As the battle for Mosul begins, its fall all but certain, the Islamic State propaganda machine has roared into action. From Twitter to Telegram, from selfies to slick CGI and claims of attacks, all have been in overdrive reporting events.
Isis’ timely evacuation of Dabiq before the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad group took the town on October 16 2016 is in some ways reflective of what will happen in Mosul. To be certain, Mosul will be a hard-fought battle of entrenched warfare, but ultimately once the city falls, the membership of Isis who want to continue the fight will simply fall back to tried-and-true tactics, living in the desert and launching hit-and-run attacks.
One would think that the loss of Isis’ prophesied stronghold, whose capture was supposed to mark the beginning of the Islamist apocalypse, would at least cause their followers to doubt the direction of the Caliphate. However, the goals of the Islamic State are distinctly mutable, its mantras and mission statements twisting and turning depending on the group’s fortunes. Today the objective is holding Mosul. Tomorrow, they will find another cause in another place to fight for.
This CGI image of Mosul bears the legend: 'Soldiers of the Islamic State, our roots of security, in the hearts of the believers, certain of the doctrine of loyalty and ourselves limited by the crusaders for decades lessening our doctrine of loyalty in our general/public souls of Muslims'
It’s a slight of hand that can be seen in the propaganda bait and switch messaging; they can always change the objectives to spin a positive result for the group, no matter how big the loss. If you believe the jihadist spin doctors, Isis’ withdrawal from Dabiq towards Al-Bab was simply a tactical withdrawl of little importance, one which will allow for them to regroup and resurface in the future.
Many of the messages are broadcast on an Islamic State affiliated channel on Telegram, a new communication network which allows the conveyance of encrypted messages. One such message, written during the battle of Dabiq, reads:
Yes #Dabiq is symbolic to every muslim who knows his religion. And yes we may lose #Dabiq today, but this does not mean the end of battles but only the relocation. And it does not mean prediction afterwards will be fulfilled and how so, nor the prince of peace between us and the romans but we must be strong this with urgency as they mocked the messenger of Allah. It will come after the great conquest, the great scourge.
Notice how the promise of prophecy is still to come. Dabiq is not seen as a loss but a further justification of continuing the fight. No doubt Mosul narrative will be woven in the same light.
Its not that the fans expect a loss--on the contrary, they hope with all their might for a victory. But a loss of territory doesn’t equate to an ideological loss; it’s a categorical mistake to expect it to be so.
This message, written in Arabic and published on the Telegram service, vows that Isis won't be stopped. The message was written by an Isis fighter in Europe (TRAC)
For all practical purposes the objectives of Isis, and its followers, are largely zero-sum. The losses can always be qualified and explained away; the battle will go on.
Another favourite tactic to keep fans rallying around the black flag of global jihad is diversion. On the first day of battle of Mosul, Isis claimed at least 12 different regional suicide assaults, distributing the news in multiple languages.
By putting out such a volume of news, Isis could deflect attention from the start of the battle. It could appear immediately victorious, to be overwhelming the enemy rather than the reverse. Expect a repeat of these tactics in the weeks ahead.
No matter the result of the Mosul offensive, be it win, lose or draw, the Isis spin machine will keep working until the very end.
Veryan Khan is the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher for TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), one of the world's largest electronic compendiums for data and analysis of terrorist groups, activities, trends and up to date developments. For complete information see www.trackingterrorism.org and follow the group on Twitter @TRACterrorism