Born out of an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist group Ad-Dawla Al-Islamiyya Fi Al–‘Itaq Wa l-Sham, known in the West as Daesh, in just a few years has succeeded in militarily occupying wide areas previously controlled by the Syrian and Iraqi governments, promoting alliances among the principle terrorist groups and building an unrecognized quasi-state structure which governs over ample territory and self-proclaiming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In so doing, Daesh has demonstrated an undeniable ability in using all possible means available in order to take advantage of the Information Environment not only at the physical level but also at the virtual and psycho-cognitive level winning a strategic advantage which the West has difficulty to efficiently contrast, especially concerning communication. Being strong in regards to its potential attraction, Daesh has in fact equipped itself with an effective and innovative propaganda machine which, through several different platforms, has been able to hit the enemy and attract new followers taking advantage not only of its successes on the terrain but also in the fields of communication and information. In order to do this, in the last year or so, the self-proclaimed caliphate has begun to publish a truly authentic magazine which emphasizes the return of the caliphate and its conquests through photographs, news reports and interviews of important stakeholders of the Sunni world as well as those of European foreign fighters. The article contained herein, shows an in depth analysis of the magazine, also keeping in mind the communication and marketing techniques used for the promotion and dissemination of the magazine and those of its contents. Starting from the narrative they follow and of the topics they handle, comparing these with those of Al-Qaeda and therefore examining the contents and images published, the author goes in depth into how the Islamic State wants to be perceived by its supporters and adversaries and into the reason of the extraordinary success of its message of death.
On 29 June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or –following the most accepted form by the international political consensus– Daesh) has declared the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In this way, the recognized leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a period of about ten years has taken a Sunni Iraqi paramilitary section of Al Qaeda to assume the role of leadership, according to the intentions of the Caliphate, of an authentic State entity or al-Dawla, “The State”. The self-proclaimed Islamic State, after having wrested ample territory previously controlled by the Iraqi and Syrian governments and having removed from its name any regional references which could lead the universal “mission” astray from the Islamist terroristic group, has not only succeeded in realizing what had been pursued by Al-Qaeda for decades but has begun to create for itself a quasi-state structure thanks to a well-coordinated aggression in the Information Environment able to take advantage of the victories on the battle field and by the use of the most modern instruments of communication and of the internet, a strategy which has very ably used «the exploitation of the sectarian divisions, political manipulation and the use of social media to grow its apparent strength» and gain thousands of converts all over the world. Daesh has also demonstrated that it possesses its own “institutional” communication, a narrative which its efficient media apparatus transmits in order to disseminate a Jihad 2.0 that «travels on internet (and) nurtures itself from the contents of the Islamic State’s propaganda, which become viral». Bearing all this in mind, it is not unusual to see that the “Digital Caliphate”, once it self-proclaimed, felt the immediate need to create its very own magazine to disseminate its ideology and guidelines, giving way to the birth of Dabiq. In this, ISIS’ communicative strategies appear similar to the Russian Federation Information campaign started with the Crimea crisis. They appears as «memetic activities, where terminologies, discourses and narratives of the “enemy”, i.e. the West and Europe, are re-appropriated and spun in order to satisfy the organization’s own needs». In this “game of mirrors”, where codes are appropriated and legitimized, ISIS and Russian narrative present exogenous elements in the structuring of the messages that we could easily find in some specific NATO doctrines on InfoOps and PsyOps. The informative process so generated shape an asymmetrical narrative that leverages on European political weaknesses and NATO cohesion having a deep impact on Western public opinion.
Daesh’s On-line Magazine
Dabiq is a place in the countryside in Syria north of Aleppo (Syria) where, according to Islamic escathology, one of the largest battles among Muslims and Christians is to take place. The chosen title of the magazine is not a coincidence, as its meaning clearly reminds readers in its first number. In fact, it accents one of the cornerstones of the Digital Caliphate from the very start: the radicalization of the conflict and the identification of one of its primordial enemies. The magazine is born «After a review of some of the comments received» from Daesh’s media department, Al Hayat Media Center, «on the first issues of the Islamic State News and Islamic State Report» which made it possible for the specialists of the caliphate’s image to publish «a periodical magazine focusing on the issues of tawhid (unity), manhaj (truth-seeking), hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war) and jama’ah (community)». The magazine, destined to disseminate the narrative of Daesh outside the traditional Islamic world, is also written in English in order to embrace the target audience which does not speak Arabic and in this way it has been able to find its way into the hearts of second and third generation Islamists who immigrated abroad. In reading the contents of the texts, often threatening and accompanied by high impact emotional images, Dabiq «appears to be propaganda intended to disseminate the ISIL narrative, persuade Muslims to support ISIL, and build legitimacy for ISIL’s claim that it has established a caliphate, restoring the successors to Mohammed». For non-ISIL supporters: «the magazine is evidence of the dangers that the group and other militant jihadists pose to non-Muslims». But not only. According to some analysts Dabiq represents the means through which Daesh, being especially interested in a Sunni Muslim target audience, wants to be perceived and presents itself as a State. In light of the above, therefore, Dabiq represents the means to present and to publicize the Islamic State as a truly authentic brand. Committing, in fact, to the principles of Nation Branding, the communicators for Daesh fully embrace the pillars of brand management and its components (identity, awareness, image, positioning, loyalty and equity), adapting to the context of the self-proclaimed caliphate the concepts and techniques which are normally used in marketing. Acting in this way, they are able to present Daesh not as a savage terrorist group but rather as a cohesive state from the political-religious point of view which is devoted to the needs of the faithful of radical Islam.
The Publishing of Terror
If compared to the publications by other terroristic organizations such as As-Sahab Resurgence Magazine, an on-line magazine published by Al-Qaeda in English, Dabiq presents a narrative built on the religious message and in the territories conquered by the caliphate. Al-Qaeda, on the contrary, accentuates its message on waging total war against the infidels at a global scale. Now, even though Al-Qaeda’s magazine can, in practice, be more appealing, with its layout being similar to that of Daesh but with a more ample message, Dabiq, having a strong and wisely built message which aims to promote a governed territorial entity, presents a more ample message to its fundamentalist galaxy because it essentially promotes the «Islamic State’s demonstrable results –military achievements, territorial conquests and implementation of Sharia based governance in conquered territories». Besides, Dabiq, contrary to As-Sahab, presents a layout where the crudeness of the images is often a characteristic element. Although both periodicals contain high definition images, those of the self-styled Islamic State, following the «Logic of Shock» for the target audience, aims to reproduce, next to portrait pictures and images which can be found in other Western magazines, images of death, blood and destruction as well as links to film footage which can be downloaded from the net with the intent of glorifying «the spectacularization of military and terrorist operations and, lastly, dreadful executions». And one last note, an important factor which generates fondness is the cyclic nature: while Dabiq proposes periodical monthly issues, Al-Sahab has so far produced only two issues in little more than a year.
Strong, therefore, with a convincing narrative and evocative images which have surpassed the publications of the competing terroristic networks, Dabiq has imposed itself as a magazine of terror thanks to an editorial hard line which proposes a guiding theme for each edition which is then covered in depth with the circulation of the magazine publishing «invocations and celebrations, religious instruction and reports on current jihadist activities, prayers and photographs from successful operations, including pictures of blown-up buildings and destroyed ancient temples». Contents which, even if at first were often «written in a mode of exalted and redundant pedantry» and therefore, got less attention from a young target audience, today they are more appealing since Dabiq presents itself, after twelve publications, not only as a service of religious propaganda but also as a newsletter, a place for debate or a ready to use question and answer manual: in synthesis, a fundamental point of reference for the Jihadist Galaxy. Hence, while in the first publications the magazine present Daesh as a restoration of the caliphate to its readers, illustrating them about their strongholds and their aims as well as what they expect from new supporters, in its subsequent publications, following its territorial consolidation, it begins to tackle different arguments: it announces the expansion of Daesh in those territories controlled by terroristic groups which have submitted themselves or which become allies such as Boko Haram; it accentuates the internal frictions within the jihadist movement criticizing the detractors of the Islamic State; it explains the education system of its child soldiers; it discusses, admits and justifies the sexual slavery of apostate women; it accuses Al-Qaeda and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan; it vindicates executions and terroristic attacks. In all of its publications, permeated by the same logic of death, you will find published their attacks against Christians, Jews, Apostates and Muslims who do not believe in the same fundamentalist vision of Islam. The invitation to massacre all those who do not believe in the ideology of Daesh is, in fact, part of its narrative which accompany the invocations to kill with detailed reports of battles or suicide attacks which are harmoniously assembled with a series of images which resemble a macabre collection of snapshots taken from a snuff movie. «The central message they want to convey is clear: the Islamic State is not a Western conspiracy or an aberration. It is, in their opinion, the only legitimate political entity (for Muslims) in the Middle East». A political entity, above all, represented by the black flag of Daesh, which appears in the images and in the key contents, by means of a constructed operation in brand management. Taking advantage of the methods used in the communication of advertising, Dabiq is able to create a consensus and to persuade a vast audience based on the benevolence of and the need for the actions and the claims of Daesh, in this way assuring the radical Islamists a continuous flow of aspiring martyrs, foreign fighters and funds from all around the world.
Parallelism with Russian Information campaign
From the very self-proclamation of the Islamic State, gaining leverage on the susceptibility of the population on the topics disseminated throughout the media (especially if social media) and on the particular receptiveness of an under-layer of radical Islamists, Daesh conducts a continuous multidimensional aggression in the Information Environment placing particular attention on the psycho-cognitive field of the global audience. By carefully taking advantage of the means of communication, the self-styled caliphate tries to make themselves look as a State entity through the glossy pages of its on-line magazine, Dabiq, where it «shows in no uncertain terms [what] is the mentality of the Islamic State: confident and utterly devoted to its ideology. It clearly divides the world into two: those who agree with its racist, violent and hegemonic platform and those who do not». From this dualistic perspective, being that there are two opposite and irreconcilable worlds, the magazine invites the former to a transcendental and ecstatic vision of death for the glory of the Islamic State damaging the latter, who are reserved the massacres and slavery. Now, Dabiq being the official authority and the most symbolic for the communication of Daesh, it is clear how this unfortunately represents «an organization with ambition, resources and talent behind it which will not stop until either it achieves its aims or is utterly destroyed».
If Daesh is trying to be recognized as State entity using communication, we have not to forget that another strategic actor has developed and adapted the old methods from the cold war-era into the modern day media environment. Refining the Soviet methods of deception, subversion and propaganda through the application of Cyber Warfare and the use of social media in Information Warfare, Russian Federation has demonstrated the ability to use all the capabilities in the exploitation of the Information Environment taking a strategic advantage that could be difficult to counter in peacetime. While Russia and Daesh have so demonstrated the will and the capability to apply a full spectrum “information confrontation” in the months, or even years, before a planned physical aggression, Western Countries are often restricted by a long list of constrains from reacting to the adversary Information Activities. This could place NATO in a huge strategic disadvantage if the Alliance will be not able to synchronize its communication efforts. The future will be characterized by an accelerating rate of changes resulting from the rapid interaction of technology, media and innovation. So, rapid change, terroristic threat, uncertainty and interconnectedness will be combine to make the world always more dynamic and complex. To cope this, NATO will face perhaps one of the biggest challenges in its history where the communication aspect could play a paramount role.
Born out of an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist group Ad-Dawla Al-Islamiyya Fi Al-‘Itaq Wa l-Sham, known in the West as Daesh, in just a few years has succeeded in militarily occupying wide areas previously controlled by the Syrian and Iraqi governments, promoting alliances among the principle terrorist groups and building an unrecognized quasi-state structure which governs over ample territory and self-proclaiming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In so doing, Daesh has demonstrated an undeniable ability in using all possible means available in order to take advantage of the Information Environment not only at the physical level but also at the virtual and psycho-cognitive level winning a strategic advantage which the West has difficulty to efficiently contrast, especially concerning communication. Being strong in regards to its potential attraction, Daesh has in fact equipped itself with an effective and innovative propaganda machine which, through several different platforms, has been able to hit the enemy and attract new followers taking advantage not only of its successes on the terrain but also in the fields of communication and information. To face Daesh propaganda NATO can respond with the truth and facts: credibility remains the biggest asset to counter hybrid communications. Stay united, be stick to our values and principles in close coordination with the European Union and other international organizations is still one of the biggest tool. At the same time, to face the future threat to the southern (and eastern) flank, NATO has also to consider how actions in one domain can and will have effects in other domains and how imbalances in ability to act across the domains create vulnerabilities. Considering that new threats in Hybrid warfare (as that posed by the extraordinary success of the magazine Dabiq and its message of death) need a coordinated actions across domains, a continuous use of Non-Lethal Ops and an extraordinary ability in analyze the domains considering the virtual and psychological/cognitive, a possible response could be move towards Multi Domain operations where a well coordinated communication will be the key to face the Jihad 2.0.
Policy and Doctrine
Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), “Multi-Method Assessment of ISIL”, Strategic Multilyer Assessment (SMA) Periodic Publication, December 2014;
NATO, “MC 422/5 – NATO Military Policy on Information Operations”, January 2015;
Fletcher SCHOEN – Christopher J. LAMB, “Deception, Disinformation and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Mayor Difference”, Institute for National Strategic Studies Strategic Perspective – Nr. 11, Washington D.C. 2012;
Keith Dinnie, “Nation branding: Concepts, issues, practice”, Routhledge, 2008;
Monica MAGGIONI, Paolo MAGRI, “Twitter and Jihad. The Communication Strategy of ISIS”, ISPI, Apr. 15, 2015;
Dr. Florian SCHAURER, “Das digitale Kalifat – Aktivitäten des IS im Informationsraum”, Zentrum Informationsarbeit Bundeswehr, 02 Dec 2015;
Heater M. VITALE / James M. KEAGLE,“A Time to Tweet, as Well as a Time to Kill: ISIS’s Projection of Power in Iraq and Syria”, INSS – Defense Horizons, Oct 2014.
AA.VV., “The Clarion Project: Challenging Extremism, Promoting Dialogue”, http://www.clarionproject.org/ ;
Spencer Ackerman, “Foreign jihadists flocking to Iraq and Syria on ‘unprecedented scale’”, [url: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/30/foreign-jihadist-iraq-syriaunprecedented-un-isis], Oct 30, 2014;
Simon COTTEE, “ISIS and the Logic of Shock”, The Atlantic,
[url:http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/isis-and-the-logic-of-shock-jordan-video/385252/06] , Feb 2015;
David DENBY, “The perfect children of ISIS: lessons from Dabiq”, The New Yorker, [url: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-perfect-children-of-isis-lessons-from-dabiq], Nov 24, 2015;
Mary HABECK, “Assessing the ISIS – al-Qaeda Split”, [url: http://news.siteintelgroup.com/blog/index.php/about-us/21-jihad/4388-assessing-the-isis-alqaeda-split-introduction], Jun 2014;
Peter Van Ham, “The Rise of the Brand State”, [url: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/57229/peter-van-ham/the-rise-of-the-brand-state], Oct 2001;
Gabriele LIPPI, “Isis, il significato della bandiera”, Lettera 43, [url: http://www.lettera43.it/capire-notizie/isis-il-significato-della-bandiera_43675176615.htm], Jun. 26, 2015;
Rossana MIRANDA, “ISIS: ecco dove si producono i video degli orrori”, Formiche, [url: http://formiche.net/2015/01/15/al-hayat-media-center-isis], Jan 15, 2015;
Francesco ZAFFARANO, “Dobbiamo chiamarlo Stato Islamico, ISIS o DAESH?”, [url: http://www.lastampa.it/2015/11/16/esteri/dobbiamo-chiamarlo-stato-islamico-isis-o-daesh-0iPgbppHrzgdRKXJjWYX6M/pagina.html], Nov 16, 2015;