I keen an eye on the webpage of J.M. Berger, one of the authors of an excellent book explaining the origins, nature and goals of ISIS and who joins it and why, ISIS: The State of Terror and this morning there appeared a collection of three particularly interesting articles. We have been seeing more generally in the news that ISIS in Syria and Iraq is lately suffering significant territorial losses, though the end result is loss all round given ISIS’s “scorched earth” policy of destroying everything as they retreat. Ramadi has been recaptured by Iraqi forces but it is no longer a place anyone would want to return to. So with ISIS appearing to be on the back foot at last the following new developments are of particular interest, I think.
Syrians abandoning ISIS
The first article of special interest is published in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: Quitting ISIS: Why Syrians are Abandoning the Group
- true believers
- criminals and thugs finding amnesty with ISIS in return for service
- the pay — raw economics
- hatred of Assad of Syria and ISIS appearing the most likely opposition
- adventurers and opportunists
I can’t repeat all the FA article here but I have linked to it above. In brief:
- they are in retreat, losing
- hypocrisy: corruption, inequality, cronyism, are as common in ISIS as elsewhere, some believe
- salaries are being cut
- to avoid being redeployed to fight in Iraq or Libya. They joined to fight Assad in Syria.
The final paragraphs are especially disturbing (my own bolding):
Although the increase in defections might seem like welcome news to the U.S.-led coalition, the trend has some alarming consequences for Syrians. In addition to summary executions of combatants or civilians who are suspected of disloyalty, ISIS has started to recruit large numbers of child soldiers to shore up its dwindling ranks. The “cubs of the Caliphate,” as ISIS calls them, are cheaper and more ideologically malleable than adults. Tarek, a former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor, estimated that when he deserted his unit in Deir Ezzor, 60 percent of his fellow combatants were under the age of 18. One former ISIS child soldier from al-Hasakah, Sami, was 14 years old when he first joined in 2014. . . . Sami cried as he recounted the deaths of several of his oldest childhood friends who had joined ISIS with him and were recently killed in a battle against the regime in Deir Ezzor. ISIS had been using these children as cannon fodder on the frontlines because they lacked the training and experience to be useful in other roles.
In another sign of desperation, ISIS has dramatically abbreviated the training—both physical and ideological—that its fighters must undergo. ISIS used to require that all new recruits first enroll in Islamic educational courses known as dawraat sharia, which last from 30 to 45 days, followed by military boot camp for another 30 days. But after losing Sinjar to Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes in November 2015, ISIS dramatically shortened the recruitment pipeline by eliminating military training altogether and requiring only a few days of Islamic education before sending new recruits into battle. The curriculum of the dawraat sharia covers ISIS’ version of Islamic humanitarian law, which does set some limits on violence against civilians, enemy combatants, and prisoners of war. As ISIS lowers its standards to attract new recruits, its fighters will become increasingly prone to indiscipline, corruption, and looting. Such internal problems will weaken ISIS militarily but they come at a high cost to Syrian civilians, who are likely to face increased violence and exploitation by an organization that is beginning to unravel.
Al-Qaeda giving permission for a break from its ranks
Then there is this latest intriguing development involving Al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is Bin Laden’s replacement, the leader of Al Qaeda. Al Nusra is the anti-Assad rebel group closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Al Jazeera reports: Zawahiri: Syria’s Nusra free to break al-Qaeda links. ISIS itself began as Al-Qaeda in Iraq led by Zarqawi (the one who began the spate of beheadings and bombings of Shia centres in Iraq) but after Zarqawi was killed in a bombing raid the new leadership broke from Al-Qaeda and morphed into ISIS, the Islamic State, in 2014. So it is interesting to see Al-Qaeda giving permission for its Syrian affiliate, Nusra, to break ranks.
The thinking appears to be that Nusra will have more leverage in peace talks and hence more clout as an anti-Assad force if it can disclaim its links to Al-Qaeda. With ISIS on the retreat, Nusra may have the opportunity to dominate the anti-Assad forces and become a major driver in Syrian politics. The Russian military action has proved to have been a game-changer but if Al-Nusra is no longer tied to Al-Qaeda there is some speculation that Russians will have less justification for attacking it.
Finally there is an article written by J.M. Berger and his co-author on the just-mentioned book, Jessica Stern: A 6-Point Plan to Defeat ISIS in the Propaganda War. With ISIS in slow retreat now seems like a good time to ramp up the propaganda war. ISIS’s propaganda strategy is summed up as follows:
- To project an image of a victorious, functioning state with the aim of retaining its current recruits and attracting new ones
- To goad its enemies to invade ISIS-held territory by disseminating images of atrocities — perpetrated against both humans and ancient artifacts — while projecting an image of invincibility, to plant doubts that military response can succeed
- To excite those with violent tendencies using images of extreme brutality
- To advertise the benefits of joining ISIS, including free housing; ISIS-approved schooling for children; wives; and access to sexual slaves
- To blame any conflict that does result on the aggression of Western governments and the incitement of “Zionists”
- To recast any military action against ISIS as an action against Muslims in general, specifically by highlighting civilian casualties
Berger and Stern show how each of the above can be turned around with counter-propaganda:
- Stop exaggerating ISIS’s invincibility . . .
- Amplify the stories of the real wives of ISIS, and other defectors: We need to amplify the stories of defectors and refugees from the areas that ISIS controls. For example, one of the three British schoolgirls who left their East London homes in February, apparently to join ISIS, had been in contact with an infamous ISIS recruiter, Aqsa Mahmood, who specializes in recruiting young women to serve as “jihadi wives.” Stories about the horrific real lives of jihadi wives need to be told, by women who manage to run away.
- Take on ISIS’s version of Islam: ISIS has developed convoluted arguments about why it engages in war crimes that are forbidden by Islamic law. Hundreds of religious scholars have taken on ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. . . .
- Highlight ISIS’s hypocrisy: ISIS makes much of its supposedly puritanical virtue and promotion of chastity, whipping women who do not wear attire ISIS considers appropriate and executing gay men by throwing them off the tops of buildings. Yet according to the U.N. and ISIS’s own propaganda, its fighters are involved in a wide range of horrifying sexual abuse, from sexual slavery to the reported rape of men and women, including both adults and children. In this area and many others, ISIS’s deranged double standards should be addressed head-on.
- Publicize ISIS’s atrocities against Sunnis: We need to fully exploit aerial and electronic surveillance and remote imaging to show what really happens in the belly of the beast. We should pay particular attention to documenting war crimes and atrocities against Sunni Muslims in regions controlled by ISIS. It is patently obvious that ISIS has no qualms about advertising its war crimes against certain classes of people — Shi‘a Muslims primarily, and religious minorities like the Yazidis. ISIS claims to protect Sunnis . . . .
- Aggressively suspend ISIS social-media accounts. . . .