Foreign Policy Essay

Fitna, a Failed Coup and a Squandered Opportunity to Undermine the Islamic State’s ‘Intangible Power’

By Michael S. Smith, II
Sunday, March 24, 2019, 9:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The Islamic State seeks to project an image of strength, and that image has attracted many followers. In the past few years, the above-ground caliphate has collapsed and infighting is growing, but the group still stresses its prowess and leadership in its propaganda. Michael Smith II, a terrorism analyst who specializes in jihadist influence operations, calls for the United States to exploit the Islamic State’s internal dissent in its own counter-propaganda, playing up these divisions to further weaken the group.

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Since 2014, digital propaganda has been the most powerful tool of the Islamic State’s worldwide recruitment and incitement campaign. Like all propaganda, official Islamic State media that has been proliferated online to support its campaign glorifies the group’s supposed successes and omits information about many of the serious setbacks the group has encountered. This has enabled the Islamic State to engineer an image of strength and durability, and therefore worthiness of support—including in the form of terrorist attacks perpetrated in the West. For professionals working to combat the persuasive effects of terrorist propaganda, the information that terrorist groups like the Islamic State omit can be a tool used against them, especially if it might diminish their self-aggrandizing narratives.

Recently, journalists covering the campaign against the Islamic State’s remaining overt presence in eastern Syria learned of an extraordinary development last year that was conspicuously absent from the group’s propaganda: a failed coup attempt. Witnesses who escaped the Islamic State’s remaining territory have told coalition forces that some of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters rose up against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in September 2018, touching off several days of fighting among jihadis. The battle was so intense that Kurdish and other forces combating the Islamic State were able to discern its cause. Yet information about this incident, which could have been used to help counter the group’s online influence operations—perhaps even degrade cohesion within the Islamic State’s international organization—did not emerge in the open-source environment until months later.

If reporting on an attempt made by Islamic State members to kill Baghdadi is accurate, the Islamic State did a remarkable job of suppressing external communication about the situation by its membership. There was neither an effort to spin information about the matter within the Islamic State’s official propaganda, such as by touting the group’s success in thwarting the plot, nor was there significant online “chatter” about the matter.

It appears a strategic decision was made to prevent sharing any information about the plot. There has been a distinct absence of information about the coup attempt in spaces of the cyber domain where Islamic State members and enthusiasts have remained active, such as restricted-access Telegram channels and chatrooms. This silence, even in relatively safe communication channels, suggests group members were concerned that awareness of this development could adversely affect ongoing efforts to build and reinforce support for the group online. Certainly, if shared by actual group members, details about this development may have simultaneously undermined confidence in Baghdadi’s leadership among the Islamic State’s affiliates in such places as the Sinai Peninsula, West and East Africa, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Philippines.

The precise timing of the failed coup that reportedly occurred last September is unclear. However, we know that Baghdadi and the group’s spokesman, Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, released two messages around this time. Despite the prolific production of propaganda by the Islamic State, which has vastly exceeded that of other Salafi-jihadi groups in recent years, addresses by Baghdadi are rare.

The first message, from Baghdadi himself, was released on August 22, 2018, shortly before the coup attempt. It is possible that Baghdadi and his allies had some foreknowledge of the plot, in which case his address may have been meant to assure parties with knowledge of the plan that he remained in control and perhaps even to deter people from moving against him. In the preamble of his address, Baghdadi warned against division, saying, “[O]ur Lord forbade us and warned us against differing and becoming divided.” He also railed against the corrupting effects of fitna, or internal fighting, which he described as a tool that is empowering the so-called enemies of Islam to thwart the Islamic State’s efforts to restore a caliphate. The message emphasized the importance of remaining steadfast in a unified effort to combat “un-Islamic” influence, to which he attributes divisiveness in the Muslim world that has undermined Salafi-jihadis’ decades-long efforts to restore a caliphate.

The subsequent message from Muhajir, released in late September, could have been a signal that the effort to oust Baghdadi failed. Coming on the heels of Baghdadi’s address, the timing of Muhajir’s message indicates that the Islamic State’s leadership thought it was necessary for a figure who presumably had knowledge of Baghdadi’s status to make a public comment. A second address by Baghdadi in such a short time frame would have raised questions, but he and his proxies may have felt that a message from Muhajir could help reassure their base that no leadership changes had occurred. Without addressing the coup attempt and other setbacks, such as the group’s ongoing territorial losses in Syria, Muhajir touted the Islamic State’s recent attack in Iran. By trumpeting this particular example of success in the group’s global jihad, Muhajir was striving to reinforce confidence in Baghdadi’s leadership among Islamic State members who remained entrenched in an intensely sectarian conflict in Syria. Just as it did with attacks in Tehran in 2017, the Islamic State was using the September 24, 2018, attack that targeted an Iranian military parade in Ahvaz as a propaganda tool to help distinguish Baghdadi from his rivals, such as Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom Islamic State propagandists have painted as a puppet of the Iranian regime. Muhajir’s concluding remarks returned to a theme of Baghdadi’s recent address, reiterating the call for Islamic State members to remain steadfast.

Concerns about fitna are nothing new in jihadi, or even broader Islamic ideology. There are traditions spanning Islam’s history that encourage cohesiveness among the faithful and prohibit internal conflict.

Proscribing fitna sends a message to consumers of Salafi-jihadi propaganda. For the Islamic State, that intended audience includes prospective recruits, donors and other enablers who may have varying levels of knowledge about the topics considered important to Salafi-jihadis.

Warning against fitna demonstrates that leadership figures are setting expectations concerning group members’ conduct that conform to early Islamic traditions. This can be especially attractive for knowledgeable prospective recruits, particularly seasoned terrorists who might be persuaded to defect from other groups. Through its propaganda, the Islamic State has stressed that it emulates the methodology of the earliest generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf, and argued that Muslims cannot adhere to this methodology without pledging baya (allegiance) to Baghdadi and either emigrating to the “caliphate” or perpetrating terrorist attacks in their home countries. This messaging builds a claim of religious legitimacy and privileges the authority of the Islamic State’s leadership. Since 2016, rather than encouraging supporters here in the West to attempt to join the group in the jihad theaters where it remains active, the group’s leadership has emphasized that these supporters should demonstrate their allegiance to Baghdadi by perpetrating attacks at home. In a message released on March 18—his first since September 2018—Muhajir sought to incite yet more violence in the West in response to the terrorist attacks targeting Muslims at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. He conveyed that Baghdadi remains alive and has retained his status as the group’s “Emir al-Mu’minin,” or Commander of the Faithful, which is an honorific title historically reserved for caliphs.

This same messaging that reinforces the appearance of cohesion can also appeal to less-informed prospective recruits, including new converts to Islam in the West who may be susceptible to the influence of the Islamic State’s online, media effects-intensive radicalization program. The optics of strong group cohesion can shape perceptions of a group as being worthy of support. As people in the nonprofit fundraising industry say, “People give to winners.” For consumers of Salafi-jihadi propaganda residing in the West who may be in the market for a group to support, an image of unity in the face of international counterterrorism campaigns suggests potential for future successes. This bolsters the Islamic State’s “intangible power,” as then-U.S. Special Operations Command Central commander Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata put it in 2014.

Persistent internal tensions manifesting in fitna is generally not regarded as a positive attribute for a Salafi-jihadi group like the Islamic State. Potential recruits, regardless of their level of knowledge about Islam, will be more likely to see the group as a losing proposition. And for the experienced jihadis that the Islamic State values most, evidence of persistent infighting—especially an internally organized effort to assassinate a group leader—will almost certainly dissuade them from defecting from competing groups, such as al-Qaeda, or its enablers such as the Afghan Taliban, to join the Islamic State’s ranks.

Of course, preserving the optic of cohesion can be particularly difficult in the face of debilitating military pressure in the Levant. It therefore seems useful to consider that the Islamic State anticipated setbacks and used its propaganda to try to preempt the potential divisions they could create among the group’s supporters, both within its primary areas of operation and far beyond.

Notably, Islamic State propagandists have tried to manage supporters’ expectations by warning that the group’s terrorism campaigns would induce military responses that could temporarily cripple the group and possibly even kill its senior-most leaders. For example, in an article about what the Islamic State called the “failed crusade” against the group in the October 2014 issue of the group’s flagship ezine, Dabiq, Islamic State propagandists invoked guidance from deceased U.S.-born al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki: “To paraphrase Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki … if one wants to know the people of truth, then let him observe where the enemies’ arrows are aimed. Most of them—if not all—are now pointed at the Islamic State, its leaders, soldiers, and subjects.” When the United States and other governments were escalating their campaign against the Islamic State, the group’s propagandists were portraying increased military activity targeting the Islamic State as a credential in its appeals for support, arguing that the intensity of military campaigns against the group demonstrated that it posed a greater threat to the United States and its closest allies than other jihadi groups. At the same time, this messaging was used to try to assuage concerns that the forthcoming losses, which most people could reasonably assume were in the cards for the group, might be evidence that Baghdadi’s strategy to build a caliphate would fail. In effect, Islamic State messaging tried to spin such eventual developments as the deaths of senior figures, like spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, and the group’s loss of the capacity to govern large population centers as events that should inspire confidence in the group, rather than be interpreted as signs of diminishing operational sustainability.

During the next two years, the surge in attacks perpetrated in the West by Islamic State supporters who were not trained in Iraq and Syria highlighted the effectiveness of this framing strategy that was used to build resiliency for certain optics already engineered in digital propaganda to help the group remotely secure support over the Internet. Foremost among these were the optics of the Islamic State being not only a cohesive but also a durable enterprise that cannot be defeated by military might alone. These optics have been aggressively reinforced with a faster, more productive propaganda program than competitors such as al-Qaeda, and the group’s slogan, which since 2014 has characterized the Islamic State as “Remaining and Expanding” in the face of the military campaigns waged against it.

An actual coup that killed Baghdadi would seriously tarnish the aura of resilience that Islamic State propagandists have tried to cultivate. It would expose internal grievances about alleged deficiencies in his leadership, which would be more damaging to the group than if he were killed in a military strike or captured. Much as al-Qaeda has used Osama bin Laden’s legacy as a propaganda tool since his death, were Baghdadi to be killed by U.S.-backed coalition forces, his legacy would almost certainly function as a recruitment tool for the Islamic State. This effect is not limited to jihadi groups. Robert Taber, in his book The War of the Flea, notes a similar increase in the militaristic spread of communism in Latin America after the death of Che Guevara: “Fresh sparks are glowing, and Che dead proves even more potent than Che alive, a heroic figure giving vitality to unconquerable ideas, raising banners of insurrection even in western capitals.” But if the circumstances surrounding Baghdadi’s death instead fueled speculation about misdeeds that some Islamic State members viewed as being so “un-Islamic” as to warrant his assassination, this could have the opposite effect and pose problems for the group going forward. It is unlikely that new recruits would flock to a group that allowed such a questionable leader to remain in power for so long, and the credentials of Baghdadi’s chosen proxies who would vie to succeed him would also be called into doubt.

For several years, governments that are part of the Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State have sought to harmonize countermessaging campaigns to diminish the persuasiveness of the Islamic State’s online propaganda. Much of this work has emphasized countering key narratives contained in the group’s propaganda. The dearth of publicly discernible efforts to use information about the reported coup in September to dissuade support for the group highlights persistent deficiencies in efforts to counter the Islamic State’s work.

It’s not too late. Coalition countermessaging can still capitalize on the coup attempt and other, more apparent instances of infighting within the Islamic State.

Perhaps the most notable among these other exploitable situations is an internal debate among religious officials over the group’s promiscuous use of takfir, including to legitimize killing members of competing Salafi-jihadi groups that have refused to merge with the Islamic State. Takfir is the contentious practice of accusing Muslims of being apostates, which may result in death sentences for the accused parties. Given the severity of the potential consequences, its misuse has been intensely proscribed in Islamic traditions. Salafi-jihadi groups’ denunciation of many of their “near” enemies as apostates deserving of death has been one of their most delegitimizing practices, especially among Muslims who see it as an extreme misappropriation of takfir.

For decades, efforts to dissuade support for Salafi-jihadi groups have entailed branding them as takfiris, and this has sparked concerns among some of their leaders. For instance, in the second edition of Zawahiri’s book, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, published by al-Qaeda in 2010, he lists seven “examples of the torrent of falsehood against the mujahidin.” Among the accusations Zawahiri objects to is the proposition that “al-Qaeda is a group of takfiris, holding as infidels all those who oppose them.” At the time, Zawahiri was subordinated to Osama bin Laden, so it is reasonable to assume that he shared Zawahiri’s concerns about al-Qaeda being branded as takfiris. If not, a retraction of some sort would have been demanded.

Despite this context, the Islamic State has overtly embraced takfir. Published online in July 2014, in the first issue of Dabiq, Islamic State propagandists noted that takfir is a fundament of the legal code applied by Baghdadi and his subordinates in the “caliphate,” and criticized other groups for abandoning the practice. This was just one of many pointed swipes at al-Qaeda under Zawahiri’s leadership. But, more importantly, this highlighted that Baghdadi’s notion of what constitutes an effective public relations strategy varies greatly from what bin Laden considered as a winning approach to managing public perceptions of both his group and the wider Salafi-jihadi movement.

Subsequent messages from the Islamic State leadership doubled down on the practice of takfir. Adnani, an Islamic State spokesman who was killed in 2016, threatened to “pronounce takfir” against anyone who did not pledge allegiance to Baghdadi, particularly members of competing Salafi-jihadi groups like al-Qaeda who share the goal of restoring a caliphate but refuse to defect to the Islamic State. Eventually, the controversial logic behind this and other innovative applications of takfir was seized upon by Zawahiri as grounds to paint Baghdadi and his supporters as “takfiris” and “extremists.”

Even within the Islamic State, some senior religious figures expressed concerns about what they considered extremist and poorly informed logic in the application of takfir. Of particular concern to senior Islamic State cleric Turki al-Bin’ali, who had been featured in important propaganda such as the July 2014 video “Upon the Prophetic Methodology,” was the argument that takfir should be viewed as more than just an undeniable fundament of sharia (Islamic law), as was argued in Dabiq in July 2014. For Bin’ali, the arguments made by other thought leaders in the group that takfir should be considered a foundation of the actual faith itself were baseless and counterproductive.

Although Islamic State members like Bin’ali did not attempt to keep formal deliberations over disparate views about takfir a secret, the mere existence of philosophical and basic knowledge gaps that they sought to bridge with internal deliberations is potentially problematic for the Islamic State’s efforts to manage perceptions of the group as a cohesive enterprise. The debate exposes significant tensions over a practice that the group described as a cornerstone of its law enforcement. It highlights that the Islamic State is not an ideological monolith. And disagreement over such an important legal tool indicates that there are perceived deficiencies in important religious knowledge among the cadre that Baghdadi granted leadership positions. The early rumblings of this internal divide were a sign that some influential figures in Baghdadi’s fiefdom may have viewed his leadership as inadequate. Intelligence services could have tried to use Bin’ali as an unwitting agent to sow yet more discord, but that opportunity vanished when he was killed by a coalition airstrike in Syria in May 2017—days after he leaked his critique of a more recent round of internal deliberations on takfir.

Another weakness in the Islamic State’s messaging is apparent in the way it has stoked a rivalry with al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. Islamic State propaganda, going back to an address by Adnani months before he declared the group had established a caliphate in 2014, has portrayed the group as the rightful successor to the manhaj (methodology) developed by bin Laden and argued that al-Qaeda’s current leadership has deviated from it. But bin Laden’s manhaj emphasized a collectivist framework in the fight against the United States and allied nations, and his strategy emphasized uniting groups around their shared goals. The Islamic State’s deliberate divisiveness violates this principle, as do other elements of the Islamic State’s strategy, including directing attacks against the Iranian regime, which bin Laden was apparently concerned could result in a conflict that might drain al-Qaeda of resources that he preferred to orient against the United States and its allies. These differences between bin Laden’s policies and the Islamic State’s could be used to demonstrate that the Islamic State is not the heir apparent to bin Laden’s legacy that it has claimed to be. Yet, since 2014, the absence of a rigorous effort to challenge the group’s appropriation of the mantles of bin Laden and other influential deceased al-Qaeda figures such as Anwar al-Awlaki has had the effect of enabling Islamic State propagandists to employ tactics similar to celebrity endorsements to help garner support, especially in propaganda that continues to target prospective terrorists in the West.

Undermining the Islamic State’s propaganda by demonstrating how internally divided the group is and how divisive it is among Salafi-jihadi groups will help weaken it in the long term. Despite claims it has been defeated in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State continues to project the image of a cohesive enterprise whose members are striving to attain control of territories far beyond the Levant. It is incumbent upon intelligence agencies working to combat the group to bring to light any information that can help highlight cracks in this façade. The reported coup attempt against Baghdadi, fractious formal debates within the organization, and persistent fitna within the wider Salafi-jihadi movement that Islamic State leaders have aspired to control present opportunities to rebuke the Islamic State on its own terms. We shouldn’t let them pass.