ISIS is quickly losing ground in the Middle East thanks to American and Russian airstrikes and Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian ground forces. The so-called caliphate is on the ropes and it looks like it may actually fall. But even as its armies fall back under attacks from the Islamic coalition, adherents to ISIS's violent philosophy have launched deadly attacks in western countries. The bloodiest was in Paris in 2015 where 130 were killed. More recently, 49 Americans were killed on June 11 during an attack on the patrons of an Orlando nightclub.
To carry out violent attacks across the world despite being surrounded at home, ISIS relies on two groups of potential terrorists. The first is ISIS members who fought in Iraq and Syria to launch attacks abroad, such as Mohamed Abrini and Najim Laachraoui. These two men were suspected members of ISIS who played key roles in the Brussels bombings in 2016. Intelligence agencies track people returning from Iraq and Syria and had flagged both men.
The second group ISIS relies on is harder to track, though usually less trained than veterans of the Iraq and Syria conflict. These are disenfranchised, unhappy Muslims or potential conflicts living in countries that ISIS would like to target. Rather than trying to send fighters to all the countries they would like to attack, ISIS sends its propaganda to those countries and tries to find potential terrorists who just need a few nudges into radicalization. Only a few will actually decide to become terrorists, but each of those is another potential terrorist like the San Bernadino or Orlando shooters.
And ISIS has some impressive propaganda with which to radicalize these future terrorists. First, it publishes a slickly-edited magazine that currently has 14 issues. "Dabiq" has a number of recurring pieces that are aimed at potential fighters.
First, there are tips for traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight and support the caliphate, something ISIS considers the duty of all Muslims. Muslims who refuse to do so are "apostate," a status punishable by death. Next, Dabiq regularly features articles glorifying fighters who have died for ISIS, especially those who died in a terror attack. Finally, it routinely runs articles about how great it will be when the U.S. invades.
No joke. ISIS is actively campaigning for an open war with the West. The name Dabiq is actually the name of the land where ISIS thinks the "crusader" armies will burn. Every issue opens with this quote:
The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.
This prophecy is detailed in issue four of the magazine and calls for an 80 countries to send 12,000 troops each from the West into Dabiq as a coalition against ISIS. According to the prophecy, the Arabs will defeat the coalition in the first stage of the apocalypse and then march victoriously into Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Rome.
The magazine is spread throughout the world and translated into Arabic, English, French, and German. These translations are expertly done. The English version reads like it was written by a native-born English speaker, and it might have been.
ISIS has adherents from around the world as well as hostages it can rely on to make sure its message is perfectly pitched to different countries. "Jihadi John," the British-born ISIS executioner killed in a drone strike in 2015, was in charge of making sure propaganda aimed at English-speakers was effective. And ISIS can also lean on British journalist and hostage John Cantlie who was captured in 2012 with James Foley.
Cantlie is especially interesting since he often writes for Dabiq and sometimes hosts videos that spout ISIS propaganda. Former hostages who knew Cantlie in captivity have said that he is regularly beaten and starved off-camera, but his words seem authentic when he delivers them. This is thanks to the magic of editing.
But, while Cantlie is definitely edited, ISIS doesn't do it the way you might imagine. They allow Cantlie to call them all terrorists and to write about ISIS fighters dying as long as he also condemns America for airstrikes and talks about government services offered by ISIS.
Issues of the magazine and other propaganda talking points are spread through the use of social media, pro-ISIS websites, and the dark web. The terrorist group's Twitter game was legendary until the social media company and hackers began shutting down the accounts as fast as ISIS supporters could open them. While this leaves the total number of ISIS accounts about level, it reduces the number of followers each account can get before it is deleted, lowering the group's reach.
Finally, ISIS directs many potential recruits to videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born imam who spent most of his formative years in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was known for spouting a particularly violent interpretation of Islam and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
Al-Awlaki had connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers, the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, and the attempted downing of a plane in 2009 by a bomber wearing explosive underwear. Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, was known to have watched al-Awlaki videos. While al-Awlaki is dead, many of his lectures are still available on YouTube and other outlets.
Add YouTube and Twitter accounts and other propaganda outlets, and it's easy to see how potential terrorists are able to find ISIS's messages and continue down the road to radicalization.