A Unifying Theory—and Plan—for Defeating ISIS Propaganda
Twitter suspensions are not nearly enough.
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization does not enjoy mass appeal, but it is certainly having mass impact. After but 18 months of caliphate-hood, the group’s preeminence is already coming to shape what it is to be a millennial Muslim and inspiring attacks far outside the caliphate. Hence, the strategic communications war—where hearts and minds are won and lost—is just as important in the long-term as any military campaign, if not more so.
To be fair to the coalition, it has not missed the ideational menace that the Islamic State presents. As a direct result of coalition efforts, especially those of the United States government, counter-Islamic State information operations are more prolific now than ever before, the quantity of counterpropaganda is snowballing, and social-media giants like Twitter are being more aggressive in their efforts to hobble ISIS propagandists. Even Anonymous has thrown its hat in the ring.
In January, the State Department restructured its own counterpropaganda apparatus, creating a “Global Engagement Center” to “more effectively coordinate, integrate and synchronize messaging to foreign audiences that undermines the disinformation espoused by violent extremist groups, including ISIL and al-Qaeda.” However, even in this new guise—which, while it marks an important push in the right direction, risks being too centralized within national governments at the same time that it lacks the requisite level of coordination among different countries—the coalition’s information operations are facing an almost insurmountable challenge. Such a state of affairs is untenable. To ameliorate it, a new communications architecture is required, based on three pillars: global strategic direction, local delivery, and a broader, more accurate understanding of how and why the Islamic State appeals.
It’s no secret that the caliphate has a compelling story, coupled with a sophisticated ability to deliver it. But what is often overlooked are the underlying strategic elements that enable the group to land its messages so effectively.
First, while the international media tends to obsess over the Islamic State’s ultraviolence, the group’s propaganda is incredibly varied. Unlike the coalition’s primary weapon in the information war—negative messaging—the caliphal narrative combines positive and negative themes that appeal to both ideological and political supporters. On a daily basis, the group parades images of civilian life, ruminates upon the concept of mercy, and highlights the visceral camaraderie allegedly felt among its members. Crucially, it doesn’t just do this online—propaganda is just as important in person in the Islamic State’s heartlands as it is on its members’ smartphones.
The Islamic State expends huge amounts of energy building this composite narrative because its propaganda is being created for, and directed to, a number of audiences: potential members, sympathizers, enemies, general publics—the list goes on. Whoever they are, the Islamic State propagandists tie them all together by communicating the same core narrative to each—that its caliphate is a triumphant, model society that offers community to all who desire it, and destruction to those who don’t.
To active supporters and potential sympathizers, in particular, the power of this narrative steamrolls the coalition’s counter-messaging, which is currently set up only to address a handful of discrete strands of the Islamic State idea, instead of the core narrative in its entirety. This has led, at times, to coalition counter-messaging being bogged down by well-intentioned but questionable reproductions of the Islamic State’s ultraviolence, and social-media posts intoning variations on “The Islamic State is brutal and isn’t Islamic—so don’t join it.”
Second, the Islamic State’s media team evidently recognizes that in the digital-communications age, everyone—from sympathizers to adversaries—can be a tactical instrument of propaganda. Reflecting this, they have made the strategic choice to not pigeonhole themselves by reaching out just to sworn believers in jihadism or those that they consider to be potential supporters, as coalition governments so often do in their counter-messaging efforts.
By catering to a wider set of audiences, ISIS propagandists reinforce their message gradually to build layered support, which is made all the more sustainable because they retain astonishingly tight command of the Islamic State brand. Indeed, despite its geographic spread, the caliphate’s dispersed network of 48 official media offices—one for each self-declared “province” (of which it claims 19 in Syria and Iraq, 7 in Yemen, 3 in Libya, and various others corresponding to its footholds in additional countries) and nine additional, centrally administered outlets—seemingly never goes off message, always transmitting the same carefully constructed ideas of the triumphant, defiant caliphate and the promise of community. As recent video sets regarding the Saudi Arabia-led Islamic alliance against terrorism, the Paris attacks, and the refugee crisis demonstrate, if the “Base Foundation”—which is how the Islamic State refers to its “corporate headquarters”—issues a communique saying “Jump,” all its provincial foundations are on standby to say “How high?” and respond a few days later with the on-message HD fruits of their labor.
Critically, the aggregate impact of the offices is greatly amplified because, instead of disseminating the material themselves, the ISIS outreach team actively cultivates unofficial spokespeople who share their media outside the caliphate’s formal communications structure, encouraging others around the world to autonomously spread the Islamic State message alongside them. Because those unofficial propagandists are best-suited to identifying the ideal channel for reaching their respective local audiences—and tailoring the core narrative accordingly—the influence of the Islamic State’s communications skyrockets.
The Current State of Play
For the coalition to have lasting communications impact against this formidable enemy, it requires a similarly nuanced—and expansive—understanding of message delivery and audience segmentation. Twitter suspensions are not nearly enough.
As it stands, the coalition’s counter-messaging is not structured to attack the Islamic State’s entire narrative, but instead looks at and attacks specific elements of its messages individually. This structural weakness is compounded by a lack of credible voices and a surplus of risk-averseness, in large part because these efforts have, so far at least, been both led and delivered by a handful of Western governments. The resulting, overly bureaucratic approach persistently gets in the way of flexibility and dynamism, both of which are required for success.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that, no matter how well-intentioned they are, governments’ ideational responses to jihadism have been marked by memorable slip-ups and controversies. The media is always quick to report on things done wrong, and tends to steer clear of assessing successes. As such, no matter how much rebranding and restructuring takes place, efforts like the U.S.’s “Shared Values” campaign (an early-2000s set of commercials aiming to show Muslims living happy lives in the U.S., which was mocked as the “Happy Muslim” campaign); the ultraviolent approach to counterpropaganda embodied in a State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign (which, in purporting to show “some truths about terrorism,” disseminated gory videos among other things); and government officials swapping insults with jihadists on Twitter tend to be the most memorable, defining points for U.S. forays into counter-jihadist public diplomacy.
And, while it’s true that for every mistake there is a success story, even those are but drops in the information ocean. Indeed, even when supplemented by the efforts of the newly formed £10 million UK-based Coalition Communications Cell—not to mention other strategic-communications centers proliferating globally, from Nigeria to Malaysia—overtly government-directed initiatives are fighting an unwinnable battle. They are too centralized, too rigorously managed, and too reactive. The amount of their activity is structurally bound to be insufficient, and its content bound to lack credibility among the most at-risk target audiences.
Marginalized communities that feel indifferent or hostile to their respective governments, let alone supporters and potential sympathizers of Mr. al-Baghdadi, will never, ever be swayed by a foreign state telling them on social media that the Islamic State’s caliphate is not Islamic or that it is killing more Muslims than anyone else. For that reason, even initiatives that are ostensibly tailored to be more “local,” like the UAE’s Sawab Center (“the first-ever multinational online messaging and engagement program,” which operates in overt partnership with the U.S. government), are bound to struggle, simply for the fact that their messaging is unable to truly resonate with the right people.
To be sure, the people that matter have not missed this problem. In June 2015, for example, Rashad Hussain, former coordinator of the U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, noted that Islamic State recruits and sympathizers are “almost always influenced by a figure in their community […] who uses grievance and ideology to reel them in.” Such recognition is all well and good, but there is a big difference between not missing a problem and being able to take effective action to mitigate it.
A New Approach
What needs to happen is, in conceptual terms, simple. Instead of governments, the burden for reaching potential Islamic State supporters must rest entirely on the shoulders of local, non-government actors. They can be Muslim or non-Muslim, individuals or institutions, community leaders or cultural organizations. What matters most is that they are trusted as enemies of the Islamic State and hold preexisting and offline relationships with—and are respected by—those at risk of radicalization, the communities around those at risk of radicalization, and the general audience being targeted by the Islamic State’s propagandists. It is crucial that they are not perceived as being under the thumb of the coalition’s Western leadership.
To achieve this separation, governments should provide funding, logistical support, and training in communications best practices, whether to groups already doing counter-radicalization work or to those wishing to start from scratch. Since all this must contribute toward the shared goal of undermining the Islamic State’s brand, it will only work if governments never publicly endorse these actors or include their communications on official channels, unless specifically requested otherwise. With governmental support and the coalition’s core messaging priorities in hand, local actors will be able to benefit from a globally coordinated campaign that will, in theory, amplify the anti-Islamic State message more widely, in turn creating a better condition for success in each local context.
There are two major benefits to empowering such communicators. First, doing so would dramatically increase the volume of audience engagements, which is a fast way to expand the number of people delivering anti-Islamic State communications. Second, and more importantly, using the right channel to broadcast to each audience increases a message’s impact.
For example, if a government wants to get support for a policy change, it could be better off targeting the network of influential people around a given individual (say, John Doe), than by advertising in his local paper. John is far more likely to be convinced by his friends, family, or others in his community that something is worth backing than by a government nakedly pushing its agenda. Likewise, if the government is buying advertisements in a newspaper’s print edition, but John only reads his local on a tablet, he’ll never see the message in the first place. In both of these cases, if the government chooses the right channel—something it can only do if it has a strong understanding of its audience (in this case, John and others similar to him)—it has a much greater chance of convincing people of its argument.
Governments still have an integral role to play in the communications battle with the Islamic State. But they must shift their primary information activities away from direct communications, to flexibly supporting and trusting local actors to deliver messages on their behalf—a model reminiscent of that currently employed by the Islamic State.
Local actors are incomparably better-placed to identify the best channel for communicating than distant governments, but they need to be given the freedom to do so. This requires a large dose of autonomy. If, for example, a local actor decides that a poem is the best way to reach his or her target audience, then so be it. If they want to deliver the same idea through an animation, a conversation over coffee, a tweet, or a pamphlet, that is okay, too. Likewise, if the message itself needs to be tailored to be effective, that is acceptable. If, to get around the “Islamic-State-is-a-Western-conspiracy” trope that is so widely accepted in the Middle East, the anti-Islamic State message is dressed up in a way that does not necessarily cater to Western fancies, then that must be accepted as a necessary evil. For example, a Friday sermon criticizing the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam would need to be considered acceptable, even if it contained a condemnation of Israel’s settlements. A closely monitored “anything goes” approach is the coalition’s only chance of success.
If that’s the theory, what does the structure look like in practice? First off, it would need to operate on three tiers: coalition, national, and local.
The coalition level—which would operate behind the scenes, except for direct communication with select audiences like global media and policymakers—must have primary responsibility for developing the core narrative of the operation. Ideally, that narrative would be developed by about 20 people operating full-time, drawn from the governments of a diverse range of coalition members, as suggested by U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel. This range would provide the coalition with the global perspective required to combat the entirety of the Islamic State’s propaganda narrative. It is critical that this unit have the authority to disregard outside influences, such that no one member state can direct the coalition’s narrative to its own geopolitical advantage. With this structure in place, the coalition would have responsibility for setting the strategic narrative, updating its constituent messages to reflect recent events, and regularly communicating this messaging framework internally to each member. However, its responsibility must stop at core narrative development and coordination. Decisions about how that message is delivered need to be left to the lower levels of this structure.
The national tier would be the lynchpin that connects the centralized coalition narrators with their autonomous local messengers. While governments must also communicate on issues of policy, within the structure of this campaign, they would be more important as a means of identifying and empowering trustworthy actors to carry out the direct communications of the global counter-Islamic State campaign, helping those individuals coordinate activities with other local actors, and providing training in communications techniques, if required. To enable those direct engagements, coalition officials must be willing to free non-government actors to make decisions without fear of repercussions for doing something that could be perceived as the “wrong” kind of communication.
The local, front-line level, which covers any place where people are at risk of radicalization by the Islamic State (essentially making it global) is the largest tier of the structure. Internationally, there are already hundreds—if not thousands—of actors, whether individuals or institutions, directly engaging with appropriate audiences. They should be offered incentives—in the form of financial, logistical, and training support—to integrate into the anti-Islamic State campaign, while at the same time enjoying independence in how they choose to deliver the coalition’s anti-Islamic State narrative. The messengers must still be subject to oversight from their national government and the central coalition hub and, in order to continue enjoying its support, they would also be required to prove that they are delivering counter-Islamic State communications.
To facilitate the speedy flow of information across the entire campaign, the operations of each tier would be tied together by an internal communications structure that would allow the local levels to relay their activity, and successes and failures, up to the coalition level, and the coalition to push key information or messaging updates the other way. This chain, moderated at the national level, would ensure that each step is coordinated—from the coalition’s message planning right through to the local delivery—to amplify the campaign’s core messages globally.
Crucially, such a structure requires contributions from all 66 coalition members. For that to work, states should be obligated to engage in the ideological battle against the Islamic State in order to be part of (and benefit from) the military alliance. With this being the case, it must be accepted that, even if the make-up and immediate result of elements of the campaign look different from one another, as long as they contain a variation of the same core narrative, their long-term contributions against the Islamic State are valuable. Communications in different parts of the coalition cannot be judged by the same standards, because the international audience is fundamentally heterogeneous—while it might be difficult for some to accept the idea of a country like Saudi Arabia participating in this, the kingdom and others will need to be a central part of this ideological fight.
There are significant obstacles to achieving this level of cross-coalition coordination, collaboration, and ambition, but this is what’s required. If the states currently leading the coalition are able to relinquish absolute authority in the ideological battle, in favor of coordination, they stand a real chance of making a meaningful impact. Rebranding the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications as the Global Engagement Center, and directing it to engage with allies bilaterally, as the U.S. government announced it would do last month, is a start, but it is nowhere near enough, not even when it’s coupled with the U.K.’s building of a coalition communications cell. Without revising the communications campaign’s underlying principles and implementing a wider, more holistic approach, the coalition will never be able to meaningfully undermine with the Islamic State’s outreach in the long term.