Part One: The Four Phases of the Islamic State Movement
The history of the Islamic State can usefully be divided into four broadly distinct periods, each of which is characterized by not only certain leadership, organizational, and strategic traits, but aspirational qualities reflective of how the group intended to apply its manhaj (methodology).
The first period is defined by the leadership of the movement’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It spans from the 1990s to 2006, when al-Zarqawi was killed and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was declared. While his militant group Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (JTJ) rose to notoriety during the Iraqi insurgency, it is clear from al-Zarqawi’s first public speech in 1994 that the ideological influence on its strategy had deep roots. A relatively young Jordanian (he was in his early 30s at the time) with no formal religious education, al-Zarqawi led the future cohort of JTJ from Afghanistan to the battlefields of Iraq wherein it would eventually, in 2004, rebrand as al-Qa`ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (better known as al-Qa`ida in Iraq or AQI).
The second strategic phase in its history spans from the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006 to its near decimation by the Sunni Awakening and U.S. forces in 2007-2008 and the five-year rebuild it went through in its aftermath. This was a period characterized by the largely covert but capable leadership from Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, known at the time as ‘the two sheikhs,’ not to mention Abu Umar’s successor for the top spot, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was during this period that much of the organizational, strategic, and leadership traits that would later bear fruit for the movement in the 2010s were established.
The third phase spans from 2011 to 2016 and is characterized by transnational expansion and the establishment of the Islamic State caliphate.Under al-Baghdadi’s direction, ISI members were dispatched in late 2011 to Syria to set up shop, eventually resulting, in January 2012, in the unveiling of Jabhat al-Nusra and, in April 2013, the announcement of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham. Especially after the declaration of its caliphate just over a year later, it was during this phase that the Islamic State attracted an historically unprecedented wave of foreigners to Syria and Iraq and established a string of formal and aspirant provinces elsewhere across the region and, indeed, the rest of the world. To ensure its global networks adhered to the organizational and strategic requirements of its manhaj, it produced reams of doctrine during this period, spanning anything from the role of women in its ranks to its approach to propaganda.
By mid-2016, the Islamic State’s advances stalled and began to reverse, something that marked the fourth and current phase of its history. It was around this time that then spokesmen Abu Muhammad al-Adnani prepared the movement and its supporters for its imminent decline in (unbeknownst to him) his final address. This period is characterized by a spiraling decline in territory, resources, and personnel, which ultimately resulted in the group being routed from its last area of control in Syria—Baghouz—in March 2019. By the end of that year, al-Adnani’s replacement as spokesman (Abul Hasan al-Muhajir) and the movement’s first caliph (al-Baghdadi) would be dead. But with its now well-established global network, the Islamic State movement continues to wage a global ‘archipelagic’ insurgency from West Africa to East Asia, with a new guerrilla caliph at its helm.
Part Two: The Islamic State’s Shifting Strategies
Studying Islamic State strategy over the arc of its existence, from its precursor groups to the post-territorial caliphate, helped the authors understand how the movement overcame existential challenges in the past, developed a strategic culture that informs decision-making, and is able to manage the prospect of defeat today. The group’s sequential strategies, as documented in its captured and self-published documents, have led to both stunning successes—for instance, its establishment of a caliphate proto-state—and dismal failures—consider the grinding defeat of its conventional forces at the hands of the coalition in 2019. Studying them, the authors found ample evidence of learning from past missteps reflected in new strategies, only to discover new pitfalls as the movement expanded beyond its core heartland of Iraq and Syria.
Analysts attempting to make sense of the Islamic State movement’s strategy often reference Abu Bakr Naji’s Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass (2004). However, while noting that the general logic of Naji’s blueprint was similar in many ways to its own, the group pointed out errors in his pragmatic views about dealing with dissenters.c This is something that the Islamic State—with its infamous take on takfir (excommunication)—took great issue with. Takfir, which acts as its legal justification for killing collaborators and Sunni Muslims accused of supporting its enemies, played a strong role in the formulation of strategy since its inception. More importantly, though, it is too simple to describe Naji’s doctrinal framework as a strategy, which is a group’s application of a basket of coercive methods and tactics (ways) in combination with appropriate military, financial, and information resources (means) to achieve its political objectives (ends). Strategies, as opposed to doctrine, are completely context-dependent and specific to time, place, technology, and opponents. And, unlike doctrine, they are ever-changing in order to match shifts in political fortunes and opponent counter-strategies.As is set out below, the authors’ analysis of the Islamic State’s progressive strategies found that its ways, means, and ends were largely created, debated, and refined in house by its own leaders who were largely competent analysts of their environment.
Across the four historical periods that helped to shape how the authors think about the Islamic State’s evolution, several lessons emerged that are indicative of its strategic culture. During al-Zarqawi’s tenure as leader, he demonstrated not only an appreciation for adopting and applying a coherent strategy but, as part of that approach, focused on a mix of narrative-led activities and actions that were designed to shape environmental conditions. A letter written by him to the leaders of al-Qa`ida that was captured by coalition forces in 2004 painted him as a field commander who had developed a realistic assessment of the landscape in Iraq and, accordingly, had devised a plan to transform its post-invasion chaos into a sectarian bloodbath that would ultimately benefit his cohort.In this context, according to al-Zarqawi’s calculations, Iraq’s minority Sunni population would, “whether they like it or not … stand with the mujahidin.” The strategy paid dividends, and al-Zarqawi was quick to become the face and image of this ruthless and bloody methodology, his group transforming from a minor sideshow to the central player in Iraq’s insurgency in a matter of months.
Fundamentally, his approach relied on the deployment of highly visible acts of terror as a way to outbid much larger and popularly supported rival insurgent groups, while provoking government and Shi`a militia atrocities. Crucially, the sum of these acts enabled it to spoil the U.S. occupation and its nation-building democracy project. As a result, al-Zarqawi was able to sabotage the nascent state before it was able to recruit large numbers of rank-and-file rural Sunni Iraqis—whom he perceived to be his natural constituency—to its cause and, in turn, undermine his narrative of looming existential and sectarian civil war. Simultaneously, then, he tried to convey to Iraqi Sunnis that their new state was illegitimate while also goading Shi`a-dominated militias into killing Sunnis in reprisal attacks.e This approach had a high degree of success through mid-2006. The group, then calling itself al-Qa`ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, expanded from dozens to several thousand members at its peak and controlled territory intermittently in Qaim, Mosul, Baquba, Ramadi, and famously Fallujah. Al-Zarqawi’s strategy, which was more concerned with shaping the political landscape and societal environment by targeting enemies, paid off. His sectarian focus and prolific terror campaign—not to mention the Shi`a death squads that hit back—pushed thousands of fence-sitting Iraqis into his ranks.
Months after al-Zarqawi’s June 2006 death, the groundwork having been laid through these early successes, his associates took a fateful leap of faith and declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). This was a critically important ideological, political, and strategic milestone for the global jihadi movement. Now under the leadership of ‘the two sheikhs’—Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir—ISI entered into a period of critical reflection to revise its strategic approach and to reprioritize the in-group (i.e., Sunni Muslims) for both outreach and targeting. This was brought on by the tribulations it faced in 2007, when large numbers of rival Sunni insurgents, warily viewing ISI’s rise as a threat to their political futures, rejected its unification initiative and instead opportunistically joined the tribal rebellion known as the “Sunni Awakening.”34 The resultant fighting near Ramadi, which could be described as the beginning of a Sunni civil war in Iraq, was instrumental in depriving ISI of its safe havens, which were increasingly in need in the face of the United States’ mounting counterinsurgency operations.35 f Together, this unlikely (and unstable) coalition dealt the group its first defeat, one from which it took five long years to recover.
This loss of popular support and dramatic territorial loss, both of which came hot on the heels of its declaration of an Islamic state, could have spelled the end of the movement.36 Certainly, this is what U.S. officials thought at the time, with one famously reporting to Congress that ISI had been “weakened almost to the point of outright defeat in Iraq.”37 But instead, it transitioned into survival mode, withdrawing from scrutiny and making its base near Mosul, far from Baghdad.38 Its leaders took the time to reexamine the way it was engaging in tribal relations, media outreach, and guerilla warfare, and adapted their attitude on coercion to one of carrots and sticks. An early self-critique entitled, “Analysis of the State of the Islamic State of Iraq” (2007), communicates how stunned and bitter members of ISI were by their perceived betrayal at the hands of certain Sunni tribes, but also how keen they were to learn from the mistakes that got them there.39 This was followed in 2009 by a more developed, 55-page strategy document nicknamed the “Fallujah Memorandum,” which argued for the creation of a jihadi version of tribal Awakening units, which, in a distinctly Maoist move, would connect the group closer to the rural population. Among other things, a tribal engagement council was proposed to lead diplomatic efforts among amenable tribes40 and the media office was revamped, a process that was accelerated following the release of al-Adnani, who from 2010 became an increasingly important spokesman for ISI.41
What was perhaps most interesting about the strategy proposed in the “Fallujah Memorandum” was its relegation of the U.S. military to the lowest priority in order to save bullets for “apostate” Sunni Muslims (traitors).g Most of the discussion spared details on guerilla tactics and subversion, and urged a focus on preparing for the political battles among Iraq’s Sunni population once the ‘Crusaders’ had left and its financial sponsorship of the Awakening dried up.42 The principal goals were to compete with the Iraqi Islamic Party (Muslim Brotherhood), recruit from rival resistance groups that refused to reconcile with the government, and break up Awakening units helping the Iraqi Security Forces secure Sunni-majority provinces.43 Politicians, government officials, and tribal leaders who failed to assist the growing influence of ISI ended up on assassination lists approved by Abu Umar al-Baghdadi himself.44 Winning the battle for political influence became the leadership’s priority, and its impact on the next period was great.h
This particular phase in the Islamic State movement’s history is thinly researched. Nevertheless, it was one of its strategic high-points, during which, while operating with limited resources, it managed to navigate through material decimation and territorial diffusion. By approaching fence-sitters more diplomatically and attacking its (chiefly Sunni) foes in a more discriminate manner than it did in 2006/2007, it succeeded in avoiding another Awakening-style backlash—an approach that can be seen in its contemporary demonization of all Sunni opposition to the Islamic State as “Awakening” movements.i The key to this success was honest, meaningful reflection, the adoption of ideas that would firm up its standing in the Sunni community, and a recognition that there was a need to be more pragmatic when dealing with what it perceived to be its own kind.j
January 2012 was the first month in nearly a decade without a persistent U.S. presence in Iraq, and the Islamic State movement wasted no time making the most of it, transitioning as it did to a new, more overt and offensive strategy. It kicked off a patient campaign of attrition against Iraqi security forces (ISF) garrisons in Sunni-majority provinces with a company-sized special operation in March of that year that resulted in the takeover of the city of Haditha and the execution of more than a dozen police and key Sunni Awakening leaders.45 Already infused with veterans from reconciliation amnesties as part of the closure of the U.S. detention center at Camp Bucca, ISI then launched the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, which targeted Iraq’s penal security infrastructure in particular and resulted in multiple jailbreaks.46 In turn, this facilitated its expansion into Syria, which gave it access to a new in-flow of foreign fighters and materiel. By the end of the year, the group, which was then operating as ISI in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, had coopted large swathes of the latter’s rebel milieu.47
Syria’s chaotic political landscape was highly amenable to this move. It was full of armed groups and organizations—many still in embryonic form—that were no match for the Islamic State’s strong pedigree in insurgent organization and deployment. This enabled it to muscle in on its rivals, commandeer their manpower and resources, and ultimately capture, control and administer large territories and populations. Indeed, while most people look at the fall of Mosul as the principal governance milestone for this movement, it was its early gains in Syria in 2013 that really enabled it to sharpen its administrative skills.48 Its experience during this period meant that, just over a year later, maintaining a cohesive proto-state across multiple fronts against conventional forces like the Peshmerga was not too much for it. So too did it facilitate its sweeping, post-Mosul advances through the Iraqi provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, and parts of Diyala and Babil.
This period of ascendancy was, however, not set to last. The rapid expansion of the Islamic State caliphate, which was declared in the summer of 2014, brought with it the seeds of defeat. The parallels with 2006/2007 in this regard are numerous. The drive to control territory supported elements of its ideology and jurisprudence and, in turn, facilitated growth in financial resources and recruiting. It is the sine qua non of insurgents, the desire to compete in quality of governance of populations against incumbent regimes.49 Like the backlash it inspired in the Awakening, this move to openly control territory would also inspire external intervention when local regimes proved incapable of managing its seemingly inexorable spread.k In the end then, the group’s extensive expertise in managing relations with local actors in the context of a regional war was insufficient for it to navigate unscathed through one that had become global.
The Islamic State’s successful drive to control territory in 2013—which, among other things, culminated in its 2014 declaration of the caliphate—enabled it to stake a claim as the flag-bearer of the global jihadi movement.50 To further these ends and in an attempt to build on its successful sectarian polarization efforts in Iraq, it deployed a series of terror attacks in Europe from 2015 onward—a number of which had been put into motion before the coalition’s intervention in September 2014.51 In its words, these were geared toward “exterminat[ing] the gray zone”—i.e., poisoning relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and fomenting communal strife.52 To be sure, questions remain as to whether this “gray zone” logic was the principal driver of Islamic State external operations—an alternative explanation is its attitude toward provocation—but in any case, while this approach had worked in the past in Iraq and Syria, it had little chance of succeeding on the same scale in Europe or the United States. Instead, it backfired, steeling the resolve of interventionists to destroy the Islamic State and eliminate its ability to inspire terrorism, and to continue with efforts to assist in containing the group’s possible resurgence in Iraq and Syria.53 The decrease in global terror attacks attributed to the Islamic State since 2016 is an indicator that54 despite fears that its ‘virtual caliphate’ could sustain a massive terror campaign,l it was its real-world iteration—and the resultant legitimacy that territorial control brings—that did the lion’s share of the ‘inspiring.’55
One aspect of the group’s global political strategy during this period that has received much less attention than its atrocities (both far and near) was its calculated development of foreign fighters in Syria into global cadres capable of extending its influence into Muslim-majority countries outside of the Levant in the hopes of seeding future franchises.m These actions, many of which took place before the official split with al-Qa`ida, reinforce perceptions that al-Qa`ida/Islamic State relations have never been what they were advertised.56 To an extent, these perceptions are immaterial because the strategy paid dividends. Indeed, in a matter of years, the Islamic State cultivated a series of global affiliates from Africa to East Asia, all of which had formally pledged allegiance to its caliph. In exchange for expertise and financial resources, they agreed adhere to its ideology and say over leadership and tactics and largely subordinate their own outreach efforts to its Central Media Diwan.57 The lesson to emerge from this period is that the Islamic State demonstrably recognized the importance of applying and moving through the phases of revolutionary warfare and exporting its manhaj to international affiliates.58
By late 2017, the Islamic State’s encirclement and battering at the hands of the coalition’s massive air campaign triggered its decision to begin an economy of force-based defense of urban areas as part of a scorched earth campaign.59 Many of its fighters were subsequently shifted from conventional units back to guerrilla cells to return to insurgency. This flexible stage-based framework for insurgencyn emphasizes the necessity of returning to early phases of revolutionary war to survive strategic setbacks like these.60 Hence, more than a year before its defeat at Baghouz, weapons caches, hideouts, and money were redistributed away from the centralized caliphate to support its future insurgency.61 And by the end of 2017, long before the fall of the caliphate’s last territory in 2019,62 it had returned—uniformly across all of its contested zones—to a very familiar style of assassinations, ambush, and rocket/mortar fire that is the hallmark of the rural guerrilla.63 In this guise, it could lie in wait for another opportunity like that of 2011/2012, wherein state collapse in Syria and state failure in Iraq fanned oxygen onto what were then ISI’s embers.
Part Three: The Role and Legitimacy of the Islamic State Leader
Projecting authority is essential for any movement but especially one like the Islamic State, which presents and views itself as divinely guided. After all, it must simultaneously convince its supporters of the credibility of its divine project and its effectiveness as a politico-military force while all the time out-competing the counterclaims of its adversaries with a mix of words and actions. Throughout its history, the Islamic State’s top leaders have been central players in these efforts. Indeed, the inter-relationship between the evolution of its leadership, its strategy, and its organizational configuration has become starkly clear over the last two decades. During the early years under al-Zarqawi, it was, like many other newly established revolutionary groups, founded and led by a charismatic leader. The authority of this mode of leadership relied on emotion-based leader-follower bonds that emerged due to the perceived extraordinariness of the leader in question.64 Such figures tend to lead nascent movements because of their ability to attract supporters to ‘the cause’ despite the inevitably rudimentary nature of the group in question’s organizational and strategic development.
Yet, as al-Zarqawi’s group grew in membership, prominence, and influence, it would need to organizationally and strategically transform to achieve its goal of establishing an Islamic state de facto and de jure. This would mean a more formally structured, bureaucratized and conventional approach to, for example, its deployment of violence and governance efforts.65 Such a strategic transformation required a shift in leadership style away from the more fluid and volatile charismatic type of authority to the comparatively more stable and tangibly grounded form of authority that is based upon legal-rational (adherence to law or legally enshrined processes) or traditional criteria (based on established order/custom).66 Besides being comparatively more stable, this form of leadership lends itself to resilience, too: replacing the latter type of leader tends to be far less disruptive to other leaders, the organization, and broader support base because, unlike the volatility that typifies the routinization of a charismatic leader, legal-rational/traditional leaders are replaced via a formalized process with tangible criteria.
With the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq, the movement’s organizational structures and processes became more formal and bureaucratic than they had ever been previously. Driven by and facilitating the shifts in strategy necessary to transform from an insurgency on the run to a proto-state (if only briefly), this was a critical step in its formative years.67 Abu Umar al-Baghdadi emerged as al-Zarqawi’s replacement only after satisfying certain criteria in the eyes of the ISI Shura Council, which was said to be following a structured designation process.68 This allowed for the emergence of a more complementary relationship between leadership, strategy, and organization. It was also during this period that a broad spectrum of military, governance, propaganda, and administrative practices were formally documented and indoctrinated into both the organization and its strategy development.69 These bureaucratic structures and processes, first formalized within ISI back in 2006/2007, became ingrained into the DNA of the Islamic State movement writ large—and this included its leadership succession practices.70
When ISI spread transnationally to become ISIS in 2012/2013 and announced the establishment of its caliphate in 2014,71 it appeared to be pursuing a strategy that was almost two decades in the making. Its central claim since then has been that its particular Islamic state is the sole authority for the global ummah based on its declaration of the caliphate (organizational), the designation of its leader as rightful caliph (leadership), and its consistent application of the ‘Prophetic’ manhaj (methodology).0 This not only helps to explain the legitimacy-focused evolution of the Islamic State movement and the logic of its decision-making to date, but acts as a frame through which its current and even future decision-making can be understood.
These dynamics also highlight that while al-Zarqawi is undoubtedly a crucial figure in the movement’s history as its founder, he is an anomaly in many respects due to the nature of his leadership and his personality. At least initially, al-Zarqawi’s authority was principally borne of his charisma, something which he appeared to be well aware of: he repeatedly sought to amplify it through emotionally charged speeches72 and the use of propaganda to construct his image as a fearless and ruthless mujahid commander.73 During his tenure as leader, a foundational period in the movement’s history, he came to epitomize the benefits and costs of having a charismatic figure at the helm of a newly established but growing revolutionary movement. He was masterful at attracting media attention and, with it, bolstering his support base. However, he also attracted the scrutiny and attention of his adversaries, and as his group grew in membership and influence, it increasingly had to consider how it was being perceived by different Sunni constituents and partners both in Iraq and beyond. It was long clear that tensions were building between al-Zarqawi and his inner circle due to his increasingly polarizing image among Sunni jihadis.74 With this in mind, al-Zarqawi’s death in June 2006 may have been a blessing for the Islamic State movement because it meant that with the establishment of its first proto-state, it could fill his vacuum with a formal succession process and, thus, replace him with a line of leaders whose authority was predominantly based on legal-rational/traditional grounds and projected as such.
Leadership succession emerges as a highly important way for the Islamic State movement to project its authority claims as legitimate. Indeed, it was in the aftermath of al-Zarqawi’s killing and the establishment of ISI that the movement’s formal leadership succession practices became more publicly apparent and recognizable. Whether it was Abu Umar al-Baghdadi succeeding al-Zarqawi in 2006, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi replacing Abu Umar al-Baghdadi in 2010, or Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi ascending in 2019, the process appeared broadly similar for all three. Prior to each appointment, a formal consultation process by the Islamic State’s Shura Council was said to have ensured that whoever filled the top position satisfied certain criteria.75 All three leaders were (or, at least, were presented to be) jurisprudential scholars and war veterans with a Qurashi tribal lineage. And unlike al-Zarqawi, as the head of a ‘state,’ all adopted the honorific ‘commander of the faithful’ (amir al–mu’minin). This broadly uniform leadership succession process has resulted in the selection of individuals who share similar core traits, and in all three men, the Shura Council found individuals who, unlike al-Zarqawi, eschewed the media spotlight seemingly because they favored security and organizational and strategic stability over self-promotion.
To help smooth their transitions to the top, all three leaders were given kunyas (noms de guerre) that obscured their identities not just from adversaries but many in the movement itself. Beyond protecting the leader in question and giving them an opportunity to settle into the position, this practice may also have the effect of signaling the primacy of the position over the personality, of institution over individual. This, in turn, further underscores the legal-rational and traditional basis of their authority.
While, internally at least, the institution of this process in 2006 had the effect of creating a measure of stability in the top ranks of the Islamic State movement, it also provided it with the legalistic structures it needed to outcompete its jihadi rivals to become the flagship of the global jihad. That it was established in the immediate aftermath of its most crushing defeats—a great advantage for the group in years to come—is testimony to its strategic culture and the foresight of its leaders.
What is clear is that, speaking beyond the context of the Islamic State’s top leadership, this is a movement that appreciates the value of hierarchical models of leadership at all levels of organization. For example, while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi only emerged into the public spotlight during strategically pivotal moments, his charismatic spokesman al-Adnani was able to forge his own global reputation during ISIS’ feud with al-Qa`ida, a reputation which grew exponentially as he delivered his famously stirring speeches—anything from announcing the establishment of the caliphate to calling for terrorist attacks in the West76 and, in his last speech, preparing supporters for another period of decline.77 Concurrently, the movement also produced reams of meticulously detailed documentation designed to establish the legitimacy and aid the authority of its field commanders,78 female members,79 and propagandists80 underscoring, to varying degrees, its acknowledgment of the importance of shaping current and future leaders in its ranks.
Part Four: The Enduring Nature of Islamic State Media Warfare
In this section, the authors consider the global outreach activities of the Islamic State movement, something for which it has become especially infamous in recent years.p In doing so, they again draw attention to the movement’s enduring strategic culture and the importance it places on not just projecting its authority as legitimate but outcompeting its adversaries’ counter-claims. Notwithstanding the fact that most discussions on this issue revolve around the group’s propaganda practices since 2014, when it captured the city of Mosul and launched its most recognizable releases to date—the “Jihadi John” execution video series81—its propaganda pedigree is decades-old.q The core principles underlying it are something the group has made no attempt to hide, whether now or in its earliest years. Indeed, repeatedly since the formal inception of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, its leadership has detailed exactly what it is they want from their propagandists.
Three official Islamic State treatises on media jihad have been published over the course of the last decade (in 2010, 2015, and 2019, respectively), and each speaks with exacting precision to the group’s overarching outreach objectives. The first82 is a speech attributed to the aforementioned Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Entitled “To those entrusted with the message,” it was published in 2010, months after al-Muhajir’s death when the group was at one of its lowest ebbs. The second83 is a propaganda explainer for Islamic State media operatives that was published by the al-Himmah Library in 2015. Entitled “Media operative, you are also a mujahid,” it emerged when the Islamic State was at its strongest in Syria and Iraq and consolidating territorial gains elsewhere in Libya, Afghanistan, and West Africa. The last84 surfaced in November 2019—in other words, in the immediate aftermath of the mass-takedown of Islamic State channels on Telegram, the Islamic State’s biggest cyber setback since mid-2016 when it was first ousted from Twitter.85 Entitled “Victorious in the media war by the permission of Allah,” it was published in the 209th issue of Al Naba, the Islamic State’s official newspaper.86
While each document appeared in a very different context—the first when the movement’s insurgent prospects were hanging by a mere thread in Iraq,87 the second when it was presiding over a Syrian-Iraqi proto-state home to millions of people,88 and the third when its proto-state project had been aborted and its two most senior leaders killed89—they speak to the same propaganda playbook. In each, there is explicit and repeated recognition of a tripartite logic of propaganda, and in each, this logic is dismantled and explained along near-identical lines. Essentially, each text holds that the media jihad should revolve around three poles: organizational propagation, ideological legitimization, and adversarial intimidation.r
The first pole, organizational propagation, refers to efforts to expand the material and human strength of the Islamic State movement. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir’s 2010 speech conceptualizes this line of effort as a way of “raising [the mujahidin’s] spirits” and making its supporters “appear as one ummah fighting for one objective on many fronts.”90 To this end, he explains, it is all about emboldening sympathizers and projecting a tangible sense of strength. Published five years later, the al-Himmah field guide closely echoes this idea, stating that Islamic State media activism is a way “to buoy the morale of soldiers, spread news of their victories and good deeds, encourage the people to support them by clarifying their creed, methodology and intentions.”91 When Al Naba returned to this doctrine another five years later in 2019, it made no obvious substantive changes: jihadi media, it held, was about “attracting more of the Muslims to mobilize and wage jihad, thereby strengthening the rank of the people of faith.”92
The second pole, ideological legitimization, describes a distinctly more defensive form of communication. In any case, each document establishes it as a priority of Islamic State media operatives. For his part, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir states that one of the most important tasks of the “media mujahid” in 2010 was “defaming the image of the infidels, exposing their immorality, and describing every defect they have” such that their efforts to slander the Islamic State movement—whether they are “crusaders” or “apostates”—are undermined at the very outset.93 The al-Himmah authors are more specific than this. Besides describing what they alleged was the anti-Islamic parameters of “the [coalition’s] intellectual invasion” in 2015, they contend that Islamic State media activists must act as a bulwark against their enemies’ “daily lies and professionalized falsification.”94 The 2019 Al Naba editorial takes this even further, boasting of the way in which the Islamic State responded to the “great campaigns of [anti-Islamic State] distortion that have transcended the world” in recent years.95 Noting that they were all resounding failures, the editorial explains that this has all been down to the successful deployment of defensive media operations.96
The third and final pole, adversarial intimidation, encapsulates the line of outreach effort for which the Islamic State has been most notorious in recent years. Manifesting in graphic videos of executions to which are usually appended bellicose tracts aimed at adversaries, the intimidation-focused propaganda of the Islamic State movement has long been inextricably linked with its overarching outreach strategy. On this topic, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir waxed especially lyrical in 2010. Indeed, it was the very first thing he mentioned in his speech on media jihad. Calling on listeners to “sow terror in the hearts of our enemy using everything permitted by sharia,” he explained that intimidation outreach campaigns were a way to compound the perception of the Islamic State movement’s “strength” and “determination.”97 This theme is similarly prominent in the al-Himmah field guide, in which is devoted an entire chapter about media that “infuriates the enemy.”98 Based on the premise that “everything that angers the enemies of Allah” is a legitimate “form of jihad,” it holds that offensive, intimidation-focused psychological operations can augment and sometimes substitute conventional military campaigns.99 While this logic is only mentioned fleetingly in the Al Naba editorial, the reference could not be more explicit. Propaganda, it reads, is central to “outraging the idolaters and giving glad tidings to the Muslims.”100
To be sure, the above three poles refer to non-discrete categories of action that are both broad and overlapping. However, that does not detract from their importance as the essential building blocks of the Islamic State’s media jihad. As the above three texts (among others) so clearly attest, they have withstood the tests of time—and, indeed, the ebbs and flows of the Islamic State’s strategic potential—for more than a decade now and, rightly or wrongly, the Islamic State movement continues to see them as fundamental to its recent successes. Consider, for example, the following extract from the 2019 Al Naba editorial, which implies that propaganda was a principal driver of its ability to weather the storm of twin leadership decapitation strikes and tribal resistance while simultaneously making the most of opportunities afforded to it by chaos in Syria and corruption in Iraq.
“When the jihad arose in [Syria] and [the now-dead] Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi—may Allah the Almighty accept him—sent his soldiers to support the Muslims there, those pioneers did not find much hardship in calling people to join them and help them. This was because the Muslims knew of the Islamic State, having already been able to consider its methodology and the appeal of its soldiers. Thus the group was able to quickly grow and spread in all the areas.”101
It is important to recognize that, strategically speaking at least, there is nothing especially revolutionary about the Islamic State’s approach to influencing friend and foe. However, the extent to which its outreach logic, first publicly institutionalized at the turn of the last decade, has endured is quite remarkable, something that speaks to its broader attitude toward the cultivation and perpetuation of institutional knowledge, human capital, and innovative thinking. In that sense, it is a prime case study in the broader strategic culture of the movement.
Non-state actors that fight to overthrow the status quo have to be patient and resilient to survive. By definition, they have chosen a difficult path, one that ends with defeat more often than success.102 Having failed spectacularly twice but simultaneously demonstrated its ability to learn and evolve from these failures, the Islamic State movement seems to understand that it does not have to be perfect to succeed; rather, it just needs to outcompete its adversaries (and rivals) in securing the support of a suffering Sunni polity beset by poor and corrupt governance, sectarian security force predation, and increasing foreign intervention by regional and global powers.103 It is a dynamic that played out well beyond the Middle East and can now be seen in the successes of Islamic State affiliates in west, central, and east Africa, not to mention Southeast Asia (if only fleetingly) and other areas.104 While it remains a subdued but persistent menace in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State movement continues to move ahead with its archipelagic insurgency, demonstrating its ability to globally deploy its doctrine of strategic opportunism and adapt through critical reflection, but also trial and error, to ensure that it stays true to its manhaj. With this in mind, there is little doubt that the Islamic State group will survive in the months and years to come.105
At the same time, it is tempting to discount the group’s strategic approach based on its crushing defeat, an inevitable outcome once the group inspired the unified effort of 81 states.s Indeed, some will disagree with many of the assessments featured here and point instead to those long stretches of the Islamic State movement’s history that are characterized by crushing failure, interrupted rarely and fleetingly by moments of success, as evidence of a group that is more blindly fanatical than strategically prudent.t At times, this has been the case, and the well-documented tensions between factions within the Islamic State are indicative of persistent internal struggles to balance ideological puritanism with real-world pragmatism.106 The Islamic State movement will always be susceptible to strategic and operational errors borne of its ideological zeal,107 yet even a fleeting look at its history and primary source materials confirms that a surprisingly reflective, critical, and lasting strategic culture exists. This point is especially important for policymakers, strategists, and operators. To assume that the success of one’s enemy is due to luck and that its failures are due to an irredeemable glitch in its makeup (or even worse, one’s own brilliance) inspires precisely the intellectual complacency and strategic shortsightedness that sees errors repeated, blood and treasure squandered, and societies plunged cyclically into bloody crises.
The coalition’s tribulations in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing should be a reminder both that war is unpredictable and that rarely is its result final. In view of that, the Islamic State’s successes over the last two decades should not just be measured from its ability to survive as an underground guerrilla group only capable of midnight assassinations. A more profound measure of its resilience is how it has generally maintained strategic and organizational coherence both over time and against the odds. This is, in no small part, due to the dynamics that the authors have described here: the skillful management of expertise, territory, and populations as an end state of strategy; the development of a leadership succession practice and organizational resilience; and the systematic deployment of propaganda in both on- and offline theaters in support of the former two.
By all accounts, the Islamic State movement should not exist anymore. It has faced resounding defeat twice in the recent past and suffered through dozens of successful strikes against its leadership. Yet still, it persists. The ISIS Reader is the authors’ attempt to present why this is. By giving a history of the movement in its own words, inviting critical debate, and drawing out lessons for scholars and practitioners alike, they hope that it may contribute to scholarly, strategic, and policy discourses that will one day lead to its enduring, permanent defeat.