June 25, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State of Fear

• Under growing pressure on multiple fronts, the Islamic State has reacted with more high-profile executions of alleged spies and potential tribal opponents, demonstrating that it fears the people it rules more than anything else

• Continued airstrikes will not dislodge the group but they do instill it with widespread suspicions of infiltration by informants

• As pressure grows, the Islamic State will increasingly retreat from its gentler propaganda that aimed to depict the group as a harmonious and functioning state, and revert back to its tried-and-true hyper-violent brand

• The recent videotaped execution of 15 alleged spies demonstrates just how afraid the group is of internal revolt through informants and potential Sunni tribal opposition.


As its fear of spies and Sunni tribal rebellion grows with every day, the Islamic State is returning to its guidebook, the 2004 extremist manifesto ‘The Management of Savagery’, in an attempt to cower and intimidate the people under its control. A recently released video showed the execution of 15 alleged spies, accused of providing targeting information to the United States and other intelligence to the Iraqi security forces. Even for a group known for its graphic executions and heavily-stylized propaganda, the most recent video is beyond the pale in terms of cinematic brutality.

The video’s target audience is not the lone wolf sympathizer in a faraway country, even though that is a bonus for the publicity-obsessed group. Rather, the target audience is the Iraqi people of Nineveh Province and across Iraq, whose continued fear and subjection the group needs to maintain. The Islamic State is a state of fear first and foremost, and terrorizing a population numbed by years of shocking violence requires a savage sense of innovation which the group unfortunately possesses. The Islamic State has turned cartoonish violence into real-life tragedy as a means of control.

Yet the state of fear cuts both ways, and the Islamic State is increasingly terrified of the people it claims to protect and rule. In Iraq, the group has not experienced the cascading defeats like it has in northern Syria over the past month. Still, the pressure is building against the group, albeit not as quickly as the coalition had once assumed or hoped. The Islamic State sees the chessboard and recognizes that offensives and mini-offensives are coming from Shi’a militia and the Iraqi army, with the added frustration of coalition air cover. It is within this environment that Islamic State fighters look around the streets of Mosul and Ramadi and worry about who is a spy or who is planting the seeds of Sunni revolt.

The Islamic State knows all too well the destructive power of spies and so-called ‘sleeper cells’, as these tactics have played an integral part in most of its successes, even predating the current iteration of the group. With defenses and attention guarding against the external threat, the impact of a relatively small internal threat is amplified. The Islamic State fears this as much as it fears airstrikes. It does not take much to destabilize a rigid system built on forced compliance, especially with external threats growing in such public and visible fashion. Though the group’s military tactics and propaganda are extremely flexible and resilient, its governance is poor and based on the lone principle of terror.

By increasing the level of brutality against its own people, justified with accusations of espionage or treason, the Islamic State hopes to kill its way to compliance and forestall or preempt serious internal revolt. This combination of savagery and an absence of any credible or capable opponent has propelled the group to its current situation. The rot that eats away at the Iraqi society and government most certainly remains, but the capability and determination of various armed opponents presents a challenge the group has not faced since it morphed from a purely terrorist group into a self-proclaimed caliphate.

The fear of spies and potential Sunni rebellion (or Sahwah), even if inflated, will monopolize more of the group's attention and brutality. As the Islamic State continues to discard its utopian mask and revert to its founding ethos of savagery, the people under its control will pay a horrible price.


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