Online Propaganda Builds Islamic State Brand in the Face of Military Losses

Online Propaganda Builds Islamic State Brand in the Face of Military Losses
Fighters from Syrian Democratic Forces last October in Raqqa, the Syrian city that was Islamic State’s de facto capital. PHOTO: YOUSSEF/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

Islamic State has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. It is vying for survival with other, sometimes stronger, extremist groups. But one sphere where Islamic State still reigns supreme among terrorists is in cyberspace.

The group’s vast online presence is a critical recruitment and marketing tool that has helped it build a brutish brand using propaganda and sometimes false claims. Maintaining the perception that Islamic State can shape the actions of loyalists has become all the more important as its territorial control, or self-declared caliphate, has almost completely collapsed.

Last October, the group claimed to have inspired the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, who killed 59 people attending a country-music concert. A month earlier, Islamic State said it had planted a bomb on a U.K.-bound flight that was held in Paris for what officials called a “direct security threat.” Authorities in both cases rebuffed the group’s assertions.

Islamic State also claimed that a man who attacked a casino in the Philippine capital of Manila in June 2017 was a soldier of its caliphate, despite local authorities saying that the perpetrator was an indebted gambler trying to make off with $2 million in chips.

The latest example of the role of such online propaganda came on Thursday, when Islamic State’s official news outlet claimed that a man who stabbed his mother and sister to death in France had responded to its calls to attack citizens of countries that are part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the group. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb disputed the statement, saying the perpetrator was mentally unstable.

That claim came a day after Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, released what it said was a recording of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first in nearly a year, calling for supporters abroad to continue attacks on Western cities.

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