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The Changing Face of Daesh

The Caliphate is ending. Perhaps not as an ideal, but as physical, sovereign territory to house Daesh, its days are soon numbered. In the past two years, Daesh has seen its territorial integrity drastically reduced by coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria, and expansion projects elsewhere have been disappointing. Nearly 50 per cent of the group’s territory in Iraq has been recaptured, and 20 per cent in Syria. The group lacks the military capacity to hang on in Iraq and, apparently, lacks the legitimacy to expand to neighbouring countries in a meaningful way. Their particular brand of jihadism has been largely rejected and contained, where expansion projects have been viewed by local populations not as liberation missions but as little more than the exploitation of the political/security crises. Nowhere is this truer than in Libya, where the internal chaos and security vacuum of post-Gaddafi Libya suited Daesh well as a strategic base of operations. Libya’s Mediterranean coastline makes Europe accessible through migrant smuggling networks, vital for launching attacks on the continent or facilitating flows of foreign fighters from European countries. The civil discord after the fall of the Gaddafi regime allowed the group to expand with relative ease, but the vision of a new quasi-state to house the Daesh command has been short lived. The internal weaknesses of Daesh and Libyan resistance to the group’s presence has lead to significant territorial loss in the last month. Part of this is due to the group’s diminished ability to operate in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region overall, but it is mainly due to the fact that Libyans reject the group, its presence, and its ideology.

The Daesh strategy, until recently, seemed to be to conquer territory by conventional warfare with the goal of ruling as a conventional state. In the cases where a longstanding Sunni-Shia divide existed, ISIS’s ability to capitalize on the dynamic with anti-Shia rhetoric led to greater local support. Insurgent warfare that capitalized on the structural weakness of Iraq security forces and the chaos of the Syrian conflict led to rapid expansion for the group, and the establishment of an Islamic State and proverbial Caliphate. Scriptural interpretations prophesied an apocalyptic battle between Daesh and “Rome” after the establishment of the caliphate (whether “Rome” means America, Europe, “The West,” Russia, NATO, Turkey or, in fact, the city of Rome is a matter of debate). The initial strategy and call to arms of the group, or at least the one espoused through its propaganda channels between 2014-2016 was simple: come to the caliphate, fight for its destined victory over infidels. It would appear that Daesh asked, received and is losing this battle, as the limited territory they still control is hammered by coalition airstrikes and ground forces are pushing them back. The feasibility of this apocalyptic prophecy was rejected from the outset by military and international relations experts, but was nonetheless mobilized by the Daesh propaganda machine and embraced by foreign fighters and local recruits.

Today, the likelihood of their success in this hardly-apocalyptic battle looks increasingly unlikely and the future of the Caliphate appears increasingly tenuous. Now-deceased Daesh spokesman, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani’s, May 2016 speech notably encouraged sympathizers to stay at home to conduct lone wolf attacks, conspicuously shifting from previous messages encouraging sympathizers to come fight in Iraq and Syria. At the time, this change in messaging from ISIS leadership was interpreted as a strategic victory, representing tangible changes in ISIS strategy as a direct result of Coalition efforts to disrupt and defeat the group in the region. Unfortunately, what the group morphed into appears to be a far more abstract, and thus more resilient, beast.

Daesh is far from doomed, even if they are diminished and changing strategy. The recent uptick in terrorist attacks outside the Caliphate is evidence of the changing face of the group in response to military defeats and new territorial realities. This change reflects a terrorist group in disarray, shifting narratives and strategy as its capacity is disrupted. It also reflects a dangerous and unpopular new threat of Daesh-inspired, self-started attacks on global targets. Exposed and radicalized by the vision and propaganda of Daesh, individuals are taking it upon themselves to fight for Daesh not in Iraq or Syria but in Orlando, Nice, Istanbul and New York City.

There are two ways to tackle the issue of ISIS’s and other terrorist group’s campaigns of violent extremism: preventing extremism and preventing violence. Countering violence is a space reserved for security and police agencies dedicated to preventing violent attacks through investigation and legal surveillance. Countering extremism is a space for government, industry and civil society alike, where meaningful alternatives to Daesh narratives of extremism can be presented and stir dialogue.

Countering the onslaught of Daesh recruiting online is an insurmountable task. While the rate and quality of Daesh online propaganda is down, it will be impossible to ever fully eradicate it. In the United States, First Amendment concerns can disrupt the process of takedowns of such materials, and in MENA region countries there is a lack of capacity and engagement for monitoring extremist content by law enforcement and by host-sites such as, Facebook and Twitter. Once extremist content is left up for longer than three hours, it is virtually impossible to truly remove it from the Web. Response times are currently far behind that, meaning taking it down as fast as it goes up is essentially a fool’s errand. You cannot, and it is an impossible standard to bear. The Internet is simply too large, and security and surveillance services too limited. None of this is to mention the concerns that this kind of censorship creates regarding freedom of speech and expression. If it is impossible to stop the efforts to recruit attackers, we must turn to finding ways to discourage people from seeking out this material, and these groups, in the first place.

In this regard, government and civil society are also lagging behind. ISIS has become a global trademark, if a repulsive one. It has recognition, notoriety and its particular brand of brutality and barbarism is unfortunately a selling point for many potential recruits. It leans heavily on glorifying violence and self-sacrifice in the name of jihad to inspire self-started attacks, and as evidenced by the bloodshed of recent attacks, has done so with some success. Undermining this brand is key to undermining the group, especially now that the campaign to destroy their territory and “traditional” terrorist apparatus is tilting against them. If Daesh’s, or any extremist group’s, vision, does not compel individuals the concerns over them taking violent action in the name of that vision is rendered immaterial. Unfortunately, destroying an army and retaking a Caliphate is in fact a lot easier than delegitimizing an ideology. However, headway can be made.

Despite the fear that such a close call instills, the foiling of Ahmad Khan Rahami’s New York City bombings is a victory for law enforcement, and a defeat for Daesh. Obviously, any time lives are saved because a bomb is incorrectly detonated or located and defused is good news, but there is a larger symbolic victory in the foiling of this attack. In this instance, a suspect was detained alive and, most importantly, Daesh did not claim the attacks, or even claim Rahami as a “soldier of the Caliphate” as they have done with other self-starters. Herein lies an opportunity to undercut the jihadists, and one that has thus far been ignored.

So what is the difference between Rahami and “soldiers of the Caliphate” like Orlando nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen or the German axe-attacker, Muhammad Riyad? Each took it upon themselves to conduct attacks, with little or no coordination or instruction from direct ISIS leadership. In fact, all seem to have followed the pleas of Adnani’s Ramadan address to the letter. They opted not to travel to the Caliphate but to wage war at home, despite knowing that it would mean their death or incarceration. The only difference is that Rahami got caught before he could instill terror and violence. This difference is significant, and is being under-leveraged in counter-ISIS narratives. ISIS media agencies such as, Amaq have essentially said that if you are a successful jihadist, Daesh will claim you regardless of the link. If you are a failed jihadist, Daesh will ignore you regardless of your devotion.

That is a powerful hypocrisy that is not getting the attention it deserves. An individual apparently exposed and radicalized by jihadist and ISIS propaganda is only as useful to ISIS so long as they have the ability to publicly kill or maim. Once they are rendered unable, either in death or police apprehension, they are no longer worthy of the ISIS brand. Law enforcement, government, private enterprise and civil society would do well to ensure that this hypocrisy gets the exposure it deserves. Disseminating this narrative puts ISIS in a tough position in terms of branding. They can either be seen to be disloyal to their followers by abandoning them, or forced to stand by failed attacks and implicitly acknowledge their diminished capacity. Either way, it could be a powerful message to send to would-be ISIS recruits, letting them know that should they fail, they will be hung to dry the same as Rahami.

Note: the views and analysis represented are the author’s own, not those of the Mackenzie Institute. 

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Colin Baulke
Colin Baulke is a Canadian security policy student and practitioner. He is a post-graduate student at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He has previously worked at the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Quilliam Foundation.