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

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. 

 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.