Donald M. Bishop, publicdiplomacycouncil.org
Friday, August 21st 2015
The second essay by former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman, “Time to whip ISIS on the Internet, Part 2: Crafting the US strategy,” has been published on the TechnologyPolicyDaily.com website. Here are excerpts:
An effective communication strategy will need to take two parallel tracks: first, and immediately, through powerful personal testimony by defectors, explaining the realities of life as an ISIS fighter (or wife), and, second, over the longer term, by presenting attractive alternatives to young people searching for identity (thus, building a new meta-narrative).
Being successful in the first step will require:
1. Identifying potential recruits.
Of course, there are millions of lonely, alienated, confused young people in the world. But because nearly all of them use the Internet, they can be identified by the words they use and the questions they ask – without violating legal protections of their privacy.
Try Googling “Dabiq magazine,” the online ISIS publication with advice on carrying out lone-wolf attacks and contrived Koranic justifications for sex slavery. On the page of Google results I pulled up, there are no ads or other sponsored content – even though it is almost certain that every potential jihadist will make such a Google request. The same identification tactics can be used with Google, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. Targeting someone who Googles Dabiq does not, of course, require knowing the person’s name, address, or contact information.
2. Securing the right messenger to send the right message.
Once the pool of possible ISIS recruits is identified, what messages should US government officials project? Actually, none. Even nonofficial Americans are poor messengers to disillusioned, angry young people with an inclination to go to Syria. The messages must come from concerned third-parties, preferably Muslim: nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, and even entertainment and sports figures.
* * * * *
To its credit, the US government has started to work with Middle East partners to amplify video testimony from defectors, including stories about poor living conditions, battlefield losses, and internal divisions.
The problem is that anti-ISIS governments make the mistake of trying to keep ex-jihadists from coming back to their countries, or locking them up if they do return. Instead, we should put in safeguards to vet returning jihadists and find the ones who can tell powerful stories on camera. Imagine Google AdWords on the Dabiq page, sponsored by an NGO, with a simple headline and link to YouTube videos with personal histories of what it’s really like to travel to Syria to join ISIS.
The aim of the second approach – convincing would-be jihadists that there are more exciting, constructive, and rewarding activities that you can dive into – is to show a different kind of jihad (or struggle), to help young Muslims find solace and meaning in a love of humanity, tolerance, compromise, and productive endeavors. It’s an attempt to make that quest cool, courageous, heroic, edgy, and different enough to absorb the interest of troubled adolescents.
This message – presented in narrative form through, for example, videos that show young people starting hip businesses or music groups or helping the sick and the poor – is not difficult to convey. In fact, it’s been done effectively before, through TV ads that I saw in the Middle East seven or eight years ago.
The bottom line is this: The United States has little chance of beating ISIS on the Internet until it can believably 1) say that ISIS is losing and 2) offer a plausible and attractive political goal, rooted in human rights, freedom, and democracy. Until then, our focus needs to be on identifying potential ISIS supporters and showing them, first, the miserable truth about being a terrorist and, second, a path to a better identity and a more constructive life. A good Internet strategy is crucial to the effort to disrupt the flow of recruits.
Mr. Glassman’s first essay is here.