Is ISIS Breaking Apart?


Jan 31, 2017

A family walks next to an Iraqi tank during a fight with ISIS militants in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Iraq, January 30, 2017

A family walks next to an Iraqi tank during a fight with ISIS militants in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Iraq, January 30, 2017

Photo by Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

By Charlie Winter and Colin P. Clarke

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Affairs on January 31, 2017.

With the Islamic State (or ISIS) facing setbacks in Iraq and Syria, most observers believe that the group is crumbling. Indeed, just last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” from the group. Evidently, the U.S.-led coalition tasked with countering ISIS, well into the third year of its ongoing military campaign, has made progress. As a result of efforts in Iraq and Syria in 2016 alone, several high-ranking leaders have been killed or captured, the group's finances have taken a serious hit, and it is hemorrhaging territory. Over the next few years, ISIS is sure to break apart further.

As it does, it will likely walk down one of two paths. In the first possibility, its disintegration could wind up giving more weight to the group's center of gravity, even as it becomes weaker overall. Alternatively, it could follow the example of al Qaeda in the 2000s and break down in a way that will diminish the influence of its core in Iraq and Syria while providing momentum to its provincial operations in such places as Afghanistan, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, and Yemen.

Some analysts, such as Clint Watts, see ISIS' splintering as a potential win for counterterrorism, especially if it results in what he calls “destructive terrorist competition,” a dynamic that implicitly subverts the group's ideology by pushing affiliates into provincialism and rotting the central core.

Others, such as Colin Clarke and Chad Serena, see the dynamic as more problematic, one that could possibly lead to the emergence of smaller, and potentially more extreme groups—thereby making an already long war even longer.

In this case, the example of al Qaeda may prove instructive. In the run-up to 9/11, al Qaeda had been a relatively hierarchical and cohesive terrorist entity. But in the five years following the United States' pledge to destroy the group, al Qaeda gradually morphed into a deadly hydra, with tentacles reaching out from North Africa into Southeast Asia. Its militants ultimately dispersed around the world, where some set up shop as franchise groups or affiliates, posing both logistical and legal challenges. To be sure, the center, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was left relatively weakened, but instead of now dealing with one monolithic entity, U.S. counterterrorism agencies now had to account for affiliated outfits in Indonesia, Iraq, Mali, Yemen, and elsewhere. Moreover, from a legal perspective, the issue of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was complicated by al Qaeda's spinning off into various groups, some closely related and others only tenuously connected to the core.

Needless to say, it will take time before ISIS's future trajectory becomes clear. But whatever is going on, we can be confident that the group does not want it broadcast.

The Media Metric

To gain a sense of how splintering has affected ISIS, we analyzed the group's media output—the propaganda it releases—over time. An examination of productivity, provenance, and quality can offer clues to how its metanarrative is shifting, how well its brand coheres, and, by default, how easily the group can communicate with its audience. In our pursuit, few insurgent movements have offered better opportunities for research. ISIS, after all, has been inundating the Internet with propaganda for years.

In recent months, the geographic scope of ISIS' media has narrowed.

Although ISIS' overall media output is ebbing, as a recent study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point shows, the issue of overall productivity is less important in this context than is where the messages are actually being produced. With this in mind, relying on a comprehensive archive of ISIS propaganda collected over the last six months, we systematically went through each of the organization's 57 media production units to assess dormancy levels, noting when a given unit last released a piece of media and what that product was. An unambiguous trend emerged: the ISIS brand is contracting. Indeed, in recent months, the geographic scope of ISIS' media has narrowed, with dormancy levels the highest at the periphery. At its height in 2015, no fewer than 40 individual propaganda “offices” were producing media. As of mid-January 2017, just 19 outlets were active. These days, the caliphate brand is associated almost entirely with Iraq and Syria, and regional affiliates appear to be becoming even more distant and disconnected from the core.

Although our media analysis shows that overseas franchises are still important to ISIS, it is incontrovertible that the core group is no longer reporting on outposts activity as it used to. To be sure, the Amaq News Agency, an official media outlet of ISIS, has taken on some of the international media load, but it is undeniable: ISIS actors in Syria and Iraq, which report on their actions and their actions alone, are bearing the brunt of the utopian branding operation far more than they were before.

In the self-proclaimed caliphate's heyday in 2014 and 2015, the group was much better at marketing itself as a supra-state insurgency. From West Africa to South Asia, its affiliates did not just adopt its terrorist project; they also incorporated its governance efforts. With varying degrees of complexity, the legal, juridical, educative, and propagandistic structures that had been developed in Syria and Iraq were transplanted abroad. Through its official media, ISIS stoked support around the world for its vivid unreality—the Salafi jihadist utopia—and presented a comprehensive and exactingly consistent picture of what life there was supposedly like. However, as its overseas output declined and would-be recruits were stopped from leaving, ISIS' international recruitment rate has collapsed.

Despite mainstream conceptions, propaganda was never merely fodder for international recruiters—ISIS also used it to coerce acquiescence over locals in the areas it claimed to govern. Indeed, no matter how weak its presence in a given territory was, it could always use propaganda to frame the diffuse insurgent cells as blossoming communities and inflate its ideological allure, thereby presenting itself as a far more resilient and successful organization than it ever actually was. When, for example, its siege of Kobane was broken in 2015, the group simply deflected its true believers away from Syria, directing their attention toward Libya to provide them with the momentum they so sorely needed. It mattered not that Libya, which is now all but lost to ISIS, was never the safe haven it was cracked up to be—through propaganda, ISIS supporters were duped into thinking it was an inviolable stronghold.

For all this to be successful, regular communication overseas was crucial. To harmonize the brand and keep the message uniform, there had to be constant daily exchanges between affiliates and the core. Propaganda cannot be spontaneous—the narrative must always hold, something that requires centralization. Through maintaining such constant communications in late 2014 and 2015, ISIS was able to bombard viewers with its staggeringly repetitive global narrative. Now, though, things are different. Indeed, currently, it is unusual to come across propaganda hailing from one of ISIS' affiliates in, say, Libya, Yemen, or South Asia. There are no two ways about it—the brand is localizing, and Syria and Iraq are now coming out on top.

The caliphate's apparent turn inward could have a great deal to do with the core's withering ability to curate the message. As any totalitarian organization would calculate, no propaganda at all is better than some propaganda that is off message. However, none of this means that ISIS is evaporating—rather, the threat is just changing. The overseas fans have not disappeared, nor have they given up Salafi jihadism. Rather, ISIS' core is simply focusing more on remaining and surviving than it is on expanding.

As ISIS becomes less cohesive internationally, it seems to be cohering better in core territories: Iraq and Syria.

As ISIS becomes less cohesive internationally, it seems to be cohering better in core territories: namely Iraq and Syria. Overwhelmingly, whether war- or utopia- oriented, its media output is reliant on those states. That said, its provinces still remain and, if things stay on their current trajectory, affiliate groups could one day come to compete for the “true” caliphate banner. Whatever the case, whether by luck or judgment, ISIS years ago opted for a model different from that of al Qaeda, one that would allow the group to splinter and still survive. Thus, at least on an ideological level, the center of caliphal gravity is able shift without much cost.

The Threat from Splintering

Whatever happens, as the ISIS core attempts to maintain its ideological prominence, it seems reasonable to conclude that ISIS will attempt to dispatch militants back to their countries of origin to conduct attacks. Doing so will help increase group morale and inflate an attenuated potency. As jihadism scholar Thomas Hegghammer (PDF) has found, foreign fighters who return home to launch attacks make far more effective operatives than do nonveterans. European governments, law enforcement, and intelligence services are already stretched thin on resources and plagued by a bevy of other issues, including a lack of information sharing and cooperation—thus the challenge is set to become even more formidable.

What's more, if overseas ISIS affiliates do begin to compete for ideological clout, “virtual planners,” who are believed to coordinate attacks online with supporters across the globe, will likely begin to operate from outside the core area of Iraq and Syria. In an audio message from May 2016, ISIS' now-deceased No. 2 Abu Muhammad al-Adnani foreshadowed the group's reversion to a guerilla insurgency as it continued to lose territory. Although this may seem counterintuitive for ISIS, more diffuse virtual planners would actually help cushion the blow of the degraded command-and-control core that would result from territorial collapse in Iraq and Syria.

Splinter groups can have different objectives and operating procedures from those of the parent organization, and the world will need to adjust its counterterrorism strategies to address these differences. The splintering of ISIS should be welcomed, as it is ultimately a byproduct of counterterrorism success. As the atomization continues, the coalition fighting ISIS must continue to pursue a multipronged strategy. On the one hand, splinter cells must be aggressively targeted through capture and kill operations to prevent further metastasizing. On the other hand, this approach cannot be pursued in isolation; rather, it must be coupled with efforts to promote good governance and reduce corruption in fragile states while building the partner capacity of security forces in the most affected countries.

Charlie Winter is a doctoral student at King's College London, and Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Both are associate fellows at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT)-The Hague.

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