A psychological analysis of the most recent ISIS magazine Rumiyah 9By
Brig Barker, Former FBI counterterrorism expert & Global Security Consultant & CEO of Red Rock Global Security Group
Dr. Carlos Vazquez, Social Psychology Professor & Lead Consultant on the Psychology of terrorist recruitment at Behavioral Analysis Group
This most recent magazine by ISIS displays a conspicuous undercurrent of worry and an obvious sign of loss of control by this group. It is no wonder after significant losses in revenue ($1.9 billion in 2014 to $870 million in 2016; New York Post 2017), sizable losses in territory (some estimate 50% of territory; Business insider,2017), and Fox news reports that 50,000 ISIS fighters have been killed. These three factors are strong indicators that ISIS is hemorrhaging, therefore, corroborating the feeling of angst and loss of control that is evidenced in this recent issue.
Even though this issue has many similar themes to past issues there is a resonating theme of having to demonstrate power, control and stability that is not as prevalent in other issues. We will look at the psychological and counterterrorism aspects of Rumiyah (Rome) #9 to corroborate this claim. We will breakdown the magazine in a comprehensive but far from an exhaustive analysis.
The first few pages of the newest issue are spent by ISIS justifying their attacks by labeling them as blessed, which insinuates that they are divinely approved. For instance, “From among these blessed deeds were the successive attacks which the soldiers of the Islamic state in Misr and Sinai carried out against the Christians in those lands…”. This opening argument of the issue appears to be a response from those, which are many, that oppose the killing of innocent civilians and the people of the book.
They continue to demonstrate justification for these acts and try to add rationality and order by stating that the death of the infidel is preventable, if of course the infidels choose to believe ISIS’ ideology. Here is what they say to demonstrate some sort rationality and opportunity for the infidel to survive: “Committing shirk with Allah is a sin that makes one permissible to be killed, and believing in Him gives one protection”, as the Prophet said “I was commanded to fight the people until they say “No God but God” or also known as the shahada. This is a classic deferment of responsibility by placing the responsibility on a divine being which in turn absolves them of any guilt.
They continue this (we are only doing our duty) sense of supposed righteousness by stating that they would and have punished their own members if they kill someone protected by the covenant. For example, ISIS states whoever kills a person who’s been given a covenant will not smell the fragrance of Jannah. They even attempt to justify the killing of the indefensible by stating the following: “The killing of the elderly and the infirm, due to the prophet agreeing with the Sahabah’s killing of Durayd Ibn as-Summah after the battle of Hunayn. He was an old man who was incapable of fighting, but he was a man whose opinion and counsel was sought among his people and the story is in the Sunnah.”
The first part of the magazine has an overwhelming focus on justifying killing individuals especially killing innocents. This makes me believe that many of their followers are beginning to question their motives and their violent behaviors, hence the need to contribute a large part of the magazine to justifying their actions with cherry picked verses in hadiths which some are considered weak in authenticity. This can further substantiate in the book “ISIS Defectors” written by Dr. Anne Speckhard and Dr. Yayha Ahmet. The book discusses several interviews with ISIS defectors and one of the resonating reasons of why they defected was the unjustified killing of Muslims, innocent people and children.
Loss of control
The latter half of the magazine is their attempt to explain away their recent and significant losses of territory, money, and fighters. This is their attempt to save the image that they still have control and that this momentary setback is divinely ordained. Here is what they say to explain away the losses: “If Allah always supported the believers and gave them victory over their enemy in every battle, giving them consolidation over their enemies in every case, their souls would transgress and become arrogant and proud.” Therefore, too much winning can cause character flaws among the people. This is a classic example of reframing the argument.
They also demonstrate a desperate sign of needing more fighters as they discuss again the transcending of death and attainment of heavenly rewards following martyrdom. They attempt to reframe the killing of a fighter in this manner “Never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead, rather, they are alive with their Lord…”. This is a common psychological persuasion technique known as reframing. They present martyrdom as a no-lose situation- either you are victorious or you are a martyr. Another technique they use to instill psychological control, as other oppressive groups have done in the past, is by instilling a form of acetic behavior and self-sacrifice under the aegis of piety. This acetic behavior can cause in some individuals a feeling of superiority and augments the us vs them narrative in their minds-I am better than they are.
The final point of analysis is the feeling that the counter messaging maybe working. Even though ISIS has attacked other scholars in the past for being hypocrites in this issue they specifically name scholars and present a lengthy theological discussion on the punishment for Islamic scholars that mislead the Ummah. They once again cherry pick verses to attempt to counter the message of whom they deem as hypocritical scholars.
In this edition, we see ISIS aggressively attempting to justify their violent and senseless killing of innocents which reflects the decreasing of morale within the ranks. They aggressively tried to romanticize martyrdom to increase their attacks in turn giving them an aura of control. They attempted to minimize their significant losses by attributing as how would you say “too much winning is bad”. This psychological analysis was by no means exhaustive but hopefully provided some insight into the unconscious motivations behind the structure and content of the most recent Rumiyah issue.
From the counterterrorism perspective, it’s clear that ISIS sees the writing on the wall in regards to their swath of land in Iraq and Syria. In fact, their concerns are validated in that they lost Dabiq (Previous name of their online journal) to the Turks and consequently had to change the name of their magazine. In this latest edition, with each word and article it’s clear they know victory is out of reach and this Caliphate (11th to date in Islamic history) will soon be smoldering. The tone of Rumiyah (9) is clear, they’re losing and the infidels are gaining ground. This doesn’t make for increased recruitment so the theme because ‘Convince’ versus ‘Convey”. They are strenuously trying to convince followers and fence sitters that there is hope as opposed to simply conveying their perpetual strength and soon to be obtained victory.
Although the content is well written and persuasive it’s filled with nebulous theological arguments that leave the reader convinced to the opposite. What rings true and tangible are the articles on the mechanics and tradecraft of attacks. This is where ISIS makes their virtual money. However, this one goes to the desperate level of encouraging attacks however possible. Again, ISIS puts themselves in the simpleton box as opposed to the long-range planning and sophisticated approach of Al Qa’ida. As such, ISIS will never climb out of their simple ways and will continue to ride the coattails of the implementation of their field guide, “The Management of Savagery”. Their long-term impact, however, cannot be minimized as 30,000 foreign fighters must return to western countries at some point. This will extend ISIS’ reach long after they are removed from Iraq and Syria.
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