If you ever thought you’d see the day when people talked about jihadi networks the way they talk about competing cola brands, give yourself a gold star. Me, I’m a little shocked at how fast we’ve gone from ironically referring to Al Qaeda’s “brand” to unironically seeing Al Qaeda’s new competitor putting out an actual freaking marketing video (via):
Yeah, that’s a little weird, sorry. And look, I’m no PR guy or branding expert, but the title “The End of Sykes-Picot” is probably a little too esoteric for your splashy recruitment video. It is pretty splashy, with the chanting soundtrack (my Arabic isn’t good enough to make out most of the chanting, but “the establishment of the Islamic State” is in there, and something about “the dawn of the Ummah” I think), and the funny English speaking dude who really seems to be having fun! This is quite a contrast from the dour fundamentalist image ISIS usually projects. “Hey, look, we’re having a good time! We walk on old border crossing signs because we DGAF! All those pansy Safavids (a term that’s meant to be a derogatory reference to Iraq’s Shiʿa government and army) tore off their insignias and ran away from us! And now we got all this cool ass American hardware! Come have some fun with us!” The whole thing looks like the Salafi version of those old National Guard ads (come fly a jet for a couple of weeks a year, it’s awesome!), doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just me.
The message, that ISIS (although I guess it’s just IS now, “the Islamic State,” since we’re no longer limiting ourselves to just Iraq and Syria) is smashing borders and rebuilding the ummah, the one Islamic community as envisioned by Muhammad, will play with some folks, mostly disaffected youngsters I guess, but even that doesn’t strike me as a message with legs. I mean, there hasn’t been a single ummah politically since 909 at least, although you can make a case that the community was broken up with the Abbasid Revolution in 750, when remnants of the Umayyad family made their way out west, to Iberia, and set up their own independent principality there. Islam has been developing for well over a millennium around the idea that the Islamic community can be united culturally or theologically (and even there, not so much) without necessarily being united politically. The office of “caliph” hasn’t really meant anything to most Muslims since the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, and for centuries before that the Sunni caliphs were operating under the effective control of their military chiefs, usually Turks. So you’re really trying to gin up support for something that hasn’t been in vogue for a long, long time.
But still, you gotta have a brand these days, especially when the global jihad market is no longer a monopoly. ISIS is trying to recruit fighters and followers away from Al-Qaeda, and they’re social media to get their message to the youth. Parading all that new hardware in front of the camera is part of the appeal, but the bigger part is this whole name change and the declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “caliph.” Al-Qaeda’s formula for jihad, its brand, is a little stale now, I guess. It’s not that Al-Qaeda hasn’t seen a unified neo-caliphate as its end goal, but it’s always focused on toppling Islamic governments seen as too secular and/or corrupt (and attacking the Western countries behind those governments when possible), with the idea that you have to win the fight against those enemies before you go declaring a new empire or whatever.
But ISIS is building the caliphate as it goes, holding territory and even trying to govern in its own (mostly unpopular) way. That’s an exciting new jihad tactic, supposedly, and is helping to get the youngsters to fight under ISIS’s banner instead of Al-Qaeda’s. Of course, holding territory also gives your enemies an easy target to attack, and governing territory leaves you open to the whims of popular discontent (especially when your governing style is heavy on repression and execution as tools of state power), so ISIS has to be betting that the benefit it accrues from dramatically declaring itself the Islamic State will outweigh the fact that it’s painted a big bulls-eye all over itself by doing so.
What ISIS (IS?) is doing wouldn’t be possible if the alternatives weren’t all seen as failing on some level or another. Al-Qaeda is actually doing pretty well for itself right now, given certain definitions of “Al-Qaeda,” but Core Al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region is undeniably out of the terrorist game at the moment. Even though Core Al-Qaeda’s focus has mostly been on the near enemy (those unacceptable Islamic governments) over the years, it’s been the big attacks on the far enemy (9/11 being the pinnacle) that have made Al-Qaeda’s name, and when was the last time it managed to carry out anything like that? Ayman al-Zawahiri was humiliated last year when Baghdadi blew off his order to leave Syria and focus on Iraq, and it’s hard to point to any concrete success that Al-Qaeda or its franchises have had in the fight against the near enemy. Meanwhile, events in Egypt have shown young folks who are predisposed to orthodox Sunnism that the Muslim Brotherhood’s path to power (nation-based and political) is also a loser, because even if you manage to get your people elected they’ll just be overthrown and then repeatedly massacred by some authoritarian military dude and his “liberal” supporters.
So IS can really claim to be the only operation in Islamic fundamentalism that’s producing any tangible results right now. That might not be sustainable, but for now they’re certainly riding the crest of a wave.