As ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory over the past year, the international community has heralded the collapse of the caliphate. It is now clear that the celebration was premature. Rather than signal a death knell, ISIS' conventional collapse—while taking a devastating toll on its resources and personnel—had the strategic effect of driving the group back to unconventional politico-military operations.
Indeed, ISIS is already reforming, with Iraq scholar Joel Wing recently arguing that ISIS in Iraq has switched from scattered hit-and-run attacks after railing about its territorial defeat, then regrouping and reverting to confronting openly the Iraqi government. In effect, ISIS became more brazen. This organizational resiliency extends to its much-lauded propaganda apparatus, which continues to disseminate messages locally and transnationally despite suffering a “full-fledged collapse” with overall productivity dropping by roughly 90 percent from its peak in the summer of 2015. For context, ISIS had 900 official uploads of content in August 2015 which plummeted to less than 100 by December 2017.
ISIS had long prepared for this eventuality by specifically investing in resources that would allow its media capabilities to rebound and potentially thrive again.
A particularly pressing issue facing the international community concerns what themes and narratives ISIS propagandists intend to champion as the organization continues to lay the foundation for a future resurgence. In its current period of bust characterized by losses far exceeding any gains, ISIS propagandists often have sought to transform operational failures into strategic victories. To similar ends, ISIS increasingly will look to infuse nostalgia narratives into its messaging to maintain morale in communities of potential support and mobilize true believers toward action. We argue that nostalgia will be deployed by ISIS as a multifaceted propaganda tool designed to boost morale and inspire supporters to continue laying the foundations for another resurgence. Like many ISIS propaganda tools, its full impact relies on the response of adversaries, so we conclude by outlining ways practitioners can confront ISIS nostalgia narratives and undermine its attempts to build false memories of success.
The Allure of Utopian Memory: Making Sense of ISIS' Nostalgia Narrative
History offers propagandists a diverse toolkit to shape the way in which friends and foes perceive the world. By toying with collective amnesia and memory, history can be used to champion positive and negative narratives of “continuity” (such as ancient animosities, a lineage of honor) or “disruption” (emphasizing the start or end of a glorious reign), “prophecy” that directs an audience to the future and “nostalgia” that venerates a celebrated past. The latter is particularly attractive during periods of decline, and such narratives are remarkably resilient in the face of both time and facts. Consider, for example, the regularity with which the Third Reich is glorified in Nazi nostalgia propaganda by the extreme right. For religiously motivated groups, history manifests as the product of divine approval and so, when history deviates from that ideal, nostalgia becomes especially alluring.
To understand ISIS' deployment of nostalgia, first, it is necessary to understand its definition of “success” and “defeat.” The words of the late ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani are worth noting in this regard:
Indeed, victory is the defeat of one's opponent. Or do you, O America, consider defeat to be the loss of a city or the loss of land? Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not! True defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight.
As Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, states: “Defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated,” and so ISIS' deployment of nostalgia will reflect its own definitions of “success” and “defeat.” Consequently, ISIS nostalgia appeals are likely to focus on two key themes in particular: caliphal nostalgia and “manhaj” (PDF) (methodology) nostalgia. After all, ISIS messaging has always framed the caliphate as the product of applying its “manhaj,” which it claims follows Islamic religious precepts. When ISIS deploys caliphal nostalgia, it is designed to venerate successes, while “manhaj” nostalgia glorifies the pure application of its strategy promising both collective and individual success. The result is a nostalgia narrative that epitomizes ISIS' self-reinforcing propaganda style (PDF): The glorious caliphate of the past was achieved thanks to the purity of our ways, and the purity of our ways guarantees the caliphate (collective success) or death in its pursuit (individual success).
By most standards, the ISIS state-building project was an abysmal failure. Tens of thousands of Muslims flocked to the region to help build a caliphate that ultimately ended in death and destruction, with families torn apart and children permanently scarred from the atrocities they witnessed. Yet, like the Nazis before them, ISIS will likely seek to manipulate how this history will be remembered. ISIS has deployed nostalgia in a variety of ways. More overtly, the group has made direct and unambiguous appeals to nostalgia—including in the “From the Pages of History” section in its English-language magazines (PDF), which uses caliphal nostalgia in reference to its temporary caliphate and “manhaj” nostalgia to refer to the previous success of its strategy, and the nashid “You were Free,” which admonishes those who fled ISIS territories. More implicitly, the group's propaganda has featured subtler, more indirect ways of leveraging nostalgia, including during its current “bust” period when it has drawn heavily on the speeches and names of former leaders who successfully dragged the group through previous busts (The leaders include Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Abu Umar al-Baghadi).
These types of emotional entreaties offer a powerful means to appeal to transnational audiences but also to regionally specific ones and even individuals for recruitment. The challenge is particularly insidious in the West. Between the United Kingdom and France alone, the government and security services are currently monitoring a total of 35,000 suspected extremists, absolutely staggering numbers when one considers the amount of time and effort it takes to monitor just a handful of suspects around the clock. Future ISIS propaganda could attempt to harness the legacy of its European fighters killed in battle, thus directly impacting the younger generation of children in Molenbeek, Belgium; East London; and the St. Denis neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris, where an orphanage houses nearly 50 French children whose parents were killed in Iraq and Syria.
There are thousands of kids scattered across Europe who lost older siblings that they likely looked up to. These same children are now eligible to be lionized as ISIS martyrs in the heavily immigrant enclaves where they grew up, much in the same way that fallen Hamas militants are revered in Gaza, Tamil fighters were worshipped in Jaffna, or Irish Republican Army “volunteers” were celebrated in Belfast.
Ultimately, nostalgia during hard times conveys a message of commitment and a promise to returned glory. When Sunnis are being oppressed in Syria and Iraq by non-Sunni governments, ISIS propaganda harkens back to a time reminding Sunnis of how great life was under its rule, even though that rule was draconian and commonly characterized by extortion, punishment killings, and torture of suspected collaborators. The ease with which ISIS can use nostalgia effectively will likely depend on three crucial factors: the amount of time that passes, whether life has discernibly improved for their communities of potential support, and whether ISIS nostalgia narratives are being contested in the information theater.
Exploiting Nostalgia's Weakness: Truth
When considering ways in which the ISIS nostalgia narrative can be confronted, it is useful to start with the inherent weaknesses of such a strategy: In fueling nostalgia for past glories, ISIS risks drawing the attention of its supporters to its present predicament. Put another way, ISIS nostalgia narratives highlight its own say-do gaps—its failings to achieve sustainably in practice what it had promised. Of course, to limit the downside of deploying nostalgia as a propaganda tool, ISIS will inevitably use it sparingly and alongside a variety of other propaganda strategies and levers. So, what does this mean for counterterrorism strategic communication practitioners?
Where appropriate, practitioners should warn target audiences preemptively of ISIS' use of nostalgia narratives. This should be augmented by counter-messaging efforts that respond to ISIS nostalgia narratives by highlighting the group's say-do gaps and framing it as predictably deluded and reflective of a group that is out of touch and desperately marketing a version of the past that never existed. These two recommendations are designed to be mutually reinforcing so that when ISIS deploys nostalgia, the intended audience has been primed (a “trap” set) by the first type of messaging. This, then, facilitates the second type of messaging that reinforces ISIS' say-do gaps with fact based rational-choice appeals.
Additionally, how and when ISIS deploys nostalgia narratives may represent important markers for efforts to engage in strategic shifts in its politico-military or information campaign. For instance, an increase in nostalgia narratives of a certain variety (such as manhaj nostalgia) may be a marker that ISIS is about to launch similar attacks in the field against similar targets, that its messaging may precede action to prime target audiences. It is a messaging strategy that was described to the authors during interviews with Syrian Opposition groups in 2015-16 and Marawi citizens in 2018 suggesting that it is probably more commonly used to target local populations as a psychological operations tool.
Nevertheless, practitioners must be careful not to fixate on ISIS nostalgia narratives. After all, nostalgia is only one of a variety of different propaganda tools ISIS will deploy in its messaging. Ultimately, opportunities to exploit ISIS' use of nostalgia needs to be part of a balanced and comprehensive approach to counterterrorism strategic communications. Practitioners must also not entirely ignore the opportunities afforded by ISIS' nostalgia propaganda. The allure of nostalgia will likely be too much for ISIS propagandists to ignore and promises valuable opportunities for counterterrorism practitioners to highlight ISIS' say-do gap not just now (when the nostalgia message is deployed, for instance) but to reiterate historical say-do gaps in the future (such as the period for which ISIS is pining).
A Legacy Uprooted
Ultimately, it is essential that ISIS nostalgia narratives are confronted. Neuroscience research shows that human beings construct and update memories with available information at the time of retrieval. What this means is that the persistent dissemination of ISIS nostalgia narratives uncontested in the information theater may lead to individual and collective memories of the past being reconstructed in ways that reflect ISIS' retelling of that history.
The legacy ISIS should be remembered for is the one it has wrought in Iraq and Syria. It is one of misery and despair, where children have been orphaned and the Sunnis who did not flee are unable to trust ever again their fellow citizens, who are sullied by remaining—the implication being they were ISIS supporters and collaborators.
The United States and its coalition partners have the resources to confront ISIS in the information environment and highlight the group's hypocrisy, failures, and false narratives. Given all of the resources already expended in combating the Islamic State militarily, it is crucial that the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS takes into consideration and preempts the ISIS nostalgia narratives that may seek to define the group's legacy and prepare a foundation for its resurgence throughout the Middle East and beyond. And along those lines, it is worth noting that without real and sustainable efforts to rebuild these shattered societies, the coalition may risk exposing say-do gaps of their own.
Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, where his research focuses on terrorism, insurgency and criminal networks. Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT)-The Hague.
This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy Research Institute on April 18, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.