Middle East

Daesh propaganda hit hard by killings, battlefield setbacks

This undated frame grab from video posted online Wednesday, May 17, 2017, by supporters of the Islamic State militant group, shows IS Belgian fighter showing what he says is a remote-controlled vehicle that can carry mines to be used in attacks against Iraqi forces in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (Militant Photo via AP)

BEIRUT: Supported by crutches and a fellow Daesh (ISIS) militant, Abu Shuaib al-Maslawi hopped on his left leg toward the explosives-laden black SUV that he would minutes later plow into a group of Iraqi troops in the northern city of Mosul. Then, turning toward the camera, the one-legged suicide bomber spoke his final words, urging Muslims in the West who cannot come to the militants’ self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, to carry out attacks inside their home countries.

“I urge you in the name of God that before sunset may your swords be dripping with the infidels’ blood,” said Maslawi, who appeared to be in his 50s, with a long gray beard and a black Islamic skullcap. “Every drop of blood that is spilled there will reduce pressure on us,” he added, gripping the steering wheel.

Drone footage then showed the heavily armored SUV careening into a line of Iraqi troop vehicles parked outside a building in Mosul, followed by an explosion, a huge fireball and a cloud of black smoke.

Posted by Daesh on social media in late May, the video contains a change in message and tone that reflects the pressure the militant group is under as it continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria.

Daesh’s propaganda machine used to be confident, promising that its self-declared caliphate would be “lasting and expanding.” But in recent months, as the group’s territory has shrunk, its messages have as well.

Far from the boastful, self-aggrandizing videos of the past, the group is now urging fighters to resist and not run away from the battlefield. The quality of the videos has dropped as well after some of the militants’ most prominent propagandists and producers were killed.

Slickly produced Daesh propaganda videos shot from multiple angles with religious songs in the background used to spread fear among the group’s opponents, with gruesome footage of beheadings, shootings, confessions of detainees and sophisticated attacks against their rivals. In the videos, the group boasted that Muslims from all over the world were flocking to what they called the “first caliphate” since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

Now the videos mostly urge fighters to be steadfast and call on the local population to join the group after hundreds of Daesh fighters have been killed over the past months.

“The propaganda of the organization has become zero to be frank. It indicates their collapse and that the group is retreating,” said Omar Abu Laila, a Syrian opposition activist now based in Germany who is originally from Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zor, held by Daesh. “Their calls for people to join the group are signs of weakness.”

A major blow came in August, when an airstrike in Syria claimed by the U.S. and Russia killed Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the group’s chief spokesman and senior commander who was known for fiery speeches that used to boost the morale of fighters. In 2014, after the group declared its caliphate, Adnani vowed to conquer Baghdad as well as the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq.

Another blow came in October when a U.S. airstrike in Syria killed Wael al-Fayadh, better known as Abu Mohammad al-Furqan, who was in charge of producing highly professional propaganda videos. One of the group’s main media arms, Al-Furqan Media, was named after him. He was replaced by Abu Bashir al-Maslawi, who was killed a short time later.

In late May, the founder of the group’s Amaq news agency, Baraa Kadek, was reportedly killed along with his daughter in an airstrike in the eastern Syrian town of Mayadin.

A video released last month titled “Answer the Call” urged young men to join Daesh to make up for the loss of manpower.

“What are you waiting for? The infidels have gathered around us from all over the world,” it said, showing scenes of Daesh fighters trying to persuade men in mosques and clubs to join the fight as suicide bombers.

Another titled, “We will guide them to our path,” showed two men, one from Canada and the other from Britain, carrying out a suicide attack in Mosul. The video also tried to market the group as an organization that can produce its own weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenades, shells and remote-controlled small vehicles that can carry mines.

“They have produced 158 videos since November ... and none of them were professional like ‘Salil al-Sawarem,’” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on Daesh who advises the Iraqi government. He was referring to a video – “Crack of the Swords,” in English – that was released days before Daesh captured Mosul in the summer of 2014 and was widely believed to have helped speed the collapse of Iraqi forces defending the city.

“Today ... there is nothing that differentiates between their [videos] and those of other ... rebel factions,” Hashimi said. “It only calls for defensive operations, suicide bombings and to be steadfast. Nothing more.”

Despite the battlefield setbacks in Iraq and Syria, Daesh has been quick to claim responsibility for recent overseas attacks in Britain, Iran and elsewhere. The Iranian Intelligence Ministry said five assailants in the twin attacks this week in Tehran had previously fought for Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and the extremist group’s Amaq news agency released a 24-second video purportedly filmed inside Parliament during one of the attacks.

Besides Amaq and Al-Furqan, the group has a number of media outlets to spread its message as well as an online radio station, Al-Bayan, and online weekly magazines, Al-Nabaa and Dabiq.

Social media networks keep closing accounts created by Daesh propagandists but the group has so far been able to create new ones. In one widely circulated text message on social media, followers were urged not to publish the group’s link so that it wouldn’t be closed because “we are being subjected to a harsh campaign.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 12, 2017, on page 4.

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