Charlie Winter writes: It is vastly outmanned and outgunned and, much as it would prefer otherwise, Mosul’s fall in the next few months is near inevitable. No matter how much social-media savvy the Islamic State possesses, this is an unsavory truth that its propaganda machine cannot spin.
But contrary to some reports, this does not pose an existential threat to the Islamic State. For some time, the group has been preparing for this very moment and others like it (the recent loss of Dabiq, for example), proactively but subtly shifting its overarching narrative away from divine aggression and towards steadfast resistance, reshaping it in order to allow for defeat, even the most catastrophic sort. While leaders of the Islamic State were already hinting at such a shift last year, this pivot first began to manifest properly following a May 2016 statement, directed at the coalition, by late spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. “Would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition?” (“Certainly not!” was the answer he provided, in case you were wondering.)
In the ensuing months, the notion that the caliphate was on the cusp of downsizing — from proto-state to proto-insurgency — and that this was perfectly fine, received more attention from Islamic State media, notably from, among others, the al-Naba newspaper editorial board. This re-framing — casting the staggering loss of territory as a simple expression of God’s divine project — first really came to bear in June 2016, when Fallujah fell to Iraqi forces. Before this setback, the Islamic State had a clear-cut policy for dealing with defeat: Look the other way. When, for example, the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad fell to a coalition of Kurdish and Free Syrian Army fighters in June 2015, propaganda coverage was notably lacking, with many Islamic State supporters asserting that it was nothing more than a tactical retreat in the absence of an officially delineated line. Likewise, other significant losses, like Tikrit, Ramadi, and Palmyra, were more or less overlooked by the propaganda factory.
This obfuscation worked in some places, but it could never work with Fallujah. This would have been too big a loss for the Islamic State to simply sweep under the rug. It owed a lot to the city, which it had largely controlled for two and a half years. Its roots there, symbolic and logistical, ran far deeper than they did in any of the above towns. Losing it would have strong reverberations.
Recognizing this conundrum, the Islamic State’s leaders considered their next steps with care. First, they embraced the battle for Fallujah wholeheartedly, producing a constant flow of operational reports, short videos, newspaper articles, and photographic essays, not to mention high-spec documentaries like “Fallujah of the Resistance” and “Signs of Victory,” all of which, at least initially, depicted the battle as epic, heroic, and distinctly undecided. However, as Fallujah’s imminent capture by Iraqi forces became apparent just two weeks into the offensive, the Islamic State slowed the flood to a trickle, but not before making sure to frame its loss appropriately.
Since its Fallujah test run, the Islamic State’s media mavens appear to have continued in this vein, deeming it a better bet to prioritize long-term inevitability over short-term triumphalism. This shift, something of a tactical retreat, enabled them to reframe territorial loss as a confirmation of the nearing apocalypse, rather than evidence of a failing insurgency. [Continue reading…]