The Islamic State (ISIS) is the only terrorist group in recent times to have held control over large territory and to run it with a proper administration. It is also the only terrorist group to have lost it all so quickly. The sharp rise and fall of the most enrapturing terrorist group of recent times comes down to a single factor: unbridled violence. As I explain below, the spectacle of violence displayed by ISIS managed to get it the largest cohort of foreign terrorist fighters and subdue the people across its territory. It is the same, continuous display of violence, coupled with the lack of attention paid by the group’s leadership to developing a lasting narrative, that has led to its final demise as a land-holding terrorist ‘Caliphate’.
Crowned as the most successful terrorist group by Pundits worldwide, the Islamic State (ISIS) at one point of time held large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, ruling over nine million people[i]. It manned this territory with the help of over 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries[ii] – more than four times the mujahedeen who had travelled to Afghanistan to expunge it of the Russians. Even by late 2016, the group seemed to continue its rise to the claim of the largest international terrorist organizations as Baghdadi accepted bay at from at least 43 other terrorist outfit[iii], developing an affiliate network spanning Middle East, South and South-East Asia and Africa. Max Abrahams notes, ‘[t]he word “sophisticated” was branded about from The Wall Street Journal to Foreign Policy to characterize “evil genius” of Baghdadi and his lieutenants. If there was ever a smart, strategic militant group, Islamic State was apparently it’[iv].
ISIS’ success was accredited to its extreme brutality. As videos of its massacres and beheading began flooding the Internet and percolating through our cell phones, terrorism experts from Western think-tanks analysts looked on which one can only describe as awe at the video-game like violence being perpetrated by the group. Will McCants of Brookings Institute explained how ISIS’s extreme brutality and savagery were the very qualities that made the Islamic State so ‘successful in recruiting fighters, capturing lands, subduing its subjects, and creating a state….[b]ecause violence and gore work’[v]. It was because of the extreme gore and brutality exhibited by the fanatical jihadists that they managed to subdue the populations of Iraq and Syria, and managed to rule through terror. Everyone, it seemed were deeply impressed by the way the ‘brutal logic’ of ISIS managed to help it develop a greater following every day. For a long time, it did seem that the barbarianism showcased by ISIS through its videos, and increasingly by exhibiting its ability to conduct remote attacks in Europe, US, Asia and Africa via affiliates and ‘inspired’ actors were only getting it more followers from around the world as consolidated followers.
The group’s strategic use of social media for propaganda and narrative was also heralded as one of the best PR programs in the world, ‘unmatched’[vi] in human history. Apart from developing high-quality videos, ISIS managed to ensure that its gruesome imagery of beheadings, killings and proclamations of attacks were eye-catching, intimidating and inspiring enough to draw recruits from civil society as well as other terrorist groups. The continuous use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to spread their message instead of controlled websites and forums à la Al-Qaeda, ISIS ensured that their message was sure to reach a much wider audience than other group -putting it front and centre of the international media and society. They also ensured that each of their thousands of messages were clearly arranged with a particular message. Clarke and Winter note, ‘Even now, at its lowest ebb, the group is churning out about 20 unique media products each day.’[vii]. The Islamic State did so by allocating a large part of their revenue to developing, refining and outreach and campaigning of its messages.
But then something quite unexpected happened. Just as the experts were proclaiming the genius of ISIS, its branding and its strategy – ISIS collapsed. While the physical end of the caliphate can be said to be in March 2019, as the last ISIS fighters are being moved out of Baghouz in Eastern Syria, the group had begun to lose territory since much before that. IHS found that ISIS’ so-called “caliphate” shrunk 16% in the first nine months of 2016 and 14% in 2015[viii]. Most tellingly, the group blew up the al-Nuri Mosque in June 2017[ix] just as it lost Mosul – the very same site where the Caliphate was declared on July 5, 2014. ‘By January 2018’, a United Nations report declared, ‘ISIL had been defeated in Iraq and was confined to small pockets of territory in the Syrian Arab Republic’[x]. The group has only seen a steady decline since then, and finally holds no ground at the end of the first quarter of 2019.
For all its cunning genius, the Islamic State finally fell because of the very same reason that it first succeeded. The group only sold violence. It sold all the violence it could – in all its barbarian, unrestricted gory – to anyone and everyone. Violence and depravity were the only responses that the group had to any opposition, to any subordinate, and for any political success that it got. Its unrestricted violence against all populations and targets, as opposed to selective targeting and violence of Al-Qaeda, ended up hurting its own cause. In allowing such indiscriminate targeting of civilian populations, ISIS leadership could not manage to keep political unity within its ranks. Since there was lack of consensus among the militants as to the target and long-term strategy of the group, there was little that the leadership could do beyond allowing for short bursts of extreme violence to hold the group together.
At the same time, defeat is difficult to sell. ISIS had focused solely on selling the idea of a physical caliphate for the Muslims based on violence. With the steady decline of territory and continuous defeat at the hand of local and international armies and militias, the group leadership had nothing to sell. It had no steady narrative. Coupled with ISIS spokespersons regularly changing, and their now asking their sympathisers to stay home for lone attacks, the allure of foreign land and fighting for the ‘Muslim Caliphate in the promised land’ disappeared – along with its fan base. Continuous reports of Baghdadi’s failing health and demise did nothing to help.
In essence, in his attempt to get too far too quick, Baghdadi and his fellow senior leaders of ISIS forgot to develop a long-term strategic narrative, and failed. Strategy of depraved violence caught attention of many, but also lost ISIS the support of many fellow jihadist groups, lone actors and sympathisers. In failing to develop a strong cadre of fighters, a clear plan of attack, careful target selection, as well as failing to have continuous control over the narrative, Baghdadi showed his stupidity and short-sightedness, not genius. And so ISIS rose and fell by the same weapon – extreme, brutal, and uncontrolled violence.
[i]Henry Johnson, Mapped: The Islamic State Is Losing Its Territory – and Fast, Foreign Policy, 12March, 2016; accessible at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/16/mapped-the-islamic-state-is-losing-its-territory-and-fast/
[ii]United Nations, Greater Cooperation Needed to Tackle Danger Posed by Returning Foreign Fighters, Head of Counter‑Terrorism Office Tells Security Council, Security Council 8116th Meeting Report, 28 November 2017; accessible at: https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc13097.doc.htm
[iii] Max Abrahms, Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History, Oxford University Press, 2018; p. 4.
[v] William McCants, How ISIL Out-Terrorized Bin Laden, Politico Magazine, 19 August, 2015; accessible at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/isis-jihad-121525#.VdXz0SFVhBc
[vi] Colin Clarke and Charlie Winter, The Islamic State May Be Failing, But Its Strategic Communications Legacy Is Here to Stay, War on the Rocks, 17 August, 2017; accessible at: https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/the-islamic-state-may-be-failing-but-its-strategic-communications-legacy-is-here-to-stay/
[viii] Pamela Engel, ISIS’ caliphate is shrinking, and terror group is about to lose one of its biggest cities, Business Insider, 18 October 2016; accessible at: https://www.businessinsider.in/ISIS-caliphate-is-shrinking-and-the-terror-group-is-about-to-lose-one-of-its-biggest-cities/articleshow/54907737.cms
[ix]Falih Hassan and Tim Arango, ISIS Destroys Al Nuri Mosque, Another Loss for Mosul, The New York Times, 21 June 2017; accessible at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/world/middleeast/mosul-nuri-mosque-isis.html
[x] United Nations Security Council Report S/2018/705, 27 July 2018, para 1.