Last week, the Islamic State released the eighth edition of its Rumiyah monthly magazine. Its cover story: an article lionizing Rumiyah's former editor, Ahmad Abousamra, who was killed in January by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Tabqa, Syria.
Other experts have already done a commendable job of retracing Abousamra's steps as he transformed from a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston's computer science program to a propagandist of terrorism. (I encourage readers interested in his past to look at the profiles compiled by CNN's Paul Cruickshank and the Long War Journal's Thomas Joscelyn.) Rather than repeating their good work, I'd like to use Abousamra's case to look at the importance of propagandists to extremist groups such as the Islamic State — and the impact their removal from the battlefield can have in the fight against terrorism.
Spreading the Word
As I noted a few weeks ago, propagandists have always played a crucial role in terrorist groups' recruitment and radicalization efforts. In fact, early anarchists viewed terrorism itself as a form of propaganda, spread with the help of the media. Advances in the printing press and telegraph enabled anarchists to transmit their messages worldwide; decades later, jihadists became the early adopters of the internet. The Islamic State is no exception, and it has used social media to give its propaganda an unprecedented global reach.
But technology is a tool that is only as effective as the message it conveys. Many different actors have tried to use social media to promote their ideologies or sell their products, but very few have seen the success that the Islamic State has. Part of the group's appeal can be attributed to the apocalyptic nature of its beliefs and the excitement it has generated by telling followers they can help bring about the final battle between good and evil. Yet such claims are hardly unique: There are plenty of other cults with similar views, some of which have even tried to bring about the end of days. What set the Islamic State apart were its dramatic victories on the battlefield in 2014, which lent credibility to the group's promises to conquer the world. But even so, those wins were greatly amplified by the skill of the propaganda team the Islamic State had assembled under Abu Muhammed al-Furqan, the man in charge of the group's media diwan, or department.
One of al-Furqan's first orders of business was to assemble a sweeping team of ideologues, writers, graphic artists and IT staff — one of whom was Abousamra. According to Rumiyah, Abousamra was then put to work organizing the department's foreign language section, which was tasked with providing translations of Arabic videos and written products. Eventually Abousamra and his team created the Islamic State's widely known Dabiq magazine, named after the small village in Syria where the group's foretold final battle was supposed to take place. Abousamra renamed the magazine Rumiyah, or "Rome," in September when it became clear that the Islamic State was going to lose Dabiq to a Turkish-led military operation. (A separate prophecy refers to the conquering of Rome.)
The Ideological Bombmaker
As a university-educated American fluent in English, Abousamra was not unlike al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki, who became quite popular through his ability to deliver engaging sermons in English. Al-Awlaki's videos were often more appealing than the propaganda of his jihadist predecessors, which typically featured older Arabic-speaking men giving lectures that then had to be subtitled or translated for audiences who didn't understand the language. Recognizing the importance of attracting the support of Western Muslims as well, al-Awlaki worked with fellow AQAP member Samir Khan to launch Inspire magazine — a webzine designed to recruit, radicalize and equip young English-speaking Muslims to conduct attacks abroad.
Khan himself was a member of the demographic group his magazine was intended to draw in, and he innately understood how to appeal to it. Though his first attempt at media outreach, a blog named InshallahShaheed, wasn't especially successful, his snarky style and sensibilities combined with al-Awlaki's star power and AQAP's jihadist credentials to make Inspire magazine a hit. In fact, it's not uncommon to find that grassroots terrorists involved in plots and attacks around the world have read Inspire and relied on its bombmaking instructions — even if they claim to be affiliated with the Islamic State.
But since Khan's death in September 2011, the magazine hasn't been the same. Khan's deputy, Yahya Ibrahim, replaced him as editor but lacked his drive, acerbic wit and creative talents. Under Ibrahim's lead, Inspire has published only nine editions, compared with the seven it released in the 21 months that Khan was at its helm. (Two of the editions published after Khan's death, moreover, were largely completed in advance by Khan himself.) Clearly, not just any American or British English speaker, as Ibrahim was, can replace a gifted propagandist.
Some skills are simply innate. And as in any organization, these exceptional individuals are vital to terrorist groups. Even with a deep bench of team members and a well-laid succession plan, it's tough for jihadist networks to replace key personnel who have extraordinary abilities — a truth that applies to propagandists as much as it does to operational planners, logisticians and bombmakers. In fact, in many ways propagandists are similar to bombmakers; one need only look at the attacks that radicalized Muslims in the West have conducted to see their destructive art on full display.
Of course, there is a difference between innovative bombmakers and technicians who simply follow the instructions of others. Think of music: Many people can play an instrument by reading sheet music, but few can compose original, high-quality songs. Even fewer can improvise a masterful solo on command. The same is true of bombmaking. It's not that difficult to follow a bombmaking manual, but it isn't as easy to create new bomb designs, and it's even harder to build an effective improvised explosive device in hostile territory. Eliminating an experienced bombmaker can thus have an outsized impact on a terrorist group's capabilities.
Still, a bombmaker's reach extends only as far as his devices can be spread. A propagandist, on the other hand, is much less constrained. Though he can certainly impact his immediate surroundings by giving speeches, handing out flyers or distributing newspapers, a propagandist can also access a global audience with the help of the internet and social media — creating ticking time bombs well behind enemy lines. The attacks that have taken place in Chattanooga, San Bernardino, Nice, Sydney and Stockholm over the past few years are a testament to terrorist groups' ability to wield propaganda as weapon, spreading their influence to other countries, continents and hemispheres.
Disarming the Enemy
As I've thought about Abousamra's death, it has become clear to me that the impact he and others like him, such as Khan and al-Awlaki, have had will long outlive them. But while it is impossible to erase the propaganda they have already produced, cutting short their careers will ensure, at the very least, that they do not make even more to aid in radicalizing would-be terrorists in the future. Furthermore, by removing an influential thought leader, the group's philosophy may fail to evolve to meet its ever-changing environment or counter arguments against it, presenting an opportunity for those looking to combat it.
AQAP managed to find others to replace al-Awlaki and Khan, but they never truly filled their predecessors' shoes. The Islamic State will likely encounter the same obstacle as it loses popular figures like Abousamra, al-Furqan, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani and Mohammed Emwazi. Take it from me: The latest edition of Rumiyah was a painful read, and I couldn't help but wonder as I waded through it whether any young aspiring jihadists would even bother trying.