Narrating Success and Failure
The Development of Narratives in Islamic State Video Propaganda (2014-2018)
Name: Jorian Brondijk
Student number: S2936054
Department: Middle Eastern Studies Supervisor: Dr. P.G.T. (Pieter) Nanninga Second assessor: Dr. K.M. (Kiki) Santing
Word count: 14694
Introduction ... 2
Chapter 1: Theoretical framework and methodology ... 4
Chapter 2: Islamic State and its use of online propaganda ... 7
Chapter 3: Narrating success ... 14
Chapter 4: Narrating failure ... 25
Conclusion ... 35
Appendix A: Video details ... 38
Appendix B: Definition of Arabic terms ... 39
Appendix C: Abbreviations ... 41
Appendix D: Transcriptions of videos ... 42
Transcription video ‘The end of Sykes-Picot’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 42
Transcription video ‘The chosen few: Abu Muslim al-Kanadi’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 48
Transcription video ‘Eid greetings from the land of the khilafah’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. .... 52
Transcription video ‘Flames of War’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 57
Transcription video ‘Race towards good’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 73
Transcription video ‘A visit to Mosul’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 77
Transcript video ‘From inside Halab’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 80
Transcription video ‘Honor is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 85
Transcription video ‘No respite’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 92
Transcription video ‘And kill them wherever you find them’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 95
Transcription video ‘The religion of unbelief is one’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 102
Transcription video ‘Inside the khilafah 1’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 104
Transcription video ‘Inside the khilafah 2’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 106
Transcription video ‘Inside the khilafah 3’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 108
Transcription video ‘Inside the khilafah 4’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 112
Transcription video ‘Flames of War 2’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 113
Transcription video ’Inside the khilafah 5’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 127
Transcription video ‘Inside the khilafah 6’, by by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 130
Transcription video ‘Inside the khilafah 7’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 133
Transcription video ‘Inside the khilafah 8’, by al-Ḥayāt Media Center. ... 140
Bibliography ... 148
On August 20, 2014, an online video was published that showed the beheading of US journalist James Foley by members of Islamic State (IS). IS threatened to kill another journalist by the name of Steven Sotloff if the American airstrikes in Iraq would continue. President Barack Obama responded on the beheading by a speech in which he stated that IS had no place in the 21st century and that countries should make a common effort to ‘extract this cancer, so it does not spread’.1 After Obama’s speech, the US central command launched 14 airstrikes near the Mosul dam. Consequently, Sotloff was beheaded in a video that was published on September 2, 2014.2
These execution videos caused IS to gain worldwide notoriety overnight. In addition, the videos led to further escalation of the conflict in Iraq and Syria because the US was provoked and would lose face if it stood idle by and allowed American citizens to be killed.3 This instance is exemplary of the influence that propaganda videos have had in the conflict in Iraq and Syria. Online propaganda was in fact one of the key factors behind the success of IS, but their propaganda entailed more than solely execution videos. IS used propaganda videos as a strategic tool to recruit followers, spread its ideology, and gain legitimacy as a government. The videos were designed to be highly effective at appealing to their target audience, using emotionally charged imagery and rhetoric to draw people in and convince them of the group’s cause.4 IS managed to produce attractive propaganda when it was achieving military successes, but even when the group was suffering military defeats. This is reflected in the numbers of foreign IS supporters that entered Syria and Iraq. When IS was growing in strength between January 2012 and December 2014, the so-called Caliphate saw an influx of approximately 16.000 foreign IS supporters.
Then, as IS suffered increasing military defeats over the course of 2015, the influx of foreign IS supporters actually increased. Approximately 14.000 foreign supporters travelled to the Caliphate between December 2014 and December 2015. This raises the question how IS managed to present an attractive message to its supporters, despite military setbacks. What narratives did IS employ in its propaganda? Did these narratives change in relation to the reality on the ground?
In order to answer these questions, this thesis examines how IS has used its propaganda to respond to historical events, focusing on the development of narratives in English propaganda videos aimed at an
1 ‘’Obama: murder of James Foley ‘shocks the conscience of the entire world’,’’, the Guardian, accessed December 14, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/20/james-foley-isis-video-authenticated- us-government.
2 ‘’ISIS video shows beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff’’ CNN, accessed December 14, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/02/world/meast/isis-american-journalist-sotloff/index.html.
3 Liam Freeman, et al., ‘’The ‘Islamic State’ Crisis and U.S. Policy,’’ in The Islamic State and ISIS Crisis: An Examination, (Novinka, 2014) p. 4.
4 Charlie Winter, “Redefining ‘Propaganda’: The Media Strategy of the Islamic State,” The RUSI Journal 165, no.
1 (2020): p. 38, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2020.1734321.
3 international audience. By comparing videos from the group’s heyday with videos from the group’s downfall era, this thesis aims to reveal how the main narrative of IS has changed over time. The primary source material of this thesis consists of twenty propaganda videos that were published by Islamic State’s English media wing: al-Ḥayāt Media Center.
Much has already been published on the use of propaganda by IS. However, the specific videos that will be covered in this thesis have hardly been the subject of scientific debate since scholarly literature mostly focuses on written primary sources, such as online IS magazines and speeches by prominent IS leaders. Therefore, this thesis aims to expand knowledge about IS propaganda in general by broadening the scope of research by examining source material that hasn’t been discussed thoroughly yet.
The findings of this thesis aim to provide insight into the role of narratives in extremist propaganda and the strategies that organisations like IS use to promote their ideology and gain support. In particular, the thesis aims to shed light on the evolution of IS messaging and how this was affected by the organisation’s changing circumstances. By understanding the group’s narratives and messaging strategies, it may be possible to develop more effective ways of countering and undermining the ability of IS to recruit and radicalize individuals.
The first chapter of this thesis will present a theoretical framework and methodology for the analysis of the primary source material. Subsequently, the second chapter will provide information on the history of IS and the relevance of its online propaganda campaign. The first two chapters will thus provide the reader of this thesis with substantial background information that is necessary to be able to contextualize the analysis of the videos in chapter three and four. The third chapter will specifically discuss the themes in videos published during the heyday of IS, after which the fourth chapter will discuss the themes in videos from the downfall era of IS. The conclusion finally compares and analyses the findings of chapter three and four in order to reveal how the main narrative in IS video propaganda has changed over time.
Chapter 1: Theoretical framework and methodology
In order to properly analyse the development of the main narrative in IS video propaganda, it is essential to firstly identify the various themes in IS videos. To do so consistently and thoroughly, this thesis will use the ‘Cyclical Cognitive Reinforcement Dynamic’ (CCRD). This framework has been used often by Dr. Haroro Ingram in order to identify narratives in IS speeches and articles. Dr. Ingram is a renowned authority in the study of strategic messaging in violent, non-state political movements.5 The CCRD framework explains the process through which a radical narrative reinforces pre-existing ideas and mentalities.
According to the CCRD framework, there are certain components that make up a radical narrative.
Namely, a radical narrative presents a binary worldview, consisting of an out-group that is responsible for an alleged crisis and an in-group that is responsible for a solution to this crisis. The creator of a radical narrative intends to persuade a target audience to join the in-group in order to solve the alleged crisis. This dynamic is reinforced by structurally glorifying the in-group, and demonising the out-group.
A radical narrative creates the perception that the alleged crisis affects the in-group severely. Elements that comprise this alleged crisis are: the conception that the tradition of the in-group is under attack, the conception that the out-group poses a threat to the in-group, and the sense that the future of the in-group is uncertain. Rest assured, a radical narrative also proposes a solution to this crisis that typically involves a confrontation of the in-group with the out-group. Elements that comprise the solution to the crisis are: the conception that traditions need to be reinforced, the conception that dedication to the in-group needs to be increased, and a sense of security about the future of the in-
5 “Haroro J. Ingram,” ICCT, June 7, 2022, https://icct.nl/people/dr-haroro-j-ingram-associate-fellow/.
Figure 1: the Cyclical Cognitive Reinforcement Dynamic (CCRD)
5 group. For example, IS claims that historically ingrained norms and values are being attacked by people who oppose Islam. Reinforcing dedication to the in-group and averting a breakdown of tradition are supposedly the only logical responses to this crisis. One can imagine how a narrative like this can function as a powerful motivator for radical behaviour.6 In the case of IS, reinforcing commitment to the in-group and averting a breakdown of tradition could for example mean joining one’s ‘brothers’ in the Caliphate to fight against enemy factions.
The themes identified by the CCRD framework will be presented in the following two chapters. These themes will be combined to form two main narratives: one dating from the organization’s heyday and one from its demise. Finally, the two main narratives will be compared and analysed to reveal how IS has adapted its main narrative to changing circumstances. What follows now is an explanation of how the CCRD framework will be applied in relation to the primary source material.
The primary source material of this thesis consists of a sample of twenty English videos published by al-Ḥayāt Media Center between June 29, 2014 and October 30, 2018 (see appendix A). The videos address a wide range of topics, from reports on daily life under the rule of IS to personal stories of foreign fighters who have travelled to the caliphate. All videos are subtitled in English, indicating that the videos are meant for an international audience. This is further substantiated by the fact that the jihadis in the videos all speak in their mother tongues. Arabic, Bosnian, English, Filipino, French, and Kazakh are among the languages that are spoken in the videos. Because the time period covered by the videos overlaps with the rise and fall of the Caliphate, the videos make ideal source material in order to examine how IS responded in its propaganda to successes and setbacks. In order to make a distinction between videos before and after the fall of the Caliphate, the videos have been divided into two categories: eight videos were published during the heyday and 12 videos were published during the downfall era of IS. The summer of 2015 is widely regarded as a turning point for the power of IS, which is why the video from 24 November 2015 is marked as the first video from the downfall era (see appendix A).7
All videos were transcribed in order to expose the discourse in the videos (see appendix D). However, the transcripts not only contain an account of the discourse, but also of the visual elements in the videos. The verbal communication in these videos cannot be seen separately from the non-verbal
6 Haroro J. Ingram, “An Analysis of Inspire and Dabiq: Lessons from AQAP and Islamic State's Propaganda War,”
Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 5 (2016): pp. 360-361, https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610x.2016.1212551.
7 ‘’Expansion and declaration of a caliphate,’’ Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed November 15, 2022,
6 communication. Rather, they amplify each other. For example, when IS calls on its supporters to ‘Kill them [the unbelievers] wherever you find them’ and they show footage of an IS soldier beheading a supposed unbeliever, the non-verbal communication amplifies the verbal communication tremendously.8
The discourse and visual elements from the transcripts have been analysed by using the CCRD framework. This was done as follows: firstly every main component of the CCRD framework was identified on the basis of the transcripts. These main components are: the in-group, the out-group, the perception of crisis, and the solution to the crisis. Secondly it was analysed how these components relate to each other. The relationship between these components is usually similar. For example, the solution to a perception of crisis always caused a confrontation of the in-group with the out-group (see figure 1). The identification of the various components of the framework and their mutual relationship subsequently resulted in the identification of six different themes that IS recurrently addressed in its videos. The content of the themes combined led to the identification of two overarching narratives:
one from the heyday, and from the downfall era of IS. A comparative analysis of these overarching narratives is presented in the conclusion, which reveals an answer as to how narratives in English video propaganda from IS have developed in response to historical events.
8 And kill them wherever you find them, al-Hayat Media Center, January 23, 2016, 00:09:00.
Chapter 2: Islamic State and its use of online propaganda
This chapter will provide background information on IS and its online propaganda. First, the chapter will briefly discuss the history of IS, after which it will be explained how online propaganda is used by the organisation as a strategic tool. Subsequently, previously identified narratives in the speeches of IS leaders will be discussed in order to provide a general picture of how IS has responded to historical developments, like conquests of new cities or territorial losses.
A brief history of Islamic State
The spectacular rise of IS in 2014 left the world shocked. Seemingly out of nowhere, IS managed to conquer vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, but the group that became world news in 2014 did not come out of nowhere. In fact, IS had risen to power in Iraq once before. The origins of IS can be traced back as far as 1999. In that year, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established the so-called ‘Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad’. No one less than Osama bin Laden donated 200.000 dollars in start-up money to Zarqawi in order to make this starting enterprise successful.9 In October 2004, Zarqawi swore loyalty to al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, after which Zarqawi’s organisation became commonly known as al- Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).10 This event set off the first resurgence of salafi-jihadism in Iraq. AQI joined forces with several Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups, which led to the establishment of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) on October 12, 2006. ISI managed to conquer large parts of Iraq between 2006 and 2008, but from 2008 onwards, the group saw a sharp decline in its power due to local resistance against the group and improved counterinsurgency strategies of the American troops in Iraq. Nonetheless, it was far too early to declare the organisation permanently eliminated.11
After a period of decline, ISI progressively grew stronger following the takeover by Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi as leader of the organisation in May 2010. The United States’ withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the escalating violence in the Syrian civil war greatly helped the group regaining strength. Baghdadi announced in 2013 that the Nusra front in Syria had merged with ISI to create Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).12 This period of increasing prominence resulted eventually in the establishment of the Caliphate in June 2014, after which ISIS was renamed to simply ‘Islamic State’ (IS).13 IS started
9 “Exodus and Ascent,” FDD's Long War Journal, March 30, 2005,
10 Walter Pincus, “Zarqawi Is Said to Swear Allegiance to Bin Laden,” The Washington Post (WP Company, October 19, 2004), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2004/10/19/zarqawi-is-said-to-swear- allegiance-to-bin-laden/6a7cf91b-1482-454a-a349-ae6f7a34cfc3/.
11 Truls Hallberg Tønnessen, “The Islamic State after the Caliphate,” Perspectives on Terrorism 13, no. 1 (2019):
12 The merger was rejected by the leader of the Nusra front, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who swore allegiance to al-Qaeda.
13 “The Islamic State after the Caliphate,” pp. 2-3.
8 functioning as a government in the areas that it controlled. The organisation collected taxes and provided basic public services such as policing, education, and health care. These services were all carried out in accordance with a very strict interpretation of the sharia. IS relied on extreme violence as a means to implement their interpretation of sharia and consolidate power.14
By early 2015, IS reached its territorial peak and controlled approximately 106.000 square kilometres of land in Syria and Iraq.15 However, IS gradually lost power by mid-2015 due to clashes with Kurdish forces and their Western allies, pro-Assad Syrian forces, and Iraqi forces. The airstrikes of the international coalition against IS proved to be the nail in the coffin for the jihadi organisation. The Syrian and Iraqi government declared victory over IS in November 2017, although IS still held some strongholds in sparsely-populated areas in both countries. With the fall of Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019, IS had lost all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.16
How IS uses online propaganda as a strategic tool
With the rise of IS, the world saw the large-scale implementation of a very powerful weapon: online propaganda. From 2013 onwards, propaganda production by IS took off. IS created tens of thousands of original media items, including: video clips, films, newspapers, picture stories, and radio programs.
The organisation even established a media wing that was tasked with targeting an international audience. The so-called al-Ḥayāt Media Center was founded in 2014 and has published the infamous glossy-like online magazines Dābiq and Rūmiyya, both of which were written in English.17 Al-Ḥayāt Media Center is also behind the English propaganda videos that will be analysed extensively later in this thesis. The content in these media publications were meant to ‘shape perceptions’, ‘manipulate cognitions’, and ‘direct behaviours’.18 In doing so, IS intended to consolidate its constituency and recruit new supporters, of which foreign fighters in particular. This was very successful considering the fact that the self-proclaimed Caliphate saw the largest influx of foreign Islamist fighters in modern history.19
14 “Expansion and Declaration of a Caliphate,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.), accessed October 25, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Islamic-State-in-Iraq-and-the-
15 “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State,” Wilson Center, accessed September 26, 2022, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/timeline-the-rise-spread-and-fall-the-islamic-state.
17 Logan Macnair and Richard Frank, “‘To My Brothers in the West . . .’: A Thematic Analysis of Videos Produced by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayāt Media Center,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 33, no. 3 (2017): p.
18 Charlie Winter, “Redefining ‘Propaganda’: The Media Strategy of the Islamic State,” The RUSI Journal 165, no.
1 (2020): p. 38, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2020.1734321.
19 Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside, and Charlie Winter, “The Caliphate Rises,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 175-176.
9 Thus, online propaganda was (and arguably still is) of essential importance to IS. Dr. Charlie Winter, a leading researcher on IS propaganda, says the following about this: ‘The Islamic State’s deployment of strategic communication was unparalleled in its scope and complexity. An essential pillar of its overarching caliphate project, it was used to augment and amplify its activities on a day-to-day basis.’20 Even during times when the group was experiencing military setbacks, IS was able to produce persuasive propaganda by the use of narratives that were fit to its constituency.
In order to examine the development of the main narrative in IS propaganda, it is important to firstly consider the term ‘narrative’. Most narratologists agree that a narrative consists of written or spoken communication that has the intention to convey a certain perspective on events and fulfils a social function.21 This social function could for example involve mobilizing an audience to join a cause.
Narratives are essential for humans to make sense of the world, since they provide coherence.
Furthermore, humans are able to justify their acts if this particular act fits coherently into an existing narrative. Narratives can therefore be used to mobilize a target audience to perform certain desired actions.22 If this is the purpose of a narrative, it is classified as ‘performative’.23 To illustrate the definition of a performative narrative, consider the following example: IS might explain in its propaganda that certain military setbacks are a way of Allah to test the faith of believers. Thus, IS offers a discourse with a certain perspective on events, with the intention of mobilizing the target audience to e.g. remain committed, not lose faith and continue fighting against the enemy.
The development of narratives in key speeches of Islamic State leaders
The development of narratives in IS propaganda in relation to historical events has been analysed quite extensively in existing scientific literature on the topic. However, this literature is largely based on speeches by IS commanders and caliphs, as well as articles in online magazines of IS. Even though this thesis explores the development of narratives in English video propaganda, it will be insightful to elaborate on the development of narratives in other IS media publications in order to get a broad overview of the development of strategic messaging by IS. The most comprehensive and thorough publication on narratives in IS propaganda is The ISIS Reader. This book was written by the previously mentioned Dr. Haroro Ingram and Dr. Charlie Winter, and Dr. Craig Whiteside, associate professor of national security at the US Naval War College. The ISIS Reader presents a bundle of milestone Islamic State primary source materials that are contextualized by relating these primary source materials to
20 “Redefining ‘Propaganda’: The Media Strategy of the Islamic State,” p. 38.
21 Erkan Toguslu, “Caliphate, Hijrah and Martyrdom as Performative Narrative in ISIS Dabiq Magazine,” Politics, Religion & Ideology 20, no. 1 (2018): p. 95, https://doi.org/10.1080/21567689.2018.1554480.
22 Ibid, p. 95.
23 Ibid, pp. 96-97.
10 key events in the history of IS. What follows is a discussion of key speeches by IS leaders, which serves to provide a general overview of the development of IS narratives.
The event that heralded the heyday of IS was the April 2013 speech from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in which he declared that the Nusra Front in Syria had merged with ISI to form ISIS.24 According to Ingram et. al., Baghdadi presented ISIS in this speech as the new brand of global jihadism, thereby challenging the position of al-Qaeda.25 Baghdadi talks about the history of his organisation and the various successes it had had in its past, of which the most recent was the military campaign of the Nusra Front in Syria. These military successes were explained by Baghdadi as resulting from God’s grace. Success and failure were thus defined as markers of legitimacy of the organisation, a narrative that would become recurrent in later media publications of IS. Speaking from a self-proclaimed position of authority, Baghdadi called on the umma (worldwide Islamic community) to unite itself against enemies of Islam by joining ISIS, a statement that he justified using Islamic jurisprudence.26
In the year after the establishment of ISIS, the organisation proved to be very effective. Raqqa was captured in January 2014 and became the de facto headquarters of ISIS. A few months later, Tikrit, Mosul, and the strategic border crossing of Deir az-Zour were captured.27 Then in June 2014, ISIS had changed its name to simply ‘Islamic State’, an indication for their conviction that there was only one genuine Islamic state in the world. Baghdadi gave a speech on the 1st of July 2014 to emphasize this.
He claimed that IS had become the sole representative for Muslims around the world because of all the military successes the organisation had achieved. This could mean nothing but a sign from God.
Consequently, Muslims were now said to be jurisprudentially obligated to support the Caliphate. If they did not, they were not true Muslims.28 Baghdadi expanded on this narrative a couple of days later, when he delivered his famous speech in the Grand Mosque of Mosul. In this speech he presented a narrative that also intended to persuade Muslims to join IS. Namely, he stated that Muslims around the world had been persecuted for ages. Muslims had been robbed of their rights, plundered of their wealth, and therefore they had been humiliated. However, Baghdadi offered a way to restore the honour of the umma, which was joining the jihad by making hijra (migration) to the caliphate.29 At this point in time the priority of IS was to attract foreign fighters to join the battle. According to Dr. Erkan
24 Salient detail: Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of the Nusra Front, rejected the alliance and swore allegiance instead to al-Qaeda.
25 Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside, and Charlie Winter, “The Declaration of the Islamic State in Iraq and al- Sham,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, pp. 157-160.
26 “The Declaration of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, p. 154.
27 “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State,” Wilson Center, accessed October 3, 2022.
28 “The Caliphate Rises,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, p 162.
29 Ibid, pp. 171-172.
11 Toguslu (researcher at the Institute for Media Studies at the University of Leuven), IS often used narratives like the above that were ‘performative’ in nature.30
Over the course of 2014, IS managed to consolidate the territory that it had conquered throughout Iraq and Syria. IS prospered and had access to a great amount of wealth. However, in September 2014, a global coalition was formed in order to destroy IS.31 On September 22, the spokesman of IS, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, gave a speech that contained a new performative narrative. Building on the previous narrative that Muslims had been persecuted for ages, Adnani now stated that the world was engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil. The conflict in Iraq and Syria was said to be not simply a regional conflict, but the stage of a perpetual global battle between Islam and kufr (unbelief).
According to Adnani, the West wanted to exterminate Islam. This was presented as the reason that the West was interfering in the conflict in Iraq and Syria, as well as the reason for discrimination against Muslims in the West and the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Xinjiang. Adnani upscaled the conflict to a global level and now also called on Muslims in the West to engage in terrorism at home.32 This was a break with previous narratives, that were aimed at mobilizing Western Muslims to travel to Iraq and Syria.
On May 21, 2016, Adnani gave his last speech before he would be killed. Meanwhile, the international coalition had recaptured various IS strongholds, which put the organisation under tremendous pressure.33 This was resonated clearly in Adnani’s speech. Adnani argued that IS would be militarily defeated at some point in the future, but that this would not constitute proof of the failure of IS.
Rather, Adnani explained that as long as there are people adhering to IS’s manhaj (methodology), the movement would continue to thrive. Dr. Nik Hynek, professor in Political and Cultural Geography at the University of Prague, argues in a 2018 article that IS has been known to exploit its dual identity as a state and an Islamic organisation. Depending on the context, IS portrays itself as either one in order to maintain an appealing message regarding the reality on the ground.34 Adnani does exactly this in his final speech. He offers a narrative in which IS is defined as a loose organisation, because this downplays the gravity of the loss of territory. Namely, the existence of an organisation does not depend on the territory it controls, but merely on the support it has from its followers.35 Ingram et. al. further argue
30 “Caliphate, Hijrah and Martyrdom as Performative Narrative in ISIS Dabiq Magazine,” pp. 96-97.
31 “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State,” Wilson Center, accessed October 4, 2022.
32 Haroro J. Ingram et. al., “Global War,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, pp.
33 “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State,” accessed October 4, 2022.
34 Vladislav Strnad and Nik Hynek, “ISIS’s Hybrid Identity: A Triangulated Analysis of the Dabiq Narrative,”
Defence Studies 20, no. 1 (2020): p. 97, https://doi.org/10.1080/14702436.2020.1720513.
35 Haroro J. Ingram et. al., “Defining Success and Failure,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, pp. 254-255.
12 that with Adnani’s final speech, IS provided its followers with another narrative. Adnani explained in his speech that strategic setbacks are regarded as an integral part of a perpetual state of war. The military setbacks were explained by Adnani as a way of God to test his followers on commitment and perseverance. At the dawn of Islamic State’s demise, Adnani called on IS supporters to remain steadfast.36
During 2016 and 2017, IS continued to suffer significant territorial losses. Finally, in 2018, the organisation held only two percent of the territory it held at its high point.37 In this context, Baghdadi gave a speech in which he expanded on the previously identified narrative that strategic setbacks were regarded as tests of God. On August 21, 2018, Baghdadi explained to his supporters why periods of decline were an integral part of God’s plan: they were necessary in order to purify the following of IS.
The true believers needed to be separated from the pretenders, because this would eventually result in a stronger umma. Patience and continuing to adhere to the manhaj would result in Allah’s grace.38 For quite some time now, IS leaders were preparing its following for an imminent downfall. Thus, when the organisation lost its last stronghold in Syria on March 23, 2019, it came as no surprise.
A little over a month after the fall of Baghouz, Baghdadi appeared for the last time on video when he gave a speech about the future of IS. He was referred to in the video as amīr al-mu’minīn (commander of the faithful). According to Ingram et. al., this title emphasized his spiritual authority, rather than his authority as leader of a state. On the basis of his spiritual authority, Baghdadi once more called on IS supporters to remain steadfast and committed. Periods of decline were simply part of the cyclical struggle for power.39 Baghdadi said that IS had risen from its ashes after it was practically defeated in 2008, and it could do so again. Baghdadi furthermore stated that IS had transformed into a guerrilla movement. The dual identity of IS proved useful once more in downplaying strategic losses.40
In conclusion, the development of narratives in the speeches of IS leaders shows that the organisation strategically employed various narratives in order to bend reality to its advantage. The purpose of these narratives was to increase the legitimacy and credibility of IS as a political, military and ideological actor. IS managed to adapt their narratives to historical events, which ensured that they managed to present a coherent story. Bearing the findings above in mind, this thesis will now continue
36 Haroro J. Ingram et. al., “Defining Success and Failure,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, pp. 257-258.
37 “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State,” accessed October 4, 2022.
38 Haroro J. Ingram et. al., “Patience,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, p. 275.
39 Haroro J. Ingram et. al., “The Guerilla Caliph,” in The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, p. 301.
40 Vladislav Strnad and Nik Hynek, “ISIS’s Hybrid Identity: A Triangulated Analysis of the Dabiq Narrative,” p. 97.
13 with exploring the development of narratives in English video propaganda published by al-Hayat Media Center.
Chapter 3: Narrating success
This chapter will discuss the various themes in English IS video propaganda that was published during the organisation’s period of expansion. This period of expansion started in January 2014, when IS conquered its first major city in Syria: Raqqa. The conquest of Raqqa set off a streak of conquests that culminated in January 2015 when IS reached its territorial peak. This supremacy did not last long however, since IS started increasingly to lose control of its territory in the summer of 2015. By that time, the efforts of local actors and the international coalition against IS started to take its toll on the organisation. The summer of 2015 is therefore widely considered as the beginning of the organisation’s downfall.41 The videos in the dataset of this chapter correspond with the period considered as the heyday of IS. The first video from the dataset of this chapter was published on June 29, 2014, and the latest video was published on June 4, 2015 (see appendix A). All transcriptions of the videos were analysed using the CCRD framework, which resulted in the identification of four different themes for the videos from the downfall era. Every identified theme will be analysed over the course of this chapter using examples from the videos. Below is an overview of the different themes and their occurrence in the dataset that was used for this chapter. For example, the theme of legitimacy is mentioned in 87,5% of the selected videos for this chapter.
41 ‘’Expansion and declaration of a caliphate,’’ Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed November 15, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Islamic-State-in-Iraq-and-the-Levant/Expansion-and-declaration-of-a- caliphate
Legitimacy: 87,5% Hijra: 75,5% Honour: 62,5% Moral superiority: 25%
Occurence of themes in percentages of the total amount
of selected videos during Islamic State's expansion era
15 Theme 1: Legitimacy
The most recurrent theme in the videos that were analysed for this chapter is the theme of legitimacy.
Seven out of the eight videos that were analysed for this chapter contained this theme. IS argues in these videos that it is the only legitimate representative of the umma because of the military and state- building successes that the organisation has achieved.42 According to IS, this success is testimony to God’s blessing for the efforts of the organisation. It was initially not too challenging to convey this argument, since IS indeed had significant military successes such as the capture of Raqqa in Syria and the capture of Mosul in Iraq. IS thus used its propaganda to amplify the progress that was made on the battlefield, thereby creating the image that it was on the upper hand in the conflict. IS further argues that unbelievers pose a threat to the umma because they intend to rid the world of Islam. However, the solution according to the organisation is to confront enemies of the umma on the battlefield in the name of God. IS argues that it proves time and again to be a formidable opponent against the unbelievers.43
The theme of legitimacy is particularly dominant in the video ‘The end of Sykes-Picot’, which was published on the same date as the proclamation of the caliphate: June 29, 2014. IS was rapidly conquering great swathes of land in Iraq and Syria at the time, among which large cities. The organisation furthermore controlled all major border crossings between Iraq and Syria, which happens to be the main topic of the video. In the video, a jihadi called Abu Safiyyah can be seen visiting the remains of a border crossing. He reminisces about a battle that took place at the site of the crossing.
He describes how heroic IS fighters with the help of God took on the Iraqi army and gained control of the location. IS destroyed the border crossing as part of a larger plan to wipe out all borders in the world that arose from secular nationalism. Abu Safiyyah describes a perspective of the future in which the umma is united in one caliphate under the leadership of IS. In doing so, Abu Safiyyah attributes to IS the position as leader of the umma, which he substantiates by referring to the success of capturing the border crossing. This is an example of how IS uses success as an argument to justify their self- allocated position as leader of the global Islamic community.
42 The end of Sykes-Picot, al-Hayat Media Center, June 29, 2014; Eid greeting from the land of the khilafah, al- Hayat Media Center, July 8, 2014; The chosen few: Abu Muslim al-Kanadi, al-Hayat Media Center, July 12, 2014;
Flames of war, al-Hayat Media Center, September 19, 2014; Race towards good, al-Hayat Media Center, November 21, 2014; A visit to Mosul, al-Hayat Media Center, November 28, 2014; From inside Halab, al-Hayat Media Center, February 9, 2015.
43 The end of Sykes-Picot, al-Hayat Media Center, June 29, 2014; Flames of war, al-Hayat Media Center, September 19, 2014; From inside Halab, February 9, 2015.
16 In order to amplify the success and general greatness of IS, the enemies of IS are heavily demonized.
While Abu Safiyyah describes the IS fighters that captured the border crossing as successful, the soldiers of the Iraqi army are portrayed as cowards who have been defeated:
Jaysh [army] Iraqi, what is the jaysh? The soldiers, they took this off their uniforms and they threw the uniforms in the streets and they run away, like they were civilians. Run like cowards. There is no army in the world that can stand the soldiers of al-dawla al-islāmīyya [the Islamic State] insha’allah [God willing]. Alhamdullilah [Praise be to God].44
This transcript exemplifies how IS uses a very negative portrayal of its enemies to create a stark contrast with itself, hereby amplifying the success of IS. The enemy fighters ran away, while IS fighters stayed and fought. The enemy fighters are cowards, while IS fighters are heroes. The enemy fighters are unsuccessful, while IS fighters are successful. This binary worldview substantiates the theme that IS is the rightful representative of the umma. To illustrate this point more thoroughly, consider the following example. Further in the same video, Abu Safiyyah visits a prison where enemies of IS have been detained. He says the following about the prisoners:
Those people who raise their hand right now are Yazidi people. They worship Lucifer, they say that he got thrown out of janna [heaven], and they worship him. Those people used to patrol the border, between Iraq and al-Sham. These are the people who used to fight, and kill the istishhādiyyīn [suicide bombers], and make sure that no one of the istishhādiyyīn get in to Iraq. Alhamdullilah [Praise be to God] the istishhādiyyīn went through. Look at these idiots. They claim to be ahl al-sunna [people that follow the sunna], but they have nothing with the sunna [the way of Mohammad] to do.45
The prisoners in the video can be seen kneeling down on the ground, wearing the characteristic orange prison suit that is infamous from various IS execution videos. These prisoners are a testimony to the success of IS, because they show that IS has literally brought its enemies to their knees. With this prison-scene, IS shows that it has been successfully ‘defending’ Islam, which substantiates the claim that IS is the legitimate leader of the umma.
This claim was not only based on (exaggerated) stories of achievements on the battlefield. From the videos that were analysed, it became apparent that IS also claimed to be the legitimate leader of the umma on the basis of their state-building efforts. IS presented itself as a viable alternative to the weak and corrupt governments of Iraq and Syria, and was able to offer services and stability in some areas, even though it imposed its harsh and oppressive rule on the population. A good example of this is a video named ‘From inside Aleppo’, which was published on February 9, 2015. This was a time in which
44 The end of Sykes-Picot, al-Hayat Media Center, June 29, 2014, 00:03:00.
45 The end of Sykes-Picot, al-Hayat Media Center, June 29, 2014, 00:09:00.
17 the first cracks in the reign of IS were visible. IS had reached its territorial peak in January 2015, but meanwhile the international coalition against IS was starting to increase the frequency of its aerial attacks, which put IS under pressure. ‘From inside Aleppo’ aimed to showcase the success of IS in its state-building efforts, despite the aerial bombardments. The video is presented by John Cantlie, a British photographer who was abducted by IS in 2012.46 Cantlie can be seen walking through Aleppo, a city that has been heavily damaged by bombardments. Nonetheless, there are many scenes that give the impression that the city is thriving. There is footage of a colourful vegetable market, of children taking Quran lessons and of men fishing on a river bank. Life in the Caliphate looks comfortable. Cantlie proceeds to talk about the various public services that IS offers: education, healthcare, and jurisdiction.
He then visits a sharia court in Aleppo, about which he says the following:
The rules of sharia are remarkably simple. For example, if you are convicted of robbery with the correct number of witnesses and so forth, you have your hand cut off. Sounds harsh, but you're not going to commit the same crime again, and it will dissuade others from doing the same. This is the waiting room where normal civilians wait to see a sharia court judge, and like any other waiting room, like any other law court in the world, they're playing TV in the background. This being the Islamic State, they’re playing Islamic State videos. I must say, they’re a lot more entertaining than watching the news at six.47
This fragment shows that IS allegedly is successful in enforcing sharia law. By showcasing its success in state-building capacities, such as the capacity to set up law and order on the basis of sharia, IS showed that it was able to enforce the law of God. This was presented once more as a sign of the legitimacy of the organisation as leader of the umma.
Theme 2: Moral superiority
By showcasing successes, IS argued that God was on their side. But, why did God support IS actually?
The second theme that was identified relates to this question. IS claimed that because IS soldiers live according to the will of God, they would obtain the support of God. The organisation argued that living in accordance with the will of God means that IS soldiers are morally superior to their enemies, which was presented as the core strength of its fighters. IS did acknowledge that its enemies were materially superior. For example, the Assad regime had access to battle tanks, fighter jets and other combat equipment that IS did not have access to. IS insisted however that moral superiority was more important than material superiority, because the party that is morally superior would have the support of God, something that would give more strength than any physical weapon. According to IS, moral superiority manifestates itself in courage and steadfastness of IS soldiers in battle. IS’s enemies were
46 ‘’Islamic State: Relatives of British hostage braced for coming trial,’’ BBC UK, accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-54270679.
47 From inside Halab, al-Hayat Media Center, February 9, 2015, 00:06:00.
18 allegedly lacking these characteristics.48 Once again, IS used the out-group as a representation of everything that IS disapproved of, so that the identity of the in-group was presented in a good light.
An example of this argument can be found in a video called ‘Flames of War’, which was published on September 19, 2014. This was a successful time for IS as the organisation proved to be dominant on the battlefield. Furthermore, Western powers were not yet engaged in the conflict on a large scale.
‘Flames of War’ is a video that aimed to showcase the successes of IS on the battlefield. The video is close to an hour long and consists of three detailed battle reports: a report of the conquest of Manaq airbase in Syria, a report of the conquest of the city of Fallujah in Iraq, and a report of an unidentified battle against the PKK and YPG. Not entirely coincidentally, these are examples of battles IS waged against its greatest enemies, respectively: the Syrian regime, the Iraqi regime, and the Kurds. IS structurally pits the enemy's material superiority against the moral superiority of its own fighters, as the following transcript about the Kurdish enemy illustrates:
Allah ’azza wa jall [the Mighty and Venerable] says: ‘And whoever places his trust in Allah, then He will be sufficient for him.’ Dear brothers, we rejoice on account of our numbers and equipment but our numbers and our equipment should not be our main concern. Our main concern is to place our trust in Allah, the Glorified and Exalted. (...) Allah continued to humiliate the enemies of the Islamic State, especially in Iraq where the deviant safawī [derogatory term for the Iraqi government] forces and their high-tech US weaponry were up against the mujāhidīn [IS soldiers].49
In this transcript, the moral superiority of IS soldiers as represented by their faith in Allah is presented as the main reason for their force majeure on the battlefield. Because of their faith in Allah, IS soldiers were able to confront an enemy who had access to stronger weapons and combat equipment. It is argued that as long as IS supporters morally behave according to the will of God, victory is guaranteed.
The epitome of moral superiority is represented by people who perform ‘martyrdom operations’.
Becoming a martyr in the name of God is perceived by IS as the ultimate act of moral rectitude.
Martyrdom is of great important to IS, because its ideology conveys that Islam cannot advance as a civilisation or as a religion if there is no wilful self-sacrifice on its behalf.50
The theme of moral superiority can also be found in the video ‘A visit to Mosul’, which was published on November 28, 2014. IS was in control of a large part of Iraq and Syria during this period. However, the US had just started operation ‘Inherent Resolve’, a campaign of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
48 Flames of war, al-Hayat Media Center, September 19, 2014; A visit to Mosul, al-Hayat Media Center, November 28, 2014.
49 Flames of War, al-Hayat Media Center, September 19, 2014, 00:31:00.
50 David B.Cook, “Contemporary Martyrdom: Ideology and Material Culture,” in Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists, edited by Thomas Hegghammer, 160-161, Cambridge University Press, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781139086141.008.
19 Especially around Kobane IS was suffering from intense airstrikes, but around Mosul the situation was relatively stable, which was exactly the image that IS wanted to present to the outer world.51
In the video about Mosul, a Russian-speaking jihadi is walking around the city and interviewing civilians to ask them about their daily lives since IS took over. Everyone naturally expresses themselves very positively about the change of power that has taken place: the mantra is that IS has brought stability and security. After talking to some civilians, the unidentified Russian jihadi reflects on how IS managed to win the battle of Mosul. He says the following:
The assault from there, and the battle in this area lasted for three days. Over the course of three days, 200 mujahidīn [IS fighters] faced a strong and sizable Iraqi army that was trained at the hands of the American forces and supported by America with finances. After three days of long and difficult battle, an istishhadi [martyrdom] operation was carried out in this place. The Iraqis call these operations
‘dugmah’. In this operation, a murtadd [apostate] officer who had come there to inspect the checkpoint was killed. After this operation, Allah cast terror in the hearts of the murtaddīn [apostates]. After that, the brothers began attacking from this side to the other side. When the brothers attacked, the murtaddīn fled and left behind their weapons and clothing as you’ve seen.52
According to this excerpt, the odds were seemingly not in favour of IS during the battle of Mosul. They faced an enemy that was materially superior to them and on top of that, they were outnumbered.
However, an IS soldier blew himself up and thus became a martyr. An act that is perceived as the epitome of moral rectitude. The IS fighters furthermore counted on God, who instilled fear in the minds of the adversaries, causing them to flee the battlefield. The material superiority of the enemy is thus again trivialized. What really counts is moral superiority that manifestates itself in heroicness and faith in God.
Theme 3: Hijra
Moral rectitude for IS meant to live according to God’s will, but what this exactly entails is not always clear. In any case, it is clear that migrating to the Caliphate was part of living according to the will of God. Six out of eight videos that were analysed for this chapter include calls to travel to the Caliphate.53 IS argued in these videos that hijra was necessary because one cannot live in dignity as a true Muslim
51 ‘’Expansion and declaration of a caliphate,’’ Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed December 10, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Islamic-State-in-Iraq-and-the-Levant/Expansion-and-declaration-of-a- caliphate.
52 A visit to Mosul, al-Hayat Media Center, November 28, 2014, 00:01:00.
53 Eid greeting from the land of the khilafah, al-Hayat Media Center, July 8, 2014; The chosen few: Abu Muslim al-Kanadi, al-Hayat Media Center, July 12, 2014; Flames of war, al-Hayat Media Center, September 19, 2014;
Race towards good, al-Hayat Media Center, November 11, 2014; A visit to Mosul, al-Hayat Media Center, November 28, 2014; Honour is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans, al-Hayat Media Center, June 4, 2015.
20 in the countries of the world where Islam is not the ruling religion. IS only considered the Caliphate to be a place where Muslims can live in accordance with Islam.54 IS argued that many Muslims lived a shameful existence because they resided outside the Caliphate. They lived among the unbelievers, who humiliated and corrupted them. However, if all Muslims would migrate to the Caliphate, they could attain a dignified life as a Muslim and come to terms with God.
In order to make hijra an attractive option, IS presented life in the Caliphate as comfortable and stable.
In the videos, IS proudly discusses the many institutions that see to the enforcement of sharia law and it is hardly evident from the videos that the Caliphate was in a permanent state of war. Rather, the dominant image is one of a blossoming, multi-ethnic Islamic community. A good example of this is a video called ‘Eid greetings from the land of khilafah’, published on August 7, 2014. In the video, jihadis from all over the world tell what it is like to celebrate ‘eīd al-fiṭr in the Caliphate. The video contains idyllic images of men enjoying food together and children playing in a playground with their fathers.
Thus, the message that resonates from the video is optimistic, which correlates with a streak of optimistic events that preceded the publication of the video. I.e. the conquest of: Mosul; Tikrit; the Shaer gas field; and the border crossing at Deir ez-Zour.55 Furthermore, the Caliphate had been proclaimed only eight days before the publication of this video. Abdul-Haleem al-Tunsi, a Tunisian jihadi, describes the sentiment as follows:
I want to speak to my brothers everywhere and encourage them to do hijra to this blessed state. I say to them, come to this state, which we dreamed of living in and dreamed of participating in building.
Alhamdullilah, Allah blessed us after performing hijra to this state and residing within it with our families.
Alhamdullilah, we live with honour in the shades of this religion, this honourable and noble religion, this religion by which Allah honoured us.56
Thus, living in the Caliphate is a long awaited dream and enables Muslims to live an honourable life, in opposition to the dishonourable way of living outside of the Caliphate. Besides presenting hijra as something that is desirable, IS also declares that it is simply obligatory on Muslims to travel to the Caliphate. Abdul-Haleem later in the videos proceeds to say the following:
I say to them [other Muslims], perform hijra to these lands that are ruled by Islam. Hijra is now obligatory upon every Muslim. It is obligatory now because we are in the shade of Islam and rule by Allah’s sharia.57
54 Matan Uberman and Shaul Shay, ‘’Hijrah According to the Islamic State: An Analysis of Dabiq,’’ Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 8, no. 9 (2016), pp. 16-17,
55 “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State,” Wilson Center, accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/timeline-the-rise-spread-and-fall-the-islamic-state.
56 ‘Eīd greetings from the land of khilāfa, August 7, 2014, 00:00:00.
57 Ibid, 00:00:00.
21 This statement arises from IS’s self-defined position of authority as leader of the umma, which IS could claim because of the successes the organisation had achieved (see theme 1). In addition, IS indicates by the use of this theme that Muslims who do not travel to the caliphate are not obedient to the will of God and therefore are not true Muslims. Thus, the argument that hijra is obligatory eradicates the existence of a grey area. There are only believers and unbelievers, with nothing in between. The binary worldview is apparent once more.
Another video that addresses hijra is called ‘The chosen few: Abu Muslim al-Kanadi’. This video dates from July 12, 2014 and is about Abu Muslim al-Kanadi, a jihadi from Canada. His hijra to the Caliphate is presented as a success story. Abu Muslim talks about the challenges he faced in his travel to the Caliphate and how he responded to them in accordance with Islam. He tells for example that it was difficult to cut ties with his family, but that the love for Allah proved to be stronger than the love for his family. Abu Muslim an example of the ideal Muslim in the eyes of IS: he chooses God above anything else. This is underlined at the end of the video, when Abu Muslim dies the most honourable death imaginable for a jihadi: he becomes a martyr whilst combatting the enemy on the battlefield. The narrator in the video reminisces the heroism of Abu Muslim:
Abu Muslim was from the few of the few of the few, he accepted Islam in a land at war with Islam, in a land with few Muslims, in a land where evil, kufr [disbelief] and sin, called him from every direction and corner, to succumb to shayṭān [devil] and to his desires. (…) When he was released by Allah’s grace, and hear of the jihad in Sham, he rushed to perform ḥijra, despite all the opposition from the enemies of Allah and their intelligence agencies.58
The scene in which Abu Muslims becomes a martyr embodies another reason as to why migration to the Caliphate is the solution to the ‘shameful’ way of life outside the Caliphate: hijra enables Muslims to perform jihad and thus to confront the enemies of Islam on the battlefield.
Theme 4: Honour
IS claimed to be working to restore the honour of the umma, which is the last theme that was identified in five of the eight videos that were analysed for this chapter.59 IS argued that Muslims around the world have been structurally humiliated for centuries. The West is identified as the main instigator for this, but regional ‘puppet regimes’ are also to blame. According to IS, the West has dishonoured Muslims due to: colonization of a large part of the territory of the umma; the Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the mistreating of the West’s own Muslim citizens by discriminating
58 The chosen few: Abu Muslim al-Kanadi, al-Hayat Media Center, July 12, 2014, 00:02:00.
59 The end of Sykes-Picot, al-Hayat Media Center, June 29, 2014; Flames of war, al-Hayat Media Center, September 19, 2014; A visit to Mosul, al-Hayat Media Center, November 28, 2014; From inside Halab, February 9, 2015; Honor is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans, al-Hayat Media Center, June 4, 2015.
22 against them.60 IS presented itself as the solver of this alleged crisis by creating the image that IS was working to restore the lost honour of the worldwide Islamic community. IS claimed to do this first and foremost by confronting the enemy on the battlefield. Many of the organisation’s military successes were presented as instances of reparation for the suffered humiliation of the umma, which would lead to restoration of honour. The most obvious example of this can be found in the previously mentioned video ‘The end of Sykes-Picot’. The establishment of the borders that arose from the Sykes-Picot agreement are presented as a humiliation, because European powers imposed this against the will of the local Muslim population. The capture of the border crossing is consequently portrayed as a way of restoring honour through the reparation of suffered humiliation.61 IS further argued that it also was restoring the honour of the umma by the creation of a safe haven for Muslims all around the world:
the Caliphate. This was the place where every humiliated Muslim individual could restore one’s individual honour by living in accordance with Islam, which was not possible in any other place.
The video ‘Honor is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans’ is filled with references to humiliation on the one hand, and restoration of honour on the other. The video was published on June 4, 2015, a date on which IS was under pressure due to the regular bombings of the coalition, which prevented local IS forces to recover from battle. In less than a month after the publication of this video, Kurdish forces would take control of the Syrian town of Tell Abyad and the Syrian military base of Ayn Issa, an event that would signify the beginning of the end for IS in Iraq and Syria.62
‘Honor is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans’ tells the history of the Balkan countries from the perspective of IS. The Balkan War is allegedly an example of what happens when Muslims do not unite: they will fall prey to their enemies and will thus be humiliated. The video refers to atrocities committed against Muslims during the Balkan War, such as the destruction of mosques, the mass- killing of Muslim men (in the town of Srebrenica), and the raping of Muslim women. Abu Safiyah al- Bosni, a Bosnian jihadi in the video, says the following on this:
Srebrenica will be repeated again. The massacres in Gorazde, Mostar and other places will be repeated again if the Muslims don’t return to their religion. (…) And you will never bring honour back to the Muslims until you return to your religion and until you support the khilāfa.63
60 The end of Sykes-Picot, al-Hayat Media Center, June 29, 2014; Flames of war, al-Hayat Media Center, September 19, 2014; A visit to Mosul, al-Hayat Media Center, November 28, 2014; From inside Halab, February 9, 2015; Honor is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans, al-Hayat Media Center, June 4, 2015.
61 The end of Sykes-Picot, al-Hayat Media Center, June 29, 2014.
62 “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State,” Wilson Center, accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/timeline-the-rise-spread-and-fall-the-islamic-state.
63 Honor is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans, al-Hayat Media Center, June 4, 2015, 00:09:00.
23 In this particular statement, a doom scenario is presented: humiliation and suffering like the Muslims of the Balkans have known is inevitable if one does not support IS. One can only attain restoration of honour through supporting the Caliphate. However, what supporting the Caliphate exactly entails is not specified, until later in the video:
If you want honour, come here brothers. Don’t let the dirty ṭawāghīt (idolaters) arrest you, humiliate you, break into your houses in the middle of the night, finding your wives uncovered. Brothers, fear Allah, the call of the khilāfa is something you must answer. Dear brothers, come to taste the sweetness of faith, I thank Allah for everything. Alhamdullilah.64
So, in this particular video, the argument that IS will restore the honour of the umma is coupled with a call to make hijra. According to IS, living among the unbelievers will eventually result in humiliation.
However, IS has enabled Muslims to restore their honour by creating the Caliphate. Here one can live in dignity as a true Muslim.
The four main themes identified on the basis of the analysed transcripts are clearly closely related. All these themes combined provide a coherent narrative in which IS presents itself as the saviour of Islam.
IS claims in its videos that it is conquering an ever-expanding territory from the cowardly enemies it encounters. In addition, institutions are emerging in the areas that IS has already conquered to ensure that everyone lives according to the jihadist-salafist version of Islam that IS adheres to. These successes (on the battlefield and in state-building) are indications that IS has the backing of God and is thus the legitimate representative of the umma. According to IS, its soldiers have the support of God because they are morally superior to the enemies since the latter do not live according to Islam. As long as IS soldiers adhere to God’s will, they will keep God’s blessing and will not have to worry about enemies who are materially stronger than them.
Using the appropriated authority as leader of the umma, IS calls on its supporters to travel to the Caliphate because this is the only place where one can live in dignity as a Muslim and join the fight against the infidels. But, in addition, IS also states that it is simply mandatory as a Muslim to travel to the Caliphate. Anyone who continues to live amongst the disbelievers is himself a disbeliever.
Moreover, these disbelievers are the cause of all the suffering that has been inflicted on the umma throughout the ages. For centuries, Muslims have been humiliated, persecuted and killed, but IS is now finally making reparations.
64 Honor is in jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans, al-Hayat Media Center, June 4, 2015, 00:14:00.
24 Thus, the general narrative in videos from the heyday of IS was a positive one. IS used real historical events to substantiate their arguments. This was possible because from the perspective of IS, there were many positive events that could be employed to convey an attractive narrative. However, the next chapter will address themes that IS addressed during a period in which it increasingly lost territory and influence in Iraq and Syria. Narrating success is easy, but how does IS narrate setbacks?