Listening to the hyperbole that characterises much of the commentary on the rise of the Islamic State (IS), one would be forgiven for thinking that the world is witnessing an historical aberration in the Middle East’s ‘fertile crescent’. That broad sentiment is captured by the exasperated words of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: ‘Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen’. I disagree. In his address outlining the US strategy against IS, President Obama declared: ‘ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way’. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate either.
Fundamentally, the IS playbook reflects the application of core principles of modern insurgency thinking. One need only read the works of Mao Tse-Tung, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and a litany of others to find broad agreement on the ‘strategic essentials’ of guerrilla warfare:
- small wars are contests for meaning and control;
- centralised ‘information operations’ (IO) are the mechanism through which to frame politico-military activities; and
- sacrificing territory for time is key to winning the population’s support as part of a phased strategy culminating in the insurgency’s ‘conventionalisation’.
There’s some comfort in believing that IS is simply a barbaric horde with one tool—violence—at its disposal. The reality is that IS has adopted and adapted these core principles of modern insurgency thinking.
Modern insurgency strategy is built on a simple foundation: that small wars are contests for meaning and control. The latter is obvious: small wars are a competition to implement what Bernard Fall describes as a ‘competitive system of control’ over a contested population. Sure, coercion is an important tool for implementing IS’s competitive system. But IS offers its ‘citizens’, especially those in Raqqa and Mosul, a broad range of services supported by what appears to be a pretty comprehensive bureaucracy. As one would expect, IS law enforcement officials patrol the streets, courts enforce criminal and civil codes and taxes are collected. Moreover, IS offers medical services, social welfare programs and schools whilst reopened shops and restaurants are monitored by a consumer affairs unit. In early September, IS authorities apparently even began issuing parking tickets. Indeed, IS has published an annual report tracking its progress. But its ‘system of control’ provides only half the picture.
Modern insurgency thought stresses the importance of propagating a narrative—a ‘competitive system of meaning’—which shapes how contested populations understand and evaluate the conflict and its actors. Like other modern insurgencies (e.g. the Afghan Taliban), IS seeks to shape how those populations perceive the conflict by placing strategic primacy on IO as a mechanism to both shape perceptions of the conflict and frame its politico-military activities.
While the world is transfixed by the ‘military’ dimension of its messaging, IS devotes a large proportion of its IO campaign to promoting its governance and welfare initiatives. IS’s media unit, Al Hayat, has produced a range of multilingual online publications reporting on developments in the Islamic State (e.g. Islamic State News and Islamic State Report). Dabiq, IS’s more recent offering, adopts a magazine format similar to AQAP’s Inspire and the Taliban in Khurasan’s Azan. Al Hayat also produces an impressive array of video productions, from a series of short mujatweet videos that offer insights into life in the Islamic State to longer pieces that typically promote a certain event (e.g. ‘destruction’ of the Syria-Iraq border) or appeal to a certain audience (e.g. Indonesian Muslims).
While the production design is slick, it’s also the most superficial aspect of IS’s IO. The true potency of the IS narrative lies in how adroitly it attaches perceptions of crisis to out-group identities (i.e. anyone not a Sunni Muslim) and links solutions to the in-group (i.e. Sunni Muslims). Actions in the field—from beheadings to social welfare programs—are presented as materialisations of that narrative and challenges to its opponents. IS seeks to synchronise narrative and action to shape perceptions and polarise the populace’s support.
When IS took Mosul it declared that: ‘This followed a shift in the Islamic State’s strategy, which now saw its forces leaving its desert strongholds in Iraq and making their way into the cities’. That echoes Mao’s maxim that space must be sacrificed for time to win the population’s support. IS has a ‘boom-and-bust’ history of rapid and extraordinary successes and failures (e.g. AQI’s rise and fall post-Awakening/Surge, ISIS military operations last year in Syria). That reflects a perpetual problem for burgeoning insurgencies: what’s the threshold of support and time necessary to enable a recalibration onto territory and conventionalisation? Recognising IS as an insurgency reveals a paradox belying its recent success: it’s susceptible because it’s fighting a multi-front war, across large swathes of territory, using primarily conventional military manoeuvring, whilst simultaneously implementing a resource-intensive system of governance.
While IS’s IO shouldn’t be conflated with reality, it’s equally erroneous to dismiss the full-spectrum of IS activities as inconsequential or propaganda. IS constitutes an insurgency and what it’s attempting to do by applying those strategic principles matters. Still, this is only the top-down view of the IS phenomenon. The bottom-up perspective requires an understanding of what motivates their supporters—and that’s the subject of a future post.
Haroro J. Ingram is a research fellow with the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies (ANU). His ARC-funded project, ‘Through Their Eyes’, analyses insurgent ‘information operations’ and explores their role as a determining factor in the success of insurgent movements. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.