How Should We Think About the Caliphate?


Owen Bennett-Jones in The LRB (image from wikimedia commons):

In its recent propaganda video, Clanging of the Swords: Part 4, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) presented a tightly edited series of grotesque executions. Thirty-eight people were filmed being killed: one man was shot as he ran through the desert trying to escape gunmen in a 4×4; another was trapped in his car; one was at home when Isis broke in and beheaded him in his bedroom. It’s hard to believe that what you’re watching really happened until the relentless inhumanity is interrupted by an occasional human moment. At one point a gunman walks down a row of kneeling young men with their hands tied behind them. He aims a pistol at the back of each man’s head, fires, watches the body slump forward in a pool of blood, moves on to the next in line and repeats the exercise. Then, one of his victims has the idea of trying to save himself by anticipating the shot and, a split second too early, falls forward, pretending to be dead. Needless to say, the ruse doesn’t work. There is also footage of Isis gunmen driving through a town when, for no apparent reason, they stick their Kalashnikovs out of the car windows and fire at two men walking along the pavement. One is hit and collapses. The car moves forward, and the Isis fighters keep firing as their victim lies motionless on the ground. Presumably they want to make sure he’s dead. As they drive away the second pedestrian – amazingly still unharmed – runs for his life in the other direction.

You might think that a film showing your organisation randomly murdering people would not attract new recruits. But Isis’s various communications have achieved two objectives. First, they have terrified the Iraqi army, sapping the soldiers’ will to defend the Iraqi state. Threatening text messages sent direct to their mobile phones reinforce the point. Second, Isis has quickly carved out a global presence. A few weeks ago it seemed that only policy wonks had heard of it. It didn’t even have a settled acronym: some called it Isis, others Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – the Arabic supports either). The distinction hardly matters now as the organisation has renamed itself the Islamic State, with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as its caliph. Whatever it’s called, its pitch relies on glamour shots of earnest young men with dishevelled, flowing hair living in rural settings unsullied by the paraphernalia of modern life – except for the assault rifles and ammunition strapped to their chests. The talk is all about duty, sacrifice and martyrdom.

But in many respects Isis is a very modern organisation. The brochure detailing its 2012-13 activities is like a state of the art corporate report. The most striking page, with slick graphic design, has 15 silhouetted icons – time bombs, handcuffs, a car, a man running – with each representing a field of activity: roadside bombs, prisoner escapes, car bombs and the clearance of apostates’ homes.

More here.