September 2, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Moves Into Phase Two

• There are indications that the so-called Islamic State is shifting into a second phase of its overall caliphate strategy, after the first stage of seizing territory in both Syria and Iraq this summer

• This phase can be considered the “hold/administer” stage, in that IS might be trying to lessen its negative reputation among the populations over which it has nominal control

• IS’s great success has come with greater challenges, as the group faces more and more armed opponents in both Iraq and Syria

• The group isn’t becoming more moderate at all—it remains barbarically violent—but it might be looking to avoid unnecessary ideological fights and tensions with civilians and rival groups as it prepares for increased US-supported opposition in Iraq and possibly Syria

• There is a big disconnect between what the group is doing on the ground and what its online supporters are pushing, with the former seeking to hold what they have and the latter eager to take on all enemies at once.

Now that the list of armed groups now fighting the so-called Islamic State (IS) is getting ever longer, the group appears to be shifting into a second phase of its overall “Caliphate” strategy, focusing on holding and administering territory it recently seized. Some of the group’s online supporters take pride in the list of the group’s enemies, with grandiose tweets such as the one below:

However, the group itself might be trying to tamp down on rhetoric and imagery in an attempt to, if not win more support, at least not instigate unnecessary fights with both civilians and other extremist groups.

There is recent reporting that IS has, in effect, chastened some of its more extreme commanders in Syria, putting a few under some form of house arrest. Most of the affected commanders are from North Africa, who are known for appalling violence and radicalism among the extremists, with few others from the Arabian Peninsula—there is no indication at this point that any of penalized are from Iraq or Syria. Among these are Abu Mus’ab al-Tunisi, former amir in Dir al-Zur; Abu Jafar al-Hatab, a Sharia law amir; Abu Sa’id al-Maghrabi; Abu Huwara al-Jaziri; and Abu Abdullah al-Maghrabi, a security amir in Aleppo. These commanders were said to have crossed whatever low bar that IS has for violence and instigation. In particular, IS arrested the Tunisian Abu Mus’ab for calling IS's adversary Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, an apostate or kafir, no better than the run-of-the-mill enemy of IS. This sort of personal attack on Zawahiri, who is still widely respected among global jihadis even as al-Qaeda’s standing has waned, has no up side for IS and plenty of down side, in that it alienates potential supporters for no reason. That IS would crack down now on behavior such as this suggests it is not looking for more enemies at this time. While IS online supporters might relish taking on the entire Middle East at once, tweeting sentiments like the one below:

leadership might have other ideas. Furthermore, IS has issued a new directive, “Order Number 7,” cracking down on unauthorized social media postings and photos by its members of IS operations and killings. The group had been somewhat disciplined in controlling its online messaging, but recent videos showing the massacre of over one hundred Syrian soldiers after the fall of Taqba airfield in Syria, and the apparent beheading of a Sunni Lebanese soldier, produced more negative reactions than positive according to whatever metric the terrorist/insurgent group uses to measure sentiment. Order Number 7 forbids the filming and distribution of IS “invasions” without express permission from the general council. It appears the group might have learned from the costly propaganda mistakes of its predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, whose love of the public violent spectacle put him at odds with Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaeda Central in 2005. Whether it can regain discipline in the age of ubiquitous smart phone cameras and social media remains to be seen.

IS will likely increase its social services in both Iraq and Syria in order to minimize popular unrest, in anticipation of coming battles with forces supported or armed by the US and other countries. By keeping its members in line, relatively, IS hopes to avoid blame for the inevitable civilian casualties that comes from urban fighting, and deflect the blame onto US/Assad/Shi’a/Kurds as appropriate. The gathering of regional opposition will mean the coming autumn likely will be more difficult than this passing summer. Here the disconnect between IS membership on the ground and in cyberspace is most stark: IS members and leaders know that the next stage of their strategy will be harder and longer than the first, while the group’s online supporters are still celebrating the victories of June and July.

Indeed, the only challenge of being an IS online supporter now is, ironically, dealing with increased spam attacks from anti-IS accounts such as the self-generating new “Abu Lahab” bot accounts, and appealing to Twitter administrators to block the spam (also ironic given IS
manipulation of social media).

The results of IS’ new emphasis on toning down the branding of fellow Sunni extremists as apostates, maintaining better control of its violent media image, and attempting to avoid increased public opposition will occupy IS leadership as much as the increased armed opposition it will face in Iraq and perhaps Syria.



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