Graduate wins dissertation prize for research on Islamic State propaganda

A University of Portsmouth MSc graduate has been awarded a dissertation prize for her analysis of Islamic State propaganda. Studying at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies under the supervision of Dr Lisa Sugiura, Ashton Kingdon’s study was titled Seductions of the Caliphate: A Cultural Criminological Analysis of Online Islamic State Propaganda.

Dr Lisa Sugiura (left) and Ashton Kingdon.

Ashton was awarded the Security Institute’s Wilf Knight Award, which recognises dissertation research that is seen to make an important contribution to the development of professional security management. The presentation was made by Patricia Knight in memory of her late husband Wilf Knight FSyI.

The Security Institute is the UK’s largest professional membership body for security professionals, with over 2600 members.

Security Institute Chief Executive Rick Mounfield said: “We were delighted to make this award to Ashton for her excellent dissertation. The submissions this year were outstanding, and to win this award demonstrates how well she has done. The judges recognised her research both as a significant area of interest within our profession, and as a sophisticated and very well-executed study.

“Ashton’s dissertation makes a valuable contribution to the body of knowledge informing the UK government’s Prevent strategy, and is a great example of the value that academic research can provide to those working to mitigate national security threats.”

In her dissertation, Ashton observes that over the last few years the Islamic State has developed a formidable capability, not only as orchestrators of attacks, but also as professional storytellers, effectively mobilising the social media platforms of the west to seduce and groom its youth. Consequently, she notes, the Islamic State has been said to possess a more powerful propaganda apparatus than that seen in Nazi Germany yet, at the same time it is very difficult to penetrate, and most of what we know about it is what propagandists want us to see.

Ashton undertook observations of online forums run by Islamic State, and a substantial content analysis of 100 propaganda videos. Special arrangements were made by the University to ensure that Ashton had ongoing support while viewing potentially traumatic content, and also to ensure that her activity did not draw concerns from national security agencies or come to the attention of the creators of the materials. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, proper ethical approaches were carefully considered and applied during the process, to protect the researcher whilst undertaking activity which would otherwise have not been condoned.

Through her observations, Ashton identified the common themes of seduction, grievance, utopia, military warfare and theatrical displays of violence within the videos, observing that all of these serve as powerful recruitment strategies, and add tangible power to an ever expanding jihadist organisation. She argues that one of the perverse successes of the Islamic State is that, with each video released, it finds a way continually to escalate the violence, and depict seductive images of power, comradery, and an ascendency of brotherhood that legitimise power and sadism in the name of a higher goal.

In contrast to previous research which has prioritised the development of a counter narrative to undermine the group’s sympathisers and potential recruits, Ashton concludes that no single solution to combating radicalisation exists. She recommends that, in order to meaningfully challenge the Islamic State’s media strategy, it must be recognised that different narratives appeal to different people, and that success in combating radicalisation can only be achieved through a variety of approaches.

Ashton said about her award: “It was an honour and privilege to be nominated for such a prestigious award. I would like the thank my supervisor Lisa Sugiura, as without her expert knowledge, guidance and kind and supportive nature it would not have been possible to complete this research, and the University of Portsmouth for their incredibly attentive lecturers and postgraduate administrative staff who went above and beyond to ensure that support was available whenever required.”

Her supervisor Dr Lisa Sugiura added: “It was an absolute honour to supervise such an exemplary student as Ashton and oversee her ground-breaking and original study. Ashton has demonstrated how to take advantage of the unique research opportunities afforded by the Web, and push the boundaries in order to do innovative cutting edge research that has wide-reaching counter-terrorism policy and practice implications.”

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