Since it began losing territory in Iraq and Syria last year, the Islamic State has shifted its propaganda away from rapturous rhetoric describing sweeping conquests across the region to more muted language urging its followers not to lose hope, and to embrace its last best chance for relevance: lone wolf attacks in the West.
Islamic State’s reputation as a notorious terrorist organization is one of the few things that remains after the territorial losses. The defeat in its capital, Raqqah, scattered its leadership and cut off disparate cells across the globe. These losses have forced ISIS to shift gears and to pack its propaganda with calls for renewed inspiration. The group appears to be moving away from its focus on a physical Caliphate and towards a less formal call for followers around the world to carry out attacks in their home countries. Of course, ISIS propaganda has instructed supporters on the finer points of lone wolf attacks since a 2014 pronouncement by its late spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
The shift in propaganda began when ISIS renamed its magazine. Following its loss of the northern Syrian town, Dabiq, in October 2016, ISIS rebranded its Dabiq magazine to Rumiyah, which translates to ‘Rome,’ indicating its desire to politically and symbolically conquer Western civilization.
Official ISIS leaders and sympathizers have recently issued propaganda intimating the need for a shift in focus away from a worldwide Caliphate to a new, more immediate inspiration that will resonate with discouraged followers. On September 28th, 2017, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released his first audio statement in more than a year, urging fighters to remain committed to the Islamic State: “The road towards achieving victory is patience and steadfastness in the face of hardship…We are remaining,” and promising the group’s losses would not be in vain.
On November 4th, a post appeared on a prominent pro-Islamic State Telegram channel reminding fighters “who have started to feel the pangs of disappointment upon the recent ‘losses’ of their Khilafah…[to] check [their] imaan [faith].” It continues:
“Was your imaan [faith] in Allah or was it in Islamic State? Because know that a day may come when the Islamic State is blip on the map. But will you lose your [faith] because of its loss of territory? Or will your [faith] increase because the Promise of our Lord is most true?”
In September, official Islamic State media released a 21-minute video, “The People of Strength,” featuring an English-speaking fighter, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, who uses the ongoing battles in Iraq and Syria to guilt followers into contributing to the “transaction with Allah:”
“Muwahhidin [monotheists] all over the world…Your heart probably aches because the kuffar [disbelievers] put barriers between you and making hijrah [migration] to the Khilafah…You and your brothers here have something in common, which is the willingness to fulfill the transaction with Allah…So what is it that is preventing you from fulfilling this wherever you are right now? Your brothers here are doing their part by fighting the apostates on the ground til their last breath with all available means. So where is your part?”
Following ISIS’s loss of Mosul in July, its supporters circulated an essay, “IS Supporter Sees Hope in Group’s Eventual Resurgence Following Expected Defeat in Iraq and Syria.” It acknowledges the losses, calling 2017 “a year where the U.S-led Coalition is trumpeting ‘victories’ against the Islamic State.” It concludes, even with significant losses, that the group will not perish because “it is the outcome of the war that really matters,” insinuating that the Islamic State will endure regardless of whether it holds territory in Iraq and Syria.
Sayfullo Saipov referenced the group’s resoluteness in the note he left behind on October 31, after he drove a rental truck onto a bike path in lower Manhattan, killing eight people and wounding 11 more. Authorities recovered the note, which read: “ISIS lives forever,” from Saipov’s vehicle, but the group did not officially claim responsibility for the attack. Instead, they dedicated a few paragraphs in their weekly al-Naba magazine to calling Saipov a “soldier of the Islamic State,” and describing the ramming as “one of the most prominent attacks that targeted Crusaders in America,” aside from Las Vegas, which ISIS claimed without any evidence.
As its territorial losses continue to mount, there is little doubt that the Islamic State will increasingly call for lone wolf attacks in the West. While no legitimate links between ISIS and the Manhattan attack have been identified, ISIS seems convinced that an increase in similar-style attacks will minimize ongoing losses in its followers’ eyes.