By Owen Bennet-Jones
February 9th, 2017
YOU might think that being a press officer of the militant Islamic State group at the moment would be a distinctly demoralising experience. The days of rapid territorial advances winning shocked headlines around the globe are over. And with the Iraqi and Syrian government forces advancing in both Mosul and northern Syria, there is from IS’s point of view, lots of bad news. But the jihadists who fight by the keyboard rather than the sword might see things rather differently. Because, even if they are on the back foot in key battlegrounds, each week brings news from all over the world that they can disseminate.
Take the month of January. Open-source reporting suggests that, excluding lone-wolf operations that may or may not have been inspired by IS, the organisation mounted at least 37 separate attacks in nine different countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia.
IS also attempted an attack in Saudi Arabia but the two would-be suicide bombers were shot before they could detonate themselves. In that incident, IS lost two fighters while killing no one. But overall the organisation killed at least 393 people at the cost of just 30 of its own fighters. All these figures are conservative estimates; it is likely that many attacks will have gone unreported by generally reliable media sources, especially in IS-held territory where independent reporting is impossible.
The nature of the IS campaign drew a sharp comment from the Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who in a 15-minute audio message released on Jan 5 called on his supporters to attack the US and its allies. Al Zawahiri complained that IS was not only running a campaign to defame and undermine Al Qaeda but also ignoring his advice on targeting. Al Qaeda has long favoured attacking the far enemy in the US rather than the near enemy in the Middle East and North Africa.
IS has used many methods to kill its opponents. Eight of the deaths were the result of ‘judicial’ processes: five people in Iraq — a mother and her four children — were burnt alive, and in Syria two men accused of being spies were crucified and one accused of sorcery was beheaded.
At the other end of the scale, car bombs, by far IS’s most deadly weapon, killed 199 people in just 12 attacks. Other ways IS killed people included gunfire, suicide vests, roadside bombs, sticky bombs (attached to vehicles) and, in a breakthrough for the group, a drone strike. That took place near Mosul and reportedly killed an elder and his son. It seems IS has mastered not only detonating a drone as it hits a target but also dropping munitions from a drone in the sky.
As those technological breakthroughs suggest, the group’s press officers were not restricted to reporting violent actions. They produced many other kinds of editorial content. A video showing the northern Syrian town of Al Bab deserted after a Turkish attack was shot by a camera mounted on a drone.
Meanwhile, the IS magazine Rumiyah urged supporters in the West to mount arson attacks, which it described as “a quick option for anyone intending to join the just terror campaign”.
Ideal places to hit, the magazine suggested, included hospitals and schools as well as more traditional targets such as nightclubs. And to ensure everyone was aware of who mounted an attack, the article urged followers to write that IS was responsible by using a permanent marker on a nearby wall. And in a sign of just how ambitious IS’s media operation is, Rumiyah was published in English, French, Russian, German, Turkish, Bosnian, Indonesian, Kurdish, Pashto and Uighur.
The so-called Islamic State did acknowledge its setbacks — or at least some of them — and there was a significant amount of comment on the running battles the group is fighting in Iraq and Syria. IS was forced to admit that it had lost control of the luxury Nineveh International Hotel in northeast Mosul. Previously IS had highlighted the capture of the hotel in May 2015 as a significant and notable victory. At that time, videos of the hotel showed families enjoying facilities beneath balloons and the IS black flag. On another occasion, there was coverage of a Quran memorisation competition for children at the hotel.
Other examples of coverage generated by IS press officers included reports of an attack on pylons in Egypt and Iraq where, as the reporting made clear, the cables destroyed provided electricity to Shia communities. There was also a claim that IS had captured five villages from Kurdish forces in western Raqqa province in Syria after a surprise attack. The report claimed that, in the midst of the fighting, a US air strike mistakenly hit Kurdish forces.
So even if IS is suffering serious reverses, their press officers can find plenty of work to do.
Owen Bennet-Jones is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.