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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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at