A Terrorist Story In Three Acts: Dabiq, Rumiyah, and The Hero’s Journey

Alexander Capece


Terror does not win with strategic victories; rather, terror is in itself a strategy that can win only through the projection of a narrative and its associated stories. A successful story is compelling, powerful, and resonates with a target audience. Thus: if it is terrorism we are combating, it is the story we must understand first. As a fundamental framework of storytelling and mythology, the Hero’s Journey provides a structure through which it is possible to analyze the direction that the Islamic State (IS) moves its narrative.

Whether used to enrapture audiences or recruit new extremists, storyline events told through printed media are carefully curated to inculcate the Islamic State’s narrative; they must be successful to keep the organization alive. Put quite simply: to propagate a given narrative, the writer must not let the story die prematurely. The events that create that shifting storyline are just as important as the storyline itself. As these are the very building blocks of the group’s narrative, the resultant effects are the very mythological foundation upon which the organization and its doctrine are built. Using events from IS’s recent history, it is worth examining whether the loss of physical territory (i.e., the cities as strongholds they once occupied) has a significant impact upon their narrative. Without revealing their stories to carefully targeted audiences, the organization would not survive. A major analytical assumption of this thesis is that a crucial contribution to gauging the current state of the ongoing ‘war of ideas’ is brought through a systematic assessment of the Islamic State’s narrative reactions to organizational life events, as shown in their media objects.

One must ask, then: Does a significant loss of physical territory drastically redirect the narrative of the Islamic State? More specifically: can content analysis of printed media demonstrate a significant narrative shift from one organizational goal to another—thus allowing identical analysis of any printed, distributed media to aid in taking the current ‘temperature’ of an organization that shares similar extremist ideologies?

Through a quantitative content analysis of the Islamist extremist print magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah, this thesis has used the storytelling framework of the Hero’s Journey to identify a noted shift in an organization’s narrative goals, via the changing language presented within those publications. Analyzing eleven issues of these magazines (with publication dates both before and after significant losses of territory, such as the cities of Mosul or Ramadi), this researcher finds a notable shift in the Islamic State’s narrative goals—that is, the intended outcomes at the time of publishing. These goals coincide with the hypothesis that significant losses of territory directly affect the aforementioned extremist organization, thus the Hero’s Journey proves to be a very useful framework for gauging the current status of an organization such as IS.

However, this thesis is not about predicting the physical actions or movements of the Islamic State. Rather, it is an exploration of shifting narrative emphasis—the goal of the research is to directly correlate physical losses with emotional change. Again, this thesis proposes specifically that significant shifts in the IS narrative occur following significant military loss, as reflected in their printed materials. Although not exhaustive (and not without limitations), the Hero’s Journey is an apt method of understanding the intent of any extremist group with such prolific bodies of work as Dabiq and Rumiyah.

With a more in-depth understanding of narrative ebb and flow at the time of any given publication, countries battling this brand of extremism throughout the world may now create counter-narrative and counter-messaging strategies on-the-fly. This is ultimately accomplished by telling the ‘better story’—not only by de-radicalizing those who have fallen into the gaping maw of extremism, but ideally preventing radicalization before it even takes hold. Surely, the modern world will continue to engage, in various manners, with organizations that share a similar extremist ideology to IS. Moreover, whatever rises from IS’s ashes as the next major extremist organization will not remain silent; printed and other media will continue to surface. Future researchers may use the value of content analysis within the Hero’s Journey framework to create a ‘status report,’ or—more importantly—determine their current level of stability, using any given media publication in the present or in the future.


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