Mosul, London, Tehran: ISIS Prepares for the Day After

Gilad Shiloach studies the means by which ISIS maintains the threat of terrorism in areas beyond Iraq and Syria, where it is suffering territorial losses.

ISIS poster disseminated on Telegram, June 2017
ISIS Poster disseminated on Telegram, June 2017‎.

Over the past two months, the media conduct of ISIS and its supporters on social networking sites (SNS) reflects the critical processes taking place within the organization, just three years after it declared the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. On the one hand, the summer of 2017 marks what appears to be the loss of the organization’s most important stronghold in Iraq, and the beginning of battles to remove it from the Syrian stronghold of al-Raqqa, which it considers the capital of the Caliphate. On the other hand, ISIS has enjoyed several significant successes outside of Syria and Iraq, with terrorist attacks mounted in its name around the world, particularly in Europe. These attacks show that despite its losses, the threat of ISIS has not dissipated; rather, it has transformed.

Eight months after the campaign to liberate Mosul was officially launched under the leadership of the Iraqi army, with the backing of an international coalition organized by the United States, it appears that ISIS recognizes its defeat. ISIS is now cultivating the narrative that the loss in Mosul is Allah’s test of his followers’ faith, preparing them for future successes, and that it was, from the outset, an impossible battle of “the few against the many.”[1] This was explicated by the organization’s leader, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a speech last November, and by its current spokesman, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Muhājir, in a recorded speech on June 12.[2] However, after months of fighting, the move that most powerfully symbolized the final renunciation of the city was ISIS activists’ explosion of al-Nuri Mosque in the old quarter of Mosul. The mosque, built in the 12th century, is considered one of the most important sites in the city, and was the location where al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the Caliphate in June 2014. Despite evidence that the mosque was destroyed by a controlled explosion, the organization denied its involvement, blamed the coalition, and published a video through Amaq News Agency that ostensibly proves its claims. [3]

At the same time, ISIS is facing another campaign that began in early June. A coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias, led by the Syrian Democratic Forces and supported by the US, are attempting to conquer al-Raqqa. The first days of the ISIS campaign against al-Raqqa were characterized by extensive reports by the Amaq News Agency that American planes were dropping phosphorous bombs on population centers in al-Raqqa, in contravention of international law.[4] Videos distributed by the agency show children and civilians allegedly injured by the bombs. The organization aims to convey the message that it is not the aggressor, but rather the victim, and that Muslim citizens are paying the price for Western aggression. Promoting a narrative of victimization is a familiar media tactic that ISIS uses to earn support from Muslims around the world and to justify its actions, including attacks against the West.

Along with the expected losses, ISIS has scored quite a few successes. The recent attacks in Manchester, London, Melbourne, and Tehran are part of a series of more than 20 attacks since June 2016 in large European cities that have resulted in hundreds of deaths, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, through the Amaq News Agency. Despite the fact that many of the attacks were inspired by the organization without its direct involvement, ISIS continues its media practice of describing the perpetrators as “soldiers” acting on its behalf, which helps position the organization as a threat to world security. However, there have been a number of recent events for which ISIS has taken responsibility despite a lack of any ideological connection, attesting to the pressure – even the despair – the organization is experiencing. For example, at the beginning of June, the organization claimed responsibility for a casino torching in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, which killed 36 people, and even reported that the terrorist was Abu al-Khir al-Arghabili.[5] The local authorities rejected these claims, and reported that the perpetrator was a 42-year-old Philippine citizen named Jesse Carlos, a known gambling addict, who committed the attack in retaliation for being barred from the casino a month earlier.[6] Another incident that casts doubts on the organization’s claims of responsibility occurred on June 17, when ISIS took credit for a combined attack by a squad of three terrorists at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, in which an Israeli Border Policewoman was killed. This was a unique event, the first time that the organization claimed responsibility for an attack carried out in Israeli territory. However, Palestinian organizations, including Hamas, rejected the announcement and claimed that the terrorists belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).[7] Furthermore, ISIS did not provide any concrete proof of its involvement in the attack.

ISIS’s decision to adopt these terrorist attacks stems from practical considerations and reflects an innovative approach propagated by ISIS: reliance on a virtual community that relies on Internet content for tangibility. This approach developed as the use of SNS grew. In the cases described, ISIS formulaically repeated the claim that the terrorists were “soldiers of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls to attack the coalition countries,” to bolster its status, adding these attacks to its general activity.

It is not without cause that ISIS continues its intensive activities on SNS, aimed at encouraging “lone wolf” attacks in the West. This campaign illustrates its expectations of continued attacks worldwide, whether directly or by inspiration. ISIS makes extensive use of its official magazine, Rumiyah, which is published in 10 different languages ​​(English, French, German, Pashto, Indonesian, Bosnian, and others), and the Telegram network for disseminating ideological content and practical guidance. Articles circulated by the organization on these platforms use the slogan “Just Terror.” This series includes detailed lessons on how to conduct stabbing, truck, and arson attacks, and how to exploit the lack of control over weapons In the United States to take hostages. A poster distributed in English and Arabic in early June on Telegram channels affiliated with the organization called users to “take advantage of Ramadan” to perpetrate terrorist attacks and stabbings (see photo). Meanwhile, the organization’s supporters unofficially use Telegram to assist “the novice terrorist,” sharing guidance and resources on physical fitness training, weapons usage, explosive device construction, behavior in interrogation settings, and more.

These efforts to encourage attacks on the West shows that ISIS’ significant territorial contraction does not mean that the organization will disappear, or that the threat it poses to the West and the Middle East will dissipate. It is likely that these types of efforts will intensify as ISIS has increasing difficulty achieving its other goals. This was demonstrated in early June, when ISIS mounted its first attack on Iranian soil, which was considered a great success. After terrorists infiltrated the Iranian Majlis (parliament) building and the Khomeini mausoleum, killing 18 people, Amaq News Agency published a video showing several terrorists shooting at victims inside the Majlis, while shouting: “Do you think we’ll go away? We [ISIS] remain here until Judgment Day.” This is the message that the organization is expected to continue promoting.

[1] An example of this narrative is the comparison ISIS has made between the battle for Mosul and the the Battle of the Confederates (“Ghazwah al-Ahzab”) ‎ also known as the Battle of the Trench in 627 C.E. in which the young Muslim community, under the command of the Prophet Mohammed, fought a large coalition of enemies led by the Quraysh tribe.

[2] “New audio message from The Islamic State’s Abū al-Ḥasan al-Muhājir: ‘And When The Believers Saw The Companies,’” Jihadology, 12 June 2017.

[3] Youtube, 22 June 2017.  

[4] Gilad Shiloach, “Syrians Accuse U.S.-Led Forces Of Bombing Raqqa With White Phosphorus,” Vocativ, 11 June 2017.

[5] James Griffiths, “ISIS claims Manila Casino Attack despite Police Denial,” CNN, 2 June 2017. 

[6]Richard C. Paddock and Felipe Villamor, “Manila Casino Attacker Was a Gambling Addict, the Philippine Police Say,” New York Times, 4 June 2017.

[7] Maayan Lubell, “No evidence of Islamic State link to Jerusalem attack: Israeli Police,”  Reuters, 17 June 2017.