The number of foreign militants fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has swelled since late June 2014, when the violent extremist group swept across Syria, captured strategic territory in Iraq, and then proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph over a worldwide Islamic State with religious authority over all Muslims. The CIA publically estimated in September that more than 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries—including 2,000 Westerners—had joined the group’s operations in Syria and Iraq. Buoyed by a series of battlefield victories and a sophisticated media strategy—including dynamic online content, diverse social media messaging campaigns, and even apps and t-shirts—ISIL is already winning more recruits and financial support than al-Qaeda ever managed to attract.
While the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL undoubtedly requires international military action of the kind now being undertaken through Operation Inherent Resolve, it also calls for a deep examination of ISIL’s narrative appeal. Indeed winning the narrative war against ISIL is one of the Obama administration’s core strategic lines of effort, as announced by the White House on 10 September 2014. Ultimately, the success of the U.S. strategy to reverse ISIL’s territorial gains and popular appeal in the Middle East will depend in large part on the development of an effective counter-narrative strategy to combat the wider ISIL threat.
With this objective in mind, on October 22, 2014 Monitor 360 brought together a group of U.S. officials and non-governmental specialists on political Islam and the Middle East for an off-the-record interactive discussion about ISIL narratives, their resonance across the Middle East, and how they impact the strategy and messaging of jihadist groups worldwide. Facilitated by Monitor 360 partner Peter Lavoy, the discussion included expert commentary from Geneive Abdo, a specialist on political Islam and fellow at the Stimson Center; Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst and expert on Iranian politics at the RAND Corporation; Joshua White, Deputy Director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program; and Ellen Laipson, President of the Stimson Center.
The discussion explored how ISIL makes use of narratives—which weave together historical symbols, deeply-held beliefs, core grievances, and strategic objectives—to advance its agenda in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. Participants agreed that a thorough understanding of these narratives and their regional and international appeal is a prerequisite for (1) identifying passive and active sources of support for the movement; (2) anticipating and influencing the reactions of key regional stakeholders to both ISIL actions and those of the anti-ISIL coalition; and (3) countering ISIL’s attraction to potential funders and recruits.
What are ISIL’s Narratives and How Do They Diverge from al-Qaeda?
ISIL originated as Kama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999 and then formed into Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and participated in the Iraqi insurgency against U.S.-led coalition forces following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. ISIL retained many of the ideological tenets of al-Qaeda when it declared itself the Islamic State. But its narratives also exploit new grievances, especially those held by younger Sunni audiences, and contain different strategic objectives. The interactive discussion revealed four narratives where ISIL and al-Qaeda have some overlap in beliefs and objectives, but also important differences:
- “Fighting the Enemy at Home” — identifies the primary enemy of pious Sunni Muslims as incumbent Arab regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. In their perception, all regimes—whether Sunni or Shia—are considered apostate and fair targets for military action. Beyond this similarity, ISIL’s takfiri ideology makes its members more willing to aggressively target and kill fellow Sunni Muslims.
- “Fighting the Far Enemy” — identifies Western powers, such as the United States and the European Union, as villains that oppress Muslims worldwide. From a tactical perspective, however, experts noted that this narrative is primarily used by ISIL as a rhetorical instrument—potentially to boost recruitment—and that the primary targets of its current military aggression are regional rulers.
- “Glorifying the Caliphate” — depicts current territory held by Islamic State fighters as an Islamic Caliphate, which will return Arab society to the time of the Prophet. This narrative differentiates ISIL from other violent extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda, which never aimed to establish a caliphate immediately. Most groups have been conflicted on its necessity. This narrative leverages feelings of economic disenfranchisement and social exclusion of Muslim communities in the West to promote the caliphate as a place where they have a purpose and are part of a broader transnational movement. This narrative appears to be much more effective in driving recruitment than, for example, al-Qaeda’s call for suicide bombers.
- “Determining Who is a Real Muslim and Who Gets to Decide” — ISIL advances the notion that its caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has vast religious authority and can decide who is a Muslim. In practice, this means those who are with ISIL are Muslims and those against are kafir, or non-believers, and therefore subject to a variety of penalties, even death.
During the discussion, Ms. Abdo highlighted other key narrative divergences with al-Qaeda, including ISIL’s strident sectarianism and anti-Shi’a messaging, ISIL’s endorsement of violence against other Muslims, and ISIL’s focus on undoing the “illegitimate colonial boundaries” of the Middle East.
Why Are ISIL Narratives Gaining Traction?
ISIL’s rapid growth and successful recruitment indicates not only that ISIL is increasing in military power but also that its unique narratives are gaining traction in new ways with both local and foreign populations. The discussion revealed several underlying drivers of this phenomenon. Ms. Abdo noted that ISIL’s anti-Shi’a messaging resonates powerfully with Sunni communities in the Middle East because they worry that Sunnis—in their own local region—are at risk of becoming extinct as a religious sect. More specifically, Mr. Nader suggested that ISIL’s narratives are resonating with young Iraqi Sunnis who have never experienced adequate state services or stability, driving many of them to welcome the vision as well as the perceived law and order provided by ISIL.
In this respect, the discussion highlighted a potential vulnerability of ISIL’s narrative appeal. If ISIL forces are successful in taking and holding more territory across Iraq and Syria over the coming months, the occupied populations are likely to look to ISIL to provide the support and services that the Baghdad and Damascus governments had not been effective in delivering. Participants suggested that the pressures on ISIL to deliver food, water, and other services might become more intense among populations in areas under its control through the impending winter months.
Who Is Threatened by ISIL’s Narratives?
The traction of ISIL’s narratives threatens a wide range of state and non-state actors in the Middle East and throughout the Islamic world. Mr. Nader suggested that there are several prominent narratives regarding the rise of ISIS within Iran. The overarching narrative is that ISIL (which is referred to as DAISH, the acronym for the name of the organization in Arabic) is the creation of the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. More centrist political figures, such as President Hassan Rouhani, view the rise of ISIL as an opportunity to cooperate with the United States and other world powers in order to decrease Iran’s isolation. Conservative figures, especially within the Revolutionary Guards, believe that Iran’s influence in the Arab world—particularly in Iraq and Syria—provides Iran with leverage on other issues, especially the nuclear negotiations.
While ISIL’s appeal may unite Shi’a communities and catalyze the recognition of Iran as the primary leader of the Muslim Shi’a world, ISIL’s success will threaten Iran’s effort to become a pan-Islamist leader. The growing ISIL threat may give Iran a greater voice in Shi’a Arab communities, but the challenges it faces in healing relations with powerful Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, limit its ability to alleviate regional and global pressures on its security and broader influence.
Dr. White observed that some international jihadi groups, including al-Qaeda, already feel threatened by ISIL’s success and the growing prominence of its narrative. In South and Southeast Asia, ISIL’s impact thus far has largely been catalytic, with indications that local Islamist groups are encouraged by the apparent successes of ISIL in the Middle East. While these groups may not formally consolidate their operations with ISIL, they may well adopt the movement’s brutal tactics and narrative justifications.
What are the Implications of ISIL’s Narrative appeal outside the Middle East?
The global resonance and appeal of ISIL’s narrative to international extremist audiences creates a potent counter-recruitment challenge. Dr. White underscored that global jihadi groups may increasingly coalesce around three key ISIL narratives: (1) a narrative that gives precedence to the establishment of a global caliphate; (2) a narrative that rejects the legitimacy of the nation-state; and (3) a narrative that emphasizes anti-Shi’a violence.
The discussion concluded with agreement on the importance of moderate Muslims challenging the ISIL narrative in new ways that have a powerful force, especially within Muslim communities in the diaspora, and highlighted the need for the U.S. policy community to develop a strategic counter-narrative messaging campaign that can support and complement moderate voices in the region.
Monitor 360 is a leading provider of sociocultural and geostrategic analysis for government and corporate clients. Monitor 360 has produced over 40 Master Narrative Reports for the U.S. policy community to inform counterterrorism and messaging strategies for key foreign audiences.