By Syed Huzaifah Bin Othman Alkaff and Remy Mahzam
RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses
Volume 10, Issue 1 | January 2018
The ‘Islamic State’ (IS) After the Fall of Mosul and Raqqa: Still a Persistent Threat
The year 2017 marked the defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria, three years after it declared the establishment of a caliphate‘ in June 2014. The group has lost all its strongholds including Mosul in Iraq and its de facto capital‘ Raqqa in Syria, and almost all the lands it controlled. It has also lost many of its top leaders, commanders, strategists and fighters, with the remaining leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the run and in hiding. It is a matter of time before alBaghdadi too will meet the same fate as his predecessors and mentors like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden. With the defeat, IS has also lost its main sources of revenue from seized oilfields, illegal taxes and other unlawful means. The output of its much touted‘ online propaganda materials has also declined substantially. Overall, the defeat constitutes a serious blow to its leadership of the global jihadist movement and its propaganda slogan of remaining and expanding‖ (Baqiya wa tatamaddad).
The Terrorist Threat Persists
IS‘ territorial defeat, however, does not spell the end of the group. Nor does it sufficiently reflect its current strength and versatility to reinvent itself and return with force. It should be remembered that IS leaders, in particular al-Baghdadi, have faced territorial losses and challenging situations before, such as when IS founder Zarqawi was killed in a drone attack in June 2006 and when the Sahwa movement rose against IS (then known as Islamic State in Iraq) in late 2006 and drove them out of areas they controlled. IS reconsolidated in the ensuing years, exploited the Arab Spring, expanded into Syria in 2011, recaptured Iraqi Sunni territories it lost to the Sahwa tribal militias, and declared the establishment of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2013 and later IS in June 2014.
Despite the territorial losses in its heartlands in Iraq and Syria, IS still has four substantial ‗assets‘ it could count on to remain relevant in the jihadist movement and pose a serious security threat: (a) its jihadist ideology and vision of a global caliphate, (b) its wilayat (governorates) and enclaves, (c) its army of loyal followers and fighters, and (d) the Internet and social media platforms. With these assets, IS is likely to persist as a global jihadist movement, recruiting and radicalising more followers, launching opportunistic and targeted terrorist attacks, and supporting the local religious and political agenda of its wilayat.
IS‘ vision of a worldwide caliphate has some resonance among certain vulnerable segments of the Muslim community. Consequently, over thirty thousand foreign fighters and civilians from over 80 countries flocked to Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2016 to defend and build up the caliphate. Many thousands more continue to be beguiled by IS religious and political narratives and battlefront news weaved in glossy and wellpackaged online propaganda magazines (first Dabiq, then Rumiyah, and now other small scale versions). Although propaganda output is down, IS media outlets and its army of social media warriors‘ continue to produce, repost and recycle articles and videos, radicalising new ones and reinforcing the extremism of existing supporters.
IS‘ virulent anti-Shia sectarian agenda coincides with the current confrontation between two major regional players — Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran — and their proxy wars. The group views Shias, among others, as heretics and uses this ideological justification to target them. IS‘ anti-Shia narratives skilfully exploit the discrimination and marginalisation of Sunnis in Shiacontrolled Iraq and Syria to win and expand its support base. Zarqawi and later alBaghdadi carried out numerous attacks against Shia neighbourhoods, shrines and mosques, killing and injuring many thousands. The question arises whether the ongoing Sunni-Shia geo-political conflict would increase support for IS‘ anti-Shia propaganda, and enlarge the catchment for IS recruitment.
Wilayat, Foreign Fighters and Other ‘Assets’
IS‘ military setbacks since late 2016 has resulted in displacement of its foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. It is estimated that there were about 31,000 foreign fighters from 86 different countries from Africa, Asia and the West.1 Many have been killed but those who survived are returning to their home countries or IS wilayat like IS Khorasan and IS Philippines. These returnees pose a significant threat to the countries concerned as they are ideologically-hardened and experienced combatants who will strengthen IS in conflict zones.
IS could also rely on the returnees and its existing networks of supporters to spread its ideology, increase recruitment, raise funds and mount terrorist operations. As it came under intense pressure and began losing territories, IS had exhorted its supporters worldwide to launch mass-casualty and high impact attacks as well as lone-wolf attacks using whatever means, including knives and vehicles. Some of these strikes, particularly those by radicalised lone-wolves, are hard to detect and prevent as they occur without warning. Some of the major attacks in 2017 included the New York truck attack in October that killed 8, the Barcelona van attack in August which killed 14, the London Bridge van and stabbing attacks in June, killing 8, and the concert bomb attack in Manchester in May in which 22 were killed. There were worst attacks in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
With the dislocations and disruptions caused by the loss of territories, manpower and resources, IS will place greater importance on the Internet and social media platforms, particularly encrypted messaging applications, for strategic communications, propaganda, recruitment and operations. Internet enables IS to establish a ‗virtual caliphate‘ and bide its time as it did between 2007 and 2010 when it was driven out of its Sunni strongholds by Sahwa militias in Iraq. It is not known what exactly is the size of IS ‗army‘ of supporters and sympathisers on the Internet but there are some online persona with several thousand followers. For instance, a Malaysian foreign fighter in Syria had a following of some 72,000 on his first few Facebook pages in 2015.
With its jihadist ideology, wilayat, loyal followers and social media apps, IS will continue to pose a formidable security challenge in respect of terrorist attacks. Dislodging IS from its heartlands in Iraq and Syria is a significant achievement as it would deprive IS of a base to operate, generate revenue and plot attacks. To further neutralise and decapitate it, the following will need to be done: (a) continue efforts to neutralise IS leadership as well as IS leaders in the various wilayat; (b) debunk its jihadist ideology and expose its distortion and misrepresentation of Islamic doctrines and practices; (c) address prevailing grievances that have allowed groups like IS, Al-Qaeda and other militant and extremist groups to emerge and flourish; and (d) disrupt its communications and curtail its dissemination of virulent propaganda. Any let-up in these areas will see the IS expanding further in cyberspace, and emerging stronger in poorly governed and volatile areas like Africa and the Khorasan.
IS Propaganda after the Fall of Mosul and Raqqa
Following eviction from its remaining Iraqi and Syrian strongholds, IS has lost its tenuous claim of being a ‗Caliphate‘ and control of its previously self-proclaimed wilayat. The recent setbacks have not only shrunk the group‘s finances, destroyed their training camps and forced the exodus of foreign fighters, but also caused a considerable decline in the group‘s social media propaganda as well.
Decline in Propaganda
Since July 2017, IS‘ distribution of governance-related media has been reduced by two-thirds, especially after the fall of Mosul. Only 255 visual reports covering IS activities in Syria and Iraq were observed in the period between July and September 2017, a sharp decrease from the 486 propaganda materials released earlier between May to July 2017.3 In 2015, IS media activity was at its record high with over 892 units of propaganda being published.
Since September 2017, Al-Hayat Media has not released any new Rumiyah magazine, the group‘s main online propaganda publication since the cessation of its more substantive magazine Dabiq in July 2016. The multilingual Rumiyah is usually distributed in the first week of every month.5 The delay in its publication or even its possible cessation may be attributed to the lack of news, developments and updates on the ‗caliphate‘, its ‗wilayat‘ and military operations, as well as declining morale and possible decimation or departure of its editorial staff. The daily broadcast of, Al Bayan Radio, another IS propaganda mouthpiece, has also ceased since October 2017.6 The only consistent and operational publication is the 16-page Arabic-language news bulletin, Al-Naba.
Marawi Narrative: New Strategic Shift
IS central media office is clearly desperate for a new media strategy and fresh narrative to sustain its future propaganda. In the tenth issue of Rumiyah entitled ―The Jihad in East Asia‖ released in June 2017, the group focused on alternative fronts, putting its stakes on the city of Marawi in the Philippines. Before 2016, IS had limited interest in Southeast Asia and has never recognised the Philippines as an official wilayat. The release of a 20-minute video titled ―Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus‖ (The Solid Structure) in June 2016, which introduced three East Asian fighters calling for hijra (emigration) to IS-held territories 8 and a united leadership under Filipino militant commander Isnilon Hapilon became the turning point.
With the rapid rise of IS-affiliated militants in the Philippines,9 IS central reportedly sent nearly US$2 million to the Philippines wilayah.10 During the Marawi siege, IS official news agency, Amaq, regularly released updates on the battlefront in the form of videos, news bulletin and infographics. An infographic report released on 19 August 2017 claimed that the IS Maute group had killed over 335 army soldiers, of which 37 were shot by snipers during the first 86 days of fighting. The report also claimed that Pangarungan, Marinaut and Alaa districts in Marawi city were still under IS control.11 These updates were futile attempts to counter mainstream news that were reporting on the siege. Official figures put the death toll of the Philippine soldiers at 129.
On 21 August 2017, Al-Hayat Media centre released ―Inside the Khilafah 3‖, the third installment for the ―Inside the Khilafah‖ video series, which covered Marawi. The sixminute video featured militants from the Maute group who shared their experiences amidst fighting in Marawi. When the militants were defeated, Al-Hayat Media Centre released a two-minute English nasheed (religious hymn) ―Brothers in Marawi‖ on 12 October 2017, and paid tribute to the soldiers who died in battle.
Sustaining the ‘Virtual Caliphate’ through Encrypted Social Media Apps
Notwithstanding the absence of Rumiyah and the decline in IS propaganda, the parallel information warfare still rages on. IS messaging thrives on an off-line propaganda strategy with the group‘s media-savvy supporters keeping the group‘s virtual caliphate‘ alive. To fill the production void propaganda is now disseminated on encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram as well as file-sharing platforms like Google Drive and Archive.org, which are harder to detect. Past propaganda materials including videos, magazines and reports have been made available in small downloadable file sizes and are shared on mobile communication channels.
Independent media outlets such as Khattab Media and Wafa‘ Media Foundation continue to release new propaganda materials in support of IS‘ ideology. An infographic video on the IS- claimed Las Vegas shooting massacre was distributed by Khattab Media in the English language.16 Wafa‘ Media released posters that threatened to carry out attacks in Russia during the FIFA World Cup 2018, as well as in Vatican City during Christmas.
Through potent propaganda, IS has developed a loyal following in the digital realm even if it stops producing new materials. The ‗Just Terror Tactics‘ segment which provides instructions for aspiring militants to execute do-it-yourself attacks in their home countries in Rumiyah, exemplifies the form of messaging that was sufficient to inspire attacks around the world in recent years, including attacks in Nice, London and New York. IS‘ digitisation of its propaganda and the comprehensive resource options of accessing its content reflect a long-term strategy to increase the group‘s digital metabolism to sustain and win continued support from IS followers worldwide. Even though IS might have been defeated militarily, its ideology lives on, with its leadership and followers remaining committed to realising their religio-political goal of establishing a caliphate.
Going forward, governments and social media companies must decide which measures can counter and prevent mass dissemination of online extremist messages. The continuing radicalisation in the virtual world, and the communication of terrorist attacks in encrypted social media apps indicate that more efforts are needed in this direction. The need of the hour is not only to stop the dissemination of extremist propaganda, but to accompany this direction with counter-ideology efforts as well as to rebut the exploitation and misrepresentation of religious doctrines by extremist groups. Terrorist groups that face operational defeats in the real world would take refuge in virtual communities, where they can push their agenda effectively. After Mosul, Raqqa and Marawi, the next great challenge is to deny them this space and limit their reach and influence.
About the author
Syed Huzaifah Bin Othman Alkaff, is a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU. Huzaifah authored the operational analysis of recent losses suffered by IS in the Middle East.
Remy Mahzam, is an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU. Remy analysed IS’ social media propaganda operation following its defeat in Mosul and Raqqa