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.  

The logic of influence in Syria

Fred Kaplan wrote in a recent Slate article on how events in Syria may play out:

"Even if our largesse did buy us influence, that doesn’t mean we’re influencing the right people."

The context of Kaplan's comments in based around a New York Times report that CIA agents are helping provide weapons to Syrian opposition fighters.

The whole idea of providing weapons to rebels in the hope of undermining an opponent and influencing the outcome of the struggle is probably older than war itself. But that doesn't mean it works. (In fact, if anyone has done a study on how often it deosn't work, Londonstani would be very interested in reading it). 

In this day and age, Londonstani was kinda hoping we'd moved past the whole "take me to your leader" approach and could come up with something that combines the best of politics, diplomacy and communications. Maybe, just maybe, the people to reach out to here aren't warlords, but the average Syrian. After all, the warlords are going to be seeking constituencies to wield power on behalf of in the post-Assad Syria. So, whatever happens, it's the Syrian people who will set the frame in which the future of their country is cast - whether good or bad. 

If there are international bodies out there putting together contingency plans, Londonstani's requests would be:

1 - Please do lots of research

2 - Please read your research

3 - Please don't put all you eggs in baskets owned by opportunistic gangsters (Syria has many)

Marc Lynch on strategic communications in Syria

Middle East expert Marc Lynch has a policy brief out over at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) arguing for more diplomatic pressure on Syria rather than armed intervention.

Two recommendations that caught Londonstani's eye were what Marc calls "counter regime propaganda" and "support and encourage unity amongst opposition groups".

On the communications approach, Marc suggests that an effort that would publicise the regime's atrocities to effectively disabuse supporters of the convenient falicy that the government is not massacring civilians to cling to power, but rather fighting a militant insurection.

Londonstani hasn't been in Syria since the uprising, but keeping in mind what he remembers of the media environment there, he suspects that Syrians who want to know what's happening are likely to be able to find out. What the regime is relying upon is the desire not to know. This may be because people have a personal link to the establishment, or a personal stake in the status quo (which could, but not necessarily, have an ethnic/sectarian element).

An effective communications campaign against the Syrian regime would start where all effective communications begin; figuring out what the regime is saying and trying to understanding what emotions/fears/hopes it's trying to tap into.

The most obvious regime line of argument - as seen time and again in other Arab states - is the claim of "Western conspiracy"and the appeal to Arab/national pride. Addressing, disproving and defusing this narrative is key. Marc's point about reassuring minorities that the fall of the regime might actually be a good thing for them, makes sense within this approach.

The point about the Syrian opposition could also be linked to diplomacy and communications. Yes, the opposition needs unity. One way to encourage that would be to leverage Syrian civil society groups, diaspora communities and individuals inside the country to press their would-be representatives to shoulder their responsibility more effectively.

Networks and counternetworks

Author Jonathan Liddell has been in Homs reporting on the Syrian regime's assult on the city. His dispatches - describing how medics and the wounded are being targeted - adds to the harrowing picture of events unfolding in Syria.

The printed edition of the Guardian has a side bar by Liddell titled: "How I made it into Syria undercover". Londonstani is unable to find this smaller piece in the online edition, so it's worth copying out a small portion of it for a little closer attention:

"The Ba'ath part and the mukhabarats (security agencies) - a grid that has dominated the life of the country for decades. Society had in these past few months put in place a counter-grid, almost as effective, made up of civilian activists, notables, religious figures, and, more and more armed forces... This counter-grid resists the other one, circumvents it and is even starting to absorb it in part."

For those interested in political activism or social change, the idea of identifying and connecting networks (or grids) is something that comes up time and again. Politicians running for office and writers rely on endorsements as much as underground urban music promoters in the UK rely on informal networks to get the word out and sell tickets.

There is often reference to networks of some sort or another in the thinking of activists from Martin Luther King to Gandhi to Omar al Mukhtar. While thinkers like Saul Alinsky have focused specific thought on identifying and connecting networks.

While a range of actors, activists and agitators seek to multiply effects by utilising networks, there are, in Londonstani's experience, two notable exceptions; al-Qaeda inspired extremism and Western public diplomacy.

At first glance, AQ seems to be all about networks and alliances; AQ in the Islamic Meghreb, al Shabab, utilising "lone wolves" etc. But all of those examples are tactical alliances with like-minded organisations. And, without a doubt, harnessing networks for tactical benefit has served AQ well. However, AQ is limited in utilising networks to accomplish its ultimate aim of world wide conflict by the rigid nature of its ideology. AQ is fantastic example of the "strength through unquestioning unity" school of thought, which means there is a very definite limit to how much it will allow its ideology to adapt or be influenced by the ideas or needs of potential allies, collaborators and the general public.

Londonstani, although not an expert in AQ ideology (you need to look to people like Will McCants or Thomas Hegghammer for that), sees the group's "Vanguard" ideology as rooted in the idea that effective action can only be accomplished by elite groups who drag the masses along with them.

Public diplomacy by the likes of the US and UK largely seems to avoid engaging with networks of civil society, media and business actors in places where they want to have an impact. (Arriving with an army to talk to rebels about how to help remove a dictator is not quite the same thing). However, one possible model to look at is the way international aid organisations like Oxfam, Amnesty and the ICRC spend much time and resource identifying those with similar aims to them and working them.

Either way, identifying, assessing and engaging with networks in order to make things happen is not the easy way of getting things done. But it is the most effective. If you don't think so, just look at AQ's (lack of) mass popularity across the Muslim world.