Cutting ISIS down to size

The West is waking up to the threat and the Islamic State’s advance is stalling

Shi’ite fighters pose with a black flag belonging to the Islamic State. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shi’ite fighters pose with a black flag belonging to the Islamic State.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former defense minister Ehud Barak and former chief of staff Lt.-Gen.
Gabi Ashkenazi have little in common and, given the bad blood between them, to say that they loathe each other would be the understatement of the year.
Yet, both share the perception that the threat posed by the Islamic State is being grossly exaggerated by Western media, Mid - dle East experts and, to a certain degree, political leaders. And Israel is no exception.
Barak expressed this view in a recent TV interview, and Ashkenazi has expressed his views in closed forums. They are not alone.
In a series of meetings and interviews with Israeli, Western European and American intelligence and security experts who asked not to be named, a similar point of view was conveyed to me.
“With all due respect to IS’s recent military successes in Iraq and Syria, which cannot be written off, from a historical perspective, IS is no more than a passing episode,” one of these analysts told me. rawing a comparison to al-Qaida, the analyst said, “After 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his group were perceived as the greatest existential threat to humankind. The US invaded Afghanistan, crushed al-Qaida’s hard core, and its scattered activists and sympathizers. True the post invasion ramifications resulted in several bloody terror attacks in Indonesia, Madrid, London, Morocco, Istanbul, while other plots were prevented, but in the last five years the intensity of al-Qaida operations and the threat posed by the group have dwindled.”
Another expert observed, “Intelligence communities worldwide have learned the modes of operation of al-Qaida, managed to recruit agents and infiltrate it. Al-Qaida is now no more than a nuisance that the world can live with.”
Sooner or later the same is going to happen to IS, said several of the interviewees for this article.
“Let’s not be mistaken or disillusioned. IS is not going to disappear and fade away overnight. It is going to stay with us for a few more years – certainly as long as the civil war in Syria continues. But sometime in the foreseeable future the Islamic State will weaken,” one of them observed.
Another former senior intelligence official described IS “as a trendy fashion and, like any successful fashion, it has succeed - ed in promoting and marketing its label as a unique product and thus attracted high demand.”
IS “customers” are the organization’s thousands of volunteers – second- or third-generation Muslim immigrants to the West and tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim zealots. Both are seeking thrills, adventure, a meaningful outlet for their unfulfilled aggression, and easy and free sex with a stamp of religious authorization.
IS has managed to turn into the “talk of the town” as a result of impressive marketing adopted by its leadership, i.e. its cruel, horrific and seemingly uninhibited methods of sowing fear and terror in the West. These include massacres of rivals, death by beheading and stoning, torture, rape, and forced conversions – practically every measure that contradicts basic moral values and norms.
BUT THAT on its own is not enough. As veteran Israeli diplomat and cabinet minister Eliyahu Sasson observed some 60 years ago, “If you acted and didn’t report it, you hadn’t acted.”
IS’s marketing experts are presumably unfamiliar with Sasson and his dictum, but they clearly know the art of propaganda and manipulation – they not only act brutally but also make sure that the brutal acts will be heard, seen and disseminated.
By using advanced digital methodology, they produce short, fast, agile clips and upload them onto the Internet to spread mes - sages that appeal to their clientele among alienated, disenfranchised young Muslims around the world.
There is no doubt that professionals are behind the frightening and cold-blooded digital campaign. Clearly, some of them, if not all, are Western- educated volunteers with experience, creativity and skill in modern PR.
It already has been reported that IS has a few “media centers” with names such as “Al Hayat” and “Al Itisam al Furqan” operating in secret locations in areas under IS control in Iraq and Syria. They are responsible for the production of the clips and messages, and are assisted by a worldwide clandestine network of sympathizers who enhance the spread of the materials over all available platforms from YouTube to Twitter and Facebook.
What distinguishes IS from al-Qaida are not only religious nuances or perceptions as to who is the enemy that should be targeted, but also the approach to mass media social networks and the ability to spread messages around the globe. In that sense, IS can be compared to a cheetah, fast and agile, and al-Qaida to a plodding turtle. IS’s agility and ability to adapt has enabled it to repel cyber attacks against its Internet operations by Western intelligence agencies and rebuild networks where they have been damaged.
However, IS’s successful propaganda and fear campaigns could paradoxically be the beginning of its own downfall. It is, in a way, reminiscent of the dialectic of the German philosopher Georg Friedrich, which states that in every thesis there is a built-in contra - diction – the anti-thesis that is unleashed to destroy itself. IS’s advanced propaganda apparatus is generating its own demise.
In the first two years after its emergence, IS performed its despicable acts – beheading, raping, crucifying, and butchering its real or imagined enemies in Iraq and Syria – unnoticed by the West. The Western media and politicians didn’t care as long as Mus - lims were killing Muslims.
It all changed when IS started beheading Westerners and displaying the beheadings on social media.
“That was their biggest mistake,” one security expert told me. “It seems that they were so carried away by their initial success - es in Iraq and Syria that they became very arrogant and self-confident that they could do the same to the West.”
This direct provocation shocked Western media and public opinion and was perceived as a threat that created a chain reaction. Under public pressure, Western governments, led by US President Barack Obama could no longer sit idly by.
Thus, slowly and reluctantly, the US administration started to react. It created an international coalition to build a legal umbrella for military action and began a campaign of air strikes.
To military experts, certainly Israeli ones, the measured US and coalition air strikes seem inadequate. So far, over a period of six or so weeks, the air strikes only number a few hundred.
that despite the flaws and weakness, the airstrikes are causing damage to IS and slowing its advance – its tanks and heavy artillery are being destroyed, and oil production facilities, which are a main source of revenue for the organization, are being bombed, choking off its finances.
The Iraqi Kurds, thanks to the aerial umbrella, have managed to recapture the Mosul dam. Iraqi Shi’ite militias, supported by Iran, have retaken some towns. IS is far from conquering Baghdad. In Syria, the Kurdish enclave of Kobani along the border with Turkey is holding on, and IS has failed to enter the city’s center.
But perhaps more important than success on the battlefield against IS is the fact that the world is awakening. For the first time in many years, there are signs that Western nations, Arab countries and even Iran see eye to eye and have a common interest in stop - ping the Islamic State.
Still, even if IS is defeated, the region’s problems and challenges are not going to go away.
“The Islamic State is not only a problem, it’s also a symptom of the disintegration of the Middle East as it was designed 100 years ago in the French-British colonial deal [the Sykes-Picot agreement] aimed at dividing the region into spheres of interests and influence,” said one intelligence analyst.
What began as the “Arab Spring” – a genuine drive by the masses for democratization, better and more equal distribution of national resources, and as a campaign against corruption – has turned into a volcanic eruption bringing in its wake disintegrating states (Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are already dysfunctional entities) and threatening to bring chaos to others.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman