And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way
Charlie Winter and Jordan Bach-Lombardo, theatlantic.com
image from article
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
It’s no secret that the caliphate has a compelling story, coupled with a sophisticated ability to deliver it. But what is often overlooked are the underlying strategic elements that enable the group to land its messages so effectively.
To active supporters and potential sympathizers, in particular, the power of this narrative steamrolls the coalition’s counter-messaging, which is currently set up only to address a handful of discrete strands of the Islamic State idea, instead of the core narrative in its entirety. This has led, at times, to coalition counter-messaging being bogged down by well-intentioned but questionable reproductions of the Islamic State’s ultraviolence, and social-media posts intoning variations on “The Islamic State is brutal and isn’t Islamic—so don’t join it.”Second, the Islamic State’s media team evidently recognizes that in the digital-communications age, everyone—from sympathizers to adversaries—can be a tactical instrument of propaganda. Reflecting this, they have made the strategic choice to not pigeonhole themselves by reaching out just to sworn believers in jihadism or those that they consider to be potential supporters, as coalition governments so often do in their counter-messaging efforts.
By catering to a wider set of audiences, ISIS propagandists reinforce their message gradually to build layered support, which is made all the more sustainable because they retain astonishingly tight command of the Islamic State brand. Indeed, despite its geographic spread, the caliphate’s dispersed network of 48 official media offices—one for each self-declared “province” (of which it claims 19 in Syria and Iraq, 7 in Yemen, 3 in Libya, and various others corresponding to its footholds in additional countries) and nine additional, centrally administered outlets—seemingly never goes off message, always transmitting the same carefully constructed ideas of the triumphant, defiant caliphate and the promise of community. As recent video sets regarding the Saudi Arabia-led Islamic alliance against terrorism, the Paris attacks, and the refugee crisis demonstrate, if the “Base Foundation”—which is how the Islamic State refers to its “corporate headquarters”—issues a communique saying “Jump,” all its provincial foundations are on standby to say “How high?” and respond a few days later with the on-message HD fruits of their labor.
The Current State of PlayFor the coalition to have lasting communications impact against this formidable enemy, it requires a similarly nuanced—and expansive—understanding of message delivery and audience segmentation. Twitter suspensions are not nearly enough.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that, no matter how well-intentioned they are, governments’ ideational responses to jihadism have been marked by memorable slip-ups and controversies. The media is always quick to report on things done wrong, and tends to steer clear of assessing successes. As such, no matter how much rebranding and restructuring takes place, efforts like the U.S.’s “Shared Values” campaign (an early-2000s set of commercials aiming to show Muslims living happy lives in the U.S., which was mocked as the “Happy Muslim” campaign); the ultraviolent approach to counterpropaganda embodied in a State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign (which, in purporting to show “some truths about terrorism,” disseminated gory videos among other things); and government officials swapping insults with jihadists on Twitter tend to be the most memorable, defining points for U.S. forays into counter-jihadist public diplomacy.
To be sure, the people that matter have not missed this problem. In June 2015, for example, Rashad Hussain, former coordinator of the U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, noted that Islamic State recruits and sympathizers are “almost always influenced by a figure in their community […] who uses grievance and ideology to reel them in.” Such recognition is all well and good, but there is a big difference between not missing a problem and being able to take effective action to mitigate it.
A New ApproachWhat needs to happen is, in conceptual terms, simple. Instead of governments, the burden for reaching potential Islamic State supporters must rest entirely on the shoulders of local, non-government actors. They can be Muslim or non-Muslim, individuals or institutions, community leaders or cultural organizations. What matters most is that they are trusted as enemies of the Islamic State and hold preexisting and offline relationships with—and are respected by—those at risk of radicalization, the communities around those at risk of radicalization, and the general audience being targeted by the Islamic State’s propagandists. It is crucial that they are not perceived as being under the thumb of the coalition’s Western leadership.
There are two major benefits to empowering such communicators. First, doing so would dramatically increase the volume of audience engagements, which is a fast way to expand the number of people delivering anti-Islamic State communications. Second, and more importantly, using the right channel to broadcast to each audience increases a message’s impact.
For example, if a government wants to get support for a policy change, it could be better off targeting the network of influential people around a given individual (say, John Doe), than by advertising in his local paper. John is far more likely to be convinced by his friends, family, or others in his community that something is worth backing than by a government nakedly pushing its agenda. Likewise, if the government is buying advertisements in a newspaper’s print edition, but John only reads his local on a tablet, he’ll never see the message in the first place. In both of these cases, if the government chooses the right channel—something it can only do if it has a strong understanding of its audience (in this case, John and others similar to him)—it has a much greater chance of convincing people of its argument.
Local actors are incomparably better-placed to identify the best channel for communicating than distant governments, but they need to be given the freedom to do so. This requires a large dose of autonomy. If, for example, a local actor decides that a poem is the best way to reach his or her target audience, then so be it. If they want to deliver the same idea through an animation, a conversation over coffee, a tweet, or a pamphlet, that is okay, too. Likewise, if the message itself needs to be tailored to be effective, that is acceptable. If, to get around the “Islamic-State-is-a-Western-conspiracy” trope that is so widely accepted in the Middle East, the anti-Islamic State message is dressed up in a way that does not necessarily cater to Western fancies, then that must be accepted as a necessary evil. For example, a Friday sermon criticizing the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam would need to be considered acceptable, even if it contained a condemnation of Israel’s settlements. A closely monitored “anything goes” approach is the coalition’s only chance of success.
The ArchitectureIf that’s the theory, what does the structure look like in practice? First off, it would need to operate on three tiers: coalition, national, and local.
The coalition level—which would operate behind the scenes, except for direct communication with select audiences like global media and policymakers—must have primary responsibility for developing the core narrative of the operation. Ideally, that narrative would be developed by about 20 people operating full-time, drawn from the governments of a diverse range of coalition members, as suggested by U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel. This range would provide the coalition with the global perspective required to combat the entirety of the Islamic State’s propaganda narrative. It is critical that this unit have the authority to disregard outside influences, such that no one member state can direct the coalition’s narrative to its own geopolitical advantage. With this structure in place, the coalition would have responsibility for setting the strategic narrative, updating its constituent messages to reflect recent events, and regularly communicating this messaging framework internally to each member. However, its responsibility must stop at core narrative development and coordination. Decisions about how that message is delivered need to be left to the lower levels of this structure.
The national tier would be the lynchpin that connects the centralized coalition narrators with their autonomous local messengers. While governments must also communicate on issues of policy, within the structure of this campaign, they would be more important as a means of identifying and empowering trustworthy actors to carry out the direct communications of the global counter-Islamic State campaign, helping those individuals coordinate activities with other local actors, and providing training in communications techniques, if required. To enable those direct engagements, coalition officials must be willing to free non-government actors to make decisions without fear of repercussions for doing something that could be perceived as the “wrong” kind of communication.
To facilitate the speedy flow of information across the entire campaign, the operations of each tier would be tied together by an internal communications structure that would allow the local levels to relay their activity, and successes and failures, up to the coalition level, and the coalition to push key information or messaging updates the other way. This chain, moderated at the national level, would ensure that each step is coordinated—from the coalition’s message planning right through to the local delivery—to amplify the campaign’s core messages globally.