Going After the ISIS Propaganda Mastermind
Killing the Islamic State’s propaganda chief marks a rare success for a U.S.-led campaign that has struggled to counter the group’s far-reaching media jihad.
His grisly propaganda empire seemed to know no limits. Filming the decapitation of journalists. Taping the immolation of a caged Jordanian pilot. Broadcasting the massacre of Iraqi troops. Nothing, it seems, was off-limits for the jihadist video empire built by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.
As spokesman and external operations manager for the Islamic State, Adnani built a propaganda apparatus that drew recruits and inspired attacks around the globe. Now, the architect of that machine has been killed in an American airstrike, but the media apparatus he created will live on.
Fighting the Islamic State’s insidious, viral propaganda has proven a frustrating, uphill struggle for the United States and its allies. But the Obama administration believes it dealt a vicious blow to the group’s marketing machine this week by taking out Adnani, the mastermind behind the extremists’ online stream of hate and Islamist mythology and architect of the group’s ability to strike as far afield as Paris and Brussels.
The targeting of Adnani by American warplanes underscores how the fight against Islamic State propaganda carries as much importance for the U.S.-led coalition as the war being fought on the ground in Iraq and Syria, where the group has declared a so-called caliphate.
The 37-year-old Syrian, who was chief spokesman for the Islamic State, and later chief of a unit plotting attacks in the West and elsewhere, built up the group’s propaganda arm as an influential weapon, with slickly produced videos and vitriolic social media posts that sought out online supporters and potential recruits.
Experts said Adnani’s profile is reminiscent of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who was terribly adept at connecting with potential sympathizers worldwide while having a hand in the practical side of terrorist plotting.
Adnani’s multimedia jihadist career was a repudiation of the staid techniques of an older generation of jihadi leaders, such as Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s boss, who for years used smuggled cassette tapes to reach the faithful and painstakingly seek out new recruits. Adnani lived and thrived online.
“He put in place a communications apparatus that suited the times and matched the technology,” said professor Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “He recognized the immense power and role of social media.”
By combining the roles of spokesman and manager for operations beyond the ever-shrinking borders of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Adnani embodied the twin pillars of the group’s global reach. As spokesman, he spearheaded a revolutionary propaganda campaign that inspired the group’s followers to carry out dozens of attacks abroad and drew thousands of recruits to Syria and Iraq. As manager for external operations, he oversaw the unit that carried out spectacular terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere that claimed hundreds of lives.
“Adnani has been a critical voice in ISIS propaganda, as well as in planning attacks outside the region,” said a former U.S. official who worked on counterterrorism efforts.
“It is hard to underestimate the shift in attack plotting outside of the Middle East over the last few years, and much of that shift is thanks to Adnani,” the official told Foreign Policy.
The Department of Defense said Adnani’s death represented a major setback for the Islamic State, as he had orchestrated its media messaging as well as a spate of deadly attacks in Europe.
But while Adnani’s death may have inflicted temporary damage on the group’s media jihad, its propaganda apparatus remains in place and will continue to exploit the sectarian resentments and fears of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and in Syria’s civil war, experts and former diplomats said.
The brutality of the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad, as well as hard-line Shiite militias in Iraq that have persecuted Sunnis, offer the Islamic State fertile conditions for recruiting, said Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria and a fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“It’s difficult to extinguish terrorist organizations like that as long as they have popular support,” Ford told Foreign Policy.
Hours after his reported death, Adnani became fodder for a new propaganda battle, this time between Russia and the United States. A day after the Pentagon said it was trying to confirm Adnani’s death in a “precision” strike in the north of Aleppo province, Moscow tried to take credit and claimed that its forces had killed the Islamic State’s No. 2 official.
But Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook flatly rejected the Russian claim, telling reporters Wednesday, “We don’t have any information at this point to support Russian claims that they carried out this strike.”
Cook said the United States hit Adnani “after extensive review” of the target. And, in a potshot at Russian operations in Syria, Cook noted that Moscow’s aircraft rarely even target Islamic State objectives. Russia spends “much of its time supporting the Assad regime,” he said.
Adnani’s death is not the first time Washington has tried to silence terrorist media by dropping bombs on the men manufacturing the propaganda.
“Jihadi John,” the notorious knife-wielding British executioner of foreign hostages, was killed in a 2015 airstrike. Samir Khan, an American from North Carolina who edited an English-language magazine dedicated to glorifying al Qaeda’s terrorism, was taken out in a U.S. strike in Yemen. And the most influential propagandists of all in the post-9/11 era, American-born Awlaki, was killed in an air raid after an elaborate effort to track him down.
Adnani, like Awlaki, sought to extend his group’s reach. In a September 2014 audio recording, Adnani called for strikes on Western targets, saying, “We will strike you in your homeland,” encouraging Muslims to kill Americans and Europeans in any way possible. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car,” he said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Analysts and U.S. officials consider that message a seminal moment in helping inspire a wave of attacks by individuals with little or no operational contact with the Islamic State. In San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, gunmen claiming to act on behalf of the group have carried out mass shootings. Though officials have found little or no evidence of contact between the shooters and the terror group, the Islamic State has eagerly embraced the attackers, calling them soldiers of the Islamic State. It’s a strategy of inspired terror that bears the telltale signs of Adnani’s fingerprints.
In May, Adnani called on the Islamic State’s followers to turn the holy month of Ramadan into one of “calamity everywhere for the nonbelievers … especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America.” The shooting at an Orlando gay club, which left 49 dead, followed, in addition to bloody attacks attributed to the Islamic State in Istanbul, Bangladesh, and Baghdad.
As the Islamic State jockeyed for influence and recruits in the jihadi universe, Adnani also emerged as the primary protagonist in its war of words with al Qaeda, as he had in his formative years in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. In a message in April 2014, Adnani said the Islamic State had assumed the mantle of Osama bin Laden’s campaign of jihad and that al Qaeda had deviated from the true path of fighting the unbelievers.
The U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to counter propaganda by Adnani and other radical Islamists through an array of programs sponsored by the State, Homeland Security, and Defense departments as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development. But it hasn’t succeeded in preventing groups like the Islamic State from inspiring attacks around the globe.
A particular source of embarrassment for Washington’s efforts was the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
The center, best known for trolling cyber-jihadists on Twitter and producing English-language counterpropaganda videos, has been widely derided as ineffective and counterproductive. Earlier this year, the center stopped producing videos in English and engaging Islamic State users on Twitter and instead started helping foreign governments run countermessaging centers such as one in the United Arab Emirates, or new ones in Malaysia and Nigeria.
Officials hope the center, newly branded as the Global Engagement Center, will produce better results by playing down its associations with the U.S. government.
“We’re not the most effective messenger for our message,” Richard Stengel, a public diplomacy official at the State Department, told The New York Times last month. “There’s no tweet from the U.S. State Department that’s going to talk a young man out of joining ISIS.”
The center’s budget was tripled this year to $16 million after widespread complaints about its previous efforts.
Senior U.S. officials and commanders have long hoped that if the Islamic State suffered a decisive, lasting defeat on the battlefield, its propaganda appeal would fade, since it would no longer be able to sell the idea of a caliphate to Muslims seeking a return to an ancient ideal.
Although Adnani was a skilled propagandist, his track record as a battlefield commander and strategist was less impressive. While he served as the second-most powerful leader in the group, the Islamic State has suffered one defeat after another over the past year in Syria, Iraq, and, more recently, Libya.
If Adnani had survived, his propaganda campaign might have unraveled along with the Islamic State’s territory, Hoffman said.
“A lot of ISIS’s setbacks lately could be laid at Adnani’s feet,” he said. “Things have been bad and going downhill.”
Paul McLeary contributed to this article.
Photo credit: Kronos Advisory
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll