In times of uncertainty, the Islamic State (IS) has consistently sought to offer local populations stability and present itself as a cohesive and just community for the ideologically likeminded around the world. While people across the globe in the past few months have been obliged to remain at home, an opportunity presents itself for extremist and terrorist organizations like IS to further activate their online spheres, fully aware that potential supporters are likely to spend more time online than before lockdown measures in several countries. And both IS’ central media department and supporters are now exploiting this uncertain time in contemporary history to create and convey discourses of opportunity for the organization and future recruitment.
The successful construction of discourses on the ongoing global pandemic as an opportunity is a result of an interplay between official media outlets and supporter-driven channels. Just as several high-profile attacks in Europe in recent years coordinated by IS were carefully aligned with a strategically designed media campaign (for the purpose of enhancing the impact and exposure), the coronavirus outbreak has been amplified in IS’ virtual universe. In the official al-Naba newsletter editorials the virus has been referred to as “God’s torment” on crusader nations but despite its divine origin the intention behind it remains in the dark. This comprehensive message has therefore been accompanied by health guidelines for Muslims to avoid infection or spread the disease further.
For several years IS has utilized a centralized information structure from leadership interlinked with decentralized chatter and networks of supporters, and this communicative dynamic proves even more important in these times when the international spotlight is aimed at handling the pandemic rather than IS and global terrorism. Hence it is more important than ever not to make similar mistakes as before, when drastic events suggesting significant changes in the jihadist environments, as for instance when the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 resulted in a hastily drawn conclusion that al-Qaeda was finished and less attention could be paid to the movement. Three years later IS emerged with full force from al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch.
The attention vacuum emerging behind the current focus on dealing with the coronavirus is exploited by IS and its online sympathizers as an opportunity, instead of indicating a decline in their activity. In terms of authority and credibility, official statements and messaging are essential for the organizational body of IS and its digital trail of supporters. When lengthy articles in IS newsletters focus on calling for attacks on Western nations, a deliberate choice is made to not encourage people to travel there due to risk of infection, but instead instructing supporters already living there to conduct attacks. By doing so, a path in how to frame the organization’s response is taken by highlighting the possibility, rather than the challenge. This may seem trivial but is of great importance in terms of generating certain discourses.
As far as the role of supporters as contributors in constructing discourses of opportunity is concerned, a lot can be learned through online monitoring and observation. One of the most obvious mechanisms is the continuation, and intensification, of calls to attack countries now weakened by the pandemic, given the governmental focus on dealing with the outbreak and its aftermaths. Hospitals are considered especially vulnerable and suitable to target, as these are one of the few institutions currently crowded with people. Various expressions, both visual and textual, to encourage individual attacks on societal structures come out of supporter channels on encrypted platforms. This is by no means a new trend, but rather a continued illustration of the desire and strategy to exploit a situation in which IS considers its adversaries weakened.
During the pandemic there are further arguments through which IS positions itself as an alternative in countries and regions suffering political turmoil. Supporters online have seemingly increased their efforts to run campaigns to facilitate to help and free women and children from camps in northern Syria, not least al-Hol, and discuss it as a legitimate action to take when the virus outbreak has made governments unwilling and indifferent to providing the most basic care. The bottom line of the messaging is that governments and regimes are not to be trusted, something embedded in and adherent to IS’ propagandistic narrative of undermining trust in governments by uniting the ‘ummah’ against corrupt and failed political establishments.
In addition, much of the messaging, especially in supporter channels online, concerns empowering discourses on the virus itself. It can be seen through online activities among supporters who share not only previously mentioned guidelines to protect themselves and not transmit the disease further, but also scripture and Quranic verses as possible theological interpretations of the pandemic. Apocalyptic narratives on ‘the end of days’ and the doomsday are also emphasized heavily and adjusted to the current situation. Niched channels and groups on various platforms devoted only to news and discussion about the coronavirus emerged during March 2020, and IS supporters run them with a clear intention of utilizing a form of news- or issues-management where they seek to control the narrative beneficial for their purpose.
In a designated ‘corona’- channel ( فيروس_كورونا_جندي_الله) on one of the online apps used extensively by IS supporters, there is a regional focus on Arab states in the Middle East, providing statistics on confirmed cases and the governments’ responses to them. States are here criticized for not caring for their Muslim populations, which would further advance IS’ recruitment strategy, considering it offers the aforementioned alternative to corrupt regimes. There have also been attempts not only from IS but also al-Qaeda to portray their own responses and countermeasures as more reliable and effective to protect Muslims: an argument corresponding well with the Salafi-jihadist ideological foundation on which in particular IS leans.
In sum, IS’s political and religious legitimization in the formation of discourses of opportunity stems from an intrinsic combination of strategies, ranging from and including increased online activity with targeted messaging, coordinated information campaigns, explicit narratives and carefully designed communication environments. The global pandemic is framed as an opportunity for the organization and its followers to advance in terms of both territorial operations and online ideological messaging. Should we neglect this purposeful construction of discourses taking place within a wide array of online platforms and channels, and especially its impact on supporters around the world, the apocalyptic narrative they adhere to will soon feel even more real to those already empowered by the ideology.
The views, opinions, and thoughts expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI or the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation