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By: Ryan Pereira, Columnist
In response to recent setbacks, the Islamic State (IS) has tried to frame itself as a determined underdog. Gone are the days of predicting the imminent Apocalypse; in their place are repeated calls for supporters to remain resilient and steadfast. The group’s recent messaging shift revolves around four lines of effort: ignoring, downplaying, and reframing losses; situating setbacks within historical frameworks; presenting the conflict as a generational struggle; and emphasizing IS’ continued ability to punish its enemies. This messaging strategy will help the Islamic State to shore up its appeal by mobilizing supporters towards patient resistance in the face of steady battlefield defeats.
Because of the Islamic State’s penchant for making enemies, its identity as an underdog is a natural fit. The more difficult challenge has been framing the group as unwavering and resilient while it is militarily on the defensive. This task now falls upon the group’s media ministry.
First, when the Islamic State’s propaganda does actually acknowledge territorial losses, it frames them as strategic victories. The group does this by emphasizing its ability to attrit its enemies. For example, IS propaganda spun the group’s high-profile defeat in Kobani as successful in dragging a war weary United States into yet another military engagement in the region. Despite the Western intervention on behalf of Syria’s Kurds, the Islamic State claimed to have killed “thousands” and forced the “alliance to spend billions.”[i] The group’s accounting of its tactical defeat in Kobani is consistent with the classic jihadist belief that it is possible to overstretch the United States militarily and precipitate its economic collapse. As Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, IS’ now-deceased spokesman, assured the group’s followers, “Every day that passes, we gain strength….and you (in the West) become weaker.”[ii]
Additionally, the Islamic State has reframed territorial losses and hardships as Ibtila’ (Allah’s tests). These tests are Allah’s way of separating the true believers from the munafiqun (hypocrites) who claim to be Muslim but abandon their faith at the first signs of trouble. In the film Stay Resilient and Stationed on the Frontlines, the narrator explains that “part of Allah’s plan is delaying victory so it is clear who is truthful and who is a liar.”[iii] IS wants its fighters to know that setbacks should not demoralize them, rather they are a sign that the Islamic State is on the right path. In the end, Allah will grant victory to those who remain steadfast in fighting for His religion.
Second, the group’s propaganda also reminds sympathizers of its predecessor’s hardships to demonstrate that the mujahideen have recovered from more difficult times in the recent past. In one recent Wilayat al-Jazirah film, the narrator recalls a time when Iraqi Sunnis had abandoned the Islamic State of Iraq’s fighters; “they had no food and shelter, they were attacked, and their members were arrested and killed.”[iv] However, these mujahideen persevered and went on to stun the world with their declaration of the Islamic Caliphate in 2014. By recounting the group’s recent past, IS propaganda aims to convince members that their situation will once again improve.
The Islamic State has also equated its current situation with the Prophet Muhammad’s struggles to encourage members to fight to the death. In one recent film, the narrator points out that many of the Prophet’s Companions had justifiable reasons for not participating in his battles. One of the Prophet’s Companions was blind, another was about 80 years old, and yet another was crippled. Nevertheless, these Companions did not make excuses. They eagerly performed jihad alongside the Prophet. In return, Allah granted them battlefield victories. The narrator tells viewers that the Companions’ sacrifices made them heroes and “leaders of the ummah (Muslim community).”[v] By recounting these stories, IS is telling members that they have no legitimate reason for not defending the Caliphate.
IS compares setbacks with the Prophet’s struggles as a means to appropriate his identity as a victorious underdog and glorify steadfast resistance. Even though the Prophet and Companions were outnumbered militarily, their faith in Allah never wavered. They made up for the weakness in numbers with their strength in spirit. By harkening back to Islam’s earliest days, the Islamic State aims to remind members that the Prophet suffered defeat and humiliation before emerging victorious. As long as members remain committed, they believe Allah will ensure their ultimate victory.
Third, the group’s propaganda emphasizes the generational nature of its state-building project. It does this by presenting children, the so-called Cubs of the Caliphate, as dedicated followers. The group shows these cubs leading religious sermons, working for the hisba (religious) police, executing prisoners, and performing jihad. This is meant to show supporters that the Islamic State’s cubs grew up with a desire to live within the true State of Islam and protect the Caliphate from all its enemies. One film glorifying these children promises that even if the Islamic State is “completely eradicated…those cubs will carry the emblem of jihad.”[vi]
Fourth and finally, the Islamic State has shifted its messaging by emphasizing its ability to kill alleged spies working for the international coalition. This came across in The Manufacturing of Illusion, a film released the day before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice). In the video, IS’ security apparatus tracks down a group of local Syrians accused of working for the “Crusaders’ coalition.” After IS arrests the agents, the group’s fighters make an udhiya (sacrifice), slitting the throats of the “agents of the Cross,” and hanging them on hooks like slaughtered animals.[vii] This brutal display of retribution against native populations is designed to deter both IS fighters and locals from fleeing or aiding the group’s enemies.
Before al-Adnani’s death, he promised that the group could survive the loss of its leaders and territory. He may be right. By appealing to supporters’ religious faith in predestination, the Islamic State’s propaganda is ideologically preparing members for hardships and setbacks. Those members who do not abandon the fight will come out of the current tribulations experienced and battle-hardened. They will continue to practice the Islamic State’s uncompromising vision of jihad. These fighters may be forced underground temporarily, but their dream of the global Islamic Caliphate will endure.
[i] Progress of the Battle in Mabij City, Wilayat Halab, August 4, 2016, http://jihadology.net/2016/08/04/new-video-message-from-the-islamic-state-progress-of-the-battle-in-manbij-city-wilayat-%E1%B8%A5alab/.
[ii] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “That They Live By Proof,” Al Hayat Media Center.
[iii] Stay Resilient and Stationed on the Frontlines, Wilayat al-Jazirah, September 26, 2016, http://jihadology.net/category/the-islamic-state/wilayat-al-jazirah/.
[v] But They Never Lost Assurance Due to What Afflicted Them, Wilayat Halab, September 29, 2016, http://jihadology.net/2016/09/29/new-video-message-from-the-islamic-state-but-they-never-lost-assurance-due-to-what-afflicted-them-wilayat-%E1%B8%A5alab/.
[vi] Generation of the Caliphate, Wilayat al-Khayr, September 6, 2016, http://jihadology.net/2016/09/06/new-video-message-from-the-islamic-state-generation-of-the-caliphate-wilayat-al-khayr/.
[vii] The Manufacturing of Illusion, Wilayat al-Khayr, September 12, 2016, http://jihadology.net/2016/09/12/new-video-message-from-the-islamic-state-manufacturing-of-the-illusions-wilayat-al-khayr/.