US uses Kobane defeat in 'counter-message' against Islamic State. Can it work?

Islamic State fighters have been apparently defeated in the Syrian border city of Kobane, and now the US is trying to hold that up as a cautionary tale for would-be foreign fighters.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
People walk on the debris of damaged buildings in the northern Syrian town of Kobane, Jan. 28.

Ever since the United States cobbled together an international coalition last year to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State, a top priority has been drying up the flow of foreign fighters eager to join the battle on the side of IS militants.

Now the US is seeking to use the apparent defeat of IS fighters in the Syrian border city of Kobane as a tool in the campaign to shut off the foreign-fighter spigot.

The message the US is putting out is clear: Rather than military glory, stature in an advancing movement, and a promised reward of virgins in heaven, what awaits the Belgian, Briton, or Saudi drawn to the IS cause is a much less glorious fate: being used as battle fodder, and almost certain death.

Less certain, however, is whether IS supporters and would-be fighters will hear the Kobane outcome the way the US wants them to – or whether the group’s defeat after months of US airstrikes and street-by-street fighting between IS and Kurdish forces only stokes determination to join the cause.

According to the State Department, dampening the appeal of IS to thousands of mostly young men around the world by debunking the glorious image that IS conveys in its slick social media presence is at least worth a try.

“If you’re an 18-year-old disaffected guy” seeking an antidote to a lack of purpose in the “recesses of the Internet ... what was glory and conquest is now hundreds of bodies in the streets of Kobane,” a senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday following word of Kobane’s fall into Kurdish hands.

“You’re not going to be part of something that great.... You’re not going to have a female slave” but instead will be dispatched to the front lines as thousands of foreign fighters were in Kobane, the official said.

The State Department's messaging followed claims Monday that Syrian Kurdish fighters, backed by Iraqi Kurdish forces and almost daily US-led bombardments of IS positions, had taken control of the key city on Syria’s border with Turkey.

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said that “about 90 percent of the town” is now in Kurdish hands, with IS fighters continuing to retreat.

The fall of Kobane does not mean “anyone is declaring mission accomplished” in the fight against IS, the official said. But he added that “Kobane has broader ramifications” for that fight, especially in countering IS’s efforts to attract foreign fighters.

The IS command in the Syrian city of Raqqa had dispatched many of the group’s best foreign fighters, from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chechnya, and elsewhere, to the front lines in Kobane, the official said. The number of foreign fighters killed in the battle for Kobane was “in the four figures,” the official said, calling the number “hugely significant.”

“The entire notion of this organization that is on the march and [its] inevitable expansion and inevitable momentum has been halted at Kobane,” the official said.

Not everyone agrees that Kobane’s fall will diminish the interest of foreign fighters in the IS cause. Dying on the battlefield in defense of the “caliphate” that the extremist group has declared in Syria and Iraq may actually be viewed as a desirable martyrdom, some experts in jihadist movements say.

The fact that defeat in Kobane only occurred after months of heavy US-led bombardment and combat with US-armed Kurdish fighters may also encourage a sense that IS forces, once almost unopposed in their seizure of territory in Syria and Iraq, now need the backing of foreign fighters more than ever, some say.

Others note that, Kobane aside, the broad image that many would-be jihadists are likely to have of the Islamic State is still one of an expanding organization with a certain momentum on its side. Anyone following IS developments on the Internet would have picked up on reports of expansion of IS activity into Yemen, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, and elsewhere.

The IS media apparatus has been particularly active in recent weeks in promoting the recruitment of foreign fighters into Libya, says Aaron Zelin, an expert in jihadist movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and founder of the Jihadology website.

“There are clear signs that there is a foreign fighter presence in Libya,” says Mr. Zelin, adding that while that presence does not match the numbers in Syria or Iraq, “the fact that there are foreigners there illustrates the [theater's] appeal."

In a paper published this week by the Washington-based Project on Middle East Political Science, Zelin notes that IS in Libya has begun announcing “martyrdom notices” concerning foreign fighters from Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere who died fighting to establish an IS “province” in Libya.

To encourage the flow of fighters to Libya, Zelin adds, IS has begun airing video messages of foreign fighters who “traveled to Libya to embark on the building of the ‘caliphate’ ” there. The videos, he says, mirror those featuring “the Islamic State’s foreign fighters based in Syria, from Bosnians to Canadians to French to Indonesians to Moldovans, among others.”

The US has said from the outset of the international campaign to defeat IS that taking on the group’s polished Internet presence would be a top priority. But just how successful the State Department’s “counter-messaging” campaign will be – beginning with the focus on IS’s defeat in Kobane – remains to be seen.

According to the State Department official who spoke on Kobane, there is evidence of foreign fighters being executed by IS for refusing to fight on the front lines. More effective in actually stopping the flow of foreign fighters, some say, would be Internet messages of disillusioned former fighters who now reject the IS cause.

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