A Syrian camp for displaced people. Photo: MORUKC UMNABER/DPA
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Islamic State is not beaten and will return

Its message remains as defiant as ever.

Raqqa has crumbled far more quickly than anyone imagined. In just over four months, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Western air support, have liberated most of the city from Islamic State (IS). The de facto capital of the so-called caliphate, Raqqa was tightly controlled by its rulers, but it was a bustling hub of activity and urban life. For the hordes of foreign fighters who joined IS, it was almost enough to make them forget the virtues of the afterlife.

The fall of the city to SDF forces is a particularly bitter blow to IS, coming so soon after it lost control of its other main base, Mosul, across the border in Iraq. Yet the Islamic State message remains as defiant as ever. The terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a 46-minute audio message in September lauding the efforts of his fighters in Mosul. Yes, they lost the city but, Baghdadi insisted, this was only after sacrificing their flesh and blood. “Thus, they were excused,” Baghdadi said.

He also pointed to the group’s ability to strike Western capitals with terrorist attacks. “The Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries,” said Baghdadi, “fearing the strikes of the mujahedin.” Direct addresses from Baghdadi have been rare. This latest speech signalled his need to rally supporters after a series of defeats.

It had the effect he wanted. Extremists on Telegram – a semi-encrypted social media platform on which IS material is rife – responded jubilantly to the message, seeming emboldened. This shows how IS has adapted to the new environment. With the actual caliphate collapsing, it is in the so-called virtual caliphate where the IS narrative will continue to have greatest resonance.

Consider two important events. The first was the recent capture of two Russian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor province, to the east of Raqqa. This small propaganda victory – the soldiers were paraded on social media – has been trumpeted on Telegram as evidence of IS’s continuing military prowess.

Perhaps more significant was the claim from IS that Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old American who murdered at least 58 people at a music concert in Las Vegas on 1 October, had carried out the attack on its behalf. Within hours of the incident, IS issued three statements claiming that Paddock had been a “soldier” of the caliphate, while celebrating the loss of life he caused. In a series of subsequent statements, IS said that Paddock had converted to Islam six months prior to the attack, which was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

Though Paddock’s motives remain unknown, IS’s claims are not being treated as credible in the US. Yet, in a sense, their veracity is irrelevant. Supporters of the terror group already distrust mainstream media and Western officials: they have therefore accepted IS’s version of events. Almost nothing will convince them otherwise. Indeed, those who have expressed scepticism about Paddock’s links to IS in sympathetic Telegram groups have been told to hold their tongues and “trust the Muslims”.

Those who inhabit the “virtual caliphate” also respond in angry and impassioned ways to events taking place inside IS territory in Iraq and Syria. Often they have a chance to hear from fighters, of whom the most zealous and hardened remain in Raqqa, having vowed to fight until the end. The rest have relocated to Deir ez-Zor province, which is largely a desert and much harder to encircle than the major urban centres of Raqqa and Mosul.

Among the IS diehards is Yasser Iqbal, a lawyer from Birmingham. He recently published a series of audio messages from inside Raqqa under the nom de guerre Abu Adam al-Britani. He painted a picture of a crumbling caliphate, with IS unable to stop the relentless advance of SDF fighters.

The Western-led aerial bombing campaign is so intense that, Iqbal said, stray cats and dogs are growing overweight from feasting on “dead human flesh”, because fighters in Raqqa are unable to bury the dead. His message was unmistakably aimed at Muslims in the West and is intended to serve as a rallying cry.

As IS tries to use its online presence to encourage more attacks abroad, it has also taken the unprecedented step of calling for the mobilisation of women. In a new edition of its Arabic language newspaper, the terror group informed its female supporters that participation in jihad was an obligation and duty. The article justified the change of stance – IS had previously banned women from the battlefield – by describing the heroic deeds of female martyrs from Islamic history. The intention is to expand IS’s pool of potential recruits by encouraging women to engage in attacks.

Despite all the military pressure it faces and its renewed focus on the internet, IS remains a potent force on the ground. As it retreats from Raqqa – as it did in Mosul – it is leaving behind a legacy of devastation, as Quentin Sommerville reports. There will be no Marshall Plan for Syria and Iraq to rebuild their civil infrastructure or stimulate their stagnating economies. And the many deep-rooted problems, founded on simmering sectarian and ethnic tensions, communal distrust, privation and generalised insecurity, will remain. These contributed to the rise of IS in the first place – and have been exacerbated as a result of conflict.

As with other millenarian movements, IS has time on its side. The terror group is content to ride the ebb and flow of global currents, just as it did after 2007 when its predecessor was beaten back in Iraq. Then, as now, it contented itself with retreating and waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is well aware of this and is preparing the groundwork for the return of Islamic State. In his audio message in September, besides calling for more attacks in the West, he turned his attention to those closer to home.

“Turkey and the sahawat [literally: awakening; a reference to groups working with the West] will give you nothing,” Baghdadi said. “If it was not for us, you would be worse off.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.