|(Law & Liberty)|
1. One of the strengths of the Islamic State is that it has always had a core set of principles since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What are those main ideas that have sustained the group?
One of the key reasons why we wrote the book was to trace how certain ideas about ideology, violence, politics, governance, propaganda, and leadership have evolved over the course of the Islamic State movement’s multidecade history. While change and adaption have been crucial for the survivability and resilience of the Islamic State, this adaptability has occurred around a core of central principles that have been largely constant throughout its history. Some of the most important of these principles underpin the Islamic State’s manhaj (method, program) for establishing an Islamic State which it claims mirrors that of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions with all that implies for its apparent credibility as a divine politico-military movement. Encapsulated in that manhaj are persistent principles such as:
· the deployment of violence as a powerful tool not only for tactical and operational ends but for fueling favorable strategic conditions;
· the imperative of governance as a means to not only control the population but demonstrate both the efficacy of its agenda and its divine sanctity;
· implementing a political strategy that builds on (exploits) local ethno-tribal structures as a means to ingratiate with the population and, overtime, transform perceptions of the group; and,
· a reverence for the power of propaganda as a transformative tactical, operational and strategic mechanism.
We trace the constants in other regards too. For example, the issue of takfir (i.e. declaring self-identifying Muslims as non-Muslims) in Islamic State ideology largely distinguishes it from other jihadi groups in its virulence. This is also a group that clearly appreciates the importance of leadership and we trace that throughout the group’s history not just via the speeches and decisions of its leaders but also the doctrine that it developed to help shape the development of its current and future leaders.
Understanding these principles and trends is going to be important for researchers and practitioners. Just as important is appreciating how these trends come together in a self-reinforcing way. The book is divided into four parts representing distinct historical periods and this interconnectedness is really clear in certain chapters such as in Zarqawi’s 2004 letter to al-Qaida leadership (Chapter 2), the Fallujah Memorandum (Chapter 5), Islamic State’s propaganda doctrine (Chapter 10), and Al-Adnani’s September 2016 speech (Chapter 13). In these chapters, readers will see how a core set of principles have acted as constants throughout its history.
2. The Islamic State has always been known for its extreme violence, from mass casualty suicide bombings to the massacre of Yazidis. These have often been portrayed as indiscriminate but there was always a goal behind it all. How has violence fit into the group’s strategy?
Throughout its history, the Islamic State has demonstrated a willingness to use brutal, seemingly indiscriminate, often cowardly, violence of all types. From its public executions broadcast to the world, genocidal massacres of Yazidi and Shia people, indiscriminate mass casualty attacks, and the torture and rape of civilians, it can seem difficult (even wrong) to search for a logic that drives such appalling actions. As one works through The ISIS Reader it is difficult to escape the fact that throughout its history there has almost always been a rationale driving its violence that typically has both short-term (e.g. tactical/operational) and longer-term (e.g. strategic) aims. What seems to be consistent is the deployment of violence to foment advantageous political, social, and psychological conditions; to create an environment that is conducive to its political agenda, advantageous to its strategic/operational strengths, and exacerbating of its adversary’s weaknesses. Indeed, the more brutish and gruesome the violence it seems the more important that violence has tended to be for achieving those larger strategic aims.
We talk about four periods of Islamic State history, it is how we chose to organize the book, and each of those periods is characterized by an extraordinary transformation. In the Zarqawi era, it was a shift from a little-known cadre to the establishment of its first state in Iraq. In the next period, it was the extraordinary rebuilding effort of Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir in the aftermath of the Islamic State in Iraq’s humbling at the hands of the Sahwa (Sunni Tribal-led “Awakening”). It was under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that the group transforms again to become a transnational enterprise and declare its caliphate. Since 2016, it has morphed in its heartlands back into a steady state insurgency with wilayah across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Violence has been a crucial tool in each of these transformations.
Let’s take one especially horrific example: the Speicher massacre, which we chose as the topic for our first post on The ISIS Reader website on the six year anniversary of the atrocity. During the collapse of Iraqi security forces in the summer of 2014 in Northern and Western Iraq, the group’s key leaders leveraged the opportunistic capture of large numbers of stranded Iraqi Air cadets near Camp Speicher outside of Tikrit and used mass violence to sanctify the future announcement of the Caliphate. The fleeing cadets obviously posed no military threat to the group; their large-scale massacre—videotaped by a team of its provincial media department—would instead provide a living testament to the Islamic State’s principle of association and disassociation (al-wara wal-bara), spread fear among its enemies, and demonstrate that the group’s capabilities were state-like in nature and a viable challenge to the Iraqi government. Such actions, in many ways reminiscent of the extreme violence designed to plunge Iraq into a sectarian bloodbath about a decade earlier, drove a wedge between Iraq’s communities that increased fears of reprisals for all and, in doing so, create psychosocial conditions advantageous to Islamic State goals. These types of actions would convince and coerce thousands of locals of the inevitability of Islamic State control.
3. The Islamic State said that its information campaign was just as important as its military operations. What role did propaganda and its various media outlets play in its plans?
In the public’s mind, the Islamic State is probably most associated with the horrific violence found in its propaganda. Understanding the personalities, organizational traits, strategic logic and thematic trends in Islamic State’s approach to propaganda has been a major focus of our collective work for years. Islamic State’s recognition of the importance of propaganda stems from its founder al-Zarqawi’s experience in Afghanistan and the impact it had on mobilizing transnational support. His early speeches included in The ISIS Reader demonstrate this and his organization developed a structured media department with a flair for experimentation and innovation. The group had a standout media department as early as 2004 in a crowded, competitive market in occupied Iraq, and the pressure to dominate other Sunni groups was intense. Competition, and defeat at the hands of the Sahwa and Coalition units during the Surge only reinforced the need to develop a world-class media organization to outcompete the influence efforts of its adversaries (see Chapter 5, The Fallujah Memorandum – 2009).
The Islamic State’s prioritization of propaganda is evident in the rhetoric of its leaders as well as the doctrinal guidance it provides its propagandists in publications such as Media Operative, You are also a Mujahid which we present in Chapter 10. This is far from mere rhetoric and token gestures as the movement’s top leaders have almost always served time in the Islamic State’s media units. This suggests that the Islamic State is seeking to not only harness the power of propaganda as a tactical, operational and strategic tool but encourage a mentality and culture across its organization that intellectually appreciates the role of words and images in achieving the movement’s aims.
Today, the media department continues to produce material despite the loss of territory, much like it did in the period before 2014. The targeting of media leaders like Abu Muhammad al-Furqan and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, and the online effort to have it removed from social media platforms have caused the group to continue to improve its internal security and evolve its production and dissemination processes in order to remain competitive with its ideological rivals (al-Qaeda, but also the Muslim Brotherhood).
4. The group has proven to be incredibly adaptive when it faced setbacks. As early as January 2004 Zarqawi talked about the jihad in Iraq possibly failing. Then it suffered defeat with the 2007 Surge and once more in 2017 when it lost its last bit of territory in Iraq and then later in Syria. How reflective has IS proven to be and how has it been able to learn from its mistakes?
The Islamic State has suffered defeat before but has strived to examine its failures and learn from them. The leaders have a better appreciation now of the need to dominate its Sunni political rivals and cultivate a base of support among the largely rural residents of Eastern Syria and Western/Northern Iraq. For instance, the Fallujah Memorandum (dissected in Chapter 5) captures a lot of the debate on how to prepare for the departure of the United States in 2011, an opportunity they are already focused on in 2009. The leaders of this period–Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir–had to rebuild popular support and recruit new cadres to continue its low-level guerrilla warfare and terror campaigns. Their unappreciated efforts – they’ve too often been ignored or derided by scholars as ineffectual – to keep the group together laid the foundation for the Islamic State’s resurgence after 2011 under their successor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
A factor in this resilience is consistency with which the Islamic State’s leaders have maintained the movement’s consistent adherence to those core principles through time of success and defeat. For one example, its message that a sectarian Iraqi government would never include or respect its Sunni citizens was reinforced by the neglect of its Sahwa rivals, who withered on the vine as Abu Umar and Abu Hamza had predicted. The failure of the largest bloc of Sunni Iraqis attempting to reconcile with the government is a primary cause for the growing political strength of the group up to its military triumph in 2014.
This same consistency paid dividends in the Syrian civil war, as the group used the same sectarian wedges to propel its way to dominance of a fractured and contentious Syrian opposition front against Assad. The expansion into Syria, long discussed by Syrians in the Islamic State movement, most likely fed the expansionist aims of group leaders enabled by the death of al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama Bin Laden. It is important to note that this ambition created a new set of challenges that the group mishandled, much like it did the tribes and rival resistance groups in 2007, and inspired not only a revolt by its al-Nusra franchise in Syria and split with al-Qaeda, but its global terror campaign inspired a massive transnational “Counter-ISIL” coalition that broke the caliphate just three years into its existence.
The group has gone back to its roots and transitioned back to a uniform insurgency in its core areas and abroad. Here, it plans on conducting a patient and steady guerrilla warfare campaign of low-level attacks and raids aimed at exhausting the support of the global coalition and muscling regional security forces out of key areas of support. The purpose will be to once again use its consistent principles and presentation of a shadow government to provide an alternative to corrupt and inefficient incumbents in Iraq, Syria, west and central Africa, South Asia, and East Asia. By demonstrating success in the past, the group hopes to leverage this success and steel the resolve of its fighters to continue the fight until its enemies collapse one by one, undone by their own weakness and internal contradictions. It is difficult to predict the outcome of this next phase of the contest, but as we argue in The ISIS Reader, the group deserves our continued attention and the global efforts to permanently defeat this movement.
Link to Musings On Iraq's review of The ISIS Reader, Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement
Link to all of Musings On Iraq's interviews