The Islamic State’s Use of Digital Media: Enhancing Terrorist Signaling Strategies

Kevin Kallmyer is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has developed a surprisingly impressive communication strategy, leveraging digital media technology with a degree of skill that belies their opposition to the modern world. Before the United States can counter ISIL propaganda, however, U.S. policymakers must first understand if and how the use of digital media technology by terrorist organizations alters terrorism’s strategic constraints—or in other words: what can ISIL now do that that they would fail to accomplish otherwise.

The Milton Wolf Seminar provided a rich conversation on this critically important topic. Through the development of a more nuanced understanding of the role of digital media technology, the United States can develop a more informed strategic response to ISIL’s use of social media, countering the broader strategy at work rather than individual pieces of propaganda that are simply part of that strategy. To build upon the conversation at Milton Wolf, it is useful to first understand terrorism’s strategic logic, in order to then appreciate how the internet and ISIL’s particular use of social media enhances this strategy. Diplomacy and counterterrorism will prove unnecessarily difficult, and potentially counterproductive, if the United States fails to understand the strategy behind ISIL’s online propaganda.


I. Terrorism as Communication

Terrorist violence, ultimately, is a form of communication. Terrorist groups rarely impose their will through traditional military victory, but instead seek to nullify power asymmetries through acts of violence that favorably change the political dynamics of a conflict. In International Security, Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter develop a theory of terrorism as costly signaling, whereby terrorist violence communicates an organization’s ability and commitment to impose violence on a group, with the goal of compelling changes to an actor’s behavior. This use of violence is not simply gratuitous, but tailored to the goal in mind, used to communicate resolve and, as Kydd and Walter put it, “display publicly just how far they are willing to go to obtain their desired results.” When one conceptualizes terrorist strategy as an act of costly signaling, clarity is given to otherwise senseless acts.

The United States cannot effectively adapt its own strategy until it understands the ISIL strategy it is countering. Therefore, the important questions become: what are the goals, target audiences, and processes at work when terrorists engage in seemingly nihilistic displays of violence? The answers to these questions can then serve as the basis for a set of policy responses. In contrast, conceptualizing a terrorist organization’s use of online tools as generic propaganda merely encourages the U.S. to counter messages, rather than countering the strategy at work. U.S. counter-messaging must be more complex than simply declaring terrorist propaganda wrong.

When one adds signaling to the analysis it becomes easier to break down propaganda’s particular goal, audience, and the process it seeks to catalyze in order to identify a broader, but strategically targeted, set of policy responses. In relation to ISIL, three signaling strategies-as described by Kydd and Walter-are of particular relevance:

  1. Intimidation signals to local populations that terrorism will inflict costs from which governments cannot protect them in order to compel acquiescence to terrorist control of the population.
  2. Provocation signals to their enemy that military action is necessary to respond to terrorism in order to compel indiscriminate military action that may radicalize the local population and bolster long-term territorial control of the region.
  3. Outbidding signals to sympathetic audiences the group’s resolve and commitment to a cause in order to discredit competing terrorist organizations and attract their supporters.


Countering terrorist propaganda, therefore, does not simply mean projecting a contrasting message. Provocation strategies seek to illicit an American response—thus, U.S. policy should seek to manage domestic public opinion to prevent political pressures from catalyzing military over-reaction. In contrast, intimidation strategies seek to compel bandwagoning of local populations or the surrender of local security forces—this may require alternative American messaging to those affected populations, local government capacity building operations, and counterterrorism operations to prevent a terrorist organization from acting with impunity. Outbidding strategies seek to consolidate support by discrediting competing terrorist organizations—this may not necessarily (but will more often than not) be a problematic outcome for the U.S. Often, a single piece of propaganda will contribute to multiple communication strategies, requiring multiple responses rather than a single counter-message.

Perhaps most clearly, if a terrorist organization is engaging in intimidation of local actors or outbidding of other terrorist groups, then speeches by U.S. officials that declare the group an extremist threat to world security may simply legitimize and confirm that organization’s power in the minds of target audiences, counterproductively facilitating the group’s goals. Instead the U.S. should analyze terrorist propaganda in relation to the particular signaling strategies at work to determine whether messages should be contained, shaped, ignored, or potentially amplified.


II. Digital Media’s Role

Digital media directly implicates the strategic efficacy of terrorist signaling strategies. The internet places robust, yet accessible, communication capabilities within the grasp of non-state actors, enabling terrorist organizations to better control their information environment and eliminate the traditional constraints of geography, nation-states, and media conglomerates as information gatekeepers. In turn, two consequences of digital media enable smaller and smaller groups to develop a larger and larger presence within geopolitics.

First, nascent non-state actors can use the internet to legitimize and establish themselves as formidable players within international politics. Terrorist organizations can appear formidable, financed, and organized through a heavily coordinated, yet low-cost communication strategy. Historically, resource and expertise constraints have limited the organizational capacity, and in particular, the communication capabilities of terrorists. Small sub-state groups often had an insurmountable gap to appear credible and “communicate resolve” to their state adversaries (at least, absent successful terrorist operations). The internet has reduced that gap tremendously, such that operationally impotent groups might appear organizationally formidable. As a result, paper tigers may be able to effectively execute signaling strategies with far more frequency in the digital age.

Second, these groups can now communicate directly with the target audience of their signaling strategy, controlling how their acts of violence are received. By divorcing information dispersion from resource and geographic constraints, the internet allows terrorist organizations to directly communicate with both the local and global populations they seek to influence. To a degree not before possible, small groups can now control their messaging; this ability to amplify the volume, clarity and duration of signals has important implications. Regardless of its scale, a terrorist attack will have comparatively more strategic impact than it would otherwise if the propaganda surrounding it is more effective.


III. The Islamic State 

A core question for the Milton Wolf Seminar was to make sense of the senseless acts of violence ISIL broadcasts over the web. Everyone is surely correct that this online content serves as propaganda, but this is merely the beginning of an answer. The concept of signaling helps give richer meaning to ISIL propaganda. Their use of digital media technology to disperse propaganda despite risks to their organizational security begins to makes sense given its ability to enhance this signaling strategy.

ISIL’s use of digital media highlights the advantages of digital media for signaling, legitimizing the organization, and amplifying its communications strategy. ISIL has used these advantages to improve the volume and clarity of its propaganda to audiences that it already seeks to compel through military force. Charles Lister of the Brookings Institute summarizes ISIL’s military strategy as twofold: first, to spark and sustain sectarian conflict that facilitates Sunni radicalization and the acceptance of ISIL as the protector of the Sunni population; and second, to propagate the attrition of its opponent’s military capabilities and morale. In particular, their attrition strategy centrally has relied on intimidation of local security forces, ranging from targeted assassinations to attacks on checkpoints. Critically, this has also included information warfare rooted in brutal violence that communicates both ISIL’s commitment to destroy their enemies and the inability of their enemies to stop them.

Signaling fits neatly within this military strategy. If ISIL is able to enhance its communication capabilities, we should expect its military strategy to be enhanced as well. Lister describes how this unfortunate consequence was clearly observed in ISIL’s 2014 offensive on Mosul. ISIL’s military success enabled it to develop a de facto shadow authority in Mosul and its communication strategy broke the confidence of Mosul’s security forces and the local populations faith in the ability of those forces to protect them. By the time of ISIL’s final June 2014 offensive—partly due to their military strength, but also because of their ability to intimidate opponents and create an information environment where their victory was perceived as assured—the city fell in only a day.

Thus, if one asks: would ISIL have developed differently if it had not leveraged social media, the answer is rather complicated. The organization’s origins are clearly tied to the vacuum created by regional insecurity, and not online tools used to facilitate its communication and recruitment strategy. However, it is also clear that if they had a less effective intimidation and outbidding strategy, they would have faced more local competition and operational contestation, both from state security forces and competing terrorist organizations. Likewise, if ISIL recruited fewer foreign fighters and militants, who would have otherwise joined other terrorist groups, then they would also have less reconstitution power to sustain the scale of its offensive operations and territory held. These are merely differences in degree. Yet, these differences matter—if the United States more effectively counters ISIL propaganda, the organization’s collapse may occur more efficiently and quickly than it would otherwise.


IV. Moving Forward

Gabriel Weimann and Katharina Von Knop argue that the United States should adopt a “noise” strategy to counter terrorist use of digital media. This strategy seeks to inhibit the internet’s value for terrorist signaling by constraining the volume of terrorist networks and amplifying competing messages that complicate the clarity and legitimacy of terrorist propaganda to their target audience. The U.S. will neither be able to eliminate the supply of radical content online nor the ability of terrorist organization to amplify their propaganda via online networks. However, the inevitability of ISIL’s online presence should not be conflated with the inevitability of particular dynamics and outcomes.

The goal of a noise strategy is not to saturate the internet, but to disperse messages to target audiences that complicate terrorist signaling. This strategy requires the U.S. to understand the signaling process at work, to determine the intended audience of certain propaganda and analyze how that community consumes information, a recurring point made at the Milton Wolf Seminar. Responses to online propaganda are not limited to the internet. Often, the ideal response will occur within multiple information domains–from radio, to television, to the internet– complemented by counterterrorism operations that undermine the credibility of ISIL messaging. The U.S. must then analyze what counter-messages are influential to the respective community’s opinion-formation, which concerns both the content and messenger. For example, those undergoing the radicalization process are, rightly, unlikely to perceive the U.S. as an Islamic nation; as a result, promoting U.S. government claims that a terrorist organization is un-Islamic is unlikely to be persuasive and alter that audience’s opinion.

Finally, the United States should identify and leverage its available suite of tools to promote these messages and dampen the volume of ISIL’s messages. To counter ISIL’s online presence, different agencies will counter propaganda in distinct, but complementary, ways. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors can support media environments that provide an alternative to extremist information and offer positive civil society outlets for populations that are the target of ISIL propaganda. USAID can bolster its support for Muslim faith-based non-governmental organizations to promote alternative messaging and interactive online forums as well as real world engagement with vulnerable populations. Intelligence agencies can play a role in complicating the clarity of propaganda to target audiences, and counterterror operations can ensure that ISIL’s projection of strength does not reflect reality. The State Department can create narratives around U.S. operations to amplify their impact, which may have an ancillary consequence of being echoed in the media.

None of these actions will eliminate the problem of ISIL’s online presence, but collectively, they can rebuild the constraints that have historically hindered the ability of terrorists to achieve their strategic objectives. Terrorist organizations, however, existed before the internet and will continue to exist. These efforts will not defeat ISIL, but they can play a meaningful role in ensuring that efforts to defeat ISIL are not undermined by that organization’s enhanced signaling capabilities.


kevkallKevin Kallmyer attends Georgetown University’s Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he is completing a technology concentration in the Security Studies Program. Kevin studies the intersection of defense strategy and technology, focusing on the impact of digital communication on non-state actors’ organizational capacity. Kevin is a former Program Coordinator and Research Assistant for the Defense & National Security Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he researched and led projects on U.S. grand strategy, U.S.-European defense cooperation, and nuclear weapons policy.

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