ISIS editorials illustrate the jihadist group’s efforts to reach out to marginalized Sunni-Arabs across Iraq and Syria
By Asaf Day
Once a week, in its al-Naba magazines, the Islamic State publishes one-page polemic editorials. These pieces usually present op-eds and analysis regarding geopolitical, social, and theological themes and their connections to the Islamic State’s current state of affairs. For instance, in its 153 edition, which was issued on October 25, the jihadist organization published an article arguing that democracy is one of the worst forms of idol worshipping. Later, the author describes the group’s efforts to fight against such political practice. In addition, the group’s November 1, 154 edition discusses the “terrible” fate of the Syrian opposition factions in Syria’s civil war, largely attributing it to their dependence on foreign powers. Lastly, in its November 8, 155 edition, the Sunni jihadist militant group describes the concept of tribalism in Islam, while heavily criticizing pro-government Sunni tribesmen operating in Iraq and Syria.
Nonetheless, notably, in the aforementioned pieces, the Islamic State expresses a rather softer tone in comparison to the organization’s traditionally more militant rhetoric. For example, in its 153 edition, as part of stressing the way it is fighting against Democracy in the Muslim world, the writer stresses that “people who practice Democracy go to hell for eternity…” and that it is the group’s “responsibility to prevent that from happening by any means possible”. These means include warning in its media and publications, as well as attacks against political candidates and polling stations while warning the “believers” to stay away from such locales ahead of elections. Interestingly, the group used the root Hadhr حذر, which means warning or caution in Arabic, three times during the article. This is an obvious appeal to Islamist elements in destabilized countries which are still attempting to transform into democracies, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, this may be an effort to attract former supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and North Africa, following the movement’s overall failure to utilize democracy, in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, to rise to power and implement the Sharia Law.
In the op-ed of the 154 al-Naba edition, the writer details the reasons for the failure of the Syrian factions in the civil war, mainly due to their heavy reliance on foreign entities and the compromise on Islamic values. Later, the author states that “out of fear that the people will fall into apostasy, destruction of the people of al-Sham, and sacrifice themselves in vain, the Islamic State warned again and again of those results from the very beginning.” The article goes on to describe how the factions’ leaders abandoned their fighters “leaving them divided and forced to merge with groups they have nothing in common.” In this context, the op-ed’s targeted audience is likely disappointed individuals from among the more hardline Islamist factions operating in Syria, especially in Idlib Province.
Additionally, in the 155 edition, after explaining Islam’s stance regarding tribalism, as well as providing some precedents from Islamic history, the Islamic State claims that tribal identities are being exploited these days by apostate leaders and foreign powers, as they (apostate leaders) tap on such sentiments in order to allegedly distance their people from religious values. Later, once again, the jihadist organization mentions that it had warned the tribes of “marching on the road to apostasy”. The author, similarly to the previous op-ed, provides examples from the past years concerning the “horrible fate” and failure of such tribal elements. This includes their past cooperation with the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which following their military campaign, were “harassed and detained by the Shiites.” In this case, the group strives to capitalize on the strong sense of marginalization of the region’s Sunni-Arab population, in light of the reported harassment and discriminating policies of the Shiite militias in Iraq and de-facto Kurdish government in northern and eastern Syria, respectively.
By reaching out to the above-mentioned elements, the recent publications demonstrate the Islamic State’s continued efforts to re-establish footholds in their previous strongholds throughout the region, and particularly in Iraq and Syria. The group continuously tap on sentiments and grievances of the region’s Sunni-Arab populace, aiming to attract their support. In this context, the persistent acts of militancy by the group suggest that this goal is, at least in part, is being achieved, highlighting the importance of understanding the Islamic State’s rhetoric and messaging in order to help us determine it’s strategy and tactics. Furthermore, to impede the Islamist organization’s attempts to recruit the Sunni-Arab population in Iraq and Syria, the US should enhance its efforts to impact its backed elements in these two countries to implement more inclusive policies toward this population.
Asaf Day is a Middle East and North Africa geopolitical analyst at a private security-consultancy firm. His areas of expertise include Syria, Israel, and the Palestinians, as well as global jihad organizations. Asaf holds an MA Degree in Arabic Studies from the University of Bar Ilan and a BA from Ben Gurion University, both in Israel. In addition to English, Asaf speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Turkish and French to a lesser degree.