“Come to the Dark Side… We have Kittens”: Cementing the Islamic State, and why Counter-Terrorism won’t break it.
It is difficult to believe that just over a year ago, in August 2013, the self-proclaimed Islamic State [IS] was an organisation clinging to the shadows, asserting its presence in the only way it could after being chased underground by a US troop surge and an exasperated indigenous Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Far from launching conventional military assaults in Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities, or parading triumphantly with flags waving through Raqqa and Mosul, the Islamic State spent most of 2013 engaged in a grizzly bombing campaign engaging Iraqi military checkpoints and, more often, far softer civilian targets. It was a campaign that resembled more a child’s tantrum than a conventional State military campaign; its only discernible goal seemingly to remind the world that they were still there, even if they were not strong enough to openly reveal themselves. The Islamic State of August 2013 was a terrorist organisation – a State it was not.
The Islamic State of August 2014 to the present is a very different beast indeed. Not only has the group successfully transitioned from isolated bombings to conventional warfare along tangible frontlines, the group has also transitioned from a terrorist organisation to something they can begin to call a separatists enclave – if not a state. It is this transition which anti-Islamic State policy makers seem to be struggling to catch up with. While the Islamic State has changed its tactics, its enemies have not. As this article will illustrate, the anti-IS Coalition’s current “death from above” counter-terrorism strategy is unlikely to work as long as the Islamic State is able to convince its constituents that it is no longer terrorist organisation.
Much as the Islamic State’s enemies try to deny it (stubbornly referring to the group as ISIL or Daesh so as not to dignify its assertion of sovereignty), the organisation is growing more and more adept at presenting itself as a viable territorial entity to those who wish to see it. In recent months the group has further burnished its territorial credentials, circulating an Islamic State National Anthem and making overtures towards institutionalising its own currency. Moreover, the group has begun to augment its traditionally gruesome, terroristic propaganda with portrayals of a softer, more humane Islamic State. IS’ Media Wing, al-Hayat Media Centre, has devoted a whole division – al-Itisam – to broadcasting this soft face of the IS Caliphate. Videos and Tweets have portrayed IS fighters distributing sweets and ice cream to children and even setting up a bouncy castle, while another video depicted ethnic Malay children receiving education under the Islamic State – demonstrating the Caliphate to be a welcoming new homeland to all who would approach them. Most striking however has been the attempts to humanise IS fighters – an attempt to reconcile the brutality of battle and execution footage circulated by al-Hayat’s military division; al-Furqan. Fighters are frequently depicted smiling as they mingle with Iraqi and Syrian civilians, often distributing gifts and aid. Many western media outlets reacted with mockery when it emerged that IS fighters had begun uploading “selfies” of themselves cuddling and playing with cats under the Twitter hashtag #ISILCats. The reality however is that such propaganda is humanising these fighters who, just a year before, were undeniably terrorists of the most inhumane kind. The fact that school girls from France, the UK and Austria have run away from their homes to live under the Islamic State’s Caliphate are testament to the humanising power of such Tweets.
The implications of this seemingly marginal media effort by IS on US/Coalition foreign policy cannot be taken for granted. It is easy to argue that no amount of “hearts and minds” propaganda will cover up the brutality of IS’ murderous campaign across Iraq and Syria, but such an argument overlooks the impact a simple picture of an IS fighter cradling a kitten can have. By demonstrating a humane and sensitive side to these fighters, it takes the relish out of all of the beheading and mass killing. Suddenly, the fighters are transformed from sadistic, irrational terrorists to passionate freedom fighters doing what they must to secure the creation of the Caliphate; a land where children of all nationalities are welcomed, educated and cared for, where the corruption of the outside world is rejected in favour of a purer society, with its own currency un-enslaved by exploitative international markets. All of the killing is simply an unpleasant price they must pay for this greater good. This simple change of image allows the Islamic State to impress upon its constituents, and potential recruits, that the US-led bombing campaign against them is not a surgical campaign against a terrorist threat, but instead an apocalyptic war hell-bent on preventing the re-birth of the Islamic Caliphate. Suddenly IS rhetoric about a Crusader-Zionist-Shia war against Sunni Islam comes to hold more credence, with IS able to present itself as a victim rather than an aggressor.
So the war on IS may serve only as a rallying cry for those who would rush to protect this “Islamic Project”. So what can the anti-IS Coalition do instead? It seems the key battle is one of information flow. No matter how many IS convoys and fighting positions we bomb, the al-Hayat Media Centre, and individual IS Twitter entrepreneurs, will continue to churn out their idealistic utopian propaganda. As it stands, the anti-IS Coalition has no credible counter-propaganda power – and this stands only to deteriorate further should David Cameron succeed in his designs to prevent British jihadists from returning home. It seems to have escaped Mr Cameron’s notice that fighters travelling to join the Islamic State utopia are only likely to return to their home countries if they find the Islamic State to be “not as advertised”. The argument that they will return to continue the jihad at home is an unlikely one when there is still so much fighting to be done to secure the IS Caliphate in Iraq and Syria (where they moreover enjoy the support, camaraderie and shelter of the territorial Islamic State and its army). Therefore, we can assume that the main reason for fighters to return to their homes in the West is because they have become disillusioned by their time spent with IS. All returnees will of course need to be carefully vetted by the security services – but this is a task easily done when we welcome them at the airport. The overriding priority when dealing with returning fighters should be to publicise them and their motives of return, for if they have returned out of disillusionment, they are the essential first-hand observers who can provide the hammer to the anti-IS Coalitions counter-propaganda campaign. If we can encourage disillusioned fighters to return home and share their stories to the broader public – on television and social media – then we can begin to seriously contest the demonstrably potent IS propaganda campaign.