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IS Propaganda Switches from Utopian Caliphate to Battlefield Reality

  • Henry Ridgwell

As the terror group Islamic State loses more and more territory in Iraq and Syria, its propaganda has undergone a significant change, according to analysts. Many of the recent videos produced by the group have focused on the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul — with a decreasing emphasis on calls for foreign fighters to join the group.

Charlie Winter of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization has been tracking Islamic State's propaganda for several years.

One of the latest videos put out by the terror group, he says, shows suicide bomb attacks on Iraqi forces in Mosul.

"There's been a big shift away from this idea of an Islamic utopia towards something around warfare," he said. "This video, and videos like it, are all geared towards showing that, yes, the Islamic State may be losing territory, but it's making the defense of that territory as expensive to the enemy as possible."

When the Islamic State group was at the height of its strength, many of the videos focused on the utopian dream of an Islamic caliphate — showing peaceful landscapes and little fighting. They often called on Muslims to travel to the group's territory in Syria and Iraq.

"The group is still trying to communicate with foreign fighters, but in a qualitatively different way," Winter said. "It's no longer calling for people to make hijrah — to migrate, that is — to Iraq and Syria. It's saying, 'Stay in your home countries and attack from there.'"

Islamic State still promotes its utopian ideal. One recent video — titled Building Blocks — purportedly shows the terror group running public services in Raqqa, Syria, including a fire service, schools and hospitals. There is even a smiling policeman directing traffic.

But the tone of the video is different, says Winter.

"It's almost preemptively nostalgic, as if the group is recognizing that its territorial hold on places, even like Raqqa, which is one of its strongholds, is becoming more contested," he said. "When their morale is flagging, they can look to these videos and think, 'That's how it was back in the day when the Islamic State was territorially coherent.'"

Winter notes that Islamic State continues to produce ultra-violent material, but broadcasters now rarely choose to air the videos, a change that analysts say has further weakened Islamic State's media presence.

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