A person loyal to the Islamic State waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria, last year. (Reuters)

This summer has been a sobering showcase of how terrorism is evolving, from the United States, France or Germany to Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. While the unprecedented wave of Islamist-inspired foreign fighters who traveled from the West to Syria and Iraq has slowed considerably, many Western nations are now facing a resurgent “homegrown” threat. These trends are a chilling reminder that the appeal of Islamist extremism persists despite 15 years of focused counterterrorism efforts.

For al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State, propaganda is their most important tool for shaping perceptions, polarizing support and mobilizing a small but potent fringe of Western supporters. However, strategic communication to offset this propaganda is broadly recognized as a major counterterrorism weakness. My research suggests that calls for secular Western governments to focus on countering extremist ideology with their own ideology-centric counter-narratives are ill-advised, because such strategies are likely ineffective, if not counterproductive.

A disproportionate focus on ideology when trying to understand propaganda’s appeal will likely result in misguided counter-strategies. Instead, it is valuable to explore how extremist messaging is designed to leverage psychosocial forces and strategic factors pertinent to their audiences. I analyzed the contents of AQAP’s Inspire and the Islamic State’s Dabiq English-language magazines to understand how each seeks to appeal to and radicalize its readers. Published in the Australian Journal of Political Science and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, this research provides insight into not just the strategic logic of AQAP’s and the Islamic State’s propaganda strategies targeting the West but also what drives people to support them.

Inspire and Dabiq provide readers an alternative perspective of the world — contrasted with the view presented by their opponents — that shapes audience perceptions and judgments. I call this a “competitive system of meaning.” At the heart of these systems are strategically designed in-group identity, out-group identity (others), and crisis and solution constructs that variously employ narrative, imagery and symbolism.

For both magazines, in-group identity constructs are defined as appropriately aligned (i.e. AQAP/Islamic State) Sunni Muslims, while out-groups are anyone else. Their proposed solutions are direct engagement in or the support of violence to achieve a politico-military agenda. Both magazines use diverse messaging that leverages rational-choice (i.e., a cost-benefit consideration of options) and identity-choice (i.e., considerations in accordance with one’s identity) appeals to influence audiences’ decision-making processes.

How AQAP and the Islamic State prioritize rational- and identity-choice appeals has significant implications for how each seeks to strategically influence readers.

Inspire prioritizes identity-choice appeals, particularly via messages that tie commitment to the in-group with solutions to Muslim crises. The next most prevalent type of message tends to focus on the strategic rationale and the operational know-how necessary to engage in violence — typically presented in its infamous “Open Source Jihad” section. What can be inferred from these patterns is that Inspire’s dominant empowering narrative is designed to compel readers to engage in identity-choice decisions that will lead to pursuing Inspire’s solution. How to achieve that solution is then conveniently outlined in each issue’s concluding “Open Source Jihad” section.

In contrast, Dabiq’s contents tend to balance identity- and rational-choice appeals. The two most prevalent types of messaging in Dabiq are identity-choice appeals that link fidelity to the in-group (i.e., the Islamic State’s Sunni Muslim identity construct) with solutions and rational-choice appeals that portray the Islamic State’s politico-military actions as effectively and pragmatically alleviating Sunni Muslim crises. For example, the magazine constructs and lauds the in-group: “Raise your head high, for today — by Allah’s grace — you have a state and Khilafah (caliphate), which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership. It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers.”

AQAP and Islamic State propaganda is designed so that the more perceptions of a crisis are tied to others, the more the in-group and its solutions are seen as necessary (see graphic). Just as the appeal and power of this propaganda is rooted in these cyclical dynamics, they may also be the key to effective counterterrorism strategic communications. At the very least, such an approach demands that propaganda is understood within a strategic and psychosocial context.

To exacerbate perceptions of crisis among their Western readership, these magazines often highlight the singling out of Muslim populations in the West — whether as the disproportionate targets of national security efforts or the focus of populist anti-Islam rhetoric, as in this excerpt from Inspire:

… your belongingness to Islam is enough to classify you as an enemy. As a matter of fact, they look at us as Muslim youth regardless of our appearance and education. They do not consider our citizenship and the childhood we spent in their neighborhoods. … Our enemies treat us as Muslims only, nothing more. … One treatment, one blame.

Populist politicians in the United States, Europe and Australia who seek political advantage with Islamophobic dog-whistle politics are actually doing more to boost the appeal of extremism than to counter it. Such rhetoric helps to intensify perceptions of crisis across Muslim communities and fuel the psychosocial conditions within which extremist propaganda tends to resonate. It also crudely validates the “competitive systems of meaning” advanced by groups like the Islamic State and AQAP. Furthermore, when that rhetoric manipulates fears among disenfranchised sections of the broader community and ties their sense of crisis to certain races and religions (out-groups) and solutions to a utopian nationalist identity (in-group), it empowers far-right extremists and helps to broaden their appeal.

Better-intentioned politicians and counterterrorism authorities may also be inadvertently and more subtly undermining efforts to counter extremism. Many Muslims living in the West have expressed their exasperation with the constant pressure to describe themselves as “moderates.” This view is frequently echoed during my travels in the Middle East and South Asia. As one Syrian activist said to me: “Why do you insist on us saying that we are ‘moderates?’ I am a Muslim, this is Islam. That’s it. Or do you want us to lose credibility in our audience’s eyes? When you insist I say ‘moderate,’ that’s for you. To my audience, that means ‘not Islam.’ ” Using “moderate” Muslims as the champions of government schemes or demanding that Muslims identify themselves as “moderates” risks inadvertently delegitimizing those voices in their communities, especially among those most vulnerable to propaganda’s siren call.

The recent release of Dabiq magazine’s 15th issue is a timely reminder that the “battle for hearts and minds” at home and abroad is not about to disappear as the Islamic State’s defeats in the field mount. A more nuanced understanding of extremist propaganda strategies offers important insights into not only why people are attracted to groups like AQAP and the Islamic State but also how counterterrorism strategic communications can be improved. Deep into the second decade of the “Wars on Terror,” many of these lessons have yet to be fully understood, let alone effectively applied.

Haroro J. Ingram is a research fellow with the Australian National University and a research associate with the International Centre for Counterterrorism (ICCT – The Hague). His project,  funded by the Australian Research Council, analyzes the role of propaganda in the strategies of violent nonstate political movements.