war on the rocks

ISIL’s Most Important Anniversary is Coming Up and It’s Not What You Think

August 13, 2015

The headlines told the story. In late June 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was supposedly “celebrating” its “birthday,” the one-year anniversary of declaring itself an “Islamic State” after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul. Indeed, ISIL’s Nineva province reportedly forced Mosul residents to celebrate the city’s conquest and the group’s Wilayat Sinai distributed a video recognizing the milestone. There was plenty of Twitter chatter among supporters of the group as well. Despite those yelps, however, a much larger dog did not bark.

ISIL’s vaunted media team did not release a glossy documentary about the anniversary. There was no statement from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who, granted, may be injured) and no statement from Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s official spokesperson. Perhaps such propaganda remains in the offing, and is simply delayed. But six weeks and one-year after Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared ISIL the Caliphate, it seems appropriate to consider an alternative: this anniversary is more important in Washington and London than it is in Raqqa or Mosul.

I do not mean to dismiss ISIL’s declaration that it is the resurrected Caliphate. The conquest of Mosul that coincided with that pronouncement reshaped the battlefield fundamentally in Iraq and Syria and ISIL’s self-redefinition as an essentially borderless movement invited affiliates around the world to align themselves with the group. Nonetheless, the focus among Western commentators on that date seems more a memorial to Western policymakers’ refocusing attention on ISIL rather than a reflection on the group’s strength or how it understands its own “birthday.”

This is not an academic debate. Whether you consider ISIL a terrorist group, a proto-state, or an insurgency, the group builds a sense of collective self-identity among its adherents that is critical to its recruitment, administration, and resiliency. How ISIL tells its own history is critical to that notion of identity — and they did not tell much history on the one-year anniversary of the Caliphate declaration. If we misunderstand how history informs ISIL’s identity — for example, by remembering an anniversary that was more important to Washington’s political debate about ISIL than it was to ISIL itself — then we misunderstand our enemy.

The United States is unlikely to defeat an enemy it does not understand.

So, if the one-year anniversary of June 29, 2013 was not particularly important to ISIS’ collective self-identity, what is?

The date most important to ISIL is October 15, 2006, which is when Abu Ayyub al-Masri declared the formal dissolution of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the establishment of the the Islamic State of Iraq. Coming just as the Surge and the Awakening in Iraq were emerging, the declaration was widely ignored in the West but it caused a massive debate among jihadis that attests to the importance of that declaration among Muslim extremists.

There is a healthy debate to be had among specialists in the West about whether that initial Islamic State of Iraq was intended to be an actual governing institution (my view, mostly), a hollow propaganda win, or a desperate effort by its leaders to bring about the apocalypse. Regardless, everyone should understand that ISIL started its own clock nearly ten years ago this autumn and that is how it understands its own history today.

Here’s a prediction: official ISIL propaganda outlets will spend more time and effort memorializing the upcoming ten-year anniversary of the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq than they did on the one-year anniversary of declaring a Caliphate.

And, a corollary: that memorial will be more important in Raqqa and Mosul than it will be in Washington and London. For ISIL’s supporters, emphasizing the duration of the state—its ability to “remain”—is central to its legitimacy. We worry in the United States that ISIL has built up a year of that sort of legitimacy. But rightly or wrongly, in ISIL, they think they have already banked ten years worth.

ISIL draws its internal legitimacy from a range of sources, including affirmations of its strength by Western observers. There is some downside even to acknowledging ISIL’s self-aggrandizing sense of self. But there is greater danger in fighting an enemy you do not understand — and judging by the headlines, we are doing that too often.

The good news is that we have a rough measure to test my assertion. ISIL will either memorialize its ten-year anniversary in October or it will not. Either way, watch this space for a depressing victory lap or an upbeat mea culpa.

 

*Author’s Note: Aaron Zelin notes that I cannot count. The ten-year anniversary of a date in 2006 is in 2016, not 2015. More substantively, he also notes that ISIL would most likely utilize the Islamic calendar. According to the Islamic calendar, the 10-year anniversary of the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq corresponds to late June 2016. The author feels like a bit of a dolt, promises to drink more coffee, thanks Zelin, and stands by the thrust of the argument.

 

Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow with the International Studies Program at New America, a Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and an Affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.