A couple of days ago, ISIS released a video of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi giving the Friday sermon in Mosul, Iraq. There has been a lot of discussion about the cost of his expensive-looking watch, whether it was actually him in the video, whether he cuts an impressive figure, etc. This, to me, seems like a sideshow. ISIS went to the trouble to film and disseminate the video. Even if it's not Baghdadi in the video, ISIS senior leadership decided to produce it with an effect in mind. That seems like a good enough reason to look at the narratives at work behind the video.
The Open Source Center's 2011 report on the master narratives of al Qaeda is still a good resource when looking at al Qaeda's narratives. ISIS might well be an offshoot of AQ, but it differs largely in tactics rather than aims. Also, if ISIS and AQ narratives diverged, that in itself would be interesting.
The OSC identifies AQ's messaging strategy as being built around a simple concept-note type framework; what is the problem, what should you do about it and what does success look like.
AQ puts it like this:
- "what is the state of the umma (the transnational Muslim community) and who are its enemies?".
- "what must Muslims everywhere do?".
- "What will victory look like?"
And the answers are:
- We are fighting a war on Islam. Our enemy is the West and its agents (puppet rulers) and the tragedy of the Palestinians is an example of what the West wants to do to all Muslims
- Muslims must fight to defend themselves, their lives and their honour. Early Muslims were successful because they did not fear self sacrifice and embraced martyrdom.
- The restoration of the caliphate will allow Muslims to walk tall once more.
Here's the video.
And, click here for an English translation courtesy of ISIS.
Even from a quick glance it's clear that many of the narratives are still there; a list of examples of Muslim suffering (including Palestine) are mentioned to establish the problem. Local leaders are denounced as Western puppets and apostates. Warfare in the name of Islam is promoted as the solution. There are also some familiar themes around identity; the Salafi-Jihadi outlook is referred to as the only authentic, self respecting persona a Muslim can adopt (this is linked to the narrative about Jihad being the solution)
The main difference between the messaging contained in the Mosul sermon and previous AQ statements is the change in tone. Baghdadi is in a position that no other modern Jihadi leader before him has faced; he's put an American-trained army to shame, captured territory and diplomatically hamstrung Western powers. In the past, leaders such as Afghanistan's Mullah Omar, even if they believed and were constant with the rhetoric of cosmic war, were speaking from a position of weakness or obscurity. Secular leaders (like Saddam Hussein) who hung like drunks to a lamp post to the rhetoric of Muslim pride and Western arrogance were obviously grabbing straws while facing down the barrel of a much more powerful military machine.
The difference is felt on the ground. Friends in the region said Baghdadi's speech reminded them of Nasrallah speaking after Hizbullah checked an Israeli advance into Lebanon in 2006. (The irony was not lost on my friend who mentioned it)
As opposed to Osama's empty threats and Zawahiri's tirades, Baghdadi casts Muslims as not a downtrodden people but a nation - represented by his caliphate - who are ready to extract their revenge. Unlike his AQ predecessors, he isn't looking for unrealistic concessions from Western powers but demands allegiance and assistance from Muslims across the world - his new constituency.
But it's about more than just messaging. ISIS has learnt how to synchronise its communications, military and political efforts for best effect. It makes sense that the group would use Sunni frustration in Iraq to cobble together an alliance to take territory. But to hold its gains, it seems to need to move quickly from a shaky coalition based on Sunni grievance to something bigger. The announcement of the Caliphate and the bold speech are part of that.
But that doesn't mean ISIS has got it all right.
- The group identifies Russia, America, Jews and all Shia on one side, with itself on the other. Would love to see research on this, but anecdotally, this seems to be taken as ridiculous by almost everyone in the region. In fact, many Syrians are convinced that ISIS is directed by the Assad regime. However, having said that, there have been for some time dark rumblings about Western, particularly US intentions towards Syria. If it felt the need, ISIS could try and push the idea that everyone is conspiring against it, but it is far from there yet.
- Baghdadi's calls for unity sound as if they are an entreaty from a man above the fray. However, many Syrians and Iraqis have painful experience that unity under ISIS means little more than compliance or punishment.
Like AQ, ISIS's weak spots are its inflexibility, extreme sectarianism and propensity for bloodshed. And like AQ, it gains support when it can claim to be acting to "save" its core Sunni community. As many commentators have said, in real terms the announcement of Baghdadi's caliphate may mean little, but the Jihadi movement has turned a significant corner and what remains to be seen is what he can use it to do next.