Islamic State: Unfriended
Dec 12th 2015
SINCE last month’s attacks in Paris, Islamic State has kept up a transcontinental drumbeat of violence. Its claimed recent atrocities include suicide-bombings in central Tunis and Baghdad, mass-murder in suburban California and the assassination of the governor of the Yemeni city of Aden.
The group’s horribly imaginative propaganda machine magnifies the menace. A recent IS video from Syria shows children armed with pistols playing “hide and seek”, hunting bound captives in a ruined castle before killing them. Another, novel form of murder features in the latest production from Yemen: prisoners in orange jumpsuits are loaded aboard a skiff and pushed offshore, only to be sunk by a barrage of rockets. IS technicians, meanwhile, have released a rebranded version of the group’s smartphone app, allowing instant download of such videos. Its musical department has just issued a catchy nasheed, or jihadist chant, entitled “I Am a Mujahid”—in Mandarin Chinese.
This projection of strength and competence is effective, and not only in fanning terror. A recent report by the Soufan Group, a consultancy, estimates that the cumulative number of foreign recruits to IS has more than doubled since June 2014, to a total of 27,000-31,000. Some may have died or left the so-called caliphate, and the number of new arrivals has shrivelled as a result of tougher Turkish border controls. But the fact that they have come from at least 86 countries testifies to the continued pulling power of IS’s message, whether delivered by the slick bimonthly online magazineDabiq, or by radio broadcasts in five languages, or even video games, all chorusing a mantra of Muslim grievance and IS fighters avenging it. And apart from such immigrants, IS has attracted many more stay-at-home groupies, such as the Paris killers and the couple in San Bernardino, California who went on a rampage on December 2nd, leaving 14 people dead.
Yet for all the group’s success at purveying and projecting terror, life on the ground within IS territory has grown dramatically darker since Paris. Although far from defeated, the group can no longer live up to its slogan “to remain and expand”. IS propaganda depicts a well-ordered caliphate where children learn proper religion, markets are full and the state hands out welfare and regulates fishing in the Tigris and Euphrates. The reality is bleaker.
However much they bicker among themselves, the enemies that surround IS have been slowly advancing on nearly every front. Last month the biggest loss was the Iraqi town of Sinjar, which now makes the journey between IS’s main cities, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, far longer and more perilous. A setback that may have been equally significant was the capture by Kurdish forces in Syria of oilfields west of Sinjar, which will dent the IS economy (seearticle). Now the much bigger Iraqi city of Ramadi, seized by IS in May, looks set to fall: it is surrounded by Iraqi forces and all but a few thousand residents have fled in anticipation of a bloody final assault. As the edges of the caliphate crumble, its interior is increasingly battered. The American-led coalition that has been systematically bombing IS since August 2014 has ramped up its efforts, flying more than 3,000 sorties in November alone, its highest monthly total.
With no forms of entertainment other than mosques and public beheadings, the internet should provide some relief. Yet, much as the group promotes itself on global social media, inside IS itself private internet use has been banned. Since September even state officials and the group’s fighters have been barred from holding personal accounts. Mobile phones are also tightly restricted: where they are allowed, IS police stop users to scour them for subversive material.
And although IS still churns out plenty of propaganda, both its quantity and reach are diminishing. Tabulating the number of pictures uploaded in media releases by the group, Aaron Zelin, a fellow at King’s College London, notes a marked decline since a peak in midsummer. Citing other researchers as well as his own observations, Mr Zelin also believes the quality of productions has fallen.
Perhaps more seriously for the group, it is having a harder time getting its message out, too. Aside from the restriction on personal internet use, which affects recruiting, Western governments have successfully prodded a growing number of social-media carriers to make much more serious efforts to weed out and block accounts sympathetic to IS. Twitter has shut thousands of suspect accounts in the past year; before that, there were reckoned to be over 20,000 IS Twitter accounts. YouTube is much quicker to take down ugly content than before. Telegram, an encrypted instant messaging service that had been increasingly adopted by IS as a main channel for its media output, has been blocking the group since mid-November.
As a sign of its growing isolation on the internet, IS announced shortly after the Paris attacks that it would shift its propaganda archive to the “dark web”, a hard-to-trace part of the internet largely inaccessible to ordinary web browsers.
As if this were not enough, IS is also suffering from media competition. Its biggest rival, al-Qaeda, has lately boosted both the quality and quantity of its own press releases. Perhaps more galling still, another, less radical Islamist fighting group in Syria, al-Jabha al-Shamiya, recently produced a video that deliberately mocked the style and content of IS’s notorious productions. It showed a group of orange-clad prisoners—actually captured IS fighters—being lined up and made to kneel before their executioners. But instead of pulling their triggers, the soldiers proceed to pocket their pistols, and the astonished prisoners are treated to a sermon about the Islamic duty of mercy, before being led back to jail.