Communications: Charlie Winter

"On The Line" Podcast Series, Episode 5, Charlie Winter


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Nancy:
Today we have Charlie Winter on the line. Charlie is a communications expert who specialises in terrorism and insurgency. He’s currently working on his PhD at King’s College, examining how militant groups cultivate creative approaches to governance and war. He focuses on Daesh propaganda specifically. He’s here to help us unpack all things Daesh propaganda, the strategy driving it, how it has evolved, and how to counter it.

Nancy:
Hello, hi Charlie. How are you?

Charlie:
I’m very well, thank you. How are you?

Charlie Winter is a communications expert who specialises in terrorism and insurgency.

Nancy:
I’m fine, thanks! 

You’ve been following Daesh propaganda from the very beginning. What is your assessment of Daesh’s propaganda in terms of developing over the past few years? 

Charlie:
Over the last few years there has been a complete transformation really in the content, the kind of thematic priorities, of what the organisation is trying to say to its followers, and how it is orientating its propagandists to reach out to them as well. So, back in 2013-2014-2015 the Hay-day of its so called “Caliphate”. That was the period of time that it was characterised by lot of propaganda that was overtly focused on the apparent civilian utopia of Daesh in Iraq and Syria and Libya as well. There is a lot of stuff coming out of there as well, focused on the same sort of civilian utopia. So, I’m talking here about these kind of blissful euphoric scenes of children playing in the streets and wildlife and sunsets and education, money being handed out by Zakat officials or all sort of things like that. And of course, the more brutal side of civilian “utopia”, so the Hudud punishments: people having their hands amputated, or gay men being thrown off buildings. All of that stuff folded in to this broader idea of what it was to be a modern-day Jihadi Caliphate, that was what Daesh propaganda was doing continuously back then. And then over the course of 2016-2017-2018 and now we are in 2019 of course, there was a slow steady collapse of the organisation territorially. Its proto-state fell apart at the margins and then at its core as well as kinetic action by the Coalition and its allies essentially closed the book on the utopian proto-state. And throughout that time Daesh propagandists moulded the content they were making in order to help supporters navigate through that period of time. I mean it is very difficult to be part of any political organisation if it is seen as failing. 

Nancy:
Where they moulding it towards, where they customising it per region, per segment, per gender? 

Charlie:
The global narrative of Daesh was never actually really that segmented. So, stuff that was happening in Libya for example, would be reported on in the same way as stuff that was happening in Iraq and so on, in Afghanistan, in Egypt. A few years ago there was always a lot more material coming out of its propagandists in Iraq and Syria, and the reason for that is obvious, it’s because it had the most invested there, it had the most propagandists, it had the most need to communicate about that particular sphere of conflict. But in the grand scheme of things, Daesh propagandists did all they could even a few years ago to make themselves, or make it look like a global organisation. And that is something that we’re really seeing a lot more of these days, where there is a lot more focus on what is happening outside of Iraq and Syria, but the ground work for that was laid a few years ago. It’s not unusual now, it doesn’t strike us as peculiar to see the propaganda spending more time talking about, say west Africa or Afghanistan nowadays because they were doing that even when it was at its hay-day in Iraq and Syria. So, there has been a shift which has kind of been on a day-to-day basis imperceptible, but it’s really quite profound when you take a step back and look at how things have changed from the geographic make-up of the Daesh brand. It’s still very much organisationally I believe centred in Iraq and Syria in spite of the material failings, in spite of the fact that its proto-state has kind of devolved back into a covert insurgency. I think the organisation is still centred there, but when you consider it from a branding perspective it is very much dispersed around the world. The propagandists have done all they can to show it to be as active in West Africa, as it is in Sinai Peninsula, as it is in the Philippines and Afghanistan and so on. 

Nancy:
So now that you’ve explained how Daesh propaganda has evolved after its territorial lost. How do you think the world, or the Coalition partners should adjust their strategy accordingly? Or should they do so? 

Charlie:
That is a really really difficult question to answer. I mean let me just set up how things have changed since earlier this year and then perhaps we can talk about what could be done to respond, or indeed what could not be done to respond – whether it’s worth responding at all. Essentially over the last few months, since the fall of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and of course in the run-up to that moment, but they’ve really doubled down since then. Daesh’s propagandists have been pedalling a very kind of definite line, but it essentially has shifted the strategic parameters of what this organisation is all about away from material goals, away from things that are tangible towards something which is ideas-based and intangible. So, essentially now the Daesh proto-state that Daesh…kind of its material reality, its ability to govern, its ability to administer a territory, that is no longer important to the organisation. The idea of it is very important but the actual practical reality of it isn’t particularly important. And this has essentially been cast through a very nostalgic lens which has been kind of in development since as far back as 2016, I remember when they first started to look at events that were happening in the so-called Caliphate through very rose tinted glasses if you like, very much trying to channel this idea of nostalgia. So they’ve gone hard on that line over the last few  months, they’ve spent a lot of time trying to frame all video content, the kind of major video releases that have emerged in the last few months, they have all been framed with this very nostalgic line so there’s kind of scenes of 2014-2015 in Mosul or Raqqa in particular, scenes of governance and all kind of shown through sepia tones and filters and rose tinted lenses and that kind of thing to make it look like this was something that was happening a long time ago. But to really show that this was the golden age, a new golden age for the religion of Islam as Daesh would see it. And essentially the way that kind of material has being used is not to try to say this what you need to be fighting for right now, this is not something that you’re actually going to be able to attain anytime soon. Rather this is what you’re fighting to reclaim, you’re fighting to reclaim that dignity and that Daesh provided to civilians living in its territories during its golden age. So that’s the kind of the way that the last few years have been recalibrated by Daesh’s propagandists, the idea of the last few years. Whether that needs a direct response from the Coalition, I don’t actually think it does. I think the Coalition’s best course of action right now is to focus as much as possible on the fact that things are actually returning to normality slowly, very slowly in some cases, but there are pockets of normality returning in Iraq and Syria in places that were previously considered to be strongholds of Daesh, and these pockets are growing and growing and growing, and civilian life is beginning to function as it was, and perhaps even better than it was before. But this idea of normality, the functioning of day-to-day life, I think it is something that the Coalition should really really spend lot of time supporting, and not just support it but also communicate about how it is being implemented, how it is actually happening because normality is anathema to Daesh. The idea that there is any sense of security, stability, economic prosperity, any of that stuff is something that Daesh would like to have monopoly over and if it can be showing that it does not have a monopoly over the provision of those kind of core tenets of success or governance, then that weakens the claims that it has. So, that is the kind of thing I think the Coalition will be up against in the next few years. This is a group that is absolutely on the back foot, but it will do all it can to make it look like it’s not on the back foot. 

Nancy:
And in following their online activity…the level of engagement, has it changed from before? 

Charlie:
So, there has in general been a massive massive decrease in the amount of propaganda being produced by Daesh on a daily basis. There are far fewer videos than there ever were. There are far fewer photo reports than there ever were. Publications like “Dabiq” and “Rumiyah” – the foreign language publications that used to be produced by the al-Hayat media centre – they have been put on indefinite hold. There are still sometimes as many as dozens of operations claims in single day. There are still photographs coming out from all sorts of different places. There are still clearly, or rather there is still clearly, a sophisticated media infrastructure operating somewhere on behalf of Daesh. The long and the short of it is that in the grand scheme of things if you were to compare the output of the organisation now with what it was 3 or 4 years ago, then it looks very very different. It’s much quieter on a day-to-day basis. When it comes to its supporters, the Munasirin, the kind of committed supporters of Daesh who spent a lot of time on places like Telegram and Rocket Chat, all these online platforms that kind of privilege security and allow for encryption, that kind of thing. There is a perhaps greater role for them than there was a few years ago. There seems to be a lot more enthusiasm for their direct participation in what Daesh terms as media-Jihad. So, the sharing of materials, dissemination of propaganda, but also the ideological discourse that keeps the organisation, that keeps the brand alive, if you like. There is a lot of that happening and perhaps more than there was just a few years ago. 

Nancy:
So how powerful, in your perception, is propaganda as a terrorist method? 

Charlie:
I view all of Daesh’s terrorist operations, specifically terrorist operations, as opposed to those which could be seen as more conventionally military trying to seize a whole territory that kind of thing. I view them as a logical extension of its propaganda, its overarching propaganda strategy. When it tries to kill civilians, of course it’s trying to kill civilians because of the economic impact that could have or the political impact that could have in the place in question. But I think more than anything else, what it is trying to do is communicate to its adversaries, whether the adversaries are directly engaged in the conflict, governance or military and so on, or whether they are it’s kind of presume adversaries, the people who are not remotely engaged in the war against Daesh, who are nearly civilians living somewhere like the United Kingdom who are enemies by default. Terrorism is a very good way to communicate with people who are enemies by default. All sorts of other organisations of course throughout history have used terrorism as a way to communicate intent and resolve to their various target audiences. I think what Daesh has been able to do over the last few years, and this is not simply because it is particularly intelligent or particularly adept at understanding the environment it is operating in, but you could make a case for those two things, but I think it is also a result of circumstance. This is an organisation which has emerged at a time where social media and the news media cycle are very much wrapped up in each other. Twenty four hour news means there is a constant desire to get new stories and also there’s the reality of competition online now for getting clicks, for getting people going onto pages so that the adverts hosted on those pages can be viewed. This is a whole dynamic that Daesh has really benefited from. Because the kinds of actions it engages in, whether we’re talking about terrorist operations which of course they generate massive amount of news media attention. Or the ultra-violent propaganda that it used to publish a few years ago. These things were very effective ways to stimulate interest in it as an organisation. I mean there is a reason that Daesh is an organisation that has, perhaps not with the name of Daesh, people know it more as the Islamic State or ISIS or ISIL or whatever, but it has become something which is very much recognised all over the world and this is something that it has managed to do in a relatively short amount of time. So back in early 2014, most people hadn’t heard of it. Al-Qaeda was still considered to be the kind of the big terrorist group out there, that was the biggest Jihadist group out there that posed a threat the world over, but through its strategic and tactical use of violence and also its distribution of mediated violence than brutal propaganda films and all that stuff. I think that Daesh was able to really eke out a very particular brand for itself. One that eventually came to use up Al-Qaeda as the global jihadist organisation of note, the most recognisable, the most seemingly menacing, and I think that is something which happened directly as a result of Daesh’s, not just deployment of terrorism, but the way it communicated about that terrorism as well. I think that is exceptionally important and the way that – just thinking about the Sri Lanka attacks not too long ago – the way that it drip-fed information in the wake of those operations I think was a paradigmatic example of how it can maximise the attention, even if it is what would seem to be negative attention to us. So, people calling it a brutal, horrific organisation that is indiscriminately targeting civilians etc etc.. That is exactly the kind of coverage that Daesh wants it at this point. It wants there to be as much light shed on it as something which is dangerous and menacing globally as is possible. Those attacks enabled it to demonstrate that very clearly, and the way it drip fed that information sustained that attention for as long as possible. So, there is a very much a propagandist intent in mind when it comes to the deployment of terrorism when it comes to this group. It’s not just trying to kill civilians for the sake of killing civilians. It is not just trying to kill civilians to send a very particular message to the political elite in a given country. It’s killing civilians because of the global message that that killing has. And I think it is really important that we keep that in the front of our mind, but never something like this happened. 

Nancy:
Charlie Winter it’s been a pleasure hosting you on the line. Thank you for being with us today! 

Charlie:
Thank you very much! It’s been a great to chat. 

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