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.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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