Tuesday, September 22nd 2015
“[T]he fact that the United States and the West are losing the battle of ideas to our enemies is not in dispute,” wrote Pete Favat and Bryan Price in a July 28, 2015, article, “The Truth Campaign and The War of Ideas,” on the website of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
The article is an unusual collaboration between an advertising executive and an Army officer. Pete Favat is the North American Chief Creative Officer for Deutsch, Inc. While he worked at Arnold Worldwide he co-created the Truth campaign, one of Ad Age’s “Campaigns of the 21st Century.” Lieutenant Colonel Bryan C. Price is the Director of the Combating Terrorism Center and Academy Professor in the Department of Social Sciences of the U.S. Military Academy.
The body of the article describes how the advertising community launched the Truth campaign to discourage teenage smoking, and it suggests that the campaign offers insights that might be useful in discouraging young people from volunteering to become foreign fighters.
The importance of the war of ideas between the United States and jihadist organizations has been well understood by our adversaries since 9/11. In the early days of the long war, Ayman al-Zawahari, long-time deputy to Usama bin Laden and al-Qa`ida’s current leader, declared that “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma.” * * * * *
To better compete with our adversaries in the war of ideas, the U.S. government created institutions like the Counterterrorism Strategic Communications Center in the State Department (CSCC). Despite these efforts, most observers would argue the gap between our enemies and the United States in the war of ideas has only widened in this domain, especially with the emergence of the Islamic State, but why?
Critics complain that the U.S. government has failed to provide the time, attention, and resources necessary to match the size and scope of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine. Others suggest the CSCC is the latest casualty in another bureaucratic turf war within the Beltway. Still another line of argument questions whether the State Department is the right organization for this job or whether the government should be doing this type of activity at all. While the reasons for our collective ineptitude remain up for debate, the fact that the United States and the West are losing the battle of ideas to our enemies is not in dispute.
In order to explore new thoughts and frameworks for winning in this domain, the Combating Terrorism Center invited subject matter experts from outside the counterterrorism community to a special Senior Conference panel on the war of ideas. The most interesting solution that emerged from this panel was to take the model employed by the Truth campaign to stop teenage smoking and apply it to the countering violent extremism (CVE) realm. * * * * *
The work that the State Department’s CSCC has done to engage with the enemy in social media is noble, but being a government entity, its message by definition lacks the authenticity and genuine credibility that is required to influence fence-sitters in the current war of ideas. Prospective jihadis do not look to the U.S. government for career advice. Commenting on this core problem facing CSCC, one former CIA agent quipped, “It’s like the grandparents yelling to the children, ‘get off my lawn!’”
Regardless of how witty, hip, and edgy its message may or may not be, the CSCC and its products will be perceived as the counterterrorism equivalent of the old school anti-smoking PSAs. As a case in point, the CSCC’s recent “think again, turn away” campaign is eerily similar to the ineffective anti-smoking slogan of “think, don’t smoke.” * * * * *
This kind of counter-industry approach must be a part of a more comprehensive CVE plan that improves how we identify, interdict, and ultimately prevent future extremists from choosing violence. But in the battle of ideas with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, the United States needs all the help it can get, and a counter-industry approach will likely improve our efforts in this domain.