Strategies, disinformation techniques and cognitive warfare of jihadist organisations

By Federico Borgonovo

From "The CoESPU MAGAZINE - the online Journal of Stability Policing – Advanced Studies" Vol. I – Issue 1 – Year 2022

Page 41

DOI Code: 10.32048/Coespumagazine4.22.10

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic allowed several non-state actors to exploit the multiple facets of the health emergency for strategic purposes, in particular operations identifiable within the Cognitive Warfare framework were conducted. This study focused on the propaganda operations conducted by the two main jihadist organisations, Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Both showed the use of cognitive tactics implemented by each other's media infrastructure. Both actors carefully observed and interpreted the reactions of Western audiences and studied them in order to influence their threat perception and simultaneously continue recruiting. In fact, the use of propaganda was put in place taking into account the exponential revival by the Western media. In addition, online and offline supporters were urged not to pity or forget the alleged crimes committed by Westerners. The relevant literature has not yet provided an in-depth study of the use of techniques attributable to Cognitive Warfare by the two organisations and the ecosystem of online supporters during the pandemic. This analysis proposes an examination of techniques, narratives and propaganda through a combination of content analysis conducted within the social media populated by jihadist supporters and open-source data collection. The information gathered on jihadist organisations was subsequently encapsulated within the strategic framework of Cognitive Warfare. In particular, the analysis revealed that these terrorist organisations exploited communication in the pandemic era as a tool to influence and incite violence. By conveying the underlying message of their ideology, they sought to capitalise on the pandemic situation in order to maintain the collective image of global jihad and expand both online and offline where the opportunity arose. The analysis shows how the two groups exploited the opportunities of the pandemic in different ways and with different outcomes. Although both initially adopted the Divine Punishment narrative, IS exploited its great capacity for online contamination to expand its reach by deploying different techniques targeting different audiences. While al-Qaeda has remained on official and institutional canons by targeting non-Islamic Western audiences and repurposing tactics and narratives already used. The study and analysis of the cognitive warfare techniques adopted by jihadist organisations can become a formidable tool for understanding the terrorist phenomenon and its evolution. The knowledge derived from such a study, besides enriching the methodological concept of Cognitive Warfare, can be used to identify new techniques adopted by other actors and ultimately to recognise the communicative processes of hostile non-state actors.

Jihadist Cognitive Warfare

In cognitive warfare, the human mind becomes the battlefield. The aim is to change not only what people think, but how they think and act. Waged successfully, it shapes and influences individual and group beliefs and behaviours to favour an aggressor’s tactical or strategic objectives. In its extreme form, it has the potential to fracture and fragment an entire society, so that it no longer has the collective will to resist an adversary’s intentions. An opponent could conceivably subdue a society without resorting to outright force or coercion."

Taking it for granted that the battlefield of cognitive warfare takes place within people's cognitions and minds, we deduce the following logical steps: jihadist organisations operate on the internet in order to communicate, radicalise, recruit and attack. These operations can be included within the concept of cognitive warfare, since the very act of terrorism aims to destabilise the cognition of the society of those being targeted. as far as the communicative aspect is concerned, the internet is the medium of the cognitive operations of the organisations, and in particular the social platforms suitable for spreading propaganda Understanding the use of the Internet within networks linked to Islamic extremism emerges as a fundamental step to be able to understand the how jihadist organizations can operate within the cognitive warfare. In particular our analysis will focus the attention on the means of communication of (Islamist) Internet users and subsequently on propaganda. The existing literature is very extensive and is mainly dedicated to al-Qaeda and IS organisations, which does not exclude the fact that other fringes of extremism currently make use of the Internet for terrorist purposes (Conway 2017), but it is equally evident that it was the jihadist organisations that experimented with new uses and gave rise to modi operandi that are still relevant today (Rudner 2017). This literature focuses on the study concerning the use of internet by jihadist organisations as a tool for propaganda, information sharing, fundraising, data mining, tactical/military communications in the field, strategic communications and finally for recruitment (Awan 2017). Al-Qaeda was the first terrorist organisation to capitalise on the exploitation of the Internet. The same document produced and issued by al-Qaeda; Twenty-Year Strategic Plan (2001-2020) places the internet as a key tool in the jihadist struggle. The entire second section of the document is dedicated to the internet and how its consequent use can mobilise the jihadist spirit worldwide (Rudner 2017); furthermore, in the fifth section of the same document, the concept of 'Electronic Jihad' is enucleated. The concept was subsequently operationalised into a mighty system of specialised websites (Meleagrou-Hitchens 2011) capable of covering the different dimensions of Qaidist Jihad through multiple activities including: 

  • Publicising the speeches of spokesmen.
  • Incitement to violent jihad.
  • Recruitment of internet operatives, the so-called 'Internet Mujahedin'.
  • Distribution of propaganda and translating it into several languages.
  • Computer support.
  • Paramilitary training.
  • Information for the community on battles fought on the Jihad fronts.
  • Engagement of specific targets with psychological warfare operations (Rudner 2017). 

The aim of the system was to influence the 'hearts and minds' of supporters through the various activities outlined above; from this we can deduce that the Electronic Jihad is nothing but the ultimate expression of a globally extended virtual call to arms (Rudner 2017). Al-Qaeda has thus 'occupied' and militarised cyberspace, giving rise to a militant community, a digitised Ummah that has contributed and continues to contribute to the homogenisation of a political/religious thought that is also shaped by a narrative flow composed of multiple products: videos, magazines and news, immersed in cyberspace (Rudner 2017). The narrative flow also passes through groups and forums that provide opportunities for ideological contamination and thus radicalisation among the users themselves. The global capacity of the 'internet' tool was not only used against Western countries; but also, within the Arab-speaking states themselves; in fact, young Muslims, close to technological issues were also targets of radicalisation operations (Rudner 2017).As a side result of this global call-to-action, terrorist activities spread to other countries and became contaminated within war and/or social contexts. This diversifies the struggle and allows for the emergence of characteristic elements that in turn contribute to the formation of other terrorist realities. 

A case in point is IS, born from the rib of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has also embraced a massive use of cybernetic resources (Nur Aziemah Binte Azman 2014). Regarding the use of social media/social networking platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, IS has proven to be able to exploit the features effectively, especially for recruitment purposes (Klausen 2015), amplifying the media reach of its military/terrorist endeavours and thanks to a linguistic diversification of its videos, it has been able to project itself transnationally (Awan 2017). Twitter and Facebook proved to be functional recruitment bases for terrorist purposes, as they ensured an extremely fast interchange of information and comments; moreover, through shares and retweets, the publicity and the revival of each media product was maximised. In addition to its undoubted expansive capacities, IS proved adept at exploiting the aggregating force of social media; this force allows the audience to act not only as a passive entity but as a pro-active group both in the production of cultural (in this case jihadist) material and in the internal interaction between users, fostering the development of real digital communities (Lietsala, Sirkkunen, and University of Tampere 2008). Starting with communities, IS has designed and implemented communicative and digital strategies to serve its purposes as a terrorist organization, including communicating its territorial expansion and media emphasis on attacks carried out around the world. Three explanatory examples of the strategies that IS has been able to implement through the communities established within social media are the Signaling Function, the Twitterstorm (Ammar and Xu 2018), and the Social Media War. 

  • Signaling Function: in 2018 in response to counterterrorism campaigns conducted by Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, jihadist groups counterattacked by opening multiple accounts with the purpose of alerting the various communities of the arrival of important news (Ammar and Xu 2018); the account that would post the material would also be indicated at a later time.


  • the Twitterstorm is a media bombardment strategy implemented by means of Twitter. Through massive relaunching of tweets and retweets in a short period of time, the hashtag referring to the designated media product also becomes visible to non-follower users of the page that created the hashtag; thus, visibility is further enhanced (Ammar and Xu 2018). Such operations require high efforts, long preparation timelines, and high levels of coordination; characteristics belonging to organized and militarized communities. 


  • Social Media War: In October 2018, Al-Hayat Media Centre published the eighth instalment of its "Inside the Khilafa" series, specifically featuring a section of the video dedicated to media operatives (munasirin). That section emphasized the use of media invasion strategies; these strategies were operationalized through the simultaneous opening of multiple channels and accounts so that the number of reopened channels and accounts outnumbered the closed ones. The goal of the Social Media War was to increase offensive capabilities and ubiquity of communication. "If they close one account open another three, and if they close three, open another thirty [...]." 

Contextually with the creation of IS communities, it produced retrospective ideas, symbols, and utopias on the basis of which to implement multiple patterns of radicalization (Awan 2017). Twitter proved to be a very useful recruitment platform through the publication of photo reportages of executions combined with the use of strategic hashtags such as #WorldCup (Awan 2017); in this way Twitter acted as an echo chamber by radiating the platform with Islamist narratives and violent images of the conflicts in Syria. The echo chamber effect in the virtual environment (also called the "virtual bubble effect") facilitates the creation of a sense of commonality and belonging (community) by sharing and amplifying only specific ideological narratives. Unique jihadist thinking is redistributed, disseminated, reinforced (Awan 2017), and through constant repetition or "echo" within the social network (and messaging platforms), normalization of violence and other components of propaganda occurs (Baaken and Schlegel 2017). In other words, while the dissemination of propaganda is ensured by IS's organizational structures and media, content and issues on the other hand are discussed, negotiated, and disseminated within the communities where the echo chamber operates (Baaken and Schlegel 2017). Although the echo chamber is not an artificial construct created by IS, it remains a strategically exploited phenomenon that is critical to the group's success as a digital entity (Baaken and Schlegel 2017). As the preferred arena of evangelization for extremists, the echo chamber effect generates an imaginary space within which it is possible to identify oneself within a kind of "family" and assimilate new ideologies; in other words, a consuming and intoxicating source of meaning, a place where one finds friends, airs grievances, and receives emotional support (Winter 2016). 

Moreover, the echo chamber effect helped generate an idealized and much more "powerful" image of the self-styled "Islamic State" than it was (Klausen 2015). This cyber-tactic was implemented on a large scale during 2015 in the context of the conflict in Syria for recruitment and reputational purposes. A large part of the radicalizing material consists of high-quality videos and powerful galvanizing and instigating messages (call-to-action); media means that are very effective on young people by influencing their cognitive models and altering their value patterns (Awan 2017). Indeed, the extensive and excessive use of social media by young people is well known, which can trigger feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and loss of real-life Indeed, the extensive and excessive use of social media by young people is well known, which can trigger feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and loss of real-life poignancy on the one hand and forms of emotional attachment to virtual communities on the other (Bloom 2018). 

An interesting explanation of the internal cohesion of jihadist communities comes to us from the analysis of so-called visual motifs. Visual motifs, or in other words visual propaganda, facilitate the transmission of ideas and symbols through images, colours, and textual structures (Bearne 2003). Regarding jihadist organizations, the type of communication, conveyed through their visual motifs, has been defined as guerrilla communication (Matusitz and Olufowote 2016). This archetype of political communication is characterized by three key elements: 

  • Identification with the core values of Islam and emphasis on specific tenets (violent jihad).
  • Methodical use of images that reference historical-emotional memories by triggering an emotional response from users. 
  • Production of persuasive and polarizing propaganda material ("us versus them") (Matusitz and Olufowote 2016) 

By analysing visual motifs through the Conceptual Theory of Metaphor, it is possible to explain, at least in part, the cultural cohesion of jihadist communities. Metaphors simultaneously possess deep emotional meanings and discursive content; through these inherent characteristics, producers of propaganda materials can trigger strong emotional responses from community members (Matusitz and Olufowote 2016). The metaphors present in jihadist videos, images, and speeches possess highly evocative traits and provide the elements of learning and development of ideology (Gow 2001), in this case the jihadist-Salafist ideology. Ultimately, the result achieved by IS in its use of Facebook and Twitter was embodied in the creation of a social (and digital) sphere of terror (Shehabat, Mitew, and Alzoubi 2017) built on hate-filled narratives, within which users were targeted and then radicalized. Such a modus operandi is unquestionably part of the legacy that Al-Qaeda has built by way of Electronic Jihad tactics.

COVID-era Propaganda


Even after their defeats in 2019, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda continued to assert their ideological-religious identity by focusing first and foremost on propaganda and proselytising, using new digital platforms such as Rocket Chat, Hoop and Element, which exploit high security parameters and new narratives, including COVID-19. Analysing the communication strategies of both organisations, two different modi operandi were recognised. 

As far as IS is concerned, including both its official strategic communication and the unofficial component composed of digital media actors (munasirin), it emerges how the virus has been associated with a true ally in the fight against Westerners. Pro-Daesh digital propaganda, linking up with institutional propaganda, referred to COVID-19 as the 'soldier of Allah', a propaganda constructs similar to the Russian concept of a 'winter general' (Allen and Chew 1981). In other words, a force at the caliphate's disposal deployed against vulnerable Western military forces who, hypothetically already burdened by the health emergency, would prove to be easy targets. As far as the semi-official Voice of Hind magazine was concerned, bioterrorist attacks were even encouraged to be carried out by infected Muslims against Western positions. Interestingly, during the early stages of the virus spread, Daesh's official weekly al-Naba cited COVID-19 as a 'divine punishment' against the Chinese for their persecution of the Uyghuri, a Muslim population in the Xinjiang region. This highlights how IS has adopted flexible communication strategies in order to opportunistically exploit COVID-19 by gradually following its rise both as a pandemic and as a main global media topic. As proof of this communication strategy, we note how in issue 225 of Al-Naba, despite the fact that the propaganda line remained that of the virus-allied 'soldier of Allah', an infographic appeared with indications on how not to be infected. Another interesting aspect lies in the use of the pandemic to regain a state or parastatal image of the Islamic State. in fact, although this is not the main narrative strand during the pandemic, materials were found that provided information about its symptoms and how not to contract the virus. On social media, Green Birds, pro-IS nonofficial mediatic unit, used a specific strategy exploiting the pandemic narrative but at the same stime remain careful not to get into the verbal hysteria of the years 2014-2019. The group spread propaganda about the pain of infected people to be an opportunity to atone (kafara) for their sins. 

Al-Qaeda remained an “old” organization that provides violence. The leadership of al-Qaeda express its perception of a crisis which, before being a global pandemic, is perceived as a theological event. In other words, the God's wrath. Although these groups are accustomed to conspiracy to "reveal" the hidden meaning of events, they do not venture much in the conspiracy theories. As for Al-Qaeda, its media apparatus was not as resilient in terms of communication; it therefore set up a single media vision related to the health emergency and maintained it. This was a similar construct to that of Daesh but specifically aimed at the allied Muslim audience. In official al-Qaeda communications, the virus was portrayed as an 'invisible soldier' who revealed the fallacy of the Western world. In this sense, the invisible soldier comes close to 'divine punishment' but does not become a weapon aimed at the West: rather, it remains a warning to the Muslims, a call for the awakening of the entire Ummah. At the same time, it becomes a clear expression of the inherent weakness of Western materialism. Al-Qaeda’s six-page official statement on COVID-19 is a PR-exercise, primarily targeting Western audiences (Avis, 2020, p. 12). AQ invited non-Muslims to study Islam during the lockdown and ponder how the pandemic has brought the most powerful nations of the world to their knees. The AQ statement contained a detailed analysis of the economic costs of Covid-19 in the US, and the senior leadership in Afghanistan mocked the US failure to provide ventilators for patients. 

The particular effectiveness of IS's use of online propaganda during the pandemic is partly explained by the fact that unlike AQ, IS's media machine was able to translate the actual territorial control and management of Syria and Iraq into a coherent and structured online media output (Prucha 2016). In other words, the 'Islamic State' only theorised in AQ publications, came to life and provided substance to the retrospective utopia contained in the propaganda disseminated on the web and even after its fall, propaganda was able to bring that historical period back into its own legacy by constructing a collective memory of a glorious and replicable near past. IS expended energy and resources to maintain this kind of media output, with Telegram the other online platforms becoming the central hub for establishing an ideal environment for propaganda dissemination and recruitment (Prucha 2018). The digital ecosystem or Digital Caliphate amplified and realised the image of kinetic operations conducted in the field and beyond; With the succession of military operations, including bombings, coordinated with media operations (ghazwa) designed to disseminate the exploits of the 'Soldiers of the Caliphate', IS subsequently created Telegram channels for the translation of propaganda material into French, German, Italian, Russian, English and Indonesian, (Prucha 2018) so that the combined operations could be conducted on an international scale. Beginning with translation, the channels expanded to the production of original material, shaping a highly productive and locally diverse global community. This expansive process produced two parallel but mutually influenced lines of production: an official and a spontaneous one (Prucha 2018). Moreover, the same process has established such a powerful ideological and theological narrative on the web that it has been able to feed itself despite the territorial regression that IS has undergone; it is thus the theology of violence inherent in jihadist communications that is a key element within the narratives generated by IS's propaganda machine (Lohlker 2016).


If we want to look at the cognitive operations carried out by jihadist organisations, other convergences can be traced. In particular where the ideological-narrative input was connected to the religious sphere, the terrorist groups achieved the same results. The narrative of divine punishment or God’s wrath is the common factor that shows a sort of similarity regarding the outcomes in terms of recruitment. In Somalia, (Al-Shabab which we can consider as a powerful parastatal actor of al-Qaeda) took for different days before adopting a common position on the epidemic, a long time for an unsurprisingly declaratory, crusader punishment, but this delay is a clear indicator of the complexity of the pandemic case for its shura. and at the same time IS's counterpart, Wilayah Somal, followed the narrative of the central media direction aligning itself with the Divine Punishment. in this specific case Al-Shabab being an actor that manages and administers territory could not afford the use of different narratives to recruit or send messages to the West. Al-Shabab's first objective is to maintain its semi-institutional position. on the other hand, IS and its Somali province possesses characteristics more akin to that of an insurgency, and consequently its propaganda could have undergone the narrative hybridisation typical of pro-IS online environments. Jihadists organizations used this situation to seduce and win the support of the local people, to encourage new vocations. Their topics are both mystical and fiercely anti-Western. 



Conclusion: mapping jihadist cognitive warfare techniques 

The information gathered from social media and content analysis was used in order to of providing a methodological tool capable of developing effective communication strategies effective in the medium to long term. The proposed methodology is divided into three phases: mapping, comparison and recognition. Mapping takes the form of reviewing the main propaganda products (narratives, concepts, visual motifs) of the actors and then associating them with the corresponding ideological matrices. In this way, the policy maker will have a wide-ranging view of all relevant elements, including actors, ideologies and media products. Figure 1 shows an example of mapping applied to the actors examined by the paper. The comparison of propaganda strategies narratives and tools highlight their intrinsic diversity and similarities. The communication medium has become a flexible tactical/strategic option capable of hit political/religious targets consistent with their respective ideologies through the development of newly developed narratives and visual motifs (Matusitz and Olufowote 2016). This allows jihadist movements all over the world to pursue similar objectives, mainly related to the expansion of their recruitment their recruitment pool and the destabilisation of national contexts, increasing social tension and undermining the relationship of trust between rulers and citizens. On the other hand, as far as diversity is concerned, the ideological matrix of individual actors clearly distinguishes their methods of deployment and media targets. Jihadist actors have embedded the health crisis within the religious vision, associating it directly to a divine manifestation. 

In summary, IS and al-Qaeda start from a very similar ideological core, i.e. jihadism. the main narratives can be summarised as Islamism, religious fundamentalism, antisemitism and anti-western views. starting from this common core, the two organisations apply their cognitive warfare techniques. On the one hand, there is IS, which based on the collected material operates on different levels and extends its influence online as far as possible.


The combination of mapping and comparison leads to the recognition of the threat. At this stage, all previously processed information is integrated, providing a final detailed and specific picture of each threat analysed. From the emerged, it will then be possible to elaborate ad hoc counter strategies that, depending on the threat to be countered, will be implemented. the threat to be countered, will be implemented through the balanced action of constant monitoring of online platforms (places where extremist narratives are constructed) and digital counter operations. extremist narratives) and digital counter operations (closing channels and moderating content) to limit its spread and propagation. In addition to the two factors mentioned above, it is necessary to have concrete resources to mitigate also the economic-social factors cause of the widespread malaise that makes the recipients of such propaganda more receptive. As already highlighted in this analysis, the methodological tool framed within the Cognitive Warfare concept is of vital importance for future operations, as it would ensure a high degree of identification of the threat and consequently a better allocation of resources aimed at executing the most correct countermeasures.



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