Monday, February 29, 2016

Countering the Islamic State's Message

Alberto M. Fernandez,; via LBJ by email

Fernandez image from

How can we combat the witches’ brew that makes up ISIS’ ideological appeal? Certainly, working to make the physical reality in the Middle East a different one by militarily defeating ISIS and destroying its rule is essential. But that is not enough. On a strategic level, governments must identify ways to combat the basic pillars of jihadist Salafi ideology that is the breeding ground from which ISIS pathology emerges.
Here, it is important to point out that this worldview does not emerge fully formed out of nothing. Rather, it has been promoted for decades by countries like Saudi Arabia, whether officially or unofficially. Simply put, Salafism has for many years had the cash, the patronage, the protection and the push that other trends and worldviews within Islam lacked. Not all Salafis are violent, to be sure. Some advocate for political reform while others seek to withdraw from society. But the specific problem of jihadist Salafism that today manifests itself in the image of ISIS and its fellow travelers can be tackled in a variety of ways, including:
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS. In the highly charged, narrow ideological space we are discussing, the good guys are heavily outnumbered. ISIS and its supporters are trolling and messaging around the clock, and doing so in large numbers. It is necessary to answer volume with volume. That, however, requires increasing both the number of anti-ISIS messengers and making it more difficult for extremists to communicate freely. This is possible to accomplish. An August 2015 MEMRI report minutely documented how an ISIS hashtag campaign was “hijacked” by Twitter trolls.(7) In that instance, the hashtag #WeAllGiveBayahToKhalifah was massively interrupted with over 50 percent anti-ISIS material, including a lot of explicit sexual content, over the course of 24 hours. This hijacking limited the reach of the ISIS media campaign, and represents a new tactic—one that was not being utilized a year ago at the height of the ISIS media offensive following the declaration of the caliphate.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTENT. ISIS messaging is mostly about a utopian, grievance-laden version of jihadist Salafism. But it is presented in a wide range of tailored ways, many of which are not particularly violence filled. All of these various narratives need to be addressed. Here, we have made some progress—but not enough. The work of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has been joined in 2015 by a French effort, a UAE effort—Sawab Center—and, most recently, a UK government effort. In late 2015, the United States trumpeted still another effort in coordination with Nigeria to counter the propaganda of Boko Haram, the West Africa Province of ISIS.(8) But many of these initiatives are relatively small and slow in tempo; after almost four months of existence, for example, the Sawab Center has generated fewer than 1,400 tweets in Arabic and English.
Still other approaches are slowly emerging. A sarcastic approach on Twitter, such as “ISIS Karaoke,” is an interesting small-scale effort in this vein. Likewise noteworthy is the autonomous, heroic work being carried out by independent Syrian and Iraqi activists on the ground, even from inside ISIS territory. These individuals, and others like them, should be identified and supported.
AMPLIFYING DISAFFECTED VOICES. Maximizing the narratives of recanters and defectors from the Islamic State is yet another approach that needs to be pursued. Much work can also be done in highlighting the voices and stories of Sunni Arab Muslim victims of ISIS violence. The stories of the Syrian Shaitat tribe(9) or of the hundreds of Iraqi Anbar province Sunni tribesmen or clerics killed by ISIS have yet to be told in the words of those who knew them. The fact that ISIS has killed many rival jihadists, such as veteran al-Qaeda leader Abu Khalid al-Suri or the leadership of the Ahrar al-Sham Syrian Islamist rebel group, is less well known than it should be.
CITIZEN EMPOWERMENT. Deepening understanding among at risk populations about the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen in the West is another needed element. Salafi jihadist trolls often seize upon the concept of Al-Wala wal-Bara (loyalty and disavowal) to separate their prey from the countries and societies where they find themselves. This brings the discussion into areas which some governments and societies find uncomfortable, into sometimes subverted issues such as patriotism and nationalism, or the use of symbols and structures of national identity, pride and unity. It is already clear that recent converts and second generation migrants struggling with issues of identity are particularly vulnerable to potential radicalization.(10)
PERSONAL OUTREACH. In addition to increasing our volume, decreasing theirs, and adding more and different types of content, another tactical approach to countering an ideological approach is to promote one-to-one interactions. The radicalization of individuals is a messy, complicated process, but one thing we do know is that there is often an individualized, tailored and intimate approach involved, either online or in the real world. We need to be able to replicate such contact, and harness it in the service of counter-radicalization.
Fortunately, this is not something we must invent out of whole cloth. Examples of individuals and small groups already engaging in this effort abound. Individuals like Mubin Sheikh in Canada and Humera Khan in the United States, and projects like the One2One Initiative by the new Moonshot CVE organization, are doing pioneering work in this key field of direct personal engagement. Yet these efforts are still far too few and scattered.
Engaging the fight
Those who now talk of generational struggle against ISIS are somewhat mistaken. Certainly, much of the worldview we are fighting has been around for centuries and is extremely resilient. It will not be easy to eradicate an approach which, crudely put, is about a Kalashnikov in one hand and a Quran in the other. But the astonishing rise of ISIS occurs mostly in the ungoverned spaces created on the ground by fateful political decisions and in the virtual ungoverned spaces we have created online and allowed in political-religious discourse.
All too often, ISIS has found our doors unlocked and our voices silenced. It is our lack of care and attention that gave its toxic message the opportunity to flourish. Even a qualitative improvement in what we are already trying to do could yield very positive results in a relatively short period of time.
Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez is the Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute. He previously served as the State Department’s Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication. ...
8.    Vincent Ikuomola, “Boko Haram: US Trains Government Spokespersons,” November 9, 2015, Nation (Lagos),
9.    Alberto M. Fernandez, “Massacre and Media: ISIS and the Case of the Sunni Arab Shaitat Tribe,” MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report no. 1170, June 23, 2015,
10.  Dina al-Raffie, “The Identity-Extremism Nexus: Countering Islamist Extremism in the West,” George Washington University Homeland Security Institute Occasional Paper, October 2015,

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