The Daesh State: The Myth Turns into a Reality

Kareem El Damanhoury is one of the ten 2016 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar, an annual event co-organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and the American Austrian Foundation. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2016 Seminar discussions.

As I sat through the fruitful discussions at the 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar, one thing became clear: understanding the mechanisms through which Daesh operates is not only crucial to any effective counter measure, narrative or communication strategy, but also for nuanced media coverage of the conflict. Daesh’s publications are one of the windows that provide a better understanding of how the group is branding itself in its propaganda campaigns.


I. The Daily Propaganda Diet

Mainstream media characterizations of Daesh as no more than a brutal and ultraviolent terrorist organization are an oversimplification of the group’s multifaceted scheme. Acknowledging the difference between Daesh and other militant groups, scholars have labeled it a hybrid terrorist organization (Ganor, 2015), a totalitarian project (Winter, 2016), and a state-building enterprise (Kilcullen, 2015). As I sit glancing over the multimedia posts on Daesh’s official Telegram channel (on May 5, 2016), I see pictures of an Iraqi military vehicle being shelled by a rocket, videos from six different provinces in support of the militants in Sinai, a photo report of the beheading of “the apostates” in Syria, and an audio news bulletin reporting on military operations in the Iraqi and Syrian provinces and beyond. While such hard news is what typically appears in Daesh’s propaganda, soft news is also usually present. On this same day, I can see pictures of Diwan al-Zakat (Ministry of Alms) men distributing food bags to civilians in al-Jazira province, Da’wah office publications being handed out in ar-Raqqah province, Daesh militants handing food baskets to poor Muslims in Dijla province, and a beautiful sunset over the al-Furat River (The Euphrates) in the ar-Raqqah province (See Figures 1-4). This is a recurring strategy in Daesh’s propaganda—to present itself as the Islamic caliphate that supersedes other nations and states. In this blog post, I review a number of criteria for statehood in international law, juxtapose Daesh’s state project with earlier projects by other militant groups, and provide insights into the visual representation of Daesh’s state project in the English-language magazine Dabiq. I argue that the organization’s successes in building a Daesh state hinder counter measures that either involve an inferior state-building alternative or do not introduce one at all.


II. The Montevideo Convention: Criteria for Statehood

In a world defined by international law that binds economic and political powers, Daesh’s claim to statehood is problematic. Despite Daesh’s apparent indifference to and violations of international law, its statehood claims should still be viewed through the lens of international law, just like the previous successful and unsuccessful twentieth century claims to statehood by Manchuria, Rhodesia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, etc. The Montevideo Convention in Uruguay is one of the most common pieces of legislation used to define a state. In this 1933 Convention, the US along with 19 Latin American countries approved four criteria for statehood, which are “a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states” (Montevideo Convention, 1933). These four criteria have become a litmus test for statehood prerequisites despite subsequent criticisms.

When Daesh declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, it was a form of self-representation as a state even though it did not meet the criteria for statehood. However, it can be argued that 10 years later, things have changed dramatically. In his book Blood Year, David Kilcullen argues that Daesh has met all four criteria of statehood despite the fact that it has not been formally recognized by any other state. Daesh now controls and practices some form of governance over defined territories in Iraq, Syria, and Libya (Al-Tamimi, 2015; Zelin, 2016). The areas under Daesh’s control in Iraq and Syria had a pre-war population between 2.8 million and 5.3 million people (Berman & Shapiro, 2015). According to International Committee of the Red Cross estimates, 10 million people were living in Daesh-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria as of March 2015 (Nebehay, 2015). Although the population figures constantly change every time Daesh wins or loses territory, there are at least few million people living in its controlled territories. Moreover, Kilcullen (2015) argues that Daesh has also exhibited the capacity to enter into relations with other states by exporting oil through Turkey, selling antiquities internationally, and reportedly receiving state funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Any state that meets the four criteria–even if not recognized by any other state–has the right to “legislate upon its interests, administer its services, and to define the jurisdiction and competence of its courts” (Montevideo Convention, 1933).


 III. Militant Groups and the State Project

Daesh is not the first militant group to claim statehood; but it is the most successful to date, despite its loss of territory, leaders, and resources over the last year (Hassan & McCants, 2016). Unlike comparable organizations, Daesh maintains a nation-state brand image in its communications through its emphasis on social services, implementation of shari’ah, and the beauty of the caliphate. Unlike al-Qaeda Central (AQ), which has been reluctant to declare statehood anywhere until it wins the hearts and minds of Muslims and controls territory, Daesh claimed statehood before winning either. Some AQ affiliates have declared statehood, such as al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali. However, all of these attempts at state-building eventually failed due to the harsh implementation of shari’ah laws and provocation of local tribes and/or other countries (McCants, 2015). Similarly, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan fell in 2001 to the U.S. and anti-Taliban militia coalition (Bokhari & McCants, 2015). While many think of Daesh first and foremost as a terrorist organization, part of its success stems from the fact that it has prioritized the establishment of a state over global terrorism (Heyl, 2015). It reversed the win-hearts-and-minds tactic by first declaring the ISI back in 2006 before attaining any popular support or even territory. Despite its weakness between 2007 and 2009 (due to the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq along with the Sahwa Awakening) movements) Daesh was keen on projecting and preserving its statehood image by announcing two cabinets of ministers in April 2007 and September 2009 (Al-Furqan Media, 2007, 2009). Furthermore, after the declaration of the caliphate, Daesh purportedly released a blueprint of how to consolidate power in and expand its territories, according to a document that was leaked to and translated by Aymen Al-Tamimi (Guardian, 2015). Chapters five, six, and seven of the masterplan exemplify some of Daesh’s state-building projects, including: organizing the provinces by securing oil and gas resources; using gold as currency; allocating rivers, seas, and agricultural lands; enlisting specialists to administer wealth and complete projects; securing trade routes between provinces; increasing local production; and implementing new investment projects. Through such balance, Daesh has thus far been able to avoid the fates of earlier statehood attempts by AQIM, al-Shabab, AQAP, and Taliban.


IV. State-building in Dabiq Magazine

State-building images constitute a prevalent visual strategy throughout Dabiq magazine, which targets English-speaking audiences. In a database put together by me and my colleagues in the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University, all the images in the first 12 issues of Dabiq magazine were coded by type and the visual grammar employed. Out of 1,144 images in the first 12 issues, 21.4% of the images displayed a non-military state-building activity, such as: the provision of social services, the act of law enforcement, currency and/or market-related issues, tribes and populations pledging allegiance to Daesh, the promotion of state propaganda, maps of the territories under control, and images of natural landscapes (See Figures 6-9).


Through an average of 20 state-building images per issue, Daesh promotes its self-proclaimed state–predominantly in Iraq and Syria–as a utopian project that is: pristine, geographically established, economically sufficient, media savvy, dedicated to the provision of public services, implementing shar’ah and enforcing the law, and home to an expanding population.


Figure 10: Percentages are rounded up to the nearest digit

Daesh’s promotion of its self-declared state in Dabiq seems to highlight the Montevideo Convention’s four criteria of statehood. First, the images of law enforcement, social services, economic activities, and state propaganda promote the idea of a functioning government. In a region ravaged by war, Daesh’s propaganda stresses the group’s ability to provide law and order. Eighty-two (33.5%) of the state-building images in Dabiq depicted Daesh law enforcement activities–such as arrests and public executions, Hudud (punishments) implementation, “Islamic Police” checkpoints, and Hisba activities–not only in Daesh’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria, but also across the different provinces.[i] In complement to the focus on law and order, Dabiq images also highlight things like healthcare provision, for example showing health workers aiding civilians after the regime’s airstrikes in ar-Raqqah, eldercare home in Ninawa, and hospitals in both Syria and Iraq. Sixty-one images (24.9%) show social service provision of healthcare, education, zakat (tidings), and the construction of infrastructure. Framing the state as economically vibrant and sustainable, 13 (5.3%) of the state-building images show economic activities. Over half of the economy images display the new Daesh gold dinar and frame it as the return of the Islamic caliphate’s currency in Andalusia in juxtaposition with the dollar and other banknotes. Highlighting the Daesh government’s public information apparatus, 23 (9.4%) of the Dabiq state-building images advertise Daesh propaganda materials, such as: i Dabiq magazine, Islamic State Report (ISR) newsletters, news of the caliphate hashtags, al-Bayan radio, al-Hayat Media Center’s video series, and nashid (hymn) videos.

Second, the images of maps and natural landscapes underscore the physical geographic territory of the Daesh state. Its state building is not only about the services it provides, but also about inspiring pride in the physical state. Thirty (12.2%) of the state-building images in Dabiq, are images of natural scenery in Daesh territories, areas that are close by, or generic images that symbolize the pristine nature of an “Islamic state.” Additionally, the map on the cover page of Dabiq’s first issue explains Daesh’s notion of a caliphate that has no borders and that is always expanding. Dabiq also uses maps along with images of passports to signify the fallacy of secular and/or Western notions statehood and current geographical boundaries and border control regulations.

Third, the remainder of the images (8.6%) highlight the permanent population criteria of statehood by showcasing Daesh’s expanding population. These images depict new pledges of allegiance from different tribes, Kurdish villagers, members of the Iraqi government, and members of other factions in Iraq and Syria. These images not only show pledges of allegiance in the Daesh strongholds of Iraq and Syria, but also in Libya, Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Nigeria.

While Dabiq does not directly address the fourth criteria of statehood, taken together, the magazine portrays a government ruling over a defined territory where a permanent population lives, and hence implies its capacity as a state to enter into relations with other states—even though Daesh’s definition of such relations differs from the modern notion of diplomacy and international agreements.


V. Implications of Daesh’s Communication Strategy

Popular notions of militant groups brainwashing recruits through their propaganda machines and the manipulation of truth oversimplifies the more complex and nuanced strategy employed by Daesh in its state-building project. Ellul (1973) argued that modern propaganda is not only a psychological process but also a sociological one that employs several types of truth—ranging from truth, half-truth, and limited truth to truth out of context—in order to provoke action. Daesh’s propaganda intermingles these four types of truth with one goal in mind—to create and sustain an alternative body of governance in a so-called Islamic State. Despite the airstrikes crippling Daesh’s economy and resources, people living in Daesh-controlled territory in Syria reportedly blame the coalition and Assad’s government for their suffering and perceive Daesh’s law enforcement as superior to that of previous governments in Iraqi and Syrian rural areas (Hassan & McCants, 2016). Hence, tracking and analyzing Daesh’s substantial propaganda is crucial to identifying patterns in the progression of its state-building project. Examining thousands of propaganda materials, Aaron Zelin (2016) provides a useful framework of Daesh’s territorial methodology, which starts with intelligence in the pre-territorial phase and ends with sophisticated governance in the post-territorial phase. Although such a state was no more than a myth before controlling large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the Daesh state is now a reality that cannot be defeated with counter-narratives only, but most importantly by providing a better alternative to its state-building apparatus.

[i] Although executions of locals constituted the most prominent type of law enforcement images in Dabiq, 45 images, executions of foreigners seem to garner greater attention in Western media. According to Tinnes (2016), out of 74 foreigners executed by Daesh between January 2015 and April 2016, 70 executions were covered by Western media, while only 165 out of 1134 executions of non-foreigners were covered.



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Al-Tamimi, A. (2015). Archive of Islamic State Administrative Documents. Retrieved January 9, 2016.

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Nebehay, S. (2015, March 13). Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria, Iraq largely out of reach – Red Cross. Reuters. Geneva.

Tinnes, J. (2016). Counting Lives Lost – Statistics of Camera-Recorded Extrajudicial Executions by the “Islamic State.”

Winter, C. (2016, March 27). Totalitarianism 101: The Islamic State’s Offline Propaganda Strategy. Lawfare.

Zelin, A. Y. (2016). The Islamic State’s Territorial Methodology.



4Kareem El Damanhoury is a doctoral student in the Communication department at Georgia State University and a 2Ci Presidential Fellow at the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative. He is fluent in Arabic and English. His research interests include visual propaganda, visual framing, and the use of social media by violent extremist organizations. He is currently working on several projects analyzing Daesh’s propaganda in Dabiq magazine and Al-Naba’ newspaper, as well as a comparative analysis of the visual narrative framing of the turmoil in Northern Sinai employed by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense and Daesh. He holds a BA in Mass Communication from Cairo University and an MA in Communication & Development from Ohio University. He has worked as a TV producer both in Egypt and the United States, and in the Creative Community Outreach Initiative at the United Nations headquarters in New York.


Featured Photo: The Islamic Police building in Ar-Raqqah, Syria

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