For the first decade of its life, al-Qaeda was publicity-shy. Outside of a small group of people who closely followed terrorism, few people even knew the group’s name until it started attacking Westerners. Even after al-Qaeda got into the business of publicizing its goals and achievements, it failed to reach the kind of audience ISIS has, in part due to its choice of public faces, largely consisting of old men giving long, boring speeches.
ISIS, in contrast, is a publicity whore. While it’s important to keep ISIS’s propaganda and social-media activities in the proper perspective (no one was ever killed by a tweet), it’s clear that ISIS considers messaging one of the most important fronts in its war with the world — and it’s also the primary method by which ISIS extends its influence outside of its physical domain in Iraq and Syria.
Western efforts to counter ISIS must account for both the content and the distribution of its message. The ISIS propaganda machine is a calculated affair. It has several major goals, all of which involve simplifying the complexity of the real world into a cartoonish battle between good and evil.
Here, then, are the goals ISIS is pursuing with its propaganda:
- To project an image of a victorious, functioning state with the aim of retaining its current recruits and attracting new ones
- To goad its enemies to invade ISIS-held territory by disseminating images of atrocities — perpetrated against both humans and ancient artifacts — while projecting an image of invincibility, to plant doubts that military response can succeed
- To excite those with violent tendencies using images of extreme brutality
- To advertise the benefits of joining ISIS, including free housing; ISIS-approved schooling for children; wives; and access to sexual slaves
- To blame any conflict that does result on the aggression of Western governments and the incitement of “Zionists”
- To recast any military action against ISIS as an action against Muslims in general, specifically by highlighting civilian casualties
Each of these goals is vulnerable to a messaging counteroffensive. We propose a six-point plan:
- Stop exaggerating ISIS’s invincibility: A first step in countering ISIS is to put it in perspective. We should not downplay its threat below a realistic level. But neither should we inflate it. ISIS relies on its projection of strength alongside the illusion of utopian domestic tranquillity. Even under coalition assault, it has labored to maintain its aura of invincibility and defiance. When Western policymakers discuss “degrading” ISIS, it should be in the context of forcing ISIS to make visible concessions in order to counter military pressure. Strikes designed to degrade the group’s real internal strength are good, but our targeting priorities should also aim to expose vulnerabilities for counterpropaganda purposes.
- Amplify the stories of the real wives of ISIS, and other defectors: We need to amplify the stories of defectors and refugees from the areas that ISIS controls. For example, one of the three British schoolgirls who left their East London homes in February, apparently to join ISIS, had been in contact with an infamous ISIS recruiter, Aqsa Mahmood, who specializes in recruiting young women to serve as “jihadi wives.” Stories about the horrific real lives of jihadi wives need to be told, by women who manage to run away.
- Take on ISIS’s version of Islam: ISIS has developed convoluted arguments about why it engages in war crimes that are forbidden by Islamic law. Hundreds of religious scholars have taken on ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. Those arguments need to get to the right audience: ISIS’s potential recruits. At least some of those recruits can be reached via social media, including via one-on-one conversations.
- Highlight ISIS’s hypocrisy: ISIS makes much of its supposedly puritanical virtue and promotion of chastity, whipping women who do not wear attire ISIS considers appropriate and executing gay men by throwing them off the tops of buildings. Yet according to the U.N. and ISIS’s own propaganda, its fighters are involved in a wide range of horrifying sexual abuse, from sexual slavery to the reported rape of men and women, including both adults and children. In this area and many others, ISIS’s deranged double standards should be addressed head-on.
- Publicize ISIS’s atrocities against Sunnis: We need to fully exploit aerial and electronic surveillance and remote imaging to show what really happens in the belly of the beast. We should pay particular attention to documenting war crimes and atrocities against Sunni Muslims in regions controlled by ISIS. It is patently obvious that ISIS has no qualms about advertising its war crimes against certain classes of people — Shi‘a Muslims primarily, and religious minorities like the Yazidis. ISIS claims to protect Sunnis from sectarian regimes in both Iraq and Syria. While ISIS is happy to flaunt its massacres of Shi‘ites and Iraqi military personnel, it has been relatively quiet in regard to its massacres of uncooperative Sunni tribes. Our countermessaging should highlight the murder of Sunnis in particular.
- Aggressively suspend ISIS social-media accounts: There is a robust debate over the merits of suspending extremist social-media accounts, which encompasses a complex set of issues including free speech and the question of who should decide what content is acceptable. What we do know, based on an analysis of tens of thousands of Twitter accounts, is that suspensions do limit the audience for ISIS’s gruesome propaganda. The current rate of suspensions is damaging the ISIS social-media machine. The practice should be maintained at the current rate at the very least — but it would be better to get more aggressive.
The nations fighting ISIS need an organization to run a counternarrative campaign. Madison Avenue advertising gurus aren’t capable of leading this effort; it should instead be led by individuals who know how to access at-risk youth. A commission needs to study how ISIS and related groups market themselves and develop a plan for competing directly in those markets, while at the same time developing a strategy for expanding into other markets.
One model, still in a testing phase, is called P2P: Challenging Extremism. This initiative provides an opportunity for university students from the U.S., Canada, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Australia and Asia to create an online community whose goal is to counter the extremist narrative by becoming educated influencers. With support from the U.S. Department of State, the effort is being run by a private organization called EdVenture Partners, which helps companies like Honda market to youth. After students conduct primary research, they will be competing to create the best products, tools or digital initiatives that will be developed in the language of their peers, the effectiveness of which will be measured.
Containing ISIS will take a multipronged approach including, most important, pressure on its real-world components. But the presence of Western troops on the ground entails significant risk and could backfire by helping ISIS recruit additional personnel who buy into its false narrative about a Western crusade against Islam. While a propaganda campaign will not defeat ISIS, it can plant seeds of doubt, which former terrorists often describe as central to their decisions to leave terrorism behind. With a major effort, it has been possible to alter narratives in respect to other dangerous activities. Consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s antismoking campaign involving tips from former smokers, which reportedly led 100,000 individuals to give up smoking in its first three-month-long effort. We need an analogous campaign of tips from former jihadis, spread widely over the ever changing social-media environment and beyond. Such a campaign, to be effective, will require money and effort. But the cost of such efforts is tiny compared to that of military force, whether counted in dollars, loss of life, or blowback on American streets. It’s a smart investment.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified a private organization working with the U.S. Department of State. It is called EdVenture Partners.