When it comes to looking at the Islamic State, a significant problem for research is that much of the content coming out of Islamic State-controlled territory is propaganda, primarily in the form of high quality videos and photo releases from the Islamic State’s official media outlets. Though there is some important analysis to be done on this propaganda- see the work of Charlie Winter, for instance, analysing the themes in-depth, and a more recent piece by Aaron Zelin suggesting a decline in quality of output- I myself find that after a while the monitoring of the content becomes rather predictable. For example, photo streams continue to centre around familiar motifs like battles, scenes of daily life in Islamic State-controlled towns and villages, implementation of Islamic justice, photos of natural beauty, and the like. In the videos, one finds every now and then multiple releases centred around one theme, the most recent set consisting of threats to Saudi Arabia. Others included threats to Israel and support for a new Palestinian intifada, calls for jihadis in Somalia to pledge allegiance, and focus on the refugee crisis. Thanks to the ‘masterplan’ text Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State, we know that such campaigns are centrally directed.
How else can we look at the workings of the Islamic State? Testimony from locals living in Islamic State territory to non-Islamic State affiliated media is one approach. Another consists of obtaining and examining Islamic State documents not released by the Islamic State in an official capacity. While the latter method can produce great insights if the documents are authentic, there is also space for abuse of this field of study in the form of forged documents. Many of these forgeries have even managed to gain widespread traction, but closer examination shows they are all poorly produced. Unlike, say, the realms of sports and Nazi memorabilia, the fakers of Islamic State documents generally do a bad job of trying to convey authenticity. Below are the most prominent examples of forgeries that have been able to circulate, with explanation of the flaws.
Specimen A: “Withdrawal from Fallujah”
This document was recently tweeted out by Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. campaign “Operation Inherent Resolve” against the Islamic State. It has been shared widely on social media and in the press. Unsurprisingly, many prominent, sectarian-leaning Shi’a commentators like Hayder al-Khoei and Abbas Kadhim have latched onto the document. To summarize, the document asserts that the “Fallujah province” of the Islamic State is no longer worth holding and must be abandoned. It then outlines a number of steps to be taken to destroy infrastructure and commit atrocities, portraying such acts as the work of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) and collective of Shi’a militias (Hashd Sha’abi), thereby smearing their reputations.
However, the document is certainly a forgery despite Col. Warren’s attempts to claim the document has been vetted by U.S. analysts. For one thing, the document is stamped “Ninawa Province” in the north of Iraq and then talks of withdrawing from Fallujah Province. The first clause then mentions destroying mosques in Fallujah and Baiji, but the mention of Baiji here makes no sense if the document is about withdrawal from Fallujah Province, as Baiji is located in Salah ad-Din province to the north of Baghdad. Further, the document speaks of “the Hashd Sha’abi” and the “security forces” (quwat amniya), but this is not the language the Islamic State employs for these forces. Rather, Hashd Sha’abi is derided as the Hashd Rafidi (“Rafidite Mobilization”- Rafidite being a derogatory for the Shi’a), and the ISF as the “Safavid army” or “Rafidite army” (Safavid being a derogatory that means being a client of Iran).
The document also mentions sending media content to be broadcast by al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, but the tactic of sending propaganda to be broadcast by specific mainstream media channels is not part of the Islamic State’s media modus operandi. It has no need to send material to these channels that it regards as mouthpieces for enemy states- Saudi Arabia and Qatar respectively- when it can easily disseminate its material itself via its multiple official media organs on open social media avenues. Clearly, whoever wrote this document (forgers within ISF and the Hashd) are seeking to play on the narrative of collusion between the Gulf states and the Islamic State. There is much criticism to be said with regards to how channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya cover Iraq (e.g. identifying persons as representatives of the Sunni Arab community when they actually have little influence), but the notion that the Islamic State would send material to these channels to broadcast is divorced from reality. Rather, such tactics were the hallmarks of the old days of Zarqawi’s al-Qa’ida in Iraq, whose media were far less sophisticated.
Moreover, there is no such thing as a combined position of head of military and security in the Islamic State (the supposed position of the person who signed this document). As genuine internal documents show (which I will cover for Jihadology in the New Year), each province of the Islamic State has a military official and a security official, and these positions are separate. While the military official is commander of provincial forces, the security official is akin to head of intelligence and internal security. The forgers behind this document are evidently unaware of these internal dynamics in the Islamic State.
Clearly the U.S. military has been fooled, most likely by the variety of Hashd militias who do the bulk of the fighting on the peripheries of Fallujah city. The motif of a scorched earth policy and framing it as the work of Iraqi forces recurs in forgeries of Islamic State documents.
Specimen B: Withdrawal from Salah ad-Din Province
This document emerged earlier this year around the time of the offensive to retake Tikrit and is widely circulated in Iraqi social media. It has also been tweeted as authentic by some journalists including Elijah Magnier. Content-wise, the document is identical to Specimen A, but the document avoids obvious mistakes in language. Unlike Specimen A, terminology is used in keeping with Islamic State language, thus Shi’a are referred to as “Rafidites” and allied Sunni forces as “apostates.”
However, some oddities emerge in the labelling of the document. The heading and stamp bear the name “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham,” when the Islamic State abandoned this naming back in June 2014 when it officially declared itself to be the Caliphate. On its own, however, this data point is not enough to discredit the document, as many authentic Islamic State documents have the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” label despite coming from the Caliphate era. Rather, it must be noted in combination with other peculiarities, including the lack of a specific Islamic State department label that issued the document (e.g. Diwan al-Wilaya, Diwan al-Jund, Diwan al-Amn etc.?) and that there is no indication of who Abu Ishaq al-Samarra’i is.
Moreover, content-wise, the document does not quite match what the Islamic State has pursued in Salah ad-Din province: though it lost Tikrit, the document implies a general policy throughout all of Salah ad-Din province, when the Islamic State actually continued to fight intensely on the Baiji front for many months afterwards and there is still some control over the Jazira area to the west of Samara. Taking all of these points alongside the fact that the “destroy stuff/commit atrocities and pin the blame on Iraqi forces” is a forgery motif as established in the case of Specimen A, this document should be dismissed as a forgery too, the motive being to excuse any looting that might occur, say, in the aftermath of Tikrit’s fall. That said, it is certainly a better forgery than Specimen A.
Specimen C: Withdrawal from Iraq
This is another document that has done the rounds in Iraqi media (e.g. here). It is a purported order from an official in the Caliph’s office (Diwan al-Khilafa) to withdraw entirely from Iraq. Of course, this has not happened on the ground and makes no sense. Further, the labelling this time can be taken by itself to dismiss the document as a forgery: it is labelled as “Islamic State of Iraq,” which was the Islamic State’s name before it officially expanded into Syria in 2013 and became the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.No authentic document from that time onwards, let alone the Caliphate era, has borne this label.
Specimen D: Price List for Sex Slaves
This document has appeared in media multiple times, including in the British newspaperThe Daily Mail. It has even been endorsed as authentic by UN official Zainab Bangura and cited in WIll McCants’ book on the Islamic State (a book I otherwise recommend reading: the author has a good grasp of Arabic language jihadi primary sources, something generally missing from other accounts). As with Specimen C, the clear sign of a forgery is the use of the label “Islamic State of Iraq.” A particularly colourful motif comes at the end of the document with the stipulation that Turks, Syrians and Khalijis [people from the Gulf states] can buy more than three sex slaves, but it is not made clear why this exception should be made for people of such nationalities. There are numerous authentic Islamic State documents that justify enslaving women from the Yezidis and other sects. None talk about making exceptions for people of particular nationalities as to how many slaves they can purchase. A purported survivor’s account has also peddled this motif. It is unfortunate thatAgence France Presse, which covered it, did not challenge that account. I myself have also consulted with Matthew Barber, who has worked extensively on the issue of Yezidi enslavement by the Islamic State. He has found no corroboration of this claim of an exception for Syrians, Turks and Khalijis as to how many slaves one can buy.
There are plenty of documents that shed particularly negative light on the Islamic State, such as itspractice of confiscation as a key source of financial income, the problem of brain-drain in the medical realm, and its attempts to put heavy restrictions on Internet access for locals. Fabrications, however, do not serve the fight against the Islamic State. Rather, they bolster the Islamic State’s narrative that there is a smear campaign in the media.