A campaign to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, or ISIS, is underway in Iraq. In the weeks ahead, Iraqi security forces, allied militias, Kurdish forces and United States air support is planned in the assault on the city, which is ISIS’s population center and its last major stronghold in Iraq. But will losing Mosul hurt ISIS?
- Mara Revkin
Mara Revkin, a fellow with the Abdallah S. Kamel Center for the Study of Islamic Law and Civilization at Yale Law School, is the author, most recently, of “The Legal Foundations of the Islamic State.”
- Jacob Olidort
Jacob Olidort, a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is the author, most recently, of “Inside the Caliphate’s Classroom: Textbooks, Guidance Literature and Indoctrination Methods of the Islamic State.”
Brand Control Is More Important to ISIS Than Territory
The beginning of the Mosul Offensive earlier this week poses yet another test for the adaptability of the Islamic State, or ISIS, which has downplayed or ignored a string of territorial setbacks it has suffered in Iraq and Syria over the last year.
While Mosul will be the most strategically and symbolically significant of these tests — being the site where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pronounced himself caliph, and one of the cities in which ISIS was able to realize its caliphate-state and its most significant presence in Iraq — the liberation of the city, as well as eventually of Raqqa (ISIS’s capital in Syria), will not signal a final defeat for the group. Where territorial governance was indispensable in building the group’s brand over the last two years, today it is dispensable precisely because it will always be a part of the group’s history and narrative.
The single area in which the group has proved to be exceptional is not territorial but rhetorical. In the case of the other jihadist Syrian groups, this is not for want of trying; rather it is because of their fundamentally different aim — namely of being recognized as the only solution to the Syrian conflict. By contrast, ISIS’s brand of harsh punishment, mass extortion and terrorizing of society are unsustainable as long-term governance strategies — something for which we could expect ISIS leadership to have planned.
To be sure, ISIS’s fight for Mosul will be long and bloody. It is perhaps the most important territorial site for its brand. However, as evinced by its simultaneous propaganda activities, we should be careful not to forget that the group pioneered social media and communications space in a way that no other jihadist group did.
Territorial governance (and governance of Mosul in particular) has been a central theme of that messaging. But insofar as the group’s sights are set on “inspiring” others to its cause, it can use or do away with governance as the group considers helpful toward this end. Indeed, it has reported less on governance in its recent propaganda, compared with its substantial coverage of Islamic ritual observance and theology. The fact that it once had the opportunity to govern such a swath of territory suffices for its propaganda purposes in its claim of being the only “Islamic” cause that is committed to the application of what it sees as an authentic Islam and the punishment of any violation of it.
Brand Is Important, but Territorial Sovereignty Is Integral to ISIS’s Brand
The Islamic State, as its name suggests, has been working toward the goal of territorial sovereignty since its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (A.Q.I.), emerged in the early 2000s. As ISIS clings to Mosul — its last urban stronghold in Iraq — and continues to lose ground in Syria and Libya, the question motivating this debate has never been more salient. Whether or not ISIS needs territory to survive depends on our definition of “survival.” Will it survive as an organization with a command structure, or only as an ideology? I argue that the latter scenario is more likely.
Radical ideas outlive the movements and the people who create them. ISIS is only the most recent in a long line of Iraqi-born insurgent groups that have flourished in the chaos created by occupation, state failure and civil war. Like its predecessors, ISIS is a highly adaptive organization whose leaders have decades of experience operating underground and on the run. So I agree with Jacob that the ISIS “brand” will survive in some form, even if it loses every square inch of its so-called caliphate.
ISIS officials themselves have been publicly contemplating the possibility of military defeat for months. Last May, now-deceased ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani vowed that the group will continue to fight regardless of territorial losses and suggested that even if ISIS becomes state-less, it will simply rebuild itself from nothing — just as it did “at the beginning.”
Last week, as Turkish-backed Syrian forces prepared to recapture Dabiq — a northern Syrian village that has little strategic value but major ideological significance as the purported site of an apocalyptic final battle between the caliphate and its enemies — an ISIS newsletter tried to walk back this grandiose prophecy, saying that the current fighting over Dabiq is only the “lesser battle.” The “greater battle,” in which ISIS will triumph, still lies ahead. It is clear that ISIS’s ideology — backed by a hyperactive propaganda machine — will survive on the internet and in the minds of its dwindling supporters no matter how much territory it loses.
Where I disagree with Jacob is on ISIS’s ability to persist as an organization in the absence of the “state” on which it has so explicitly staked its claim to legitimacy. The control and governance of territory is so integral to ISIS’s brand that its loss will trigger a credibility crisis from which the group may never fully recover. To understand why statehood is so essential to ISIS’s organizational identity, we must revisit its past.
For A.Q.I., declaring the establishment of a “state” that aspired to control and govern substantial territory in Iraq was a necessary step toward its ultimate objective: the revival of the “caliphate” first envisioned by the Prophet Muhammad. But when A.Q.I. first declared itself a “state” in 2006, other Salafi-jihadists criticized the announcement as premature and overly ambitious. Jihadist scholars ridiculed A.Q.I.’s political project as “imaginary,” “childish” and a “paper state,” as Princeton’s Cole Bunzel has documented. As A.Q.I. evolved into what is now known as ISIS, the organization’s eagerness to declare a caliphate led to conflict with Al Qaeda’s core leadership, which warned against the dangers of capturing more territory than it could effectively control. In defiance of the naysayers, ISIS nonetheless declared itself a caliphate on June 29, 2014.
Official propaganda celebrated its evolution from a “mere ‘organization’ to a real, functioning … genuine state” with an elaborate bureaucracy, judiciaryand public welfare system. ISIS claimed to have proved its skeptics wrong and used the success of its state-building project to stand out in a fragmented and highly competitive field of jihadist rivals. But now, as the caliphate rapidly shrinks, Al Qaeda is poised to say, “We told you so.” For a group that has based its brand on territorial sovereignty and governance, state failure means the failure of its entire political project.
It is possible that ISIS will manage to regroup and repair its damaged brand, but a more likely scenario is that its supporters will defect to rival jihadist groups that are perceived as rising stars — notably the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or J.F.S., (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). In multiparty civil wars, fighters belonging to weak or fragmented groups will often switch sides to better organized rivals, and they are particularly inclined to defect when their group has deviated from its ideological commitments — as ISIS has done by failing to live up to its slogan: “Remaining and expanding.”
Like ISIS, J.F.S. is engaged in governance activities and aspires to establish a state-like “emirate” in Syria. But unlike ISIS, J.F.S. is still collecting new allies and capturing territory in Syria. According to ISIS deserters I have interviewed in Turkey, ISIS is already experiencing significant desertions and defections to J.F.S. One former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor explained that he quit ISIS because he was tired of “fighting for the losing team.” He is now considering returning to Syria to join J.F.S. because, “it’s the new Islamic State.”
Although the internet ensures that all ideas are immortal, without the territorial caliphate on which its ideology is based, ISIS will find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain supporters.
The Dedicated ISIS Members Will Map Out a Survival Strategy
I do not dispute Mara’s presentation of the ISIS evolution from A.Q.I., as well as her basic argument of how central the Islamic State’s governance of territory — its state — has been for both boosting its support and distinguishing itself from rival jihadists. Where we differ is in how central its governance is for its brand, and how capable ISIS leadership is in reshuffling its other priorities so that it remains credible as a cause and sustainable as an organization.
Indeed, the establishment of a territorial caliphate redeemed the ISIS leadership and brand from ridicule at its inception. But in the two years since June 2014 the group’s infrastructure, recruits and objectives have evolved to the point that today’s ISIS oversees a number of projects simultaneously, such as foreign operations, social media communications and an elaborate multimedia edifice, each of which on its own can potentially become the group’s exclusive focus of attention going forward if its leadership so chooses, and might even make sense given today’s unfavorable territorial conditions. Moreover, since declaring its caliphate-state ISIS benefited indirectly from the ridicule but this was not merely because it was able to govern territory, but because of what its governance said about its nature — that it is committed to a more “pure” and merciless Islam. In fact, one can argue that the group’s brutal enforcement of punishment and of governance in general, as well as its rhetorical alienation of its neighbors, were ingredients that destined ISIS’s state-building project for failure from its inception as these only brought increasing enmity toward it. As I mentioned earlier, we should not rule out the possibility that the group’s leadership planned for such a course of events.
And yet, there may well be cadres of ISIS supporters who are drawn to the group on purely ideological grounds, believing ISIS’s claim to be committed to this kind of harsh and “pure” brand of religion and rule. Here we would do well to avoid overstating the uniformity of those who are willing to fight on behalf of ISIS or, for that matter, shape its ideology.
Work by Jacob Shapiro, Thomas Hegghammer and Dan Byman sheds light on why and who fights, flocks to and flees from the Islamic State. Shapiro’s work in particular highlights how bureaucratic culture (and its discontents) can often be just as, if not more, influential than ideology on the shape and strategy of terrorist organizations. Moreover, with the influx of fighters from so many countries and walks of life, there are different linguistic, cultural and historical reasons that influence why they join ISIS.
Seen from this perspective, my variation on Mara’s assessment is that many ISIS rank-and-file will indeed desert and cut deals in the face of territorial loss. But those most likely to do so will probably be motivated more by personal well-being rather than ideological disillusionment and that it was personal reasons that likely brought them to ISIS in the first place. These, however, are arguably of little concern to the Islamic State. Rather the committed believers and the fighters — those who will persist until the bitter end — who, because they are the most effective advocates and functionaries of the Islamic State, will stick around to help the group map and execute its survival strategy.
Based on its performance so far, it is possible that ISIS’s core leadership — ideologues and bureaucrats — will reconstitute in some form with their most dedicated cadres, and that they will find a way for the Islamic State to survive as an organization. The questions of who will fill the ranks of this new Islamic State organization, what messaging themes they will amplify and which they will mute, and whether they will continue seeing value in its “pure Islam” brand will all depend on what their leadership sees as the most effective way to gain popular support within the new local conditions once Mosul and Raqqa are liberated.
A State-Less Caliphate Is Less Inspiring to Prospective Recruits and Financiers
Jacob is absolutely right that we should be careful to avoid generalizations about the motivations of ISIS members and supporters. This population is extremely diverse not only in terms of language and ethnicity, as Jacob notes, but also across other socioeconomic indicators including education, occupation and marital status. Researchers have been trying for decades to develop universal theories and predictive models to explain why some individuals decide to support or join terrorist groups. But these efforts have yielded little consensus. A growing number of scholars and practitioners — myself included — subscribe to the view that the poorly defined concept of “radicalization” defies profiling. Over the past year, I have interviewed dozens of former and current ISIS fighters in person and electronically about their reasons for joining the group, and no two stories are the same.
However, I do want to challenge the dichotomy that Jacob sets up between true believers, who wholeheartedly subscribe to ISIS’s ideology and will defend it until the bitter end, and opportunists who join only for instrumental and self-serving reasons.
This dichotomy is frequently cited in the academic literature on civil war, but in my experience, reality is more complicated. The distinctions between true believers and opportunists can collapse and shift over time. ISIS deserters frequently tell me about friends who joined the group for opportunistic or material reasons — free food, a stable income, to protect their families, exact revenge on personal enemies or simply to stay alive — but over time they became radicalized as a result of constant exposure to ISIS propaganda, institutions and socialization by ISIS peers. Similarly, true believers can become opportunists if they believe that ISIS has deviated from its ideological commitments. Many of the ISIS deserters I have met in Turkey still identify as jihadists who want to establish some form of sharia-based governance, but they became disillusioned with ISIS when they saw that the group was failing to follow its own strict rules. For example, bribery, corruption and the trafficking of contraband products like cigarettes — things officially prohibited by ISIS — are becoming increasingly common as the unraveling caliphate struggles to maintain control over its own members.
The dichotomy between opportunists and true believers cannot predict who will desert or stay with ISIS if the true believers feel that the group has betrayed them. ISIS’s sudden revision of the Dabiq prophecy on the brink of its defeat there, which I mentioned earlier, is just one example of its intellectual dishonesty. Propaganda videos describing life in embattled Mosul as “safe and normal” are another. No one likes to be lied to. ISIS is rapidly losing its credibility and legitimacy — even with those who are genuinely committed to resurrecting the caliphate — because it cannot keep its overly ambitious promises.
During this discussion, I texted a J.F.S. fighter in Aleppo province to solicit his views on our debate. Speaking over Whatsapp, he estimated that in recent months, hundreds of ISIS fighters — Syrians as well as foreigners — have defected and joined J.F.S. in his area of Aleppo alone. Although J.F.S. and ISIS are enemies, J.F.S. will accept ISIS deserters who agree to undergo multiweek “sharia courses,” where they learn the basics of J.F.S.’s ideology and the “emirate” that it plans to establish in Syria.
When I asked why so many ISIS fighters are switching sides to J.F.S., he answered: “Because [ISIS] are deviants and [extremists], and there is a faction among them that is prone to excessive radicalism.”
As a social scientist, I know that one person’s story is never dispositive, but I have heard similar reports from other sources suggesting that many of the ISIS fighters now defecting to J.F.S. once considered themselves to be “true believers” in the caliphate. As ISIS loses ground, they see J.F.S.’s “emirate” as the next iteration of jihadist governance in Syria.
As for ISIS, I agree with Jacob that its online propaganda apparatus will outlive the inevitable collapse of its physical institutions in Iraq and Syria. The future ISIS may look more like a crowd-sourced jihadist media platform and less like an organization with a top-down command structure. We can expect ISIS to continue and even escalate its calls for homegrown terror attacks against its Western and regional allies as it tries to distract attention from territorial and military losses on its own turf. These attacks are often perpetrated by “lone wolves” acting without the knowledge or support of ISIS leadership, which can then retroactively ratify attacks carried out in its name. But without territory, ISIS faces two major challenges.
First, can ISIS continue to inspire violence beyond its borders after the collapse of its state-building project, which has always been one of its most potent recruiting tools? And second, will ISIS be able to finance its activities without territory from which to extract oil and tax revenue? Historically, ISIS has been much less reliant on external funding than other jihadist groups because of these local resources. As oil and tax revenues decline, ISIS will probably need to solicit donations from terror financiers in the Gulf countries. For prospective fighters and donors who can choose from a variety of different jihadist groups, the ever-shrinking — and soon to be state-less — caliphate is not as appealing as it was in 2013.
So while ISIS’s ideology will undoubtedly persist on the internet, the declining credibility of that ideology will make it difficult to attract the people and resources that are necessary for its survival as an organization.
This debate was originally published by The New York Times.