• On Arabic Twitter, the group is still referred to by the acronym for ISIS, Da’ish, while traditional Arabic media also use “Da’ish” more so than “the Islamic State”

• Reasons for the slow acceptance of the ISIS rebrand vary, from IS being too common a word in English, to too ludicrous in Arabic, and to too long in Twitter, with the result that members of the group are just about the only ones calling themselves “The Islamic State.”

While it is little comfort to the people living under the oppressive rule of the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS), the terrorist group has suffered at least a symbolic defeat to contrast with its recent string of remarkable territorial advances. In a late June proclamation that it was now the restored caliphate, the group had hoped for a fait accompli in both territory and syntax, moving from the geographically-constrained Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to the global-reaching IS. While it has held on to and even expanded its gains in Iraq, it has been unable to match that success online and in traditional media.

The reasons for this are both prosaic and symbolic, with the results being the concept of ISIS as an Islamic State hasn’t caught on with the broader audience the group is trying to influence. While not a major defeat, it does mark one area in which the group is struggling in the midst of its very successful summer. It denotes a classic mistake of many a rebranding campaign to fail to consider medium and audience—which actually matters in this case, as ISIS is trying to sway global public perception through social media.

In the last 30 days on English Twitter, “ISIS” was mentioned 1,371,277 times, while “Islamic State” was mentioned only 193,222 times (the less common English variation and term of reference, ISIL—the L for Levant—was mentioned 55,000 times in the same period).

The disparity, at least in English, is less a rejection of ISIS’ hubris and more a reflection of Twitter’s 140-character limit. Also, while in reports such as this IntelBrief, the initials cum acronym IS can be differentiated from the word “is” in a way that still reads well, it doesn’t work with Twitter. Even when defined as a hashtag, #ISIS trounces #IS, which shows that people have become accustomed to ISIS despite Twitter’s preference for brevity. Phonetically, it is simply easier and clearer to say “ISIS” as eye-sis than to say “I-S.” This may be significant in ISIS’ efforts to influence English-speakers to refer to it an Islamic State and, thus, reinforce the strength it is trying to project. However, in little way does one’s choice of term of reference address the matter of its recognition or legitimacy as a state of any kind.

In a majority of traditional English-language media (BBC and The New York Times, among others), ISIS is still in majority usage, with notable exceptions of the Washington Post and AP (as well as the IntelBrief), who use “Islamic State” or IS. Again, the reasons for using ISIS over IS are editorial (the audience is used to ISIS, and it is easy to spot and understand), as are the reasons for using IS (technically accurate as that is what the group calls itself).

In Arabic, “the Islamic State” hasn’t caught on both for the aforementioned Twitter reasons but also because the name carries far more weight in Arabic. Among Muslim nations, none call themselves “Islamic State,” while the four countries that use “Islamic” in their official country names (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mauritania, and Iran) are “Republics”—not states. This refusal to use “Islamic State” as it relates to a terrorist group is seen in the last 30 days in Arabic-language Twitter, with the Arabic acronym for ISIS (????) mentioned 1,481,172 times, while the Islamic State (?????? ?????????) is mentioned only 231,169. Even the shortened “The State” (??????) garners 958,995, which is much more than the longer and more religiously-loaded ?????? ????????? (Islamic State) but still significantly less than ???? (ISIS).

While it’s not a crushing loss for a group possessing oil wells and large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq, it indicates that its target audience isn’t buying into the rebranding campaign, and most in no way consider the group an “Islamic State.” This refusal to call the group by its chosen name should play a bigger role when ISIS suffers its first meaningful setback, and counter-narrative efforts can point out the disparity between a grandiose name and a retreating rag-tag group of terrorists. At that point, governments and organizations can use the group’s chosen name but only to ridicule its presumption.


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