ISIS, social media, and the battle for Mosul

Gilad Shiloach investigates the duality of ISIS' social media messaging, which alternately posits a climactic battle between the few and the many, or denies altogether that it has suffered severe setbacks.

The campaign to liberate the city Mosul from the grip of the Islamic state (ISIS) has presented the jihad organization's propaganda apparatus with a challenge unlike any other in its short history. The extent of the battles, the quantity of enemy forces, and the city’s status as the most important ISIS stronghold in Iraq, second only to Syrian city al-Raqqah, are unprecedented. For more than two years, ISIS has been presenting itself as a success story, grounded in its extensive campaign of conquests and terrorist attacks in both the Middle East and the international sphere. Now it is forced into a defensive posture on home territory. ISIS’ media branch has been a factor in its success, and the propaganda it has produced since the beginning of the Mosul battles is indicative of the importance the organization places on the campaign for the city. Its efforts feature two central narratives. The first presents the situation as an emergency, while the second depicts the continuation of normal life, despite the fighting. Notwithstanding the contradiction between these depictions, they have the same goal: reinforcing support for the organization, and bolstering its recruitment efforts.

Officially, the campaign for Mosul began on October 16, 2016, led by a coalition of local and foreign forces. Headed by the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the coalition benefits from aerial support provided by the United States led international coalition. Other militias involved in the fighting include the Shi‘ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) supported by Iran, the Nineveh Guard supported by Turkey, and small militias, some of which are Christian. Therefore, ISIS and its supporters have used the narrative of “few against many” since the beginning of the battles, in order to transmit a certain level of urgency and recruit additional support. In its propaganda, ISIS has depicted the campaign as a “Crusader-Shi‘ite campaign” against Islam,[1] and taken pride that its forces are fighting against “more than 20 countries.”[2] In order to promote this narrative on social networking sites (SNS), ISIS propagandists in official publications use the hashtag “Ghazwah al-Ahzab" (Battle of the Trench).[3] This refers to a battle in 627 CE, in which a large coalition led by the Quraysh tribe besieged Muslims led by the Prophet Mohammed in the city of Medina. According to tradition, the Muslims were victorious because of the foxholes and trenches they dug around the city to block the enemy invasion.

The narrative of “few against many” was also developed in a speech given by the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on November 2, approximately two weeks after the battle for Mosul began.[4] Al-Baghdadi spoke about the battles, emphasizing this narrative through the usage of Quranic verses referring to the Battle of the Trenches.[5] This seemed to be an attempt to create a connection between his current organization and Islam's first community; between himself, a self-declared “Caliph,” and the Prophet Mohammed; and between Mosul and Medina. The title of the speech, “This was promised to us by Allah and his Messenger,” also originates in the Quranic al-Ahzab Surah, which relates to the battle. It should be noted that al-Baghdadi’s speech did not explicitly refer to Mosul - Rather, he limited himself to calling on believers to defend the Nineveh district, where the city is located. Apparently, this was to avoid publicly overstating the importance of the city to the organization, and giving the impression that the battle for Mosul was of utmost important.

The ISIS propaganda machine has not neglected the fighting; it has published hundreds of items and reports from the battlefields around the city since the campaign began. The Nineveh district, where Mosul is located, disseminated two well-produced videos, of 20 minutes or more each, documenting the battles around the city and the suicide attacks ISIS has mounted against Iraqi forces. The footage was photographed using cameras mounted on gliders and soldiers’ helmets.[6] The Islamic State’s 'Amaq News Agency published maps showing battles around the city and deployment of the various forces.[7] The agency gloried in the fact that the organization was able to mount 120 suicide attacks during October 2016 alone, a large majority of them during the battles surrounding Mosul.[8] The electronic weekly al-Naba, published by ISIS and distributed on SNS, announced, “The Shi‘ites are unable to enter the city,”[9] and “Convoy of heretics burning down the walls of Mosul.”[10] At the same time, ISIS is attempting to transmit the message that the Islamic State is not the aggressor in this campaign, but rather its victim. 'Amaq News Agency published pictures and videos claiming to show the results of attacks by the international coalition, including civilian casualties, and the targeting of civilian buildings and kindergartens,[11] including shocking depictions of dead and bleeding children caught under the ruins.[12]

In addition to the narrative exposing the emergency situation, ISIS propaganda also focuses on an opposite narrative that shows Mosul as a calm, safe and functioning city. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Since its founding, ISIS has invested significant resources in presenting a positive, civilian side to its story, and showcasing the services that it provides to “subjects” of the Caliphate. Similar to the “emergency narrative,” the “normal life narrative” is a tool for recruitment, intended to persuade supporters to immigrate to the territory of the Caliphate, and enjoy a supposedly normal life there. After the beginning of the campaign for Mosul, ISIS' first publication included video footage of carefree residents in the streets and markets, accompanied by interviews with the “man on the street.” In these interviews, residents said, “The situation is normal,” and accused the international Arab media of disseminating lies, making it seem as if something significant were happening in the city.[13] Other official publications since the beginning of the campaign have shown local farmers working in hothouses and fields,[14] thriving commerce in the market and near the stock exchange,[15] a tour of dental clinics providing services to residents of the city,[16] construction of a mosque in Tal Afar, another city where fierce battles are raging,[17] and other similar scenes.

In conclusion, the first month of the battle for Mosul was characterized by significant media attention from ISIS, demonstrating the campaign’s importance for the organization. The conflicting narratives in its propaganda are intended to broadcast strength, present itself as a victim, and simultaneously contend that life continues as normal. These conflicting narratives are directed towards different audiences, but have the same goal - recruiting members for the organization at a significant juncture in its history. Mosul was and remains a symbol of the successful campaign of conquest in the summer of 2014, when the organization’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in public, and called on Muslims around the world to obey him as Caliph. Therefore, the media management of the current campaign might hint that the organization has no intention of surrendering to the large coalition facing off against it, even though most observers believe that it will, sooner or later, be defeated and driven out of the city. This attitude of fighting a war to the end broadcasts an aggressive message directed at those who are setting their sights on other strongholds of the organization, for example al-Raqqah.





[1] “Al-Naba,” Issue 55, November 17, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[4] For the full speech, see:

[8] Gilad Shiloach, “ISIS Uses Mosul Residents As Human Shields,” Vocativ, October19, 2016.

[9] “Al-Naba,” Issue 54, November 10, 2016

[10] “Al-Naba,” Issue 53, November 3, 2016

[13] Gilad Shiloach, “Despite Attacks, ISIS Says Business As Usual In Mosul,” Vocativ, October 18, 2016.‎

[14] Ibid.