September 12, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Islamic State Shifts Propaganda Priorities

• English-language Twitter supporters of the so-called Islamic State wasted no time responding to US President Obama’s speech, but actually paid little attention to the potential military strike tactics that got so much media coverage

• They focused very little on the prospects of sustained airstrikes in Syria, spending more time attacking the Arab countries aligning against the group, suggesting that even the group’s supporters understand that local and regional opposition will be what truly hurts them

• The group will likely have three social media priorities: 1) attacking Syrian rebel groups that pose the most immediate threat, 2) attacking the Shi’a/Assad/Iranian nature of the opposition, 3) attacking the US/West sponsorship of the overall effort

• Mirroring the strategy of founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, IS seeks to ignite a full-on sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’a, in part through relentless manipulation of deep divisions among regional governments supporting Shi’a and Kurds, and, particularly, the Assad regime in Syria.

Much of the press coverage regarding President Obama’s speech about countering the threat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) understandably focused on the shift in US policy to potentially undertake air strikes against IS inside Syria. This is a serious policy shift, with obvious tactical gain but unknowable risks, all of which was being discussed in Western media. But in the IS English-language Twitterverse, this policy shift was barely mentioned, as IS supporters focused on what they apparently view as the larger threat of a local/regional coalition against the terrorist group.

IS’s social media campaign spinning its defeat at Amerli, Iraq, by highlighting the involvement of Shi’a militias and Iran was but a prologue to what will be IS’s main propaganda thrust in the coming months. The group is trying to define the coming battle through its messaging, which matters a great deal as this conflict continues beyond its initial stages. To that end, the group will likely focus its Twitter propaganda campaign on three priorities.

The first messaging priority will be to attack the Syrian rebel groups that will align to oppose IS in Syria. These groups represent the most immediate threat as they will be the ones receiving training and weapons from the anti-IS coalition. US airstrikes will definitely hurt the group, especially in terms of making it far less mobile, but the rival rebel groups are the ones that can take and hold land. IS will emphasize archrival Jabhat al-Nusra’s connections with the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, and groups in the umbrella of the Islamic Front, hoping to smear them all as tools for a US/Assad/Iran/Kurdish plot against Sunnis.

The IS propaganda against these groups will be intense, as the group tries to limit any increased support for them just as their fortunes are improving and IS’s are waning. While this is likely the most important message right now for IS as it girds itself for serious opposition in Syria, it likely won’t succeed, as it has alienated most of these groups already.

The second messaging priority will help with the first; the group will attack the regional opposition as pawns for the Shi’a, Alawite, Kurds, Iranians, and the hated Assad regime. The make-up of those groups that will benefit from IS retreating is easy for the IS propaganda machine to exploit following its first military setbacks. It’s a continuation of the strategy popularized by the group’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who ignited a sectarian war in 2006.


This messaging strategy will prove to be quite effective, as it taps into deep-rooted animosities between Sunni and Shi’a. Most importantly, the group wants to put public pressure on governments such as Saudi Arabia to explain to its people why they are fighting a Sunni group for the benefit of Shi’a and Alawite. It is important not to overlook this aspect, as popular support for IS might not be all that high in places such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf Arab States, but it is likely higher than support for Shi’a and Assad. Furthermore, the relentless emphasis on the Sunni versus Shi’a divide energizes sideline supporters.

The third priority will be the standard anti-US/West theme that is aimed at energizing both the regional base but also foreign supporters and potential foreign fighters. It will portray any Arab government that opposes IS as apostate and a tool of the West.

The image of US airstrikes with loss of innocent life, that IS counts on as inevitable, will get tremendous coverage within the IS sphere, and will further pressure Arab governments to distance themselves from US action, which is all IS wants. Already, IS is highlighting the numbers of those killed in US drone strikes in Yemen, a military effort that President Obama highlighted during his speech. There will be much more of this in the coming months as IS seeks every opportunity to weaken the forces rearing to oppose it.


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