Rumiyah, Issue 2 (English): Rallying the “True Believers” as Hardship Purifies the RanksDr. Haroro J. Ingram 10 Oct 2016
With the release of Rumiyah’s second issue, it is increasingly clear that so-called Islamic State (IS)’s propaganda efforts have strategically shifted, characterised by two key trends. First, IS’s propaganda machine is under immense pressure – evidenced by, for example, the assassination of key figures such as Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani and Wa’il Al-Fayad – the repercussions of which can be seen in lower rates of propaganda output and the prominence of rehashed material in that messaging. Second, the key themes in IS propaganda have been altered in ways that reflect both its contracting campaign and the need to recalibrate its messaging in accordance with declining fortunes on the ground.
In many ways, Rumiyah embodies these trends. Its second issue contains a core of shared content across its multilingual offerings, typically drawn from its Arabic-language publication Al-Naba, but with a selection of articles designed to specifically cater to each linguistic group. While this is partly the result of IS downsizing its propaganda efforts, it suggests a strategic logic of ensuring consistent core messaging to transnational audiences augmented by content that caters to more localised nuances. Moreover, the key message in Rumiyah is one that has become increasingly prominent across all IS messaging as its “caliphate” crumbles: hardship purifies the ranks, so “true believers” must rally, respond in-kind to their enemies’ actions and pursue the divinely-assured victory.
While this change in core themes may seem subtle, after all it is not a new theme just one currently being given greater prominence, this shift has potentially significant repercussions for the motivational drivers IS are now seeking to leverage in audiences. Analyses of Dabiq magazine found that its contents tended to balance and interweave rational-choice (decisions based on a cost-benefit consideration of alternatives) and identity-choice (decisions based on what is appropriate through identity “lenses”) in messaging designed to appeal to a broad motivational spectrum (see here and here for analyses). Consequently, Dabiq was filled with articles that leveraged pragmatic factors (e.g. security, stability and livelihood) in rational-choice appeals as well as messaging that sought to coax readers into perceiving the world through the “lens” of IS’s worldview (i.e. a bipolar world steeped in acute crisis that only IS could solve). Indeed, the seemingly magnetic appeal of IS messaging during this period reflected, to varying degrees, this interplay of rational- and identity-choice messaging which may have worked to align powerful motivational forces in IS supporters.
In contrast, Rumiyah 2 is dominated by identity-choice messaging that explicitly targets IS’s “true believers”. Articles such as “Glad Tidings of Imminent Victory to the Patient”, “Paths to Victory – Part 1” and “The Religion of Islam and the Jama’ah of the Muslims – Part 3” intertwine emotive narratives, jurisprudential arguments, historical precedents and inspiring examples in an effort to rouse its supporters to remain committed to achieving an inevitable victory. Gender plays a particularly prominent role in this issue with the example of female militants in Kenya (e.g. “Foreword: A Message from East Africa” and “Operations”) and notable females from Islamic history (e.g. “Stories of Steadfastness from the Lives of the Sahabiyyat”) being held up as not only inspirational examples but a means to shame men and lament that “there would always continue to be ‘men’ who would fail to live up to this lofty obligation [jihad].” Naturally, Rumiyah’s major themes reflect this change.
During its ascent in 2014-15, IS appeals framed politico-military successes as gifts of divine-approval and failure as manifestations of divine-disapproval – a trend epitomised by the mubahalah (imploring Allah to curse the deceitful party) declared between IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra in early-2014 (e.g. “The flood of the Mubahalah”, Dabiq Issue 2). IS’s focus is now on imploring “true believers” to see hardships as a blessing, a divine means to purify the ranks, and the loss of territory, resources and people as no obstacle to ultimate victory. This key message is epitomised by the following excerpt from “Glad Tidings of Imminent Victory to the Patient”:
“Allah created His slaves and made tribulation something constant for them, so that the pure become distinct from the corrupt, and that those who perish may perish upon clear proof and that those who live may live upon clear proof….
The path to Allah and what He prepared for the believers therein of immense reward is a costly path, and these costs cannot be expended except by true believers, those whose hearts are attached to Allah alone, who are steadfast upon the methodology of the Prophet and his noble companions. These – the true believers – are not confused by famous men and popular names.”
To further reinforce this point, Rumiyah’s architects have IS’s “boom-bust” history to draw upon for inspirational examples of staying true to the cause in the face of losses. A leader of an IS antecedent, Abu Hamzah Al-Muhajir’s “Paths to Victory – Part 1” argues along these lines not only stating that “every Muslim must be certain that complete victory is coming” but asserts that “whoever rejects or doubts that is nothing but one of the disbelieving fearmongers [sic].”
According to Rumiyah, the hardships facing Muslims (i.e. IS) must be punished with reciprocating violence. The article “Just Terror Tactics” called for IS supporters to engage in knife attacks even providing operational advice broadly reminiscent of Inspire’s “Open Source Jihad” section. Moreover, this article replaced the term “lone wolf” with “just terror operations” reflecting the importance of semantics in a propaganda war and the need for IS to frame such actions as inherently legitimate and morally justified (IS has used “just terror” before, see Dabiq Issue 12). It is a message further reinforced by the article “Brutality and Severity Towards the Kuffar” which inundates the reader with examples of the Prophet Muhammad and the Sahabah punishing their enemies.
If this were not enough, “The Shuhada of the Gulshan Attack” concludes with short eulogies of the five Bangladeshi militants presenting them as ordinary (if privileged) men transformed into extraordinary martyrs; sources of both reflection and inspiration. Indeed, Rumiyah’s dominant tone is not one of “doom and gloom”, it seeks to empower readers both psychologically and existentially (e.g. “The Religion of Islam and the Jama’ah of the Muslims – Part 3”). After all, the “caliphate” remains and IS’s reach is global as Rumiyah reminds its audience in its “Foreword” from East Africa, a posthumous article by the so-called “Former Head of Military and Covert Operations” in Bangladesh Tamim Chowdhury, and an “Operations” section reporting on IS attacks from around the world.
As explored in “Deciphering the Siren Call of Militant Islamist Propaganda“, Rumiyah’s architects have sought to deploy the strategies of meaning, credibility and behavioural change that have helped to inspire many in the West to become foreign fighters or engage in homegrown terrorism. IS’s propaganda campaign is ebbing under the extraordinary pressures of a multi-front war. But those charged with confronting IS propaganda should take little solace from this and instead focus on how IS messaging is shifting its focus in ways that will generate new and equally complex challenges. As other analysts have explored (e.g. Whiteside’s analysis of IS campaign strategy), IS strategically adapts in anticipation of and response to its fortunes in the field and the efforts of its enemies. The latest issue of Rumiyah embodies current trends in IS propaganda. The challenge now is to identify opportunities to not only counter IS messaging but force it to counter our own.