Washington- The vaunted propaganda operations of ISIS, which helped lure more than 30,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, have dropped off drastically as the extremist group has come under military pressure, according to a study by terrorism researchers at West Point.
In addition, the researchers found, there has been a striking shift away from publications and social media portraying a functioning state with competent bureaucrats, thriving businesses and happy citizens. ISIS claims that it is building a new “caliphate,” a claim that has become increasingly threadbare.
“It’s not just the numeric decline,” said Daniel Milton, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the author of the new report. “The caliphate was their big selling point. Now there’s an inability to say we’re doing the things that make us a state. And that was behind their broad appeal.”
At the peak of ISIS’ media output, in August 2015, the group released more than 700 items from official outlets in Syria and several other countries. During the month of August 2016, after a year of airstrikes and other assaults, that number had declined to under 200, according to the study.
Over the same period, the share of items devoted to military reports doubled to 70 percent, eclipsing attention to governance, commerce and other topics portraying civilian life.
The findings reflect a cascade of failures for ISIS, reversing its sudden rise both in territory seized and propaganda reach in 2014. Experts caution, however, that ISIS’ ideology, which portrays Muslims in an apocalyptic contest with non-Muslims, is likely to continue to inspire terrorist acts long after its caliphate is gone.
Beginning in 2014, ISIS propaganda was effective not just because it was often sophisticated and well-produced, but because of its message of inevitable victory, urging Muslims around the world to join the successful state-building effort.
As long as the group was expanding by seizing cities and territory in Syria and Iraq, and later in Libya and elsewhere, that message resonated with some young Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa, in some European countries and, on a smaller scale, even in the United States.
But as the military campaign by the United States and its allies has shrunk ISIS’ turf and killed some of its leaders, it has started to look less like a religious state with a future and more like an eroding terrorist army.
In April, the Pentagon reported that the flow of foreign fighters into Syria had dropped from 2,000 a month to about 200 a month. In late June, Brett McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, said that the group had been driven out of nearly half the territory it had occupied in Iraq, and that the number of foreign fighters had dropped from 33,000 to about 20,000.
J.M. Berger, co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror” and associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-terrorism in The Hague, said that other researchers had witnessed the steady reduction in ISIS media production.
“Everyone who watches this is seeing the drop-off,” he said. “They’re dropping the utopian sales pitch they started with. And that’s hurting their recruiting effort.”
The Combating Terrorism Center tracked the last two years of media output, looking only at visual products from sources considered “official” by ISIS: videos; posts on Twitter and elsewhere that include images; and what it calls picture reports — collections of photos and captions. Skipping text-only messages made the volume more manageable and put the focus on items with greater potential influence, he said.
Mr. Milton said he believed that most of the reduction in ISIS’ media output was a direct effect of the anti-ISIS coalition’s military action, eliminating both facilities and authors. “ISIS’ media people are fighters, too,” he said. “And when they’re fighting, they can’t put out their message.”
The New York Times