Soft power has come a long way since Joseph Nye’s 1990 Bound to Lead introduced the concept; altering the way we think about power in international relations, as more than simply one actor wielding tangible resources like military and economic strength, to change the behaviour of another. In Nye’s initial definition, soft power referred to how countries ‘co-opt’ actors by making them ‘want what they want’, not simply by ‘persuading’ or ‘argumentation’ but also by attracting them. This relies on communicating and celebrating shared values and narrative identities with those sympathetic to such ideals. However, in evolving beyond conventional Western moorings, soft power has oftentimes taken ‘negative’ forms among actors seeking to cultivate their own relative soft power at the expense of opponents, by exposing those opponents’ weaknesses and painting their values as ‘unattractive’. We might think of nation states whose political or cultural ideas run antithetical to Western conventions, and so we often see states like Russia, China and Iran peddling their own identities in direct contrast to dominating models in the West, like the US.
"Yet nowhere has negative messaging been so prominent in recent years as in the online communications of terrorist groups, particularly jihadist groups."
Yet nowhere has negative messaging been so prominent in recent years as in the online communications of terrorist groups, particularly jihadist groups, whose propaganda frequently touts their strength, religiosity and good governance, compared with the liberal, democratic West, or the weak, oppressive state apparatus under and against which, they operate. In this sense then we can see terrorist groups as self-styled ‘soft powers’. In light of that, this research evaluates the online propaganda of two of the most infamous jihadist groups in recent years: Daesh/Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria; and Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia. It compares 36 videos, 18 of each group, released between July 2014 and June 2018, to assess the extent to which the logic and language of soft power, particularly ‘negative’ soft power, explains the use of certain narratives in their video messaging, over others. In doing so, the research yields the following insights:
- Negative external narratives, designed to delegitimise host and foreign states are used by Al Shabaab and IS in online video propaganda, with similar levels of frequency to positive internal narratives intended to boost their own image, and to conventional jihadist narratives referencing the ongoing ideological war between believers and kuffar (disbelievers);
- Al Shabaab and Daesh do differ significantly in their deployment of certain narratives, and this is likely reflective of their objectives and structures as groups. The former focus primarily on militant jihadism, using the group’s religiosity and resistance to Western political and cultural colonialism as its defining attributes, in the context of foreign intervention in an unstable Somalia. IS instead also positions itself as a positive, alternative ‘state’ actor to rival weak or oppressive governments in Syria and Iraq, while still pushing for territorial and ideological expansion towards a global Caliphate;
- Despite no obvious general trend in increasing or decreasing use of negative external narratives over time, notable increases in negative messaging follow or concur with significant events; indicative of reactionary criticism of opponents at critical junctures;
- Negative narratives therefore serve a significant role in the construction of unique online ‘brands’ for both terror organisations.
Negative Soft power
“Bin Laden and his followers are repelled, not attracted, by U.S. culture, values, and policies”
Nye’s theory does not assume the universal primacy of particular values like democracy, religious tolerance, or liberal interventionism. After all, Nye himself noted in 2003 that “bin Laden and his followers are repelled, not attracted, by U.S. culture, values, and policies” and are drawn by very different values, nevertheless still through a soft form of ‘affective’ attraction. Increasingly, states and non-state actors alike have also begun reversing the logic of soft power, drawing attention to weaknesses of opponents and emphasising the negativity of others’ ‘narrative identities’, to build their own relative attractiveness under the assumption that in a battle for hearts and minds, one side’s gain is another’s loss. Soft power has therefore evolved to apply to state and non-state actors alike, towards foreign and domestic audiences, and in positive and negative forms. It appears reasonable to apply such logic to terror groups seeking to build their attractiveness relative to foreign governments and host states; especially those like Islamic State, who view themselves as a legitimate state actor.
Online terrorist propaganda
"For terrorist organisations, the social media revolution has proved a valuable vehicle for disseminating their messages the world over, at a hitherto unknown pace and breadth"
For terrorist organisations, the social media revolution has proved a valuable vehicle for disseminating their messages the world over, at a hitherto unknown pace and breadth. Of particular note in recent years have been Islamic extremist and jihadist groups, most prominently Islamic State/IS/ISIS/ISIL/ Daesh, operating across Syria and Iraq until their official territorial defeat in March 2019; and Al Shabaab, operating across Eastern Africa, particularly Somalia and Kenya. Both groups have used online video content effectively, propagated via social media, to recruit, raise funds, issue threats and spread their ideology. Much of the reason this has been such an effective tactic, is because it allows such groups to freely, quickly and repeatedly communicate, using online networks of global sympathisers, their strength and legitimacy, and promote religious values and ideology underpinning their agendas, to anyone with an internet connection.
"Simultaneously, the groups may draw attention to ‘negatives’ of opponents and the host states in which they operate, highlighting poor state provision of services and even active oppression as evidence for government illegitimacy"
Simultaneously, the groups may draw attention to ‘negatives’ of opponents and the host states in which they operate, highlighting poor state provision of services and even active oppression as evidence for government illegitimacy; which in turn builds their own relative attractiveness. This is particularly possible in the face of state failure, institutional weakness, political vacuum or civil war; when groups can provide for vulnerable communities in an economic 'club model' in lieu of the state. The two groups are therefore able to marry fundamentalist Salafism with an identity of resistance to negative ‘others’, like neglectful host governments or aggressive Western ‘imperialists’. By tapping into 'religious soft power’ to attract disaffected Muslims at home and abroad, and offering social security and tangible economic benefits, the groups can build an identity as safe havens for any with whom their hardline religious values resonate, and whom view the secularism and neglectfulness of other governments negatively. Their online video content therefore incorporates negative messages of state weakness and oppression, alongside positive celebrations of their own success and religiosity; and this delicate balance form the crux of their propaganda.
The subsequent results were based on detailed qualitative analysis of a stratified random sample of 36 videos, released between July 2014 and June 2018, by Al Shabaab and IS, through their respective central media arms - Al Kita’ib and Al Hayat Media Centres - affiliated groups, or, in the case of IS, a media centre of individual state governorates, or Wilayat; and accessed through jihadology.net, a registered clearinghouse of jihadist content for academic use. At least one video was selected at random for each organisation from within each of the 16, 3-month quarters from July 2014 to June 2018. Videos were selected randomly, and the sample included videos in English, Arabic, Swahili, Russian and Somali, often with English or Arabic subtitles.
Words, phrases, narratives and distinct images were coded into one of 10 categories, with 4 broadly external, referencing host states and foreign governments; and 4 broadly internal, referencing the organisations themselves. Regarding host states or foreign powers whom the organisations criticised, the messages fit into narratives of 1) unjust governance or direct oppression by the government, including reference to air strikes on civilians; 2) a lack of services provided by the government; 3) corruption, hypocrisy or deceit within government rhetoric or action; or 4) a lack of respect for religious teachings, particularly Islam. Messages therefore ranged from general criticism of governance, to total lack of governance, or state failure. In referencing each organisation, the Khilafah or Mujahideen, the messages fit into narratives of a) good governance by, and strong institutions of, the organisation; b) provision of services like schooling or healthcare by the organisation, indicative of quality of life under the group; c) the religious legitimacy or divine justifications of the organisation (“..as ordained by Allah” and so forth); and d) the religious purity of members/citizens, demonstrated by observance of religious teaching but without justifying their agenda through scripture, as in c). Two further categories were also used for narratives i) promoting jihad, martyrdom and battle; or ii) condemning apostates, crusaders or Kuffar (disbelievers).
Firstly, simple comparative statistics were used to establish how prominent negative external narratives surrounding host states and foreign powers (1, 2, 3, or 4) were in both groups’ propaganda, relative to positive internal narratives (a, b, c, or d) and general jihadist narratives (i or ii); thus constructing their respective narrative profiles (Figure 1.). Secondly, a more fine grained comparison between the narrative subcategories was performed, to establish whether one operationalised negative external narratives more prominently than the other throughout the time period. Thirdly, the profiles of each were assessed individually using time-series analysis, to establish whether negative external narratives featured more prominently at specific junctures, perhaps following a campaign of state-sponsored airstrikes, or during democratic elections in adjacent countries.
Findings and discussion
"This forwards the ‘ISIS brand’ of a religiously-motivated ‘state’, devoted to its citizens and to protecting their right to self-identify as an Islamic Caliphate, against the tyranny of feeble, heretical governments, who knowingly neglect their obligations and resort to violence to reestablish authority over lost territory"
The discourse analysis yields the following findings: Firstly, negative external narratives (1, 2, 3, or 4), drawing attention to shortcomings of both the weak states in which the groups operate, and foreign powers intervening from overseas, feature heavily in Al Shabaab and IS video propaganda, on a similar scale to narratives promoting their good qualities (a, b, c, or d), or those narratives reinforcing an ideological tension between believing jihadists and disbelieving ‘others’ (i or ii). Secondly, statistically significant differences between the narrative profiles of the groups reflect nuanced distinctions in their identities; despite the unifying jihadist ideology they share. This mirrors their respective agendas. Al Shabaab choose to rely heavily on narratives communicating their religiosity in contrast to the irreligion of the Somali and Kenyan states, and the actors intervening in Somali territories. This makes their religious legitimacy a greater proportion of the group’s positive internal narratives when compared with IS (Figures 2. & 3.). This builds a brand of religiously-legitimised resistance to colonial intervention, against the chaotic backdrop of an unstable, failed Somali state. The Islamic State, by contrast, places a premium on the comparison between their good governance, and the neglect and oppression of citizens by the ‘weak’ Iraqi and Syrian governments, coupled with aggression towards vulnerable Muslims by foreign kuffar. This forwards the ‘ISIS brand’ of a religiously-motivated ‘state’, devoted to its citizens and to protecting their right to self-identify as an Islamic Caliphate, against the tyranny of feeble, heretical governments, who knowingly neglect their obligations and resort to violence to reestablish authority over lost territory. Thirdly, while retaining a grasp on their overarching brands, both organisations adapt their narratives to evolving conditions and important events over time. This highlights context-specific failures of the state, whether the illegitimacy of democratic elections or the inhumanity of ‘indiscriminate’ bombing against civilians; which then justifies the group’s most recent violent response. They thereby construct dynamic narrative identities composed both of positive attributes and opposition to enemies’ negative attributes, framed as equally positive to supporters.
"They draw on Islamic scripture to legitimise their actions and ‘rightful’ governance through faith; and they demonstrate repeatedly the devotion of members to those values"
This process of brand construction illustrates that Jihadist terror groups are as attuned to the value of negative soft power as conventional state actors, in cultivating narrative identities informed by opposition to values deemed undesirable or evil. They make reference to the weak institutions failing to maintain nationwide law and order; they emphasise the state’s failure to fulfil their duties to provide basic goods and services for citizens; they stress opponents’ duplicity and corruption in political rhetoric; and they highlight the total disregard for religious values, particularly Islamic values, for which there is clear demand among the states’ populations. In counterpoint, these groups showcase their own institutional coherence and transparent governance; they celebrate their provision of goods and services and the improved quality of life that affords; they draw on Islamic scripture to legitimise their actions and ‘rightful’ governance through faith; and they demonstrate repeatedly the devotion of members to those values. They also validate their displays of extreme violence against enemies by demonstrating a willingness to deploy retributive justice for opponents’ misdeeds. By marrying these narratives with conventional jihadist narratives, the groups cultivate distinct narrative identities, or brands, which tap into values which people, domestically and internationally, also subscribe to.
These brands remain coherent, relevant and valuable so long as they attract people with complementary aversions to those values or institutions; to the same degree that positive aspects of their brand garner support among people glorifying their adherence to Islamic principles or their reputation as statebuilders. If people view certain states with distrust or disgust, they will more likely be attracted towards those groups who represent an opposition to those states. And that is what terror groups, particularly those like IS who position themselves as alternative state-actors, seek to do. This offers a plausible explanation for terrorist recruitment or funding among those who wish to see America destroyed as much as they wish to see the Caliphate prosper. Tracing and measuring the exact benefits of negative messaging for recruitment and funding would be a valuable continuation of these findings. This would likely yield actionable policy insights into the ways we can counter such narratives with tailored communication strategies; and thereby break the brands of terror organisations, particularly in failing states. It is clear that Al Shabaab and IS view such ‘negative’ attraction as a powerful asset in shoring up support not only for themselves, but also against those ‘failing states’ they call their enemies. We must respond accordingly.
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