How efficient are the tactics used by the Islamic State?

By Yasmine Sadriisis1_Reuters

When considering the threat posed by the Islamic state it is important to analyze their tactics and the influence they are having on a world scale. We know that the use of propaganda has long been present in war. Jihadist rebel group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) believes it is called upon by legitimization from Allah to establish a caliphate. Because of this legitimacy they have allowed their propaganda to be rawer, more graphically violent and deranged. The videotaped beheadings, for example, successfully attracted attention while simultaneously causing commotion in the West. Close analysis shows us that ISIS distinguishes between two audiences, and respectively shares distinct messages with these audiences. The “domestic” audience consists of the Muslim world. ISIS uses propaganda to recruit fighters by painting jihad in a sophisticated, manly, and strong manner. So far, their propaganda techniques seem successful: the CIA estimated in September of 2014 that ISIS had recruited more than 30,000 members globally. The second audience is broadly that of the West, to which fear tactics are exposed to portray superiority and attract foreign fighters. Narrative is key in the recruitment of these fighters, which usually rests on religious grounds. Young people with little to no religious background or education are persuaded through use of language that is attainable to an extensive group of people. The narrative rests on a “one nation for all Muslims” belief.

Many of the Islamic State’s European followers are Muslims by birth; remarkably, some are converts. Possible explanations for the urge to join the rebel group include Europe’s economic crisis, social exclusion phenomena, religious tensions and political frustrations among many others. These all create an incentive to flee and join a cause, in this case, the cause to render the entire world Muslim. Many recruits from Europe have returned to their country of origin. France and Belgium are known to have encountered killings brought upon by these returned young fighters. The greatest danger lies within the fact that the recruits enjoy the liberty of holding a passport in the Schengen area, which allows them to freely move around the European Union without border controls. There is, again, a great importance in the communication strategy to recruit these fighters. With each success, ISIS gains more control over the West. Through use of a massive marketing campaign, social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube are used to pursue three parallel objectives as mentioned in Carnegie Europe: “to threaten and terrorize Western audiences; to disseminate propaganda for recruitment purposes; and to intimidate the populations of territories the group wants to conquer.”

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of ISIS, however, is the group’s increasing ability to fund its own operations by use of mob-tactics. The facility in self-funding stems from the techniques used by the group, consisting of a mixture of kidnapping and money-spinning activity bearing in mind the oil-rich land that is controlled by ISIS. Prior to this major funding ability, in the early stages of organization, ISIS received most of its funding from donors in Kuwait, Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries. Extremists in some of those states still continue to donate, but counterterrorism reports reveal that the bulk of the group’s finances now comes from within, with which they afford anything from recruitment to weapons. “The overwhelming majority of their money comes from criminal activities like bank heists, extortion, robberies, and smuggling, » said one U.S. counterterrorism official. « They’re getting some money from outside donors, but that pales in comparison to their self-funding. » Adding to this, the collapse of the Iraqi military following a surprise offensive by ISIS earlier this year, allowed an array of major cities to fall into the hands of the insurgents. These troops left behind enormous quantities of American-donated vehicles, weapons, ammunition, among other military supplies, which is now in hands of ISIS. Juan Zarate, an ex-Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism, concludes « It’s the worst of all worlds: external funding from wealthy outside donors, state sponsorship from across the Persian Gulf, and the ability to raise large amounts of money locally. » The self-proclaimed state is believed to have a budget of $2bn for 2015 with an added surplus of $250m as a “chest against the West” (IB Times).

Considering the different methods used by the rebel group, kidnapping has been used increasingly to fund operations. David Cohen, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence in the United States, has mentioned that the success of intervention from the West has caused ISIS to become increasingly dependent on kidnappings. « Aside from state sponsorship of terrorism, ransom payments are the greatest source of terrorist funding today, » he said. Juan Zarate adds that these facts are rather dangerous, as the group is beginning to gain more reach. The New York Times reported in august of 2014 that the Islamic State and other extremist groups have collected around $125 million in the kidnapping plots. Noteworthy is the fact that the threat against the two Japanese nationals was the first in which ISIS palpably requested money. In the case of James Foley, who was murdered on August 19th, 2014, ISIS started by saying the abductee would be murdered if the U.S. did not agree to put a halt in its airstrike campaign. It is believed, however, that the group initially tried to make a profit from the kidnapping. This could be an indication of the urgency and necessity for money, which could denote an inefficiency in their other income sources. It is here that one could arguably note that the other tactics used by IS are not steady for long-term success.

President Obama of the United States confirms this belief an interview on CNN. “When you look at ISIL, it has no governing strategy,” he indicates. “It can talk about setting up the new caliphate, but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually in a sustained way feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work.” Today, the Islamic State continues to hold grand areas of territory in both Iraq and Syria. The most important ingredient to their long-term success is gaining the support of local populations. We are shown, however, that the power of the group stems mostly from fear. Examples of the use of fear can be found in Raqqa, where the rebel group’s headquarters are located. Public beheadings are still a common occurrence in this area. Conceivably the largest threat to the long-term stability of the rebel group, or the state, is the inability to sustain a functioning government and a prolific economy for the people. While this is a fact, the idea of the Islamic State as an alternative to the Iraqi or Syrian governments is not highly plausible. Reports of poverty, inflation, water shortages and power outages are still emerging from Iraqi cities.

Additionally, as ISIS alienates a significant portion of Iraqi Sunnis and brings them into danger, it is allowing for a legitimate formation of a coalition of forces in the West to counter the situation. By engaging in atrocities against the Sunnis, for example, ISIS opens a window of opportunity for Western governments and other regional powers to stop the group’s activities with a responsibility to protect. ISIS’ untenable and illicit modus operandi in combination with this particular error in strategy has placed a strain on the group. Still, around one-third of Syria remains property of the Islamic State, so the West cannot sit around and wait for the conquered states to take action, because their reach is too weak. This is why the terror has barely encountered a counter-strike. The US knows not to expect much from the afflicted areas, seeing as the Syrian army has near dissipated. However, with coalition comes possibility. ISIS’ tactics have caused former allies and sponsors to turn against their ways. They are shelling out billions of dollars to see the rebel group tainted. For the abovementioned reasons we could question the efficiency of the Islamic State. How long will they be able to survive on their strongest weapon: fear?