Sunday, March 6, 2016

Quotable: Alberto Fernandez on countering the Islamic State’s message

Saturday, March 5th 2016
“. . . many propound that ISIS has ‘nothing to do with Islam,’ something which is patently false. On the other hand, others articulate the equally ridiculous opposite position: that somehow ISIS represents the true face of Islam,” wrote Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, now Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute.  His article, “Counter the Islamic State’s Message,” ran in the Winter, 2016, issue of the Journal of International Security Affairs“It would be more honest to acknowledge,” he continued, “that ISIS arises out of a certain historic reality within Islamic history and certain factors on the ground that facilitated its development and still contribute to its existence.”

In this important article – mandatory reading, in my judgment, for specialists in Public Diplomacy, strategic communication, information operations, and public affairs – the former Coordinator of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications provided important historical and linguistic insights into Salafi jihadist thinking, proposed a “means, motive, and opportunity” template, and outline key elements of a response.  This short gist necessarily omits many supporting details, but here are some key points:

[ISIS, Wahhabism, Salafism]

  • The siren call of ISIS, promoted through its now-infamous use of social media, is, like that of Wahhabism before it, a worldview that has motivated tens of thousands toward extreme action, caused extreme suffering and dislocation, is extraordinarily ambitious and aggressive.

  • Nonetheless, it remains to this day a minority view within the diverse religious and ethnic community that is Islam. That said, the Islamic State—like its progenitor, al-Qaeda—sees itself as a revolutionary vanguard seeking to awaken and motivate the masses of the Muslimummah to follow its particular path. Despite the fireworks, media glitz and soaring rhetoric, this has mostly not happened. At least not yet.

  • The practice of deciding who is really a Muslim and who will be labeled an infidel—the process called takfir—is an essential if controversial element in the ISIS psyche. These are very precise terms within Islam, and while al-Qaeda seeks to reject the term takfiri it does openly describe itself as a Salafi jihadist group as a way of differentiating itself from those nonviolent Salafis who either believe in a political reform process (the Salafi Islahi) or completely eschew political life for one of the spirit.

  • ISIS, of course, is not at all shy about aggressively practicing and embracing the concept of takfir. . . . ISIS will be the arbiter of whether Muslims are “Muslim enough” to meet its demanding, narrow standards. Moreover, the group clearly has already ruled out a large number of Muslims—Shi’as, of course, but also Sunnis who oppose them and work for anti-ISIS nation-states or rival rebel groups.

  • On the one hand, many propound that ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam,” something which is patently false. On the other hand, others articulate the equally ridiculous opposite position: that somehow ISIS represents the true face of Islam. It would be more honest to acknowledge that ISIS arises out of a certain historic reality within Islamic history and certain factors on the ground that facilitated its development and still contribute to its existence.

[Motive, Means, and Opportunity]

  • Any reader of crime fiction will soon learn about the elements that make up a crime, especially something like murder. They are usually described as “motive, means and opportunity.”

  • If we look at ISIS through this optic, “motive” would be that takfiri Salafi jihadist worldview which has existed and still exists, and which for the past few decades has been promoted at times by states and by powerful propagandistic enterprises.

  • “Means” could be interpreted as things like access to weapons and money, the ability to carry out the crime, and is closely tied to the third element, “opportunity.”

  • It is the collapse of authority, the dysfunction in Iraq under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the mass slaughter and anarchy in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria which gave ISIS the opportunity to flourish.

  • In the struggle against groups like ISIS, a response is needed on all three fronts: motive, means and opportunity. And while our action is lacking in all three, it is especially deficient in the first one—specifically, in combating an ideology or worldview that can motivate people over time.

Knowing the enemy

  • In order to combat an idea we have to first understand it. What, then, are the main elements that make up the current “ISIS package”?

  • The first is that ISIS and its appeal are part of a Salafi worldview, and, in the West, a Salafi subculture with its own internal language—what I term jihadspeak—and logic. There is a pool of people who are active and aggressive as apologists of this worldview.

  • Thus, in challenging the violent Salafi mind-set, greater efforts must be made to confront and redefine commonly used terms of incitement and their impact: terms such as Kufr(unbelief), Shirk (polytheism), Al-Wala wal-Bara (loyalty and disavowal), Taghut (tyrant),Murtad (apostate), Rafidah (rejectionists), Nifaq (hypocrisy), and Jihad fi SabeelAllah (Holy War in the Path of God). These are used like toxic labels or trigger words in a hermetic sub-world fiercely skeptical of outsiders. Redeeming the language of extremist Islam is a worthy task that someone should take on, even if Western governments are not the ones best equipped to do so.

  • The second element of the ISIS package is . . . called grievance collecting . . . . how troubled individuals such as those who commit mass murder in criminal acts (like mass shootings on a university campus) in their minds collect a series of items, slights, injustices (real or imagined) as their justification for violence.

  • The third element of the ISIS ideological package is utopianism. This revolutionary addition has set ISIS apart among Sunni jihadist groups, but it fits in very well with a Salafi jihadistworldview and with a mind-set founded on a long list of real or perceived grievances.

  • Like other revolutionaries before them, the radicals of ISIS seek to destroy the old world in order to recreate it in their own image, as a fairer, purer, more Islamic, more “authentic” entity.

  • In this particular sense, ISIS seems more like Robespierre and Marx and Lenin than medieval Muslim theologian and reformer Ibn Taymiyya. . . .  Utopianism excuses any crime, any imperfection, any excess in the building of that which is to come, which itself will be perfect. The utopianism of ISIS has a strong apocalyptic element that fits in perfectly with a whole range of prophetic hadith and language in the period of formative Islam involving Syria and Iraq.

Building a counter-narrative

  • How can we combat the witches’ brew that makes up ISIS’ ideological appeal? . . . . 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.

  • . . . 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.

  • . . . 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:


  • THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTENT. ISIS messaging is mostly about a utopian, grievance-laden version of jihadist Salafism.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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.

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