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ISIS and propaganda…

October 8, 2014

Summary:  I have been trying to pull together some thoughts on ISIS and its use of propaganda, particularly in the context of Afghanistan.  I will keep this post updated and refreshed as necessary. 

Updated 28 August 2015

Osama Bin Laden once observed that all Al Qaeda had to do was raise an AQ flag in the most barren, far-flung part of the world, to get the US and its military co-travellers to thrown in troops and dollars chasing their trail.

We have a very confusing mix when it comes to assessing the position of ISIS in Afghanistan.  A CNN report from April 2015 highlighted some of the challenges and uncertainty confusion implicit in the reports of an ISIS “arrival”, complete with media profile and interviews, into Afghanistan.

The flag is crude, handmade, but the message is clear — allegiance to ISIS in Afghanistan. And the timing — with America withdrawing, the Taliban fractured, young men disillusioned and angry — could not be worse.

A group of fighters in Afghanistan agreed to be filmed by a CNN cameraman parading their ISIS flags in a valley not far to the south of Kabul, the Afghan capital. They are the first images of their kind shot by western media inside Afghanistan.

Clearly something is going on, but, as the report hints at (the fighters appear poorly trained, unfit and clumsy), it is very unclear exactly what.  We should therefore be cautious with the analysis.  Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, views the emergence of ISIS with alarm.  Conversely, former Afghan intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, now a politician, has stated recently and bluntly in a larger interview piece:

Will the struggle for power within the Taliban group make ISIS stronger in Afghanistan?

There is no ISIS in Afghanistan

Mr Saleh has a point.  My sense is not that this represents a new front being formally opened up by ISIS but rather more likely a form of “band-wagon jumping”: the arrival of a new opportunity for both local youths, susceptible to forms of intoxicating propaganda, and former and current Taliban members disillusioned.  This sense of unease amongst the Taliban, have strengthened after the reports of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, will see some real uncertainty within the movement as to its future direction – talk, fight or both?  Looking around for other more militant opportunities and flags to wave may have appeal for disgruntled Taliban commanders.  They have known nothing but war, after all.

It may be to the advantage of ISIS’ media profile to have their banner used by anti-Western Islamist groups everywhere.  From an insurgent’s logic, Afghanistan looks to be developing into an attractively unstable power vacuum within which an international jihad could thrive, with the formal departure of international forces at the end of 2014.  But it can also backfire if such groups turn out to be inept or beyond their control.  The ISIS leadership will watch the developments closely and with great interest but will likely refrain from too much engagement at present until it can be clear there is a plausible and loyal force that can represent it and, crucially, be subordinate to it and its vision of the world.

Updated with some of my thoughts from 5 March…

Summary: ISIS appear to have made significant advances in the use of propaganda, certainly when compared to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  ISIS have presented an expansion plan for where they want to be in five years, looking back to previous caliphates, to incorporate Spain and the greater Balkans.

I was very struck by this map that has emerged, purporting to show the area that ISIS feels it should have conquered by 2020.  Areas and states have been renamed.  I have no idea if this is genuine although I am reasonably confident that it is unattainable.  There seem to be many variants, both historic and aspirational, if you Google on “Map muslim caliphate

Map ISIS expansionismI wonder how it makes the various Talibans in Afghanistan and Pakistan feel when they see this – a mixture of worry and envy, I guess.  I remember Gulbuddin Hekmatyar making a comment in or around 2006 to the effect he had hoped that, as in the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen would have been at the forefront of the anti-Imperialist jihad but that it seemed to be that Al Qaeda in Iraq were way ahead.  The low levels of reporting of an ISIS presence in Afghanistan might seem to suggest that, if an ISIS presence became significantly entrenched – largely through existing insurgent groups “re-badging” themselves – the Taliban are at risk of fracturing as some look to become associated and others fight against them.

There is a really excellent article by Graeme Wood, looking at who ISIS are and what they want.  He highlights strongly that we, the West, do not yet really understand what ISIS is, but notes that:

…the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world…much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse

Too rigid to survive?  And the direction of ISIS is not merely pointed at Westerners and non-Muslims:

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

October 2014: Interesting article in The Guardian about ISIS and their use of propaganda:

The Isis propaganda war: a hi-tech media jihad

Isis is ISIS logousing techniques plundered from movies, video games and news channels to spread its message. Who is masterminding the operation – and what is the best way to counter it?

Seem to be many parallels with the Taliban’s increasing ventures into high tech media activity and perhaps even significantly improving on this.  But, as the article notes, you can make a slick TV programme but you can more than undermine any propaganda victory you seek by beheading people.

The West has not done well countering Taliban propaganda, often because it tries too hard and plays the Taliban’s game.  A clearer distinction perhaps between the battle of images and the battle of ideas might help…

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