The institutional symmetry of an asymmetric conflict. A State – State rivalry throughout Daesh’s widespread storytelling – by Daniele M. Barone

To date, Daesh has been dismantled, deprived of credibility, and with no remaining strong leadership but still up and unpredictable. The latest release, a few days ago, of its first piece since January 2019 from foreign language media al-Hayat named “The People of Zeal and Bravery”[i], the inclusivity shown by the organization in the Sahel[ii], and the shift of the group’s online followers to decentralized chat rooms after the Referral Action Days operation by EUROPOL on Telegram[iii] it’s a warning on the uselessness of kinetic actions taken against the group.

Focusing only on its ability to reshape and use at its advantage any tool to keep its community unified, loyal, and coherent, liquidity and adaptability are the only words left to define, somehow, this terrorist organization[iv].
However, by considering Daesh only through its unique skills in preserving its brand communicative and evocative, no matter any precaution or action taken by institutions or private sector[v], can overshadow the real core of the organization: establish and control its borderless State. As obvious and simple as it is, this should be the initial point to analyze Daesh’s current communicative decentralization and its shift from a strictly hierarchical to a horizontal structure.
It’s a truism that the terrorist organization is evolving and mutating its attractiveness by progressively shifting to a clandestine and privacy-centric communication ecosystem[vi]. Nevertheless, in the meantime, it is also looking at the bigger picture, placing itself, step by step, on a higher and higher level, aiming at excluding in people’s imaginary an identification connected to the figure of a leader or an ideology but, on the contrary, growing as a fully-fledged State. This process has already begun and it can be analyzed by acknowledging the organization’s consolidated soft-power.

Jihadi social asylum project

 “We are all ISIS” in 2016 was one of the most inflated slogans used by Daesh to exploit the inclusivity of the Islamic ummah,[vii] pointing out its will to accept people of all colors and ethnicities and by representing jihad as the cure for marginalization, discrimination, existential angst, lost of identity or depression[viii]. Indeed, humans can be understood only as a part of society, culture or history and not in isolation; the organization forces the creation of a new safe society under Islam, stressing the links between sociocultural processes taking place in a large community (especially the universal need for better governance) and mental processes taking place in the individual[ix]. This occurs also by the terrorist group’s emphasis on the democratic bias suffered by soft-power in international relations[x] which, by considering liberal concepts and values as being universal in their appeal[xi], has also deployed tremendous hard-power to accelerate its realization.[xii] This background, since the group’s early stages, has granted to Daesh the necessary social ecosystem to create an easily understandable, authoritarian and conservative communication envelop, which is allowing the growth of the perceived acceptance of its legitimization as a state while constantly shadowing its purposes behind self-presumed holy purposes and ideologies.

In the beginning the way to join IS was the hijra,[xiii] living in the name of jihad by reaching Daesh’s strongholds in the Middle East. Nowadays, without a land to physically place the organization, its members are called to be prepared to an exhausting fight against the takfir[xiv], with apparently no immediate outcomes. This is not only a mere adaptation to the lost of its territories. Indeed, at present times, the terrorist organization is not anymore promising something tangible to its activists scattered across the globe. In this context, the battle against non-Muslims may be a never ending one.Thus, the victory or mere satisfaction, from its members’ point of view, can immediately come by choosing to become part of Daesh itself[xv].

In practice, the organization has kept its initial premises, “we are all ISIS”; Daesh is not anymore perceived by its activists through the physical shape of a land, a leader, not even an ideology.

A cross-cultural assumption of similarities among its members, reinforced by the creation of an endogenously ruled stable system of preconceptions or stereotypes, are making Daesh either comfortably reachable or permanent. Daesh becomes the people who decide to join the group or are even slightly feeling inspired by it through the immediate emotional rewards they’re getting, by enjoying the present.

“Jihadi cool”. An emotionally rewarding lifestyle

Through jihad, Daesh has created its sociocultural environment, but this doesn’t only come by a sentiment of revenge or hatred. The sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elevation of religious experience initially seem superfluous to the jihadist cause but, on the contrary, are a huge part of jihadist dissemination and a crucial element in the making of its soft-power[xvi].

As analyzed by Arabic culture researcher Thomas Hegghammer[xvii], recruits, for example, tend to listen to jihadi music and watch jihadi videos long before they understand the doctrine or take part in any extremist discourse. This suggests that the culture underpinning Islamist militancy acts as a kind of gateway to the ideology. Even though this may seem nonsense in the rationality of behavioral economics, these features are expanding exponentially Daesh’s audience and the ways of how much it becomes appealing according to its followers, becoming either touch points or a reason to constantly keep in touch with sympathizers of the terrorist organization[xviii].

Anashid, for instance, cappella hymns (since musical instruments are forbidden) which have nothing to do with jihad but usually Daesh’s members listen to them in their dorms, in their cars, and largely discuss them on online chat rooms.

Sentimental and self-glorifying poetry is another important feature of jihadist related contents. Indeed, jihadi poets have developed a vast body of radical verse. Among Daesh’s most famous poet on the web, there was a Syrian woman named Ahlam al-Nasr (i.e. Dreams of Victory) who, in 2014, published a collection of her poetry entitled “The Blaze of Truth”[xix].

Ru’yâ (true dreams), are fundamental, inspirational, and even strategic part of the contemporary militant jihad[xx], able to influence other IS members, followers and potential ones[xxi]. Both leaders and soldiers say they sometimes rely on nighttime visions for decision making[xxii].

Furthermore, jihadi sympathizers often follow Salafi etiquette or share the same taste for fashion or accessories (the so called “jihadi cool”), by wearing nonalcoholic perfume, avoiding gold jewelry but often using Casio F-91W watch[xxiii] and its dozens of variations which became very popular in jihadist training camps for their resilience and affordable price in the Middle East.[xxiv]

Studying and understanding the relevant public

Daesh is known for establishing wide networks of informants to gather intelligence, identify key players, recruit supporters and eliminate potential threats.

On the one hand, the widespread use of informants in IS controlled areas created mistrust between residents, pushing many to feel only forced to publicly show their loyalty to the group, on the other hand, it gives the group a better understand of the local dynamics[xxv]. When administering its territories in Syria and Iraq, the three defining features of Daesh’s narrative dominance were: control, culture, collectivity[xxvi].

The same happened during the latest decentralization process of the terrorist organization’s propaganda, which has nowadays brought to the making of the so-defined by ITSTIME “Legacy”.  The evolution of the group’s communication strategy has brought Daesh “from being just a terrorist group, then a brand and, finally, a phenomenon that is employed for an array of reasons and in numerous contexts”[xxvii], which is making individuals feeling empowered of their choices and directly responsible for the continuation of an everlasting pan-Islamic extremist movement.

From this angle, as discussed by the Global Coalition against Daesh[xxviii], while perhaps too much attention has been given to Daesh’s online presence and operations, an important point exists regarding how Daesh empowered its community of supporters outside the Caliphate to push its narratives, its brand and product.

Indeed, Daesh hypodermic communication needle has been aiming to the ego of its online supporters to make them feel that their work was just as important as those physically fighting for the jihad, by claiming that the online network of disseminators and translators were also mujahideen. This both empowered and instilled loyalty in these supporters to push uncorrupted versions of what Daesh produced, allowing Daesh’s propaganda and way-of-life to be pushed far and wide at a very high rate.

The battlefield is the services! Terrorist administration confronting State system

Ted Robert Gurr, who developed the term ‘‘relative deprivation,’’ which links economic disparity with the propensity of individuals to resort to violent political action[xxix]. In other words, when individuals’ expectations of economic or political goods exceed the actual distribution of those goods, political violence is more likely[xxx].

The inclusivity of Daesh, and Islamic terrorism in general has brought to a higher level this concept, by filling those gaps created by state administrations and building an irreplaceable bond with the population. Shortly explaining what is the Dawa in the Islamic community may help to understand this strategic method to gather consensus and expand. The Dawa’s main idea is based on the core belief that investing in educating Islamic values and social activity may bear fruit to broaden the base of public support to: expose Muslims and general public to jihadi ideology; provide international logistic support to terrorists; grant a legal and legitimate financial resource for local or global Islamic leaders/organizations.[xxxi]

For instance, nowadays in northern Mali, the jihadists have engaged in smuggling but have also been investing in building mosques and sharia courts, by enriching the Dawa infrastructure to serve the jihadi purpose[xxxii], spreading their ideology and presenting themselves as legitimate alternatives to the State. Indeed, the sharia courts are popular among citizens, and perceived as more rapid, less corrupt, delivered in a manner that people can understand, and cheaper, compared to State system[xxxiii].

Same concepts elicited the potential outcomes of the killing of Baghdadi in the Middle East, which appeared “supremely unimportant” in the region, as claimed by a former Iraqi cabinet minister[xxxiv]. In Iraq and Lebanon, for example, which are in the midst of violent popular protests and the disintegration of central authority, the death of Daesh supreme leader appears to be barely relevant. More important to the citizens remains the lack of basic services, sluggish economies, corruption and unemployment.

New perspectives in counter-terrorism

Daesh’s ability to win the heart and minds of supporters or sympathizers will keep on being its most important source of strength. This should bring institutions to take into account of the fact that the liquidity of the Islamic State is just the mirror of its stable soft-power.

Indeed, as long as Daesh is identified by institutions as the cause of terrorism instead of analyzing the roots which are keeping the support of its members solid, there will always be room for it to come back stronger in its liquid form.

Hence, it is crucial to understand the small and the bigger picture of Daesh. Even its soft-power is not a monolith, on the contrary, can become trustable in different ways which take into account a global picture, local dynamics and  a dedicated sentiment analysis of each individual.

Nowadays, hitting Daesh’s soft-power means hitting state soft-power. Daesh as a state, can be undermined by an interaction of institutions, at a domestic or international level, with communities (either online or offline), families, tribes living in small and outlaying areas because, even though in its followers’ perception the terrorist organization is as stable as a State, Daesh still needs to operate on preexistent socio-cultural, religious and political realities, not as an autonomous body but as a parasite.


[i] SITE Intelligence Group (March 11, 2020)

[ii] F. Marone  (March 03, 2020) Terrorismo ed estremismi: la prospettiva dell’intelligence italiana. ISPI.

[iii] F.Borgonovo, N. Spagna (December 02, 2019) L’operazione “Referral Action Days” di Europol. ITSTIME.

[iv] T. Goudsouzian (November 22, 2016) EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Kurdish Intel Chief Lahur Talabani. Newsweek.

[v] (Nov 22, 2019) Referral Action Day Against Islamic State Online Terrorist Propaganda. EUROPOL – Press Release.

[vi] D.M. Barone (November 2019) The decentralized finance-violent extremism nexus: ideologies, technical skills, strong and weak points. Sicurezza Terrorismo Società.

[vii] The whole community of Muslims bound together by religious ties

[viii] (April 22, 2016) The Hypnotic Power of ISIS Imagery in Recruiting Western Youth. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).

[ix] B. Gindis (November 1999) Vygotsky’s Vision: Reshaping the Practice of Special Education for the 21st Century. Remedial and Special Education, Vol.20, No. 6.’s_Vision_Reshaping_the_Practice_of_Special_Education_for_the_21st_Century

[x] S. Repucci (2020) Freedom in the World 2020 – A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy. Freedom House.

[xi] V.C. Keating, K. Kaczmarska (May 11, 2017) Conservative soft power: liberal soft power bias and the ‘hidden’ attraction of Russia. Journal of International Relations and Development.

[xii] E. Li (August 27, 2018) The End of Soft Power?. LIMES.

[xiii] An Arabic word meaning “migration”

[xiv] Infidels in Arabic

[xv] M. Scully (March 23, 2017) Pentagon Leaders Say Soft Power Central to ISIS Strategy. Roll Call.

[xvi] A. Anthony (July 23, 2017) The art of making a jihadist. The Guardian.

[xvii] T. Hegghammer (2010) The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters – Islam and the Globalization of Jihad.

[xviii] H. McKay (April 4, 2017) ‘Jihadi cool’: How ISIS switched its recruitment and social media master plan. Fox News.

[xix] Counter Extremism Project.

[xx] I. R. Edgar (2016) The Dream in Islam: From Qur’anic Tradition to Jihadist Inspiration. Berghan Books

[xxi] I.R. Edgar (October 14, 2016) The Islamic State and Dream Warfare. Center for Security Studies.

[xxii] I. R. Edgar (2008) Overtures of Paradise: Night Dreams and Islamic Jihadist Militancy. Journal of Medical Anthropology

[xxiii] S. Wesolowski (January 30, 2020) Why Terrorists Love Casio’s Iconic F-91W Watch. Vice.

[xxiv] A. Ritman (May 1, 2011) My watch is ‘the sign of al Qa’eda’. The National.

[xxv] H. Haid (2018) Reintegrating ISIS Supporters in Syria: Efforts, Priorities and Challenges. ICSR King’s College London Strand London WC2R 2LS United Kingdom.

[xxvi] (February 19, 2020) RE-SETTING THE AGENDA: HOW TO PUT DAESH PROPAGANDA ON THE BACKFOOT. The Global Coalition.

[xxvii] M. Lombardi, D. Plebani (2019)  DIGITAL JIHAD Online Communication and Violent Extremism – From the Rise of Daesh to the “Legacy of Islamic State”. ISPI.

[xxviii] Global Coalition

[xxix] T.R. Gurr (1970) Why Men Rebel. Princeton University Press

[xxx] J.A. Piazza (2006) Terrorism and Political Violence – Rooted in Poverty? Terrorism, Poor Economic Development, and Social Cleavages. Taylor & Francis Group.

[xxxi] D.M. Barone (October 2018) Jihadists’ use of cryptocurrencies: undetectable ways to finance terrorism. Sicurezza, terrorismo e società 8.

[xxxii] S. Shay (2012) Somalia between Jihad and Restoration. Transaction Publisher, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

[xxxiii] A. Blomfield (March 6, 2020) Jihadists win hearts and minds in the Sahel by providing basic services. The Telegraph.

[xxxiv] T. Goudsouzian (Nov 1, 2019) Fighting ISIS: why soft power still matters. Le Monde diplomatique.