May 23, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Message from the Islamic State

• In an audio message released May 21, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani made clear that the organization is preparing to revert to an insurgency

• Al-Adnani’s statement that the Islamic State does not ‘fight to keep territory’ undercuts the group’s current raison d’être

• As a self-professed caliphate, the Islamic State is fighting battles it knows it cannot ultimately win, including the upcoming battles for Raqqa and Mosul

• The Islamic State will survive and regroup as a clandestine terrorist organization, since the underlying conditions that enabled its rise have not disappeared. 


On May 21, after a day-long Twitter campaign to hype the occasion, the so-called Islamic State released an audio message from spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. As he has done previously, al-Adnani called for Islamic State supporters to attack the group's enemies wherever and however possible. Given last summer's string of attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France following the 2015 Ramadan message, it is likely that this June and July will see a spike as well.  

One new aspect of al-Adnani's now familiar stump speech was his announcement that the group would persist in its fight, even withstanding the losses of cities and leaders. His proclamation that the Islamic State ‘does not fight for territory' might be news to the people who traveled to Syria and Iraq precisely because of the group’s hold on territory. Islamic State propaganda showcasing the people in Raqqa who gathered to listen to the speech did not display their reactions to al-Adnani’s dismissal of the importance of losing the city. As the Iraqi military gears up to retake Fallujah before heading to Mosul, the pressure on the group is so significant that al-Adnani did not attempt to conceal it.

Still, it would be a mistake to read the speech as a muted acknowledgement of the group's imminent defeat. A more accurate understanding, given the history of the group and that of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, is a literal reading of al-Adnani’s words. The Islamic State's spokesman meant what he said; the group would suffer losses, but would return underground until the ground was ready for its return. Despite collective military action against the Islamic State’s strongholds, the vacuums, divisions, and tensions that fueled the group’s rise are as bad as ever. Pushing the Islamic State out of Raqqa and Mosul is a categorical imperative; keeping it out of the two cities in the years to come is the larger challenge.

Eventually, the Islamic State will arrive at the position that al-Qaeda has occupied since Tora Bora, and the Taliban since the fall of Kabul. Standing and fighting a vastly superior military foe sends terrorist groups aiming for proto-statehood into years of painful decline. Al-Adnani suggested in his speech that the Islamic State will not easily arrive at this stage of organizational acceptance, maintaining that Raqqa and Mosul were battlefields like any other. Of all its defeats, the December 2014 battle for Kobani might be more indicative of what to expect in Mosul and Raqqa than the battle for Ramadi. Kobani is the only instance in which the Islamic State remained at full force in a fight it knew it would eventually lose. 

If the group adopts the same scorched earth approach to its much larger capitals in Iraq and Syria, the fighting and loss of life will be significant. Even Ramadi, which the Islamic State did not truly contest, is a ruined city that will be ripe for the group's return in what will be years of unsatisfying recovery efforts. Given the so-called caliphate's emphasis on territory, the Islamic State will not likely walk away to fight another day as a military force. It will fight until it has no choice but to revert to a terrorist organization, as it has done repeatedly in the past. It is uncertain whether or not the group will attempt to become a clandestine caliphate when it loses Raqqa and Mosul, but it is certain the group will persist in some fashion.


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