One year ago today, the al-Qaeda splinter group known as the Islamic State released a statement by its spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a 38-year old Syrian whose real name is Taha Subhi Fallaha, in which he declared that the group had transcended statehood to become a “caliphate.” Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim al-Awwad, claimed leadership of the entire Muslim world under the name “Caliph Ibrahim.” Although few other Muslims take these claims seriously, the Islamic State itself views the appointment of a new caliph as an event of world-historical significance.
Yet, a year having passed and with June 29 drawing to a close, there has been no formal statement from the group to mark the occasion. But that may be because it already arrived nearly a week ago; it depends on your choice of calendar. The Gregorian calendar date of June 28, 2014, also happened to be the first day of Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, which follows a lunar calendar. This year, Ramadan began on June 18 and within a few days, on June 23, Islamic State propagandists were indeed able to release a statement from Adnani, in which he spoke on the state of the war and congratulated Muslims on the start of the holy month.
The Islamic State leaders also seem to have timed other events to coincide with Ramadan. For most Muslims, this is a month of fasting, prayer, introspection, and solidarity with the poor, but for the Islamic State and its predecessor organizations, Ramadan was always a season of ramped-up military offensives and bombings—and they are true to form. Last Friday’s triple terrorist attacks in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait are now being linked to the Islamic State, and the group has renewed its efforts to drive Syrian government forces out of the ethnically divided eastern town of Hasakeh. Since the Islamic State’s leaders are evidently well aware of the role of the media in promoting its fearsome image, they will surely try to impress the world with more attacks and military victories in the coming weeks.
While it is obvious that they are primarily propaganda releases, could it still be possible to learn something from these statements about the Islamic State’s priorities? Perhaps. While more statements may be in the making, including missives from the “caliph” himself, we are for now forced to settle for Adnani’s Ramadan message when trying to assess the Islamic State’s priorities, but a close reading does indeed show a few readily identifiable key themes.
While Adnani does not explicitly mention the Islamic State’s chief international rival al-Qaeda or its Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, his message contains a thinly veiled attack on their legitimacy. The Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani recently appeared in a two-part interview on the Aljazeera television network in what seemed like an effort to promote the group as kinder, gentler jihadis. This has been widely interpreted as an attempt to reduce Western hostility to the group and perhaps also to tap into funds from Qatar, Turkey, or other pro-rebel nations.
Whether this is correct or not is beside the point. Adnani takes that interpretation of the interview and runs with it. Without explicitly naming either Golani or his group, he scoffs at the Nusra Front for its lack of principle, castigating any group that “fears the blame of the public” and “flatters the unbelievers and compromises for them.”
Portraying al-Qaeda as a bunch of infidel-loving softies is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it is a line of argument that the Islamic State has used to great effect in its attempts to lure radical youth away from its rival. And of course, these criticisms will be seen by Islamic State supporters as even more valid for other self-proclaimed upholders of Islamic law in Syria, such as Ahrar al-Sham or the Islam Army.
Adnani also takes a swipe at jihadi intellectuals who have given their backing to al-Qaeda rather than the Islamic State. While he does not mention them by name, it is likely that his chief targets are Abu Mohammed al-Maqdesi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, two independent but al-Qaeda-friendly theologians who have engaged in a furious campaign to religiously delegitimize the Islamic State ever since their release from prison by Jordanian authorities. “Do not let their famous reputations deceive you, even if they have a long history of writing and authorship,” Adnani warns the Islamic State’s followers, for these “evil scholars, the donkeys of knowledge” have never fought in a real war—all their battles take place “at the frontiers of Twitter.”
Those are harsh words for Abu Mohammed and Abu Qatada, but they may perhaps take some comfort in the fact that their criticisms appear effective enough to merit an official denunciation.
Adnani mentions Syria, Libya, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the Russian Caucasus, and other areas where the Islamic State’s international franchises are active. But the bulk of his message—in so far as it refers to any one geographic region—is about Iraq. The Iraqi Sunni insurgency against American occupation in 2003-2011 was the crucible out of which the Islamic State first emerged, although it would morph into its current form only during today’s war to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since it conquered Mosul, Tikrit and other Iraqi cities in June 2014, acting as the battering ram of a Sunni Arab rebellion against Baghdad’s overbearing and Shia-sectarian security forces, the Islamic State has fallen on hard times in Iraq. It has suffered a string of painful defeats at the hands of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and against Iran-allied Shia militias and government forces elsewhere in the country. The group has lost Tikrit, and its hopes that the Sunni rebellion would spread to cities like Kirkuk, Baaqouba, and Baghdad have failed to materialize. Even though the Iraqi government is in terrible shape and the Islamic State has scored a few significant victories of its own—most importantly in Ramadi in western Iraq, which was finally captured in May—it is now hard pressed trying to defend Sunni territory against an onslaught of Iranian-backed Shia militias.
While the Islamic State cannot match the combined firepower of the Shia militias, the Iraqi Army, the Kurds, and the American-led international coalition, it does have one trump card: it remains the only credible ground force in most of Iraq’s Sunni Arab territories. While the Islamic State is surely not loved by the broader Sunni population, the Shia militias and in some regions also the Kurds are positively loathed, and feared to the extent that many Sunni civilians feel forced to turn to the Islamic State for protection. It is not hard to understand why after seeing the dispiriting results of militia advances into Islamic State-held territory: a mass exodus of panicked civilians, underwritten by sectarian abuses and burned-down houses.
In his Ramadan message, Adnani does everything he can to fuel the sectarian zero-sum narrative and warn Iraqi Sunnis that they must either rally to the black flag or face certain ruin at the hands of the Shia militias. Unlike much of the group’s propaganda, this is one message that is uncomfortably close to the truth—and there is little wonder that Adnani makes it a central plank of his statement.
The Islamic State also faces some Sunni resistance in Iraq, and it is engaged in a bloody war against rival Sunni militant factions in Syria. Adnani urges such wayward groups to repent, promising that anyone who lays down his arms in due time will be treated fairly, but also warning of devastating consequences for those who refuse.
In one particularly chilling passage, the Islamic State spokesperson singles out the Jaghayifa, a Sunni Arab clan in the Haditha region of western Iraq. Adnani says that even the Jaghayifa will be allowed to repent despite having “repeatedly apostasized,” adding that “we are speaking from a position of strength and currently have Haditha under siege and may enter it at any moment.” Should the Jaghayifa fail to do so before the Islamic State enters the area, he explains, its forces will make an example out of the clan, to the extent that future visitors to Haditha will say, “there used to be a clan called Jaghayifa here and homes that belonged to the Jaghayifa.”
Knowing from past experiences that the group is indeed likely to make good on that threat, should it manage to take Haditha in a Ramadan offensive, or later, these words are likely to send a chill down the spine of many a Jaghayifa fighter. It is one example of how the Islamic State uses fear to its advantage—and how the incessant media focus on its gory execution videos help to spread that fear.
In the end, however, there is no disguising that the Islamic State is in trouble, with its aura of invincibility wearing off. Despite the recent breakthrough in Ramadi and potential progress on other “soft” fronts, the group appears to be under tremendous pressure in Iraq. And even as it continues to grab territory from the weakening central government in Syria, recently capturing Palmyra and making a bid for control over central Syria’s energy infrastructure, it has lost territory further north. Ever since the combination of U.S. air power and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) boots on the ground was introduced on the Syrian battlefield last autumn, it has proven devastatingly effective. The Islamic State suffered a humiliating and costly defeat in its months-long battle for the city of Kobane, and it recently lost its Turkish border access through Tel Abyad north of Raqqa. While fighting in these areas rages on and the Islamic State is indeed very far from beaten, the Kurdish victories are bad news for Baghdadi’s men—bad enough for the group to studiously ignore them in official statements, including Adnani’s latest.
An ordinary insurgent movement might consider such setbacks to be part of the job description—you have good years, you have bad years—but having staked its claim to the caliphate, the Islamic State is now in the unenviable position of having to manage the fevered expectations of its members: a divinely inspired state is not supposed to have bad years. Confoundingly, the group also suffers from the exact opposite problem. Many of its more recent recruits are far from true believers in the legitimacy of Baghdadi’s caliphate, having opportunistically jumped on board in 2014 mostly because the Islamic State then appeared to be the winning team. These fighters, too, are likely to start having second thoughts once the bandwagon stops moving or, worse, goes into reverse.
In the closing sections of his speech, Adnani takes care to remind the group’s adherents that God has a habit of “alternating the days of victory and defeat and to make war have its ups and downs.” The fighters of the caliphate, Adnani says, “may lose a battle or battles; turns of misfortune might even overtake them and thus they lose cities and areas, but they are never defeated,” because God has promised to reward them with “final victory if they fear Him and show patience.”
In other words: yes, I know things can seem a bit rough right now, but trust me—this is all part of the plan.
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