Although they burst into our collective consciousness a very short time ago, media outlets refer to them as if they have been around forever. And ISIS manages to grab headlines by committing increasingly grisly acts of terror, preferably on camera. In the span of a few months, they managed to eclipse Al Qaeda and became the face of the Salafist movement. And it is an ugly face. Unfortunately for Muslims, now, it is also the face of Islam in the West.
But what do we know about them and how do we explain their success?
There is no doubt that, at the rank and file level, they have bloodthirsty idiots who are willing to do anything to belong. A lot of them are second generation Muslims who live in Western societies.
There are estimated to be about 3,000 citizens from Western countries currently fighting for IS in Iraq and Syria, the London-based Royal United Service Institute (Rusi) says.
According to Rusi, the majority are believed to be from the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France and the Nordic nations.
The UK government says up to 400 British nationals are fighting alongside militant groups.There are even some converts from very unlikely places. The rest is composed of unhappy Jihadis from Saudi Arabia, North Africa and the Gulf region.
Unhappy Jihadis and misfits from all over the place is nothing new, you might say. That covers just about all Jihadi terrorist organization. True that.
But when you look beyond the idiots who commit atrocities on camera, you see an organization unlike any other in the Salafist terror universe.
At the top the organization is the self-declared leader of all Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a radical chief executive officer of sorts, who handpicked many of his deputies from among the men he met while a prisoner in American custody at the Camp Bucca detention center a decade ago.
He had a preference for military men, and so his leadership team includes many officers from Saddam Hussein’s long-disbanded army.
Note the management and corporate terminology..They include former Iraqi officers like Fadel al-Hayali, the top deputy for Iraq, who once served Mr. Hussein as a lieutenant colonel, and Adnan al-Sweidawi, a former lieutenant colonel who now heads the group’s military council.
But the New York Times piece that implies that al-Baghdadi recruits former Saddam generals to work for him is based on the claims of a single individual. What is more accurate is that ISIS and former Baath Party senior leaders are in an alliance. And the latter are in senior management positions. This is from Foreign Policy.
U.S. officials have been closely tracking the Islamist-Baathist alliance for months. Almost as soon as Mosul fell, on June 10, it was obvious that JRTN forces had been waiting for their arrival. Reports from the scene said ISIS fighters quickly disappeared and were replaced with armed men loyal to the Baathists and former generals. The group already held sway in key Iraqi cities, including in Tikrit, which fell on June 11. But Mosul was the real prize, and a key strategic point because it's a historic seat of power for the ruling Sunni elites who want Maliki gone.
I already mentioned how Mosul was a military joint venture. We now know that governance was also left to senior Baath Party folks.
After taking the city, the Islamic State, then known as ISIS, installed a Baathist and former Iraqi army general, Azhar al-Obeidi, as the new governor. And another former general, Ahmed Abdul Rashid, was named governor of Tikrit, where he has been credited with leading an ISIS-Baathist defense against the Iraqi Army, analysts said. ISIS's new allies were an ideal political face for their occupation. JRTN's leaders "have a long history of running Iraq, so it just feels right and natural to the people that they should be in charge," said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
I want you to appreciate this fully.
Islam is a religion based on orthopraxy as opposed to orthodoxy. The term was coined by Karen Armstrong in her excellent book on Islam. It means purity of practice is more important that purity of doctrine.
Accordingly, the Salafist movement is about returning to the origins of Islam (i.e. to the first Muslims) and emulate their actions and behavior to recover their purity of practice. (Salaf means predecessor in Arabic, just as khilaf, from which Caliph (khalifa) is derived, means successor).
ISIS claims to be the purest, the most authentic of Salafist groups, i.e. the one closest to the actions of early Muslims.
Yet, not only does ISIS work in very close cooperation with former Saddam officials, it is also a hypermodern organization that operates like a multinational marketing and media company. It employs a large group of highly skilled media and computer professionals to conduct a media-savvy marketing campaign.
Let's start with the movie business.
Did you know that ISIS has been making feature length movies?
ISIS Film Studio
I am not referring to their gory YouTube stuff. I am talking about Hollywood style epics like The Clanging of the Swords IV (no link from me to those idiots, besides it is no longer on YouTube).
And yes, the IV is a node to the Hollywood tradition to sequels. This one is the fourth in the series, apparently. The film contains scenes that are a hat tip (homage?) to Hollywood action blockbusters.
The shot on the left is from Zero Dark Thirty. You know, the termination of Bin Laden with extreme prejudice. The one on the right is from the ISIS studios.
And there is this one.
If it was not marked clearly on each image, would you have guessed ISIS frame correctly?
Swords IV was made by professional film-makers, al-Janabi also claims – and independent observers think he might be right. "The official Isis operation released photos of them filming – and it's all on equipment that we use at Vice," says Vice journalist Aris Roussinos, who reports extensively on both jihadists and their online activity. "It's high-quality equipment that they're actually very technically skilled at using, in a way that the other rebels aren't. They're also really good at Photoshop."ISIS Marketing and Advertising Department
Take a look at this recruitment poster. Have you seen anything like this from any other Jihadi organization?
This is far removed from the crude 72 virgins marketing.
They know their market (disaffected youth in the West and the East desperate to belong) and they offer them a purpose in this world and salvation in the next.
They are offering a redemption.
And as it befits their target market, their visuals emulate video games and action movies, as you can see in that picture.
There is more.
Do you remember the speed with which they achieved name recognition?
They came out of nowhere with their terrifying videos and within weeks they were the best known terror syndicate in the world, rivaling even the mother of all terror syndicates, the Al Qaeda.
And then, they swiftly changed their brand name to IS and now every news organization dutifully uses this to report on them. This is one of the most successful re-branding operations I can think of.
Developing Special Apps and Working Twitter
Vice is Montreal-based news organization with an unorthodox approach. They send fearless young reporters to scary regions to do in depth interviews with locals. The format is more short documentaries than straight news.
A couple of months ago they reported that ISIS made its debut on Twitter and made a huge splash very quickly. They had 67,000 tweets on their first week and soon they began reaching a much larger group.
Right away, they developed an Android application called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which allows them to be very prolific on Twitter.
In April 2014, the group developed a free internet application called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which automatically posts tweets - approved by Isis media managers - to the accounts of the application's subscribed users.
The posts include hashtags, links, images, videos and other content. Almost 40,000 tweets were posted in a single day during the recent clashes in Iraq.40,000 tweets by the ISIS idiots in one day. Just this figure tells you how media-savvy these bloodthirsty terrorists are.
Moreover, the Dawn of Glad Tidings is designed to use third party Twitter accounts to make blocking their message next to impossible. The tweets are automatically picked up and re-tweeted.
Twitter has been trying very hard to get rid of ISIS propaganda material and so far their success was limited. There are many young idiots in Saudi Arabia or in the Gulf region wha were eager to install this app to allow ISIS spread its message of terror.
Moreover, when YouTube and FaceBook started removing offensive materials, ISIS management channeled their marketing effort to a decentralized network called Diaspora. I knew of Diaspora because I read up on IT stuff everyday. But most people have never heard of this completely decentralized social network. It was created just a couple of years ago by four students in New York using crowd-funding from KickStarter. As a decentralized network with no central server, it is simply impossible to stop ISIS from spreading its marketing material.
(ISIS and Diaspora, yes, I am aware of the irony. And it is multifaceted.)
This nimble shift and in-depth knowledge of social media and high technology shows that ISIS is in a whole different league.
[A]nalysts reckon no other group has as sophisticated a grasp of social media as Isis. Members of one of Isis's main Sunni rivals in Iraq – the Ba'ath party-linked Naqshbandi – are more likely to upload their leaders' speeches to YouTube, "and I don't think anybody pays any attention to that stuff", says Zaid al-Ali, the author. Over the border in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra has a more nuanced approach, and may even have similar numbers of online supporters. But when JM Berger analysed their respective performances in February, he discovered that Isis-linked hashtags received up to four times as many mentions as those promoting Jabhat al-Nusra.
"Jabhat al-Nusra have been outclassed and outcompeted by Isis on every level – on the battlefield, and in the battle of media operations," concludes Vice's Aris Roussinos. "Either they've got fewer resources – or they're less in tune with the modern world in a way that Isis doesn't seem to be."Which, once again, begs the following question.
How Salafist Can You Be on Twitter?
Others wondered about this as well.
Isis want the people living in the lands they now control to return to the ultraconservative traditions that – they claim – the earliest Muslims lived by. Yet this regressive goal is accompanied by a hypermodern propaganda machine that sees Isis's sadistic attacks promoted by a slick social media operation, a specially designed app – and well-made videos like The Clanging of the Swords IV.My take is that the presumed cognitive dissonance is not real.
An Australian ad executive once suggested that marketing and religion overlap almost entirely. She offered eleven point: Grandeur, Vision, Enemy, Storytelling, Mystery, Belonging, Evangelism, Rituals, Symbols and Sensory appeals.
Which means that the senior management knows what they are doing and the rank and file idiots eat it up. In fact, the message is directed not only to them but to all the disaffected second generation Muslims around the world.
And sadly, it is working.
A Word on ISIS Material
As you know I am not a moralist. But if you are as repulsed by the atrocities of ISIS foot soldiers as I am, you should not look at their clips, or better yet, you should not share them with your friends. Doing so helps their marketing machine.
I was quite sickened by the fact that the Foley beheading video went viral within hours. Several friends of mine sent me links and I could see that the video was popping up everywhere. My friends meant well as they were horrified and they wanted me to see how horrible "those people" are. But watching the video would be like collaborating with the band of idiots formerly known as ISIS, since this is exactly what they want us to do.
Finally, if you want to know the issues surrounding Jim Foley's capture (along with another American journalist by the name of Austin Tice), read this very informative piece.