Sunday, July 10th 2016
Ambassador Alberto Fernandez’s powerful testimony at the July 6, 2016, hearing of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs – “ISIS Online: Countering Terrorist Radicalization & Recruitment on the Internet & Social Media” -- deserves reading in full by Public Diplomacy specialists. Fernandez, now Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), was head of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications before his retirement from the Foreign Service.
This gist mostly provides key points, regretfully omitting details of his review of the history of ISIS propaganda, the fascinating case studies, and his take on cooperative efforts by the Global Engagement Center, other governments, policy institutes, religious organizations, and NGOs. “There is no one silver bullet or kryptonite in the fight against ISIS propaganda,” he said.
Do not fail to read his convictional closing. The Global Engagement Center and other organizations are indeed “countering” the ISIS narrative – its stories -- but in Ambassador Fernandez’s judgment, the U.S. has not found the way to deploy its own patrimony in the contest of ideas. Here are key points of his prepared statement to the Senate Subcommittee:
- The media output of the Islamic State began to change in 2013, as ISIS moved into Syria and it began to produce better, more multifaceted, multi-language and sophisticated material than it had when it confined its efforts to the struggle in Iraq. But it is in the summer of 2014 that ISIS launches the Al-Hayat Media Center (HMC), focusing on non-Arabic speaking audiences and that the first issue of their online magazine Dabiq appears.
- Also released in June  was the recruitment video “There is No Life Without Jihad” featuring British and Australian ISIS members, with the memorable line that the “cure for (Western lifestyle induced) depression is Jihad.” This English language production was, not surprisingly, heavily covered in the Western media. All this material was aggressively pushed out across all social media platforms but especially on Twitter with hashtags such as #AllEyesonISIS.
- Amazingly, none of this material nor the diffuse online networks amplifying and embroidering on the material were taken down at the time with social media companies, government and law enforcement deciding – for different reasons – not to do so.
- The sense of being heavily outgunned and outnumbered was palpable, both in terms of our own resources and in what everyone else was doing against this adversary worldwide. This was especially true given that the sense in much of Washington – both official Washington and the punditocracy – since the death of Bin Ladin in 2011 and until the fall of Mosul was that the global Salafi Jihadist threat was ebbing, that al-Qa’ida and its franchises (which at the time would have included the Islamic State of Iraq) were contained and on a downward trend, with the threat becoming more localized, inward looking and fractured. Two years later what has changed?
- . . a quick survey of ISIS propaganda in June 2016 shows the dimensions of the ongoing challenge.
- . . . the overall, Jihadist media “pie” has grown and ISIS and al-Qa’ida struggle for dominion.
- Slowly, all too slowly perhaps, the Islamic State “victory narrative” is being deflated although ISIS propagandists have ably sought to obscure this to date by highlighting other events, such as the work of international franchises, spectacular overseas terrorist operations, and topics related to the implementation of Islamic governance in the territory it still controls.
- Despite Al-Adnani’s important May 23, 2016 remarks preparing the ground for the possibility of future reverses, the overall impression Islamic State propaganda still projects is, not surprisingly, one of assured confidence in victory and in their steadfastness. An important fact for us to deal with is that they are still doing a better job at projecting strength while slowly retreating than ISIS’s enemies have done while slowly advancing.
- So two years later, ISIS propaganda is still being extensively produced. The continued pummeling of the Islamic State territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya should eventually puncture the ISIS victory narrative and weaken some of its appeal. Still another positive factor has been the shrinking of the ISIS online presence in social media. An unprecedented terrorist media success like the Islamic State still has a considerable footprint, still gets its message out and still influences but today ISIS publicists online are more contested, more frequently shut down than ever before. They stay on for shorter periods and their ability to build large stable online networks has been interdicted.
- So the efforts of social media companies, of government agencies and of people of good will everywhere to take down ISIS material, to challenge it, and to mock it is having some effect in terms of the viability of their stable presence online. But this success is not permanent.
- . . . the establishment of initiatives such as the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (http://www.icsve.org/) in July 2015 which documents the voices and stories of ISIS defectors and recanters is worthy of continued support by both public and private partners.
- It is particularly effective to have such material tracked and disseminated by the private sector and by independent media rather than directly by governments.
- There is no one silver bullet or kryptonite in the fight against ISIS propaganda. There is no substitute for the continued steady working away on a variety of political, military, social, economic and ideological fronts.
- The situation we are in is the result of actions taken, and not taken, over decades by both Western governments and Middle Eastern ones.
- We must recognize that while the physical Islamic State in Syria and Iraq may be on a slow slope towards eventual decline it has also, in a very important way, already succeeded. It has succeeded in creating – for a small, but not inconsiderable, zealous and deadly clique – a sturdy and mature revolutionary brand that still endures and inspires. Of particular concern to our own homeland security ISIS and its fans, as a lively and defiant English-language sub-culture, is still here and still largely impervious to obvious subverting. These are not going to be deterred by rainbow flag spamming.
- . . . the ISIS brand can be all things to all extremists, a rallying cry to rebellion clothed in the language of righteous violence. It makes everything “better” and more purposeful, making what might have just been the seamy and sad violence of a lost soul into something transcendent, translating what would purely be the local and the personal into part of a larger whole that is global and ideological.
- The neutralization of this pro-ISIS sub-culture is still extremely difficult, except when individuals clearly overstep legal bounds and come to the notice of law enforcement. But aside from that type of preventive action, the ideological building blocks of the ISIS of tomorrow, of the Salafi Jihadist threat 2.0 to come, are still there, fully intact and ready to be redeployed.
- One can, and should be, cautiously heartened by much of the work the Federal Government, our allies, the private sector and community organizations have done over the past couple of years, once reality hit them on the forehead in 2014, in the fight against ISIS, including in the key field of online communications used to radicalize and recruit individuals. Progress has been made in removing content, in contesting or crowding the space, and in kinetic operations. But that is not enough.
- Much of the information surrounding the new inter-agency Global Engagement Center (GEC), the newest iteration of the old CSCC I headed, seems to be White House spin directed at a gullible public by repackaging old duties and mandates in new verbiage. There is also perhaps entirely too much emphasis on transitory GEC events, such as hackathons and coordination meetings, which add too little to the fight and not enough on building a permanent and professional organization dedicated to what is clearly going to be a generational fight.
- One question evidently not clarified by the new March 2016 Executive Order creating GEC is whether this is actually an organization with a dedicated, line item budget appropriation or whether it is – as was the case until 2015 – an organization funded entirely out of the discretionary budget of the State Department’s UnderSecretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy (“R” in State Department parlance) and emergency funds of other organizations.
- I . . . wonder if [the GEC’s] long-term mission would be better served as part of the more integrated Counter-Terrorism Bureau (CT) at State rather than under R, traditionally a weak performer in the Department’s leadership. Such a move could also shield GEC somewhat from the temptation of micro-managing from aspiring White House communications czars.
- While I have dwelt at length on the ideological challenge of the Islamic State, a cocktail strong enough to inspire well educated, upper class boys in Dhaka to stab total strangers to death a few days ago, this challenge is, of course, expressed powerfully through narratives. And what is a narrative but a story? As Hassan Hassan relates in his recent seminal work on ISIS’s hybrid ideology: “The Islamic State relies heavily on stories and events from Islamic history because they can be more powerful than the citation of Islamic principles, especially if the stories and events support Quranic verses or hadiths. The group makes the most of any example it can find, and borrows from what Muslim clerics consider isolated incidents that should not be followed as rules. It uses stories not always to argue a religious idea: they may be offered to help Islamic State members who struggle with committing acts of extreme violence.”
- We are doing much to fight the Islamic State, but little is being done to reclaim Islamic history and it’s telling from them. While this is a task best left to Arab Muslim regimes and individuals . . . the great and deadly unwinding of existing Arab regimes, the ongoing crisis of authority happening in the region means that these governments may not be capable enough to pull this reclaiming of the narrative off.
- One last word about narratives. The ISIS narrative is indeed a powerful, revolutionary one but we must never forget that one of the blessings of the United States of America is that we have our own powerful narrative. In this we are fortunate indeed compared to some Western countries in the world struggling for meaning in a seemingly untethered, post-modern world. As an immigrant and a refugee myself, I tell you that the American identity, pride in our country, in its past and in its future, identification with its propositions and in its symbols, its inclusiveness and its power for good in the world, is something to be nurtured, to be supported and promoted as an important ideological safeguard for both native born and immigrant Americans. Such a patrimony is something of value in the world today. And that unity of purpose, patriotism, and social harmony is of great importance to us and to the world in this ongoing bitter struggle that has some years yet to run.