General Stephen Townsend heads up the U.S. coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
And on Thursday, Townsend answered reporter questions about the status of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Townsend said he has seen "Indicators in intelligence channels that he's still alive." This is notable since we've heard little about al-Baghdadi since June when Russia claimed it killed the ISIS leader. As I noted at the time, there are a number of reasons why that Russian claim was always questionable.
Townsend also stated that Baghdadi is likely hiding along the Syria-Iraq border, before adding an important point. "The last stand of ISIS," the general said, "will be in the middle Euphrates River valley. When we find him, I think we'll just try to kill him first. It's probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him."
It would be a mistake to take these statements at face value. Townsend has an ulterior, albeit highly justified, interest here.
Put simply, he's trolling ISIS.
More specifically, Townsend's words represent the application of what the military refers to as psychological warfare, or efforts "to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own."
His intent here is two-fold.
First, by talking about the "last stand of ISIS," Townsend wants to discourage ISIS fighters by reminding them that they are totally surrounded. This is newly relevant since ISIS forces are near-defeat in their capital, Raqqa, Syria, and compressed into an increasingly shallow area along the Syrian Euphrates River valley and the central Iraq-Syria border region. ISIS supply lines are strained, their Iraq/Syria operational capabilities are increasingly weak, and their freedom of movement is under significant pressure.
And, as the military's air strike information releases attest, ISIS no longer possesses the safety of space. In 2014 and 2015, ISIS commanders could go out to dinner in their host town or city and have a grand time. Now, as proved by dust boy, they either order-in or get blown up.
Playing to that reality, Townsend flips ISIS propaganda back onto itself, reminding lower-rank fighters of their terrible mistake. They who once served God's will by playing Grand Theft Auto in the flesh now await a pathetic demise. As I've explained, this propaganda battle is crucial in dissuading susceptible individuals from joining the caliphate.
Townsend's second intention is to embarrass al-Baghdadi himself.
As Thomas Joscelyn reports, increasing numbers of senior ISIS leaders are leaving the caliphate in fear for their lives. They have learned from the obliteration of other leaders that waving the black flag is incongruent with personal safety. Yet in al-Baghdadi's particular efforts to evade detection, the ISIS leader is sacrificing his leadership credibility. His days offering sermons in Mosul are dead and buried.
Instead, al-Baghdadi's once-ordained global conquest has been reduced to hiding in the desert with a small retinue of fighters. This also links to a strategic propaganda impact on his fighters: in his fear, al-Baghdadi also shows his unholy nature. After all, were he the chosen warrior of God, surely he would lead from the front? And as ISIS fighters continue to fight and die in a perpetual retreat, they and their commanders will grow increasingly angry at al-Baghdadi's conspicuous absence.
This isn't to say that the U.S. strategy against ISIS is perfect. For one, the metastasis of ISIS threats across Europe and South East Asia remains a serious concern. Additionally, the Trump administration does not understand the political sectarianism at the heart of ISIS empowerment. It is also absurd that the Iraq-Syria border crossing town of Al Qaim is still in ISIS hands.
Nevertheless, it's good that Townsend is trolling ISIS. The general knows his adversary is under pressure, and he wants to maximize that strategic opportunity.