At this point in the war between the jihadist group known as the Islamic State and a US-led international coalition, many observers are wondering how Isis keeps winning. Isis is up against western air power and powerful regional opponents, and yet has apparently seized a territory larger than the United Kingdom, and is expanding into Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, and elsewhere. It seems incredible.
But the truth is that it’s difficult to say Isis is winning by any objective measure. In Iraq, the group has been put on the defensive in the provinces of Nineveh, Salahaddin, and Diyala, and may soon face a major offensive on its stronghold of Mosul. It’s true, unfortunately, that Isis is on the offensive in Anbar province, and could potentially capture new territory there. In eastern Syria, too, Isis is well-established, having brutally suppressed a tribal uprising in Dayr al-Zawr, and it faces no significant resistance in its holdings in Raqqa and Hasaka. Isis can’t be said to be losing, exactly, but it has lost its momentum — having failed to take and hold major new territory since capturing the Iraqi city of Hit in October — and its position in northern Iraq looks increasingly shaky.
More to the point, Isis’s international expansion seems more of a success in press reports than it is in fact. The question observers should be asking is not why Isis is winning; rather, how it has managed to convince us of its growing power while actually treading water.
Part of the answer lies in the Islamic State’s marketing genius, and another part in our own willingness to believe its propaganda — and the inability, or unwillingness, of western governments to counter this. A good example of Isis’s flair for PR could be glimpsed on 10 November, when it received public oaths of allegiance from groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Yemen. Though these simultaneous oaths had clearly been coordinated, seeing groups in various countries express loyalty at the same time created the perception that Isis was winning support and assuming leadership over the global jihadist movement.
In Egypt, the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, formerly considered a close ally of al-Qa’eda, declared itself allied to Isis. Superficially, this seemed like a triumph, but look closer and it is less impressive. ABM has been hit hard of late: Egyptian security forces killed many of its leaders last year, including several who hewed to al-Qa’eda rather than Isis. Moreover, ABM’s pledge has probably weakened rather than strengthened jihadism in Egypt, since it has deepened rifts between the group’s al-Qa’eda loyalists and those who wanted to join the new caliphate. Though it’s somewhat of an oversimplification to divide these factions geographically, intelligence sources have suggested that the ABM affiliates most opposed to Isis are based in the Nile Valley, while the pro-Isis faction is concentrated in the Sinai. The Nile Valley faction fears that Isis’s viciousness will put off potential sympathisers. They remember what happened after the militant group Gama’a al-Islamiyya killed 62 people, mainly foreign tourists, in Luxor in 1997. Gama’a probably expected to devastate Egypt’s tourism industry; instead it turned out to have rallied the citizenry behind the government’s counterterrorism measures.
Already ABM has seen an al-Qa’eda loyalist wing, the al-Ribat al-Jihadiyya Brigade, break away. Al-Qa’eda-orientated groups are a strong presence in the Sinai and elsewhere in north Africa, so ABM’s defection to Isis reduces its ability to cooperate with other militant organisations there and diminishes its capacity to bring in arms and supplies from Libya.
Of course, press reports from Libya suggest otherwise. More than one high-profile publication has reported that an Isis-aligned group called the Islamic Youth Shura Council controls the northern Libyan city of Derna. The group has released videos of its members parading through the city, and of Isis flags flying from government buildings. But these images are misleading. In fact, the Islamic Youth Shura Council isn’t the dominant faction in Derna, which is home to about two dozen militias. With so little law and order, pro-jihad parades are less of a challenge to hold than they might be, and the sight of an Isis flag on a government building is not so remarkable.
So why has the group been described as controlling the city? The answer is that social media doesn’t reach as deeply into Libya as it does into Syria, so a few posts by the Islamic Youth Shura Council can create a perception out of step with facts on the ground. Isis’s embrace of social media doesn’t make it unique among jihadist groups, but its skills in this arena are considerably ahead of the pack.
The author and analyst J.M. Berger has documented a variety of ways that Isis has ‘gamed’ Twitter. At one point it created an Arabic-language app, Dawn of Glad Tidings, that would automatically post Isis-created tweets from anyone who installed it. These tweets were carefully ‘spaced out to avoid triggering Twitter’s spam-detection algorithms’. Isis has also been adept at helping its topics reach Twitter’s ‘trending’ panel: as Berger writes, its media operations enlist ‘hundreds and sometimes thousands of activists to repetitively tweet hashtags at certain times of day’.
On social media, Isis is competent as well as sneaky. The group pushes out propaganda with a kind of faux granularity that allows it to become accepted as fact, and has attracted younger jihadists who are at home in the medium. Within its horde of Twitter supporters, one can find wit and snark sitting comfortably alongside applause for beheadings.
Yet this proficiency with social media allows Isis and its affiliates to mask their underlying weaknesses. Algeria’s Jund al-Khalifa, for instance, wasn’t particularly large even at its peak. Since September, when it murdered a French hostage, Hervé Gourdel, security forces have killed its emir, Abdelmalek Gouri, and arrested dozens of members. Given the group’s small size, this is likely to have a disproportionate impact. As for the oath of allegiance from Yemen, not only has Isis’s Yemeni affiliate done nothing since it was first declared, but the announcement has provoked a backlash from the more established Al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula. Even Mamun Hatim, one of the most prominent AQAP-affiliated figures to speak well about Isis, has repeatedly distanced himself from the caliphate since it announced its move on to Yemeni turf.
What Isis does have is an uncanny knack for scaring the audience it wants to scare: us. And we, addicted as many of us are to horror and violence in popular culture, seem perversely eager to be frightened. A stunt such as a grisly beheading, or the forcing of the hostage John Cantlie to serve as a propagandist, takes on a media significance that distorts our sense of Isis’s power. In turn, we become more willing to accept their territorial claims, even ones that don’t stand up to serious analysis. That’s why it is incumbent on western governments to communicate the limitations of Isis’s position. Better strategic communications on the part of Isis’s foes — helping journalists decipher truth from spin — would make a difference.
The difficult question for Isis is whether its slick, shocking PR can bring it a sustainable advantage. After all, back in 2005 many observers believed that Isis’s predecessor, al-Qa’eda in Iraq, and its emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had eclipsed al-Qa’eda and Osama bin Laden as the leaders of global jihadism. AQI and Zarqawi make for a striking analogy to the Islamic State today: Zarqawi, like Isis, was extraordinarily popular with young jihadists and revelled in brutality, becoming infamous for slaughtering Shia Muslims and for videos of beheadings. Although Zarqawi appeared ascendent for some time, the weaknesses in his strategy soon became apparent, and they ultimately wrecked his organisation. AQI’s excesses provoked a tribal uprising against it.
But as we wait for karma to catch up with Isis, we shouldn’t be complacent about the group’s propaganda. Isis’s sheer brutality and the publicity it achieves have inspired other jihadist groups to ever more appalling acts. The Islamic State has also been able to mobilise an unusual number of ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks in multiple countries. And the one cost that has received less attention is that Isis’s excesses make al-Qa’eda appear mild by comparison, giving the more established terror network the opportunity to detoxify its tarnished brand — something that Osama bin Laden hoped to do before he met his end, as the documents recovered from his compound in Abbottabad reveal. The danger then is that Isis’s eventual loss will be al-Qa’eda’s gain.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University.