The caliphate’s propagandists are digging through the Quran to prove that getting beaten back in Mosul doesn’t stray from the preordained plan.
- By Cole BunzelCole Bunzel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and the author of "From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State."
“Why has the Islamic State lost some of the territories under its control? And why has it lost some of its leaders?” This was the headline of an article published last week by a pro-Islamic State media outlet.
As its leaders are picked off from the sky, as its economic resources run dry, and as its prized “caliphate” slips from its grasp — Mosul likely being the next casualty — the Islamic State’s supporters are looking for explanations for why the tide of war has turned against them. The facts on the ground, after all, no longer support the Islamic State’s triumphalist slogan: Remaining and Expanding (baqiya wa-tatamaddad). How, one may well ask, does a group that projected such unbounded confidence, whose legitimacy seemed to rest on seizing and controlling large territories, adjust its message to less fortunate circumstances?
The answer is surprisingly simple: The Islamic State’s mouthpieces preach that this is a period of “trial” (ibtila). It is not that God has ceased to favor the Islamic State, for that is of course inconceivable. Rather, divine favor comes with ups and downs. It is God’s practice to subject His creation to trials and tests, as He subjected the prophets and the early Muslims before our time.
As a result, this misfortune is nothing to cry over. On the contrary, as the above article puts it, “we should … rejoice in God’s choice … to extend the period of preparation, tribulation, and difficulty.”
The Islamic State, however, only began offering such explanations reluctantly. As recently as April 2016, the group was still assuring its followers that all was well in the central lands of the caliphate. That month, despite having recently lost control of the city of Ramadi, its weekly Arabic newsletter, al-Naba, downplayed the significance of its losses. “The withdrawal of the caliphate’s soldiers from areas on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” read the editorial of the April 16 issue, “in no way means that its enemies on the ground … have grown stronger and more powerful than it. The reality shows that they are in a state of great weakness and, despite thousands of airstrikes, have failed to achieve decisive victories against the army of the caliphate.”
It was a month later when the group’s leaders publicly acknowledged that the caliphate was contracting. On May 21, the official spokesperson of the Islamic State, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, delivered a speech finally coming to terms with the battlefield setbacks. Partly because it was his last address — Adnani was killed four months later in a U.S. airstrike — his words have been memorialized in official and unofficial Islamic State media, reverberating in the videos, essays, and postings that have appeared online since. In his speech, Adnani introduced — or, rather, reintroduced — the themes of patience and resilience in the face of hardship. The Islamic State may be down, he suggested, but it most certainly was not out.
The key line, and the one most cited today by the Islamic State’s members and fanboys, concerns the true meaning of victory and defeat:
“Do you think, America, that victory is in the death of one or more leaders? For that is a false victory. Were you victorious when you killed Abu Musab [al-Zarqawi] or Abu Hamza [al-Muhajir]? Or Abu Omar [al-Baghdadi] or Osama [bin Laden]?… No way! Victory is for the adversary to be defeated. Or do you reckon, America, that defeat is the loss of a city or the loss of a territory? Were we defeated when we lost cities in Iraq and came to be in the desert, with no territory and no land? Will we be defeated, and will you be victorious, if you take Mosul, Sirte, Raqqa, and all the cities, and we return to how we were before? No! For defeat is the loss of the will and desire to fight.”
As Adnani said, and as numerous among his followers have repeated, the loss of leaders and land is immaterial to the Islamic State. So long as it has its will, it shall remain.
Significantly, while Adnani did use the term “remaining” (baqiya) in this speech, he did not pretend that the Islamic State was still “expanding” (tatamaddad), the other part of the group’s slogan. Indeed, the Islamic State’s propaganda has since then been heavy on resilience over expansion. This represents a return to the theme at the heart of the Islamic State for so many years: survival.
The desert experience to which Adnani alluded was the period between 2006 and 2012, when the Islamic State, then called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), was a widely ridiculed clandestine guerrilla force. It was amid these circumstances that ISI’s first leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, declared in a 2007 speech that the state was “remaining,” giving birth to the original slogan. For years, it was only the promise of “remaining,” not “remaining and expanding,” that served as the group’s slogan. The second word was tacked on only in 2013 with the attempted annexation of Syria.
In his speech, Adnani recalled the group’s time in the desert as one of “trial and testing,” and it is this idea that is again taking center stage in the Islamic State’s media today. The most recent editorial in al-Naba, for example, reminds readers of God’s habit of “trying the believers with misfortune and hardship … before God’s victory will descend upon them.”
Similarly, the previous week’s editorial centered on the apparently inspiring story of “the people of the ditch,” a mythical group of early monotheists mentioned in the Quran who “flung themselves” in a burning ditch rather than submit to the polytheists. The message, the editorial argued, was that the Islamic State’s followers ought to look at the present war “through the eyes of the people of the ditch.” Then they will understand that the struggle isn’t about “cities that we rule or a land that we roam about in”; it is a matter of “the religion that we seek to stand up.”
Yet the message really isn’t as downbeat as throwing oneself in a pit of fire might suggest. The Islamic State’s media outlets still preach about their inevitable triumph, even though the triumph might be further off than previously imagined. As Adnani claimed in his final words, the Islamic State is still promised victory in the long run, and in the meantime it’s still gaining strength, being “many times more powerful” than in previous years.
A variation on this theme emerged two weeks after Adnani’s speech, when al-Naba argued that the Islamic State was winning in a generational sense: It had reared an entire generation which would have to be wiped out before its enemies could taste victory. The same sentiment was found following the loss of Manbij in northern Syria in August. A popular essay published online, titled “We Lost Manbij but We Won the Battle,” argued that the Islamic State had “won a generation” to its way of thinking through its educational efforts.
The Islamic State’s prioritization of baqiya over tatamaddad doesn’t mean that it is eagerly awaiting the loss of the territories under its control. Instead, it is laying the ideological groundwork for such a possibility, and hopes not only to console supporters but also to inspire them to keep fighting by recalibrating its message. The goal is to urge them to give their lives for the Islamic State in its time of difficulty.
As for the current battle for Mosul, the Islamic State has not yet given up hope that the city can be held. Indeed, as al-Naba and other outlets have suggested, the struggle for Mosul could very well turn out like the famous Battle of the Trench, in which the Prophet Muhammad and his followers successfully defended the city of Medina in a drawn-out siege. As an essay making this comparison notes, it was at the Battle of the Trench, in the fifth year of the Islamic calendar, that the Prophet finally turned several years of misfortune around. Medina was besieged for a month by a broad coalition of forces far more numerous than the defenders, but the early Muslims prevailed.
To repeat that victory is the hope and dream of the current defenders of Mosul. Of course, they are unlikely to succeed. When the city finally falls and the dream fades, the long period of “trial and testing” will resume. If history is any guide, this is unlikely to be the last of the Islamic State.
Photo credit: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images