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Isis's strangely corporate approach to terror makes them all the more scary

From its unsettling but bureaucratic annual reports to its sophisticated social media strategy, the jihadist group Isis has been borrowing ideas from business and applying them to international terror. 

Iraqi civilians flee Isis's advance in the north of the country. Photo: Getty.

A few months before it took over large swaths of territory in Iraq, including the country’s third largest city Mosul, the militant Islamist group The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Isis) published al-Naba (The Report), its 400-page-long second annual report. The front cover features a photograph of a jihadist fighter in a trench, staring moodily into the middle distance, and the report itself provides data on the terror organisation’s military activities over the past year.

This might seem an incongruously bureaucratic move for a group of murderous ideologues aiming to impose an Islamic caliphate, including a brutal interpretation of Sharia law, across Iraq and Syria – and in some ways it is. But as this fascinating Institute for the Study of War report suggests, even terrorists sometimes need to use spreadsheets. 

The annual report might have been envisaged as a tool for attracting new donors; a way of demonstrating to fellow radical Islamists that Isis is capable of planned, strategic attacks. It would also be useful internally, to measure organisational success. For journalists, counter-terrorism experts and analysts it offers an unsettling, but fascinating, insight into a group whose military success in the past week has taken many by surprise.

You can’t necessarily trust the statistics – the chances are Isis likes to exaggerate its successes – but even the chilling way in which it categorises different types of attacks (“assassination, bombing and burned houses, suicide vests, apostates run over”) can be informative.

Writing weeks before the Isis insurgency in Iraq, Alex Bilger, author of the ISW report, notes that some of the categories of attack listed by the group, such as “cities taken over” and “checkpoints set up” make clear its desire to take over territory in Iraq. There’s also a notable military focus on Ninewa, a district in Iraq that includes Mosul, which fell to Isis last week and is still under the jihadists' control. In 2012 37.6 per cent of its military operations took place in Ninewa, and last year 32.9 per cent did. Over two years Isis gradually shifted from armed attacks to more targeted assassinations and bomb attacks, suggesting the central military command exterted increasing control over fighter activities.

The reports also demonstrate that Isis has a “disciplined military command” and a “unified, coherent leadership structure that commands from the top down” Bilger writes. It is able to change its tactics to suit its environment, and fighters spread across a large area of territory report back to central control. 

These findings offer some contrast to the Abbottabad Papers, the documents (only some of which have been published), that were found in Bin Laden’s compound when he was killed in 2011 by US Navy SEALS. These suggested that Al Qaeda (a much larger and more dispersed terror group than Isis) was struggling to keep control of its regional affiliates, and was indeed much less organised than most commentators believed it to be. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that Al Qaeda didn’t aspire to use the management structures typically associated with professional armies, or even large corporations. One of the papers found in Bin Laden’s compound and since published is a 44-page blueprint for improving Al Qaeda’s organisational structure. Memos sent by Bin Laden demonstrate how he urged regional leaders of Al-Qaeda affiliates to adopt better military command structures and a coherent media strategy. Bin Laden wanted Al Qaeda to improve its PR: to stop factual errors being printed about him, and to try and spread his jihadist message more effectively.

Isis’s rapid advance across Iraq was only made possible thanks to its ability to form alliances with local civilians and armed groups. In the areas it controls Isis attempts to set up its own para-state, setting up their own courts and schools, taxing residents and even establishing its own food standards authority. Isis therefore need not only to be organised, but to carefully manage its external relations. Isis has deployed a sophisticated social media strategy, which is managed top-down and mirrors the strategies employed by marketing companies to create a buzz around a product. In the words of one analyst quoted by CNN, JM Berger, “Big corporations wish they were as good at this as ISIS is.”  It has even developed a Twitter app for Android phones called The Dawn of Glad Tidings.

It is not the only terror group to have used social media (Al Shabab in Somalia are prolific tweeters) or to think about their media strategy: Al Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula used to print an English language magazine called “Inspire” and now Al Qaeda’s central command have announced they will launch a copy-cat online publication called “Resurgence”. But it does seem that Isis has an exceptional understanding of PR.

Isis has been borrowing ideas from business and applying them to international terror. This could be one reason for its success in controlling territory in Syria. And for its various armed opponents in Iraq - including the Iraqi national army, Shi'a militia groups and Kurdish pershmerga fighters - that makes them a very formidable army indeed. 

 

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