Raqqa has crumbled far more quickly than anyone imagined. In just over four months, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Western air support, have liberated most of the city from Islamic State (IS). The de facto capital of the so-called caliphate, Raqqa was tightly controlled by its rulers, but it was a bustling hub of activity and urban life. For the hordes of foreign fighters who joined IS, it was almost enough to make them forget the virtues of the afterlife.
The fall of the city to SDF forces is a particularly bitter blow to IS, coming so soon after it lost control of its other main base, Mosul, across the border in Iraq. Yet the Islamic State message remains as defiant as ever. The terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a 46-minute audio message in September lauding the efforts of his fighters in Mosul. Yes, they lost the city but, Baghdadi insisted, this was only after sacrificing their flesh and blood. “Thus, they were excused,” Baghdadi said.
He also pointed to the group’s ability to strike Western capitals with terrorist attacks. “The Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries,” said Baghdadi, “fearing the strikes of the mujahedin.” Direct addresses from Baghdadi have been rare. This latest speech signalled his need to rally supporters after a series of defeats.
It had the effect he wanted. Extremists on Telegram – a semi-encrypted social media platform on which IS material is rife – responded jubilantly to the message, seeming emboldened. This shows how IS has adapted to the new environment. With the actual caliphate collapsing, it is in the so-called virtual caliphate where the IS narrative will continue to have greatest resonance.
Consider two important events. The first was the recent capture of two Russian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor province, to the east of Raqqa. This small propaganda victory – the soldiers were paraded on social media – has been trumpeted on Telegram as evidence of IS’s continuing military prowess.
Perhaps more significant was the claim from IS that Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old American who murdered at least 58 people at a music concert in Las Vegas on 1 October, had carried out the attack on its behalf. Within hours of the incident, IS issued three statements claiming that Paddock had been a “soldier” of the caliphate, while celebrating the loss of life he caused. In a series of subsequent statements, IS said that Paddock had converted to Islam six months prior to the attack, which was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.
Though Paddock’s motives remain unknown, IS’s claims are not being treated as credible in the US. Yet, in a sense, their veracity is irrelevant. Supporters of the terror group already distrust mainstream media and Western officials: they have therefore accepted IS’s version of events. Almost nothing will convince them otherwise. Indeed, those who have expressed scepticism about Paddock’s links to IS in sympathetic Telegram groups have been told to hold their tongues and “trust the Muslims”.
Those who inhabit the “virtual caliphate” also respond in angry and impassioned ways to events taking place inside IS territory in Iraq and Syria. Often they have a chance to hear from fighters, of whom the most zealous and hardened remain in Raqqa, having vowed to fight until the end. The rest have relocated to Deir ez-Zor province, which is largely a desert and much harder to encircle than the major urban centres of Raqqa and Mosul.
Among the IS diehards is Yasser Iqbal, a lawyer from Birmingham. He recently published a series of audio messages from inside Raqqa under the nom de guerre Abu Adam al-Britani. He painted a picture of a crumbling caliphate, with IS unable to stop the relentless advance of SDF fighters.
The Western-led aerial bombing campaign is so intense that, Iqbal said, stray cats and dogs are growing overweight from feasting on “dead human flesh”, because fighters in Raqqa are unable to bury the dead. His message was unmistakably aimed at Muslims in the West and is intended to serve as a rallying cry.
As IS tries to use its online presence to encourage more attacks abroad, it has also taken the unprecedented step of calling for the mobilisation of women. In a new edition of its Arabic language newspaper, the terror group informed its female supporters that participation in jihad was an obligation and duty. The article justified the change of stance – IS had previously banned women from the battlefield – by describing the heroic deeds of female martyrs from Islamic history. The intention is to expand IS’s pool of potential recruits by encouraging women to engage in attacks.
Despite all the military pressure it faces and its renewed focus on the internet, IS remains a potent force on the ground. As it retreats from Raqqa – as it did in Mosul – it is leaving behind a legacy of devastation, as Quentin Sommerville reports. There will be no Marshall Plan for Syria and Iraq to rebuild their civil infrastructure or stimulate their stagnating economies. And the many deep-rooted problems, founded on simmering sectarian and ethnic tensions, communal distrust, privation and generalised insecurity, will remain. These contributed to the rise of IS in the first place – and have been exacerbated as a result of conflict.
As with other millenarian movements, IS has time on its side. The terror group is content to ride the ebb and flow of global currents, just as it did after 2007 when its predecessor was beaten back in Iraq. Then, as now, it contented itself with retreating and waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is well aware of this and is preparing the groundwork for the return of Islamic State. In his audio message in September, besides calling for more attacks in the West, he turned his attention to those closer to home.
“Turkey and the sahawat [literally: awakening; a reference to groups working with the West] will give you nothing,” Baghdadi said. “If it was not for us, you would be worse off.”