Updated at 10:57 a.m. ET on March 1, 2019.
Here’s a prediction: When or if the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed, if he isn’t dead already, foreign-policy pundits will argue that his bloody demise is ultimately a hollow victory for the Western-backed anti-ISIS coalition, and that ISIS, as an idea and an organization, will long outlive the death of its “caliph.” Some will even argue that his killing is in fact a boon to the group, since in death he will live on even more radiantly as a martyr.
That’s what will happen, at least, if past is prologue. Since ISIS came to global prominence in mid-2014, the Western media have consistently overestimated the group, attributing to it extraordinary technical savvy, awesome powers of strategic foresight, and a Terminator-like ability to keep reconstituting itself and coming back from the dead to terrorize and destroy all who stand in its path.
Of course, before the Western media overestimated the group, the Western political establishment underestimated it. President Barack Obama famously told The New Yorker’s David Remnick in early 2014 that ISIS was al-Qaeda’s “JV team.” He was wrong about that. Once ISIS captured Mosul, however, and then started beheading Western hostages, the freak-out commenced in earnest. By September 2014, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was insisting that the “threat ISIS poses” could not “be overstated.” It could and it was.
Soon it was hard to turn on the TV or read a newspaper without coming across some lurid story about the group’s latest depravity, which was also taken as evidence of its prowess. The Western tabloid press was particularly egregious in this regard, liberally disseminating clips from actual ISIS propaganda videos and publishing truly preposterous stories. One fake-news headline in the Daily Mail ran, “ISIS using bombs containing live SCORPIONS in effort to spread panic, in tactic used 2,000 years ago against Romans.”
But it wasn’t just the tabloid press. Serious journalists and commentators were also bewitched by the theater of the Islamic State’s cruelty and deeply impressed by the supposed sophistication of ISIS propaganda videos. In a September 2014 column for The New York Times, the late David Carr wrote, “Anybody who doubts the technical ability of ISIS might want to watch a documentary of Fallujah that includes some remarkable drone camera work.” He added, “While the videos convey barbarism on an elemental level … ISIS clearly has a sophisticated production unit, with good cameras, technically proficient operators and editors who have access to all the best tools.” He was referring to the opening shot of the ultraviolent Clanging of the Swords, Part 4. Countless other journalists praised the Islamic State’s masterly use of social media, pointing out how “slick” and on-point its message was.
These fawning appraisals helped burnish the group’s invincible image and might have spurred ISIS to create yet more videos, ramping up the shock quotient as it went. As the Spanish photographer Ricardo Vilanova, who spent eight months in an ISIS jail, told the BBC, “I think the West is also to blame because we became a loudspeaker for the Islamic State. Every time there was an execution, anything related with the Islamic State would get the front pages. I believed that encouraged them to get crueler and amplify their message.”
I count two problems with the media’s response to ISIS videos: It was ethically dubious to praise what was often straight-up snuff, and the videos were not really all that good. Many were no good at all.
Take, for example, the Islamic State’s first English-language video, There Is No Life Without Jihad, released on June 19, 2014. The video features a group of young British and Australian men, sitting together with their legs crossed, reading a pre-prepared script. They are trying to explain, in their thick regional accents, why they left their lives in the West for jihad in Syria and Iraq. A man identified as Abu Bara’ al-Hindi says, “Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you have got, the big car you have got, the family you have? Are you willing to sacrifice this for the sake of Allah?” Abu Bara’ al-Hindi is wearing what appears to be an Emporio Armani T-shirt, which is scarcely a strong look for a jihadist warrior, especially one at war with Western imperialism. The man to his immediate right has a lazy eye under his thick balaclava. And the third man sits silently for long periods of time with his mouth ajar. Needless to say, these were not particularly rousing audio-visual feats.
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.
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.