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
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
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.
Bennet-Jones is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.