Even before the dramatic blitzkrieg the Islamic State launched through northern Iraq in June 2014, the group had been focused on expanding its presence beyond Syria and Iraq. The group has by now declared wilayats (provinces) in West Africa (Wilayat Ifriqiyah, the organization formerly known as Boko Haram), in the Caucasus region of Russia, and in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Though the campaign of expansion launched by the Islamic State (known in the U.S. government by the acronym ISIL, after its previous incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has been fraught with setbacks, the group also achieved real successes. Its move into Libya, where ISIL controls the city of Sirte, justifiably piqued international fears. ISIL’s ability to attract thousands of foreign fighters — and the significant danger they now pose to Europe — is another success story for the group outside of its Syria-Iraq stronghold. As ISIL seeks to establish new wilayats abroad and pull more foreign fighters into its ranks, one of its most potent weapons is its robust propaganda apparatus.
In every country where ISIL has established a presence, it has drawn on a general propaganda playbook consisting of its most powerful themes and narratives that resonate with its global audience, but ISIL also tailors its message to each new theater. The movement is adept at fitting its narratives to local political and social conditions, and exploiting societal grievances and fault lines. ISIL’s localized messaging helps bolster the group’s legitimacy, fuel recruitment, and amplify (and often exaggerate) its strength in countries where the group is fighting for a foothold.
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