November 17, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Fear of History

• The apparent barbaric murder of American Peter Kassig along with 15 Syrian soldiers is quite unlike other Islamic State videos, in that it shows the group at its most desperate and least triumphant; its leadership is terrified that history is repeating itself since the group can’t help but be a self-devouring movement

• Al-Baghdadi’s recent audio message demonstrates this concern, as he stresses the fight is against Shi’a but then enjoins new affiliates in Sunni-majority countries to attack Sunni-led governments, adding more evidence that the group can’t moderate its fighters (half of whom are hyper-violent foreign fighters that further fuel local hatred of the group)

• The group has abandoned its disciplined messaging and is now throwing the rhetorical equivalent of the kitchen sink at both its supporters and opponents

• Despite al-Baghdadi’s claims that the Islamic State’s fight is against Shi’a, the group has killed more Sunnis than Shi’a since its rise to power and prominence in June

• From Kirkuk to Mosul, al-Anbar to Kobani, the group has massacred any potential opponent to terrify organized resistance, a strategy that will work until it suddenly and permanently doesn’t

• The “Hold and Govern” stage the group now faces because of increasingly effective opposition from both the regional and international coalition and the Iraqi army presents only disaster for the group, since the more it interacts with locals, the more its true nature asserts itself; thus, al-Baghdadi is stressing the new affiliates as a way to break out of tailspin.


History will show that the ending of the Islamic State didn’t begin with a bang or a whimper but rather a rant. The Islamic State remains a potent foe, especially to the millions suffering under its rule in Syria and Iraq, but the group appears disjointed and off-balance. It can’t help but be itself, and its indiscriminate killing of Sunnis, whom the group professes to protect and represent, is allowing history to repeat. The group is terrified of popular revolt among those Sunnis.

This fear was clearly heard in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s November 13 bombastic but scattershot audio message, in which he tried to assure supporters and opponents alike that the group’s main fight is with Shi’a. This is straight out of Islamic State’s playbook, where it maintains some level of tacit support among Sunnis by railing against divisions with Shi’a. However, the facts are overwhelming Baghdadi’s narrative, and no amount of disjointed rhetoric can change them:

Two mass graves containing the bodies of at least 300 members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe of al-Anbar Province were uncovered last week, providing more evidence of Islamic State atrocities against non-Shi’a populations. There are likely hundreds more bodies still unaccounted for in mass graves.

The Islamic State killed at least 500 members of the Sunni al-Shaytat tribe in Dir al-Zur, Syria, in late August, in an attempt to stave off possible insurrection.

Between September 3-7 in Mosul, the group executed 63 Sunni civilians (including three women) after trumped up convictions in Shari’a courts.

In its September report, the United Nations confirmed that between June 1 and August 30, at least 4,692 civilians were killed, and another 6,467 wounded —the majority of whom were Sunni and killed by the Islamic State.

The UN has further verified that the group destroyed at least 14 Sunni shrines and cemeteries just in the areas surrounding Mosul, with many more likely destroyed in Syria and other regions of Iraq.

Because of the box that the group now finds itself in—hemmed in on all sides by Kurds, the Iraqi army, Assad’s military, and, above all, increasingly effective U.S. air power—the group can’t conduct attacks against Shi’a outside of VBIED (vehicular-born improvised explosive device) attacks in Baghdad that kill as many Sunni as Shi’a, leaving the group to sate its bloodlust against the Sunni populations whose support the group needs and is subsequently losing.

During his audio message, Baghdadi for the first time attempted to shift attention away from the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria and towards announcements of allegiance by groups in Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt’s Sinai. He urged the groups to first focus on Shi’a, though from all the countries that he mentioned, that can only be done in Yemen and to a lesser degree in Saudi Arabia because of their Shi'a populations. Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt's Sinai do not have sizable Shi'a populations. So despite the anti-Shi’a slant, even the group’s new affiliates will be attacking Sunnis much more so than Shi’a since the majority of their home populations are Sunni. Moreover, the House of Saud is the symbol of Sunni power, and attacking it does not further the Sunni/Islamic State vs. Shi’a message Baghdadi wants to stress. And more so than in previous messaging, Baghdadi worked in more anti-Semitic language, in what will prove to be another failed attempt to win Sunni support. He largely ignored Iraq and Syria in favor of attacking the straw man of an international Western-Jewish cabal that has no bearing on the daily atrocities facing Sunnis under Islamic State control.

This leaves the group with the hope that an increased U.S. military ground presence in Iraq will provide a common enemy that Sunnis can rally around or at least reduce the rate at which the Islamic State is gaining enemies. The barbaric video announcing U.S. citizen Peter Kassig and 15 Syrian soldiers’ deaths, was very different than earlier videos of this ilk, in that it shows the actual murder (at least of the soldiers) and all but “Jihadi John” were unmasked and apparently selected from various countries, to include southeast Asia and the Caucasus. By showing their faces, the executioners are apparently unconcerned about returning to their home countries. With this video, the Islamic State is trying to provoke additional U.S. ground involvement and also incite the most murderous of its members, which in the long-term will prove the group’s undoing. When Baghdadi says the U.S. will “be forced to come down to the ground and send their [sic] ground forces to their death and destruction,” he is not so much taunting as he is pleading. He knows that as the Sunni death toll rises, the Islamic State needs to escape from the box in which it finds itself trapped, as well as its inherent compulsion to destroy itself.


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