Winning the Blame Game: The Caliphate of Complete Disaster

13 Jul 2017

The scenes of a victorious Iraqi military securing the last bit of occupied Mosul are a relief for a world that has watched in horror the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) rise in Syria and Iraq and the spread of its terror around the world. The Iraqi government was quick to strike on the all-important propaganda front, putting out well-choreographed images of its triumphant political leader Haider al-Abadi, its jubilant military forces, footage of surrendering IS fighters, and celebrating Moslawis. The Prime Minister even sent out a mass text message to all Iraqis announcing the liberation of Mosul.

The details of this campaign are gratifying for those interested in strategic communications, demonstrating that the main forces fighting against IS have learned to plan in detail an influence campaign worthy of such a historic event. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees: one prominent political scientist chose this moment to highlight, sarcastically, the costs of the liberation of Mosul, as if there were alternatives to removing IS from its Iraqi capital. The destruction of the old city of Mosul, like its landmark al-Hadba minaret, was an inevitable casualty of this war and the likely endgame for IS’s strongpoint defence. As ICCT Associate Fellow Charlie Winter recently argued in the Atlantic, the leaders of IS looked at the defence of Mosul as an opportunity to reinforce their time-tested propaganda narratives, since there was a low probability of defending the city against the large coalition opposing it.

Did the results of the Mosul campaign just give IS an easy platform to highlight the destruction of the largest Sunni city in Iraq? Possibly, but taking back the once populous city was an absolute requirement if the Iraqi government was to prevent more breakaway regions; furthermore, depriving IS of its prime recruitment pool for fighters and suicide bombers, and its most lucrative tax base, is the shortest way to return the group to a lower and less lethal stage of insurgency.

This operational imperative will not stop IS from trying, however, to maximise any propaganda benefit from their loss of Mosul. Indeed, Polish researcher Pawel Wojcik recently shared a Yaqeen News (jihadist-affiliated service) infographic that telegraphed IS’s future messaging campaign rationalising the loss of the heart of the caliphate. In the poster-style product, the media company compares the ease with which several hundred fighters from IS captured Mosul with the high civilian death rate and extensive destruction of parts of the city during its re-taking. This clever opening gambit intended to shape the inevitable post-Mosul discussion reinforces IS lore about the performance of their “outnumbered but superior” fighters, as well as reminds the larger global Sunni audience that the “real victims” of the war have always been Sunni Iraqis.

This selective attention to the sectarian element of the war, by taking incidents and rhetoric and embracing victimhood, helps IS media officials create what Haroro Ingram terms “the crisis”, which only IS can solve thanks to their superior ideology and shared identity. IS portrays all aspects of the war – whether it be the presence of foreign advisors (Western or Iranian), bombing raids, or the acts of sectarian militias – in the framework of this existential crisis. The battle of Mosul is no exception, and the biggest event that has happened in the war in three years. Accordingly, how should the anti-ISIL coalition go about preventing IS’s narrative from becoming a reality not only for Sunnis in Iraq, but accepted elsewhere in the world?

Ingram offers us a solution in his recent ICCT paper that sketches out what he terms the “linkage-based approach” to combatting Islamist propaganda. Instead of a frontal attack on their widely broadcast and complexly designed “system of meaning”, Ingram recommends carefully attacking and dissolving some of the links that hold it together, not unlike a pinpoint air strike on an enemy position. J.M. Berger, in his paper that builds on Ingram’s linkage-based approach, likens it to the difficulty in overturning a table, versus simply sawing off one of its legs.

So how would this work in the critical post-Mosul period? Coalition strategic communication teams should focus on reversing the links between crisis and solution, while the evidence is fresh and before the meta-narrative congeals. IS took Mosul in 2014 and promised to implement what they called the prophetic method of governance, while its powerful fighters protected them from any threat – internal or external. Early videos of the caliphate showed footage of the crisis – occupied Mosul under the Iraqi government – and then showed how IS arrived and began implementing their solution – life in an Islamic utopia. The advent of the caliphate was, in every way, supposed to be the solution to the crisis bedevilling the hard-luck Sunni of Iraq. The problem for IS is that none of this turned out to be true. The economy tanked, the bombings began, and the campaign to defend the caliphate failed miserably, bringing massive destruction to homes, families, and businesses.

This belief, that IS is actually the crisis and not the solution to (Sunni) Iraqi problems, is already obvious to the population of Mosul and many other areas in Iraq. Scholar Aymenn al-Tamimi recently interviewed a former supporter of IS on why he left the organisation. Like all defector interviews, there is plenty to analyse in the interview on why this person soured – not on the idea of a caliphate (system of meaning) – but on the actual execution of the idea. Here is an excerpt of how Omar viewed the IS’s solution to the crisis:

Aymenn: When you were a supporter of the organization, did you consider it actually to be the Caliphate?

Omar: When I was a supporter, yes I considered it to be a Caliphate and that it was of good tidings for the Ummah.

Aymenn: But now you don’t think it is the Caliphate.

Omar: Now I don’t think of anything from the foundation, the Ummah now is dying and can’t bear new efforts.

The defector, in explaining why the Caliphate failed, had this to say:

Aymenn: I see. Generally life became worse and worse with the passing of time? Economic circumstances and these things.

Omar: Yes.

Aymenn: What were the main reasons in your opinion?

Omar: A group in a war with 80 states, how do you think the economic condition will be in the areas under their rule?

These words by a former supporter of the group, who either believes in the group’s ideology, or, at the very least, in the concept of a caliphate as a solution to the “crisis” (whatever that may be), demonstrates a lack of faith that IS as presented is a feasible or realistic construct. IS admittedly and deliberately proclaimed on numerous occasions that it could fight anyone who opposed it (the global coalition actually consists of 72 states), in addition to the Assad regime and various non-state actors – simultaneously. This choice was ideologically driven, self-inflicted, and devoid of strategic acumen. Omar understands this, as do many of the residents of Mosul. This is the chance for the anti-ISIL coalition to reverse the links of crisis and solution in a way that future IS media campaigns will find trouble overcoming, when its core of believers plans its next return from defeat.

Photo Credit: Vera Mironova @vera_mironov