Other ISIS videos were not just bad, but utterly cringeworthy, such as the homoerotic one featuring ISIS fighters frolicking in a swimming pool, or the ones with voice-overs so portentous and hyperbolic that they were simply beyond parody.
No doubt ISIS videos were an advance on the tedious, hour-long video-speeches of al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, and no doubt they were more arresting than the counter-messaging mash-up videos disseminated by the U.S. State Department. But they hardly warranted all the accolades that were showered on them by the Western media.
Once the media decided ISIS was unstoppable, they couldn’t let the idea go. For the past two years, ISIS has been getting pummeled in Syria and Iraq, and is now close to losing the last sliver of its territory, and thus of its caliphate. Yet many observers are reluctant to acknowledge the scale of this defeat for ISIS, convinced that it will shape-shift into something even more fearsome. Some can’t even bring themselves to use the word defeat, perversely sounding like ISIS propagandists who spin every loss as but a temporary setback on the path to inevitable triumph. They focus on the fact that the group has strongholds elsewhere—in Afghanistan, for instance—and argue that it will return at some later stage, revitalized.
Read: The hell after ISIS
The New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi cautioned last month that ISIS “has been declared vanquished before, only to prove politicians wrong and to rise stronger than before.” Also last month, Tim Lister, in a CNN story, insisted that “there are signs that [ISIS is] regenerating in Iraq.” (CNN’s headline: “ISIS Is Far From Being Defeated as a Fighting Force or Ideology.”) The jihadist expert and Atlantic contributor Hassan Hassan has argued repeatedly that ISIS is set to reinvent itself as a regional insurgency in Syria and Iraq and that, despite territorial losses, “its ability to function as an organisation remains intact.” In its guise as an insurgency, he suggested on Twitter, ISIS will be able to entrench itself locally in ways it couldn’t at its zenith.*
No doubt it’s true that ISIS has some life left in it. Journalists and experts ought to counter Trump’s bombastic rhetoric that “we have defeated ISIS” and point out nuances and complexity in the ongoing fight against the group. But they are also under an obligation to concede the glaringly obvious: ISIS will not be able to replicate the scale of violence and chaos it unleashed when it had large areas of land and all the resources and potential income that went with it. Loss of territory will also, as Georgetown’s Bruce Hoffman has pointed out, reduce the Islamic State’s global appeal, making it difficult to recruit and retain supporters.
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed, if he isn’t dead already, you can bet that ISIS propagandists will try to spin the loss as a win. And you can bet, too, that this face-saving gesture will elicit, to paraphrase a recent editorial in the ISIS weekly propaganda sheet al-Naba, “a strange unanimous agreement” among many quarters of the Western “crusader media.”
* This post has been updated to clarify Hassan Hassan’s argument about ISIS.