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Understanding the Contemporary Strategic Communications Threat

Redefining ‘Propaganda’: The Media Strategy of the Islamic State

Pages 38-42 | Published online: 17 Mar 2020


This work was supported by a research award from Facebook as part of its ‘Content Policy Research on Social Media Platforms’ research project. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the policies, either expressed or implied, of Facebook. In this article, Charlie Winter challenges the way in which the word ‘propaganda’ is used in contemporary discourse around war and terrorism. He considers the case of the Islamic State, using it to demonstrate that the term – as it is conventionally understood – is an inadequate tool when it comes to describing the full range of tactical and strategic approaches to communication that are employed by insurgents today. If anything, he contends, ‘propaganda’ refers to an entire information ecosystem in which different media are geared towards different tasks.


1. Aaron Y Zelin, ‘Picture or it Didn’t Happen: A Snapshot of the Islamic State’s Media Output’, Perspectives on Terrorism (Vol. 9, No. 4, 2015); Daniel Milton, ‘Communication Breakdown: Unravelling the Islamic State’s Media Efforts’, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, October 2016; Daniel Milton, ‘Down, But Not Out: An Updated Assessment of the Islamic State’s Visual Propaganda’, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 24 July 2018; Charlie Winter, ‘Apocalypse, Later: A Longitudinal Study of the Islamic State Brand’, Critical Studies in Media Communication (Vol. 35, No. 1, 2018), pp. 103–21.

2. Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion (London: SAGE, 2011), p. 7.

3. See, for example, James Farwell, ‘The Media Strategy of ISIS’, Survival (Vol. 56, No. 6, 2014), pp. 49–55; Samantha Mahood and Halim Rane, ‘Islamist Narratives in ISIS Recruitment Propaganda’, International Journal of Communication (Vol. 23, No. 1, 2016), pp. 15–35; Wendy Andhika Prajuli, ‘On Social Media, ISIS Uses Fantastical Propaganda to Recruit Members’, The Conversation, 4 December 2017; Boris Johnson, ‘Let’s Deal With the Devil: We Should Work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria’, The Telegraph, 6 December 2015.

4. See Rachel Martin, ‘Can we Construct a Counter-Narrative to ISIS’s End Goal?’, NPR, 22 November 2015, <>, accessed 5 December 2019.

5. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York, NY: Random House, 1973, first published in 1962).

6. Ibid., p. 166.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 17.

9. Ibid., p. 169.

10. Ibid., p. 9.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 62.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Carsten Bockstette, ‘Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques’, George C Marshall Center for Security Studies, 20 December 2018, pp. 11–12.

16. Islamic State, ‘Media Operative, You Are Also a Mujahid’, Himmah Library, 2015.

17. Ibid., pp. 13–14. Emphasis in original.

18. Ibid., pp. 15, 39, 42, 44.

19. Ibid., pp. 13, 16, 26.

20. Ibid., p. 26.

21. ‘Hypodermic syringe’ and ‘magic bullet’ theories regarding the potency of political communication are much derided. See Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet, The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1952).

22. Charlie Winter, ‘Documenting the Virtual “Caliphate”’, Quilliam, October 2015, <>, accessed 5 December 2019.

23. Ellul, Propaganda, p. 62.

24. Islamic State, ‘Covenant and Steadfastness: A Single Body’, Sinai Province Media Office, 25 March 2019.

25. Islamic State, al-Naba’, No. 175, Central Media Diwan, 28 March 2019.

26. Jowett and O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion, p. 7.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Charlie Winter

Charlie Winter is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.

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