The Crumbling Caliphate: Responses on Social Media to the Collapse of ISIS

Adam Hoffman analyzes the recent show of mass-surrender among ISIS combatants, as seen in Hawija and al-Raqqah, and how images of the defeat serve efforts against the organization.

Picture of ISIS prisoners distributed on Twitter.
Picture of ISIS prisoners distributed on Twitter. 

Recent weeks have seen the continued collapse of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’- the grand state-building project declared by ISIS in June 2014- as the result of ongoing efforts by the international coalition and local forces in Iraq and Syria to drive the jihadist organization from the territories under its control.  In July 2017, Iraqi security forces wrested control of Mosul, and in October they took over Hawija, a town in central Iraq that had been the last remaining ISIS urban stronghold in recent months.[1] Later the same month, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), together with a US-backed force of Kurdish and Arab rebels, seized the so-called ISIS capital of al-Raqqah, in a battle that they called a “defeat for the forces of darkness.”[2] The evolving online discourse on the dramatic turn of events for the organization that has lost most of its territory in recent months is employed by elements associated with the international coalition in their campaign against the jihadist organization.

The ongoing defeats and loss of territory, in particular the key strongholds of Huwija and al-Raqqah, spurred a wide-spread surrender of ISIS militants. More than a thousand ISIS combatants turned themselves over to Kurdish Peshmerga forces after fleeing Hawija.[3] This move appeared to follow the order of the local ISIS commander, who feared that any ISIS militants captured by the advancing Iraqi army or the Shi’i Popular Mobilization Forces [al-Hashd as-Shaabi] militias would be promptly executed.[4] A similar scenario played out in al-Raqqah, where 100 ISIS militants turned themselves before the SDF had completed the takeover of the city.[5] While the territorial rollback of ISIS had been underway for two years, cases of mass-surrender appear to be a new development, evident offline and in the social networks, which attests to the eroding morale of fighters and command-and-control difficulties on the part of ISIS leaders.

As ISIS lost al-Raqqah, images and clips were disseminated on social networks, showing hundreds of exhausted, defeated and humiliated ISIS prisoners, some hobbling on crutches, following their surrender to the SDF.[6] Such images stand in marked contrast to the organization’s fear-instilling iron grip on al-Raqqah since January 2014, which included mass public beheadings in the city's central Naim Square, and draconic enforcement of Sharia law (as ISIS interpreted it) on its residents. In one prominent tweet, US Presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk tweeted photographs of ISIS captives and wrote that “ISIS has lost nearly 6000 terrorists in Raqqa, then surrendered in large numbers. Once purported as fierce, [ISIS is] now pathetic and a lost cause.”[7] His tweet was retweeted 4,600 times and was ‘liked’ by more than 10,880 Twitter users.

Unsurprisingly, the mass-surrenders and the liberation of cities from ISIS' rule were widely celebrated on social networks. Photographs posted after the liberation of Hawija showed smiling men smoking and openly sporting packs of cigarettes[8] which had been strictly banned by ISIS.  [9] Another example came from the YPG, the Kurdish militia comprising the main contingent of the SDF in northern Syria, which tweeted from its official account the image of a woman rescued from the newly-liberated al-Raqqah tearing off the Niqab she had been forced to wear, and kneeling thankfully to kiss the ground.[10]  

Among those celebrating was a journalist from the north-Iraq region of Kurdistan, who was careful to distinguish between the radical ideology of ISIS and the religion of Islam: “#IslamicState witnessing collapsing of its own very ideas of the ideology of their copy of Islam, after [sic] loosing [sic] #Riqa.”[11] In other words, ISIS purported to present its actions as implementation of the pure and true Islam, when in reality its claim to Islam merely served to excuse the terror and violence it waged against civilians, including Sunni Muslims, living under its control. This approach is shared by both Arab and Western senior officials, most notably former US President Barack Obama, who repeatedly stated that ISIS is “not Islamic”.[12]

Various bodies affiliated with the international coalition have taken advantage of the recent events and use them to undermine the political legitimacy of ISIS and portray it as a failure. In the wake of the Hawija takeover, the Sawab Center[13] – a joint US-UAE venture for fighting the ISIS narrative online – tweeted in Arabic that “thousands of ISIS fighters are fleeing Hawija with their families, some surrendering.”[14] In a separate English tweet, the center wrote that “As #Daesh is repeatedly battered in #Iraq, the cowardly terrorists destroy everything of value before fleeing #Hawija”.[15] These and other tweets were posted with the hashtags #UnitedAgainstExtremism in English and Arabic.

The YPG also used the recent blows to ISIS to advance their political message, particularly in al-Raqqah. They launched a Twitter, Facebook and Instagram campaign under the hashtag #SDFfreedRaqqa. This campaign featured celebratory images and video from the newly freed city.[16] One tweet from the group showed the photograph of a female YPG commander waving the SDF flag in the streets of al-Raqqah, the caption calling it an “historic moment for humanity.” The image was retweeted by 400 users and ‘liked’ by more than 600.[17] Another showed a woman purported to be the last civilian rescued from al-Raqqah by the SDF, raising her arms to the heavens with joy.[18]

The ongoing collapse of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is evident first and foremost in the loss of territory. By the middle of October 2017, the organization had lost 87% of the territory it had controlled in Iraq and Syria,[19] an area estimated to be roughly equivalent to the total area of Great Britain.[20] Alongside the authentic display of joy from social media users, recent events also served the international coalition against ISIS and the Kurdish militias in Syria, who were now able to present images of victory in their prolonged war against the organization.  The online discourse currently portrays ISIS as a collapsing organization, whose men are fleeing the battlefield and surrendering en-masse. This is a far cry from the daring, invincible image it had cultivated only three years before, using the very same online platforms.



[1] David Zucchino and Rod Norland, "Iraq Claims Victory in ISIS’ Last Urban Stronghold", The New York Times, October 5, 2017. 

[2] Sarah el-Deeb and Zeina Karam, "US-backed forces celebrate fall of IS ‘capital,’ Raqqa", AP, October 18, 2017. 

[3] Rod Norland, "ISIS Fighters, Having Pledged to Fight or Die, Surrender en Masse", The New York Times, October 8, 2017; @LawkGhafuri, Twitter, October 11, 2017.

[4]  Rod Norland, "ISIS Fighters, Having Pledged to Fight or Die, Surrender en Masse," The New York Times, October 8, 2017.

[5] Elizabeth McLaughlin, "100 ISIS fighters surrender in Raqqa in sign that battle to retake the Syrian city could be winding down", ABC News, October 14, 2017. 

[6] @Raqqa_SL, Twitter, October 16, 2017; @DefenseUnits, Twitter, October 15,2017; @brett_mcgurk, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[7] @brett_mcgurk, Twitter, October 15, 2017.

[8] @YaserM94, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 15.10.17. 

[9] Morgan Winsor, "ISIS Beheads Cigarette Smokers: Islamic State Deems Smoking 'Slow Suicide' Under Sharia Law", International Business Times, February 12, 2015. 

[10]  @DefenseUnits, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[11]  @BasharMandalawi, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[12]  "President Obama: 'ISIL is not Islamic'", CNN, September 10, 2014. 

[13] For more on the Sawab Center, see Adam Hoffman, “The Fight against ISIS on SNS: The War for Hearts and Minds,” Beehive: Middle East Social Media, September 2016.

[14]  @sawabcenter, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[15] @sawabcenter, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[16]   #SDFfreedRaqqa, Twitter; #sdffreedraqqa, Instagram;  #SDFfreedRaqqa, Facebook. 

[17] @DefenseUnits, Twitter, October 15, 2017.  

[18] @DefenseUnits, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[19] @OIRSpox, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[20] Ian Johnson, "The rise of Isis: Terror group now controls an area the size of Britain, expert claims", The Independent, September 3, 2014.