Saturday, April 25, 2015

McISIS: Brand Equity in the Jihad Market

In mid-June 2014, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell into the hands of the Islamic State (IS) following a blitz offensive. With the decisive victory came credibility and prestige.  Since the fall of Mosul, 22 significant terror organizations have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as of March 31, 2015. These terror organizations span a wide swath of territory across 14 countries in the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Much like a McDonald’s franchisee, these operations are looking to capitalize on the strong brand and/or successful business model of the “franchisor.”

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Salafist jihadist group of 1,000-2,000 fighters based in the Sinai Peninsula, pledged allegiance to IS on November 10, 2014. Emerging after the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the group established itself as a formidable organization in its own right. A series of successful attacks, including the July 2014 attack in the Western desert that killed 21 Egyptian soldiers and the October 2014 attack that killed 31, led to a crackdown by the Egyptian military. Under new pressure, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis pledged obedience to IS with hope that the move would provide new money and new recruits in its battle against Cairo.

In the weeks before its pledge, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis adopted the tactic of beheading its captives, a “signature” of IS, but unusual for the Sinai-based organization. This was likely in order to draw favor from IS and potential funders who may want to see more similarity between the organizations before they parted with their money. However, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis focuses its operations on security personnel, and has been reluctant, barring a few exceptions, to shift focus onto civilians. Despite its pledge, this indicates a significant degree of autonomy from IS, which is infamous for its indiscriminate killing. In addition, some factions of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, particularly along the Nile River, have refused to join IS in favor of loyalty to al-Qaeda.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance has led to the adoption of several IS tactics, including the targeted killing of Christians. On April 7, a dozen Boko Haram militants disquised themselves as Christian preachers in order to gain entrance into a northern Nigerian community, eventually opening fire on the population and killing 24 people. Boko Haram has long targeted wives of Christians for forced conversion to Islam, but Christians are now being executed on the spot.

However, the recent pledge does not appear to have revitalized the crumbling West African group. Despite the high-quality video released on April 24, Boko Haram is losing ground. The video includes all the marks of official IS releases, indicating that Boko Haram’s propaganda operations may be under the control of IS. Although the video is of high-quality, it lacks the typical volume of mass execution footage in favor of little more than group shots of militants posing for pictures. This is further indication of the group’s rapid decline in recent months.

One of the key elements of a successful franchise is consistency of experience. McDonald’s in Spain is fairly similar to McDonald’s in the United States, and consumers tend to like it that way. This cannot be said for IS in Iraq and Egypt or Nigeria. Moreover, resource sharing appears to be minimal, limiting the benefits of allegiance, largely, to increased brand equity. But just as failing retail franchises damage the overall company, IS risks losing its brand equity if its marquee franchises struggle to build momentum. Both Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Boko Haram turned to IS in the midst of increased pressure; maybe IS should question the value added of pledges born from desperation.

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