Friday, December 4th 2015
“Justifying violence with Islamic texts is a core tenant of ISIL’s ideology, and it is one of the most difficult aspects to counter,” wrote Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Welch in a November 20, 2015, article, “The Starfish Caliphate: How ISIL Exploits the Power of a Decentralized Organization,” on the website of Small Wars Journal. Welch is a Middle East strategist on the counter-ISIL team in the Joint Staff (J5).
Starfish? Welch, drawing on the 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, said “Decentralized organizations are more like starfish, which multiply when you try to cut them to pieces. Groups like Napster, Wikipedia, or Alcoholics Anonymous have strength in their decentralized, leaderless nature. ISIL is a spider organization that acts like a starfish.” He discusses the “circles,” “catalysts,” “ideology,” “Pre-existing Networks,” and “champions.”
Here are some bullets on ideology and messaging:
- Ideology – Justifying violence with Islamic texts is a core tenant of ISIL’s ideology, and it is one of the most difficult aspects to counter. ISIL reads in the Quran and Hadith an obligation to subjugate or kill anyone who does not share their narrow views, including fellow Muslims. They are also apocalyptic, stressing end-times theology far more than Al Qaeda ever did. Muslims must challenge and correct these interpretations, and non-Muslims must reject ISIL’s actions without alienating the vast majority of the Muslim world who do not share this perspective.
Renewed Focus on Counter-Messaging
- Countering a starfish requires becoming one. As retired Gen Stanley McChrystal has stated, it takes a network to defeat a network. By definition, a transnational threat requires a coordinated transnational response.
- To counter the spread of ISIL messaging, we need to organize and synchronize messaging efforts among all groups, nations, and individuals who oppose their visceral, radicalized propaganda. This applies to kinetic as well as information operations. We must take this starfish thinking to the information sphere in order to defeat ISIL at their own game.
- Creating an information infrastructure to prevent the spread of ISIL involves identifying ungoverned, under-governed, or refugee-laden areas where Islamic extremism is likely to spread. It also requires identifying and synchronizing governmental, religious, individuals to speak to those target populations about the dangers of this ideology, and the misery of living under their oppression.
- The more Muslim voices the better, since this is largely an internal Islamic dispute regarding how to best interpret Muslim texts. No group is more qualified to focus messaging efforts than moderate Muslims themselves.
- ISIL’s brutality disgusts everyone in the world, and that is to our advantage. The widespread rejection of their ideology and brutality establishes single unifying factor for multiple different groups and nations. Consider the fact that U.S., Sunni Gulf states, Iran, and Russia are actively fighting ISIL ideology and seek to limit their influence and expansion. We should use this confluence of interests to develop a multi-faceted information effort highlighting the dangers and moral bankruptcy of their ideology.
- Our unified message should focus on universal rejection of their oppressive and murderous worldview. Our brand should be simple: the whole world is against ISIL. This requires connecting opposition voices and proactively messaging audiences that are susceptible to this toxic ideology. By multiplying nodes, sharing counter-messaging information and focusing our efforts, the international community will become a more expansive, diverse network than the jihadist sympathizers can muster.
- These efforts to coordinate messaging are currently underway, but networks take time to develop. The sheer number of nations, groups and individuals that reject ISIL is an untapped advantage that we need to exploit.
- Messaging alone will not solve the problem, but it is a critical aspect to countering any decentralized organization fueled by an ideology of violence. Peaceful, freedom-loving people around the world will be dealing with this threat for generations. We need to start to see ourselves as a bigger, stronger starfish with more tentacles and a far greater reach than our enemy.