Linguistic Appeal of Daesh’s Propaganda

By creating meaning and constructing reality, Malaysians have abandoned their ordinary lives (former lecturer and former municipal council worker on the left and right, respectively) in pursuit of violence (e.g. attack on Marawi City, Philippines in 2017). Credit: ST

A Four-Part Series on Extremism and Online Recruitment – Part 1: Linguistic Appeal of Propaganda


Formation of groups such as Daesh (also known as the Islamic State, IS) signifies the rise of violent extremism; a global security concern. Southeast Asia is not spared by this militant organization’s brutality and violent ideology. Like in Indonesia and Philippines,

These categories significantly impact the minority Muslim populations living in the West. Daesh exploits the higher likelihood that these individuals may feel marginalized as a minority living in a Western society. On the social level, Daesh has accused and condemned these Muslims for siding the enemy (i.e. the Western political leaders). By supporting the enemy, these Muslims have betrayed the Ummah as these countries have killed Muslims under Daesh’s territory. Through such framing, Daesh attempts to provoke the sense of “otherness” to Muslim viewers who have yet joined their cause and stoking a sense of guilt through their associations with the enemy.

Daesh has also emphasized the potential marginalization Muslims have faced due to their race and religion vis-à-vis personal category. They have repeatedly exaggerated the West’s hostility on Muslims, amplifying the narrative of discrimination to Muslims.  One example centres on the idea of religious oppression, that Muslims in the West cannot freely practise Islam. And due to their religion, these Muslims are incited to believe that they are forced to live in deplorable conditions and in loneliness. This was evident in Daesh’s propaganda provoking the idea that Muslims, specifically in France, have been segregated by their non-Muslim counterparts and forced to live in “despicable” and “humiliating” living conditions.

They have also focused on the disparate, unfair treatment of Muslims in the workplace. Unfortunately, such discriminatory labour market practices is a reason for individuals to travel overseas to join terrorist groups in Syria, such as Daesh and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham. By creating such tensions, Daesh proposes a political / religious reason for these individuals. They claim to offer the “truth” and a “better life” for these disenfranchised. By joining Daesh, they will also have the opportunity to live a “pure life” and obtain “true freedom”, away from the discriminatory acts they encounter in their home countries.

Recruitment from Muslim-majority Malaysia Mainly for Political/Religious Reasons

Unlike their counterparts in the West, Malay Muslims (the predominant community) in Malaysia have been motivated mainly for political/religious reasons.  Interviews with current violent extremist detainees revealed that the main reason for recruitment into Daesh was due to sympathizing with Muslims in conflict zones. They, thus, bought into the narrative of performing jihad by way of fighting for affected Muslims against foreign coalition attacks and the Assad government. To facilitate a more reachable goal, those who cannot migrate have been encouraged to “terrorize” the non-Muslims in their homeland. This was evident when Malaysia encountered its first terrorist attack in 2016 that targeted a nightclub in Rawang, Selangor.

By iterating their members being killed in conflict, Daesh position themselves as victims of war, further justifying any means of “terrorizing the enemy” a justified cause as a way of responding to the attacks against them. By framing these acts as “just’ and “obligatory”, individuals have been presented with the risk of committing a sin or worse, becoming an apostate. To enhance their victimization narrative, there is also evidence of children and women being positioned as predominant victims of war. Descriptions and images of such vulnerable actors can be seen as an appeal to emotion, encouraging the target audiences to uphold justice for these helpless subjects. The inclusion of these two groups of people is not new; for instance, in political discourses, they are often the subjects of vulnerability. There has also been evidence of manipulation of images to amplify the aggressiveness of the enemies. An example is recontextualizing an image of nuclear missiles being tested to demonstrate the destructive nature of the enemies, further reinforcing their enemies’ ‘war-mongering’ characteristic.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendation

Research on extremist propaganda tended to focus on their disseminated contents (i.e. what were they disseminating?). However, it is also important to analyze these contents linguistically to understand how these contents create meaning and construct reality for their intended audiences. This would provide insights into answering why there is continued support for such brutal organizations with the potential of effectively addressing their propaganda.

More attention should be given to potentially impactful words or phrases (i.e. how these terms would resonate with the target audiences); examples include the words kufr and murtad. It is, thus, important to address how these terms were misused and misinterpreted. This prevents readers from being manipulated to taking up their cause. The current, general tactic of preventing such manipulations superficially mention that such organizations misuse holy texts for their cause. It is crucial to go beyond and provide holistic political, historical and social contexts to demystify their ideologies and to address the existing misconceptions surrounding Islam as a result of their actions. However, this requires herculean effort as extremist propaganda is disseminated via numerous means such as 1) online (e.g. social media platforms), 2) face-to-face (e.g. religious classes), and 3) physical write-ups (e.g.  books and comics). Additionally, these countermeasures must cater for each target group (e.g. youths).

Additionally, the demographic differences in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority highlight how differently personal, social, and political/religious reasons drive recruitment. Therefore, states must consider how these three categories of reasons are key drivers for their citizens’ recruitment into terrorist organizations.

Part 2: Quest for Significance

Part 3: Online Recruitment of Filipino Youths

Part 4: Mothers and the Internet

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Dr. Noor Aqsa Nabila Binti Mat Isa is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of English Language, Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, Universiti Malaya. Her current research interests lie within the areas of Critical Discourse Studies, Social Semiotics, Multimodality, Terrorism and Radicalisation.

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