February 11, 2017


Is ISIS Breaking Apart?  (Charlie Winter and Colin P. Clarke, 1/31/17, Rand)

With the Islamic State (or ISIS) facing setbacks in Iraq and Syria, most observers believe that the group is crumbling. Indeed, just last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared eastern Mosul "fully liberated" from the group. Evidently, the U.S.-led coalition tasked with countering ISIS, well into the third year of its ongoing military campaign, has made progress. As a result of efforts in Iraq and Syria in 2016 alone, several high-ranking leaders have been killed or captured, the group's finances have taken a serious hit, and it is hemorrhaging territory. Over the next few years, ISIS is sure to break apart further.

As it does, it will likely walk down one of two paths. In the first possibility, its disintegration could wind up giving more weight to the group's center of gravity, even as it becomes weaker overall. Alternatively, it could follow the example of al Qaeda in the 2000s and break down in a way that will diminish the influence of its core in Iraq and Syria while providing momentum to its provincial operations in such places as Afghanistan, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, and Yemen.

Some analysts, such as Clint Watts, see ISIS' splintering as a potential win for counterterrorism, especially if it results in what he calls "destructive terrorist competition," a dynamic that implicitly subverts the group's ideology by pushing affiliates into provincialism and rotting the central core. [...]

In the self-proclaimed caliphate's heyday in 2014 and 2015, the group was much better at marketing itself as a supra-state insurgency. From West Africa to South Asia, its affiliates did not just adopt its terrorist project; they also incorporated its governance efforts. With varying degrees of complexity, the legal, juridical, educative, and propagandistic structures that had been developed in Syria and Iraq were transplanted abroad. Through its official media, ISIS stoked support around the world for its vivid unreality--the Salafi jihadist utopia--and presented a comprehensive and exactingly consistent picture of what life there was supposedly like. However, as its overseas output declined and would-be recruits were stopped from leaving, ISIS' international recruitment rate has collapsed.

Despite mainstream conceptions, propaganda was never merely fodder for international recruiters--ISIS also used it to coerce acquiescence over locals in the areas it claimed to govern. Indeed, no matter how weak its presence in a given territory was, it could always use propaganda to frame the diffuse insurgent cells as blossoming communities and inflate its ideological allure, thereby presenting itself as a far more resilient and successful organization than it ever actually was. When, for example, its siege of Kobane was broken in 2015, the group simply deflected its true believers away from Syria, directing their attention toward Libya to provide them with the momentum they so sorely needed. It mattered not that Libya, which is now all but lost to ISIS, was never the safe haven it was cracked up to be--through propaganda, ISIS supporters were duped into thinking it was an inviolable stronghold.

For all this to be successful, regular communication overseas was crucial. To harmonize the brand and keep the message uniform, there had to be constant daily exchanges between affiliates and the core. Propaganda cannot be spontaneous--the narrative must always hold, something that requires centralization. Through maintaining such constant communications in late 2014 and 2015, ISIS was able to bombard viewers with its staggeringly repetitive global narrative. Now, though, things are different. Indeed, currently, it is unusual to come across propaganda hailing from one of ISIS' affiliates in, say, Libya, Yemen, or South Asia. There are no two ways about it--the brand is localizing, and Syria and Iraq are now coming out on top.

The caliphate's apparent turn inward could have a great deal to do with the core's withering ability to curate the message. As any totalitarian organization would calculate, no propaganda at all is better than some propaganda that is off message. However, none of this means that ISIS is evaporating--rather, the threat is just changing. The overseas fans have not disappeared, nor have they given up Salafi jihadism. Rather, ISIS' core is simply focusing more on remaining and surviving than it is on expanding.

The defeat of ISIS was comparatively easy--all that was required was to deny them the establishment of the Caliphate in the required geographical location.  Now they revert to normal Salafi terror and what will be required is a return to W's goal of establishing functional protestant capitalist democracy in the Arab world, as the rest of the Muslim world already enjoys.
Posted by at February 11, 2017 9:04 AM