At the beginning of 2014, few people had heard of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. By the end of June, the militant group formerly known as either ISIL or ISIS had taken over vast chunks of both countries, connected them in what it called a caliphate and risen to worldwide recognition on a wave of gruesome, videotaped killings. Now, six months after bursting onto the world stage, the so-called Islamic State has become the international brand of jihad, and is locked in a war with a coalition led by the U.S.
For the militant group, 2014 was about rapidly expanding through a torrential social-media campaign featuring the shocking displays of brutality that have become its trademark. Next year, the Sunni militant group will likely focus on shoring up its caliphate. It will attempt to eliminate its local enemies and consolidate territory. Meanwhile, the appeal of the ISIS name and ideology may expand as the group uses its local base to rally a global community of sympathizers. It will also encourage lone-wolf attacks rather than try to stage a large-scale attack in the West, experts said.
“2015 is the year where we are going to see the IS as a government more than a terrorist organization,” said Jasmine Opperman, a South Africa-based analyst at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, or TRAC, a unit of the Beacham Group LLC headquartered in Nokomis, Florida. But the Islamic State group will not abandon the beheadings and massacres that are synonymous with it. “Though with the face of governance,” Opperman said, “we are to see extreme brutality to those opposing it.”
As for the caliphate itself, now under attack by near-daily U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, its expansion days may be over.
“It seems unlikely that it will have that innovative spark again and would be able to make such huge advances again,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of the international security studies program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It will be much more of a story of the group trying to hold on to what they have and consolidate power.”
That consolidation of power won’t mean less violence. The Islamic State group is notorious for its ferocity toward captured Westerners, but it has been committing atrocities against local populations for nearly a decade, when it was still known as al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Since June, the group has killed at least 1,500 Syrians and thousands more in Iraq, often massacring Shiites and other sectarian enemies when it seized a town.
In places where it is in control, residents are likely to see more “day-to-day brutality,” said Harleen Gambhir, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “ISIS actually intends to normalize violence.”
In Mosul and Raqqa, the group’s headquarters in Iraq and Syria, respectively, militant violence increasingly plays a role in both the political and social spheres. Residents must attend Islamic State-run schools, use its hospitals and obey the laws enforced by its police forces. Anti-ISIS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently posts daily updates of brutality that range from public crucifixions to forcing children to join Islamic State training camps.
Normalizing violence serves both to eliminate any whiff of disloyalty within the ranks and as a warning to others who oppose the caliphate. Recently, a gruesome report circulated claiming ISIS executed at least 100 of its own members for trying to leave the caliphate.
But violence isn’t enough. Islamic State members disdain the common Arabic acronym of the group’s name, Da’ash, and call their group al dawlah, simply “the state” -- a clear indication they see themselves as functionaries of a real government. To truly be one, the group must move beyond bloodshed and provide services ranging from power to health care throughout the territory it controls, something that will become harder as pressure from airstrikes intensifies.
While working to legitimize the physical caliphate, the Islamic State group will maintain its propaganda campaign, increasing its media outreach beyond the worldwide battle with al Qaeda for jihadist allegiance. The ISIS media effort will go local in 2015.
“Wilayats [provinces of the caliphate] now are starting to have their own media campaigns ... with a local focus to show the IS delivering a ‘better way of life,’” TRAC’s Opperman said.
Since the Islamic State declared its caliphate in June, the group has released at least 400 videos from four media production units, all with different target audiences. ISIS entities in Syria and Iraq each have their own dedicated media program, aimed at disseminating positive messages about life in the caliphate and the Islamic State ideology.
Media outreach will continue outside the caliphate, as well. This year, ISIS released a video announcing the caliphate’s expansion to Arab countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria. It also announced the full rebranding of a terrorist group in Egypt’s Sinai, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which now follows commands from the Islamic State leadership and has its own ISIS-designed media campaign.
The change in media strategy goes hand-in-hand with a changed expansion plan. Rather than overrrunning towns and obliterating borders in Iraq and Syria, the the Islamic State group will focus on gaining allegiance from smaller, existing groups in Arab and Muslim countries.
But here is where ISIS faces its biggest challenge in the immediate future: competing for allegiance with al Qaeda and its affiliates in countries where caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared his own legitimacy and the “nullification” of others. There are many so-called independent jihadist groups that have yet to choose a side, and the Islamic State wants them.
“A lot of them are small and locally focused, so it’s easy to dismiss them, but part of the power of al Qaeda was the ability of its affiliates to tap into those locally focused groups,” the Institute for the Study of War’s Gambhir said.
During the past year, ISIS enforced a strict allegiance policy, hoping to gain support from al Qaeda’s many local branches. That netted the support of 20 extremist groups, which announced they had given bayah, or allegiance, to the Islamic State. But it missed the biggest prize: the allegiance of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the strongest terrorist groups, which not only did not switch but also launched its own video recruitment campaign, aimed at slandering ISIS and marketing itself as the only viable option for jihadi hopefuls.
“The thing to watch for is ISIS actually directing activity in other countries,” Gambhir said. The first place is likely to be Libya, through the Shura Youth Council, active in Derna, she said. The jihadist group has already pledged allegiance to the caliphate and staged a number of rallies in support of the Islamic State.
But in terms of actual battles to seize territory. the group will stick to Iraq and Syria for the immediate future. It has to -- to keep what it already has gained.
“If you look at the polygon of territory that they’ve gained control of this year, there are several locations where they are actually still in combat,” Gambhir said. “There is an ongoing fight almost at every major front that ISIS has.”
Yet fighting the Islamic State just on the battlefield will not defeat it, Opperman said: “The IS has taken the jihadist battle into the specter of governance. and the question is how to counter the IS at both the military and governance levels.” It would be a mistake, she said, to place an “overemphasis on military combat.”