CTC Perspectives – Al-Adnani’s Paradox: Projecting Strength While Feeling Fear
October 16, 2015
On October 13, 2015, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani released a nearly 41-minute audio message. Islamic State social media networks had been abuzz in the hours prior to the release, expecting to hear shortly from either Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi or al-Adnani. Supporters last heard from al-Adnani in June, when he launched a verbal tirade against the enemies of the Islamic State, and in January, when he encouraged the group’s followers around the world to rise up and commit acts of violence, closing his statement with the words “you haven’t seen anything from us just yet.”
For those who had waited four months to hear the power of his words, al-Adnani’s message was most likely underwhelming. Indeed, recent experience has seen a mixture of success and failure, old enemies revived, and new enemies entering the fight against the Islamic State. The man who just months ago projected an image of power was left trying to explain to the faithful how to adjust to recent setbacks and dig in for the long fight.
To be sure, the successes of the past several months that al-Adnani refers to are real—the capture of Ramadi, the push in Palmyra (Tadmur) and Homs province in Syria, and the relative impotence and seeming irrelevance of al-Qa`ida head Ayman al-Zawahiri. Given these successes, reading too far into the content of one message is dangerous. But just as real as the successes are the undeniable number of challenges facing the Islamic State—the potential for added pressure caused by Russian involvement, the death of top leaders such as Abu Mu’taz and Abu Sayyaf, the significant advance of Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, and the prospect of governing a territory with significantly fewer citizens as they flee to safer areas.
While news reports on al-Adnani’s statement have focused on his name-calling of Obama, call for jihad against Russia and the United States, and the death of Abu Mu’taz, it is evident from the statement that al-Adnani is engaged in a balancing act. The competing pressures of the environment in Iraq and Syria appear to weigh heavily on al-Adnani in this message. A few examples of this pressure will be instructive.
First, al-Adnani’s messages to “Sawhwas” (Sunni individuals and groups who are fighting against the Islamic State) are typically full of more sticks than carrots. This message, however, was especially heavy on encouraging people to accept the carrots. First, note the sticks:
“Those fighting with groups to impose the law of God, join the cause of the Islamic State if you are sincere in your efforts, and leave the factions. [Otherwise] you have become the greatest hindrance to the victory of the mujahideen and the most beloved of the Muslims. Surely, we shall wipe this hindrance out. God permitting, we are coming, O soldiers of factions, wherever you are, though it may take time. Dare not stand in the face of the mujahideen.”
Then the carrots:
“Whoever throws down their weapons in repentance shall be safe. Whoever sits inside the mosque in repentance is safe. Whoever enters his house and locks the door in repentance is safe. Whoever detaches themselves from fighting us from among the factions or brigades in repentance shall be safe. They and their possessions shall be safe, regardless of their previous enmity toward our religion, and no matter the crimes they committed.”
Al-Adnani knows better than to beg, but the external pressures the group is facing seem to come across in his pleading for there to be an increased measure of internal unity.
Al-Adnani’s message then transitions to a hallmark of leadership addresses: rallying the Islamic State faithful. But here too a slightly different message is pitched.
“O soldiers of the Islamic State, heed my words: Do not worry about the caliphate, for God the Glorified and Exalted will protect it and create those who are suitable for establishing it.”
What is particularly interesting is that, within this message alone, are six admonitions to the faithful not to fear or worry about the Caliphate (including a particularly vivid “a drowning person does not fear getting wet” – not a reassuring image to say the least). Such repeated assurances might naturally elicit the statement from a fighter, “Mr. Al-Adnani, I wasn’t afraid until you kept telling me I shouldn’t be afraid.”
As if the repeated language about soldiers not needing fear was not curious enough, al-Adnani then goes on to suggest that joining the ranks of the Caliphate (as he did in previous messages) is not actually enough.
“None of you should think that you are saved just because you carried weapons and joined the ranks of the mujahideen.”
Some would refer to this type of language colloquially as that of a “bait-and-switch.”
Finally, while the message was released on October 13, it is impossible to say exactly when it was recorded. Assuming it was recorded within the past two weeks, the fact that al-Adnani did not mention the recent violence in Israel, despite the fact that a large social media campaign has been mounted by Islamic State followers in support of the Palestinians, provides another example of a spokesman distracted by the mounting pressures he faces.
To be clear, al-Adnani’s statement contains a great deal of anger and threats to the enemies of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, several parts of al-Adnani’s address seem to raise, even if slightly, a specter of doubt. And, although not firm evidence, it was also interesting to note that the anger in al-Adnani’s voice seemed to give way at times to a tone of sadness. Is it al-Adnani’s view that too many fighters are abandoning the cause? Is he concerned that the pressure is beginning to be too much? Even if the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, the road to defeating the Islamic State remains a long one. But such pressures on the organization would be a positive sign of the opportunities to come.
Muhammad al-`Ubaydi is a research assistant at the Combating Terrorism Center and monitors Arabic jihadist websites.
Daniel Milton is an Assistant Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.
 Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami, “Say, ‘Die in Your Rage’,” Al-Hayat Media Organization, 26 January 2015.
 See Loveday Morris and Natasha Abbakumova, “Al-Qaeda in Syria calls for revenge attacks on Russia,” Washington Post, 13 October 2015; Ahmed Tolba and Sylvia Westall, “Islamic State urges jihad against Russians, Americans – audio,” Reuters, 13 October 2015; “ISIS confirms killing of second in command during U.S. airstrike,” CBS News, 13 October 2015.