Baghdadi's sermon - analysing the narratives

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.  

Al Qaeda's Western DNA

How do you spot an Islamist extremist?

It's not as easy as it sounds. Want to blow stuff up? Well, a whole bunch of ideology-driven crazy people want to do that, not just Islamists. Know a Muslim who believes it's their religious duty to grow a long beard or wear a long black robe that leaves only the eyes uncovered? They might just be extremely devout, and complete pillars of their (multi-religious) community. 

What sets a real Islamist extremist apart is the zealous need to embody the complete antithesis of mainstream Western society as an expression of an authentic Islamic world view. So, if most men are clean shaved, they feel it's a "duty" to have a free-flowing beard. The law in most Western countries says a man can only have one wife; they say you MUST have four. If society expects you to get a job and pay your taxes, they'll implore you to claim state benefits while you spend your days calling for the state to be overthrown. If most people's trousers come down to their ankles, they'll find an obscure religious ruling that says you go to hell if your trousers aren't cut off mid way down your shin. If politicians say civilians shouldn't be killed in war, the proper extremist finds ways to justify expressly targeting them as a sanctified strategy of war.

It doesn't take long to realise that if you are going to define yourself by always being the opposite of something, you are - by nature - intrinsically linked to what you claim to hate most. Al Qaeda - as the poster boy of Islamist extremism - exhibits this dichotomy most clearly. The organisation's stated aim is to fight Western influence (economic, military and cultural) in the Muslim world, while its very existence is a product of a "Westernised" world - not the tooled up response of a unsullied Muslim essence, as it likes to portray.

Al Qaeda's DNA is a Western product. Even while it claims to fight the West, its way of doing things is - at its core - very Western. This can be seen coming through in the group's use of very Western practices such as branding, off-shoring, sub-contracting and franchising. In many ways, al Qaeda was the ultimate example of a successful Western company (apart from the murdering) operating in the post-Regan/Thatcher era of deregulated markets, media saturation and globalised finance.

Letters written by Osama Bin Laden captured during the raid that killed him (a selection of which were published last week by West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center) show that, in the end, al Qaeda's Western DNA was its greatest liability.

The global franchising that expanded al Qaeda's reach led to loss of control. And, the brand that Osama Bin Laden had nutured through careful plotting was destroyed by the actions of late arrivals (in Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia) who wanted in on al Qaeda's mystique but didn't understand that the rest of the Muslim world were horrified by the slaughter of Muslims with the wrong views, and Western civilians. In the end, like many Western media companies, al Qaeda was feeling the world change under its feet, but it couldn't stop itself from losing its footing.

According to Jason Burke writing in the Guardian:

"They [the captured letters] show bin Laden still committed to a campaign of violence but so concerned by an apparent loss of support in the Muslim world that he considered a major rebranding of al-Qaida, to allow it to better exploit the Arab spring revolts.

"A month before he died, bin Laden described the Arab spring uprisings as a "tremendous event" but clearly felt that al-Qaida had been marginalised."

US News Business Correspondent Rick Newman explains how this happened in the language of simple, clear-eyed business reporting:

"Bin Laden faced the kinds of challenges many business leaders confront at key junctures for their companies... As more terrorist groups adopted the al Qaeda name, it created the ominous impression that al Qaeda was aggressively expanding. But the bin Laden documents suggest it was a fractious arrangement that was never likely to gel... He personally disapproved of suicide bombings and other terrorist operations that killed innocent Muslims, worrying that they could sully al Qaeda's image when carried out in its name. He tried to centralize control over all operations carried out by any branch of al Qaeda, but failed to rein them in."

The whole idea that there are Western ways of doing things and "Islamic" (or any other way) of doing things is only compelling on a superficial level. There are really only good and bad ways of doing things. By constantly pitching itself as the antithesis of the West, the ideological trend that al Qaeda springs from mortgages its own horizons for a fleeting feeling of "up yours!" satisfaction. In the end, though, it suffered the worst of both worlds.