ISIS’s Only Route Back to Relevance Among Its Supporters Is Through Attacks on the West

Faisal Al Yafai

ISIS may have faded from the international stage, but its leader in hiding still has hopes of a resurgence. Squeezed by the armies of Iraq, Syria, the United States, Russia and several other nations, the vast territory the terror group once controlled has shrunk to a sliver in eastern Syria. But Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, who has been presumed dead several times – and, most plausibly, was thought to have been killed last year when ISIS’s last stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria was retaken – suddenly released an audio message on August 23.

In the nearly hour-long message, Al Baghdadi admitted the group had suffered severe setbacks, but sought to give his followers hope and inspire them to continue. Crucially, he also outlined a new strategy – plotting a path back to relevance over the dead bodies of Westerners.

“A bullet or a stab or a bomb would be worth a thousand operations,” Al Baghdadi said, calling on ISIS members or sympathizers to focus their energies in Western countries rather than the Middle East. These attacks, if they occurred, would garner enormous media coverage, which would invigorate ISIS’s “brand.” Seeing the group as resurgent, money and men would flow to it, as they did before. In that sense, in a twisted way, ISIS’s strategy makes political sense.

It also has the conspicuous advantage of being low-cost, both for the attacker and the group. As Western and Arab countries have clamped down on ISIS sympathizers, it has become very difficult for would-be members to move. Gone are the days when a simple flight to Turkey and a bus across the border would take young men and women to ISIS’s “caliphate.” Now sympathizers are watched and detained before boarding their flights. By focusing on attacks in Western countries, ISIS’s sympathizers there don’t even need to leave home.

Moreover, as ISIS’s territory has shrunk, it has lost control of key oilfields, businesses and the extortion of civilian populations that allowed it to acquire cash. Funding spectacular attacks is beyond its current ability. But the low-level terrorism of knives and cars is easily achievable, and in highly populated centers it is particularly horrifying in its utter randomness.

For ISIS, this strategy of death is literally a matter of survival. It is only by staging attacks like this that it can hope to gain new followers – and only by gaining new followers can it defend itself against the Arab and Western countries, and in particular rival militant groups, that are seeking to destroy it.

Al Baghdadi, like the leader of any organization, is acutely aware of the status of his group and his competitors. In the audio recording, he addresses the shrunken state of ISIS. The scale of victory, he says, cannot be measured by the loss of any particular city or town – no doubt referring to the loss of their stronghold of Raqqa – but by “how much faith the worshipper has.” He is, in other words, asking his followers not to judge ISIS by its shrunken territory, but by its “ideals.” His audio recording is not only an attempt to rally the troops, but to stop them defecting.

Analysts tend to look at ISIS only as a militant group, or something close to a cult: a group of committed believers intent on bringing about a warped vision of the world. In fact, it makes more sense to understand it as akin to a fledgling political group or a small company seeking to defend its market share. As in both those scenarios, there is a core group of committed members, but a much wider circle of those who have been persuaded to join the mission through a variety of inducements.

In the case of ISIS, these inducements have ranged from the offer to be part of a group that appeared to be winning, to being around people who shared their ideology, to providing a second chance to those in need of it (it should be no surprise so many of ISIS’s members were criminals in their home countries who suddenly “discovered” jihad), to offering an opportunity to psychopaths looking to kill, rape and torture with impunity.

That is the reason why so many ISIS members have been revealed to know very little about Islam. They were not in it for their faith; they were in it for the rewards. Once those rewards were removed, they gave up or defected to other militant groups. Some will have decided that the “ideology” had been tainted, or they disagreed with tactics or violence, or simply because they were threatened, blackmailed or paid to join rival militant groups.

This is why militant groups like ISIS are simultaneously like political groups, needing to adjust their ideas to gain support, and also like companies, defending themselves against those who want to take their resources. Other militant groups, like Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which competed with ISIS in HTS’s earlier incarnation as Jabhat Al Nusra, would happily take their weapons, money, experts (bomb makers, military commanders and so on) and even public reputation (forcing a “merger” with ISIS or taking over as “caliph” from Al Baghdadi would be seen as valuable rewards in jihadi circles).

The only way to stop that happening is to grow rapidly again, and gain members and money. The publicity of terrorism could help them do that.

Squeezed and seeking to survive in the face of attacks and defections, ISIS has turned to a dark new strategy that it hopes will bring it renewed relevance. The fear is that there will be lone wolves in Western countries who will heed the call.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.