ISIS’ branding and propaganda has been enormously successful since they seemingly came out of nowhere to seize the city of Mosul last summer. Islamist groups from Yemen to Central Asia to Libya are purportedly pledging allegiance to the group and flying its black flag. Washington, the Kremlin, and Beijing are all warning of the danger of this next iteration of Tamerlane’s savagery (even in places like Xinjiang, where there is little sign of the group actually taking root among the Muslim Uighurs), while the Islamists themselves are putting out video after video that at once shock and elicit contempt.
The majority of ISIS propaganda that reaches the West is deliberately calculated to bait Western involvement in Iraq and Syria. Videos of beheadings, pilots being burned alive, and antiquities being smashed with sledgehammers are intended to induce outrage. So is the flaunting of the sexual enslavement of Iraqi and Yezidi women. They are made as savage as possible, not as deterrents, but as provocations. ISIS personnel have said this themselves; the “media officer” in the VICE video series “Inside the Islamic State” openly said to the Americans, “Send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.” Every outrage is intended to draw Western militaries into the fight.
At the same time, some of their recruiting and training videos are serving a dual purpose. The ones that make it to Western eyes elicit mockery of their “ridiculous” training. The most recent example elicited howls of derision from many on American social media, mocking the martial arts demonstrations and crude camouflage in one scene. (I’d link to the video, but YouTube has taken it down.) In all honesty, however, Marine recruits doing MCMAP Tan Belt techniques and applying cammie paint don’t look much better.
To those unfamiliar with infantry techniques, such as potential ISIS recruits, the video might appear cool. So it works as a recruiting tool to the uninitiated. Among their enemies, many of whom either have forgotten how awkward it is to be a raw recruit or are simply used to choreographed “cool-guy” videos, contempt is built upon, reinforcing the idea that these are just a bunch of stone-age booger-eaters without any knowledge of modern warfare, who would be easily steamrolled if we just let the military off the chain and went after them.
The problem with this is, ISIS isn’t so easily defined. Much of its appeal, throughout the Middle East and beyond, has been its phenomenal military success. They have applied maneuver warfare and Maoist guerrilla warfare where the situation calls for it. When airstrikes began hitting them, they dispersed into smaller, more mobile units, making targeting vastly more difficult. They know how to conduct an insurgency as well as mobile maneuver warfare. They’ve demonstrated it. Those who would like to define their military capability by a training video would be better served observing some of their battlefield footage. It paints a much different picture; formations, fire and maneuver, use of cover, and supporting arms are all evident. The consensus from the ground has been that they are well-coordinated and trained.
The general impression of ISIS in the West can be summed up in The Atlantic’s article, “What ISIS Really Wants.” The picture is of a rabid, apocalyptic cult of hard-core Islam, seeking to draw the 72 flags to the Middle East to trigger Armageddon. Some of their fighters may well buy into this. Their internal propaganda is going to be calculated to fire up the cannon-fodder, and radical Islam has shown repeatedly that it is perfectly suited for this purpose. The image is also cultivated to sow terror on the fighting fronts and to provoke the West. If the West believes that the new Nazi Germany is trying to bring about the end of the world, they are going to act. And if they do, and intervene, then ISIS goes underground again, and begins to bleed the occupiers with greater ground-level support from the populace.
Not everyone involved with ISIS is necessarily a pious Muslim. Rumors have circulated since the fall of Mosul of Izzat Ibrahim al Douri’s involvement with ISIS. Al Douri was Saddam’s number-two man, the vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, and the King of Clubs on the U.S. target deck. He was the most senior man of the Baathist regime in Iraq who was never captured, having fled to Syria in 2003. His group, the Naqshbandi, formally pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2014, along with every other major Sunni rebel group in Iraq.
Little has been said since last fall about the Baathist connection with ISIS; exactly why is unclear, as the connection has never been disproven. It has simply fallen off the radar. Perhaps it isn’t fitting in enough with the picture of an apocalyptic death cult, which just about every player—those who want support, those who want to intervene, those who are using the threat of ISIS as a political bludgeon against their opposition parties, and those who want the U.S. to intervene in order to bleed its warfighting capability further—has an interest in perpetuating.
Much of this is deduction based on open-source information. The reality on the ground is far murkier than can be summed up in any number of articles. The reality of modern warfare is a web of groups, alliances, and political/strategic smokescreens. We may not know the full truth about ISIS for many years to come, but the simplistic, propaganda-fed picture isn’t accurate—that much we can determine.
Featured Image courtesy nypost.com