ISIS: Redefining Success to Compensate for Losses

Since May, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has tried to maintain operational and strategic momentum in the face of setbacks by recasting its propaganda, downplaying territorial losses, and emphasizing its potential long-term impact on the global jihad. Since 2015, the group lost approximately 40 percent of its territory and 120 leaders. 

  • In an audio message in November, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stated current conditions are “a prelude to the victory and clear conquest that Allah [God] promised” and called on followers to remain steadfast and obey their commanders. In May, the group’s now-deceased spokesman and second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, stated battlefield losses should be viewed as a trial by God and, for followers to pass the test, they should remain resilient.
  • In May, following mounting territorial losses, Adnani minimized the importance of holding territory, stating that even if ISIS loses all cities under its control, including its capital Raqqa, Syria, it would not be defeated. In October, after the loss of Dabiq to Turkish-backed rebels—a city central to the group’s propaganda efforts—ISIS’s messaging emphasized it was not primarily concerned with holding territory. 
  • ISIS in the last several months published that the existence of its self-proclaimed caliphate educated millions of followers, who would continue to support the group’s vision of an Islamic state for generations. In July, moreover, an ISIS newsletter claimed, “If they [ISIS’s enemies] want to achieve true victory, they will have to wait a long time: until an entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the establishment of the Islamic State and the return of the caliphate, is wiped out.”

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