The Manifestos of the Islamic State: Part I

By Eric Goepner

The Islamic State’s recently released Flames of War is a sleek, 55-minute video that has led some to draw Hollywood comparisons.  Watching the film, observing its production quality, and use of branding, a viewer might conclude it represents growing capacity for the Islamic State and an increased skillfulness with respect to public affairs and propaganda.  Alternatively, the viewer might detect substantial incoherence between ideology/theology, which can be viewed as anti-Western and backward-looking (to the times of Muhammad), and the tactics they feel compelled to adopt.  Their propaganda tactics mimic Hollywood while their rhetoric deplores the West’s decadence and the technology they embrace is only created in future-oriented societies.  Either way, directly consuming IS’s source material has value beyond what can likely be learned from secondary sources alone.  For the strategy and military-minded, reviewing IS’s primary sources helps actualize Sun Tzu’s dictum to know your enemy.

Part of the picture which emerges from their primary sources suggests a reactive, perhaps helter-skelter, organization quite concerned about what other Muslims are saying about them.  The Islamic State’s press releases, speeches and videos can be as specific as the evils of the Iraqi government and the need to expand operations in Diyala province or as general as “everyone is fighting the state.”  The oscillation between the specific and general seems to have less to do with purposeful vision and strategy than it does with their current fortunes and, more importantly, the actions of others.

Both Flames of War and another recently released video indicate IS is quite concerned the public affairs campaigns of other Muslim groups are having a neutralizing effect against IS.  In a move that defies the Washington injunction to always deny wrongdoing or failure, IS includes footage of other Muslims criticizing them on issues of religious understanding and practice (see Flames of War minutes 23-24 and 4:50+ in the second video).  After, IS interestingly follows this section with graphic video of their own battle dead, only to then include footage suggesting Allah has strengthened them and given them the victory.

A year ago, in a brief video purportedly from their spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, he railed against fellow Muslim nations, specifically Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.  Then, in July of 2014, Abu Bakr, the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, offered up more traditional propaganda, beginning with numerous quotes from the Quran, extolling fellow Muslims to be and do well during Ramadan, and so on.  When he did turn his attention to the threats that concerned him, he mentioned China first.  Soon after, his threat concerns spewed forth like an unguided brainstorming session:  the Philippines, Indonesia, the Kashmir, Burma, the leaders of the non-Muslim world—“America and Russia,” and on he went.  In all, he listed 19 countries as enemies of Islam.

Around the same time, their spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, released a 42-minute meandering speech via social media.  In it, he focused on the United States and Europe before expanding his critique to the Canadians and Australians.  Finally, he took aim at the alawites and Shiites.

As for Flames of War, it appears to be targeted at the United States and, perhaps, a broader western audience.  The frequent honorifics given to Allah and quotations from the Quran are gone, replaced with footage of American presidents and military operations.

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Next week’s installment will focus on the Islamic State’s recruiting message. On a related note, you might find Andrew Bacevich’s recent opinion piece on the Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV an interesting read.


Image Credit: Mashable

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