Ideological battle against ISIS is far from won
While anti-Islamic State (ISIS) forces in Syria and Iraq, backed by US-led coalition air power, have made significant territorial gains in recent weeks, the ideological battle against ISIS is a much more difficult struggle. Efforts so far by the United States and several Arab states have been inadequate and ineffective.
ISIS’s recent battlefield setbacks in the Iraqi city of Ramadi and in areas of eastern Syria prompted some observers to claim that ISIS is in retreat. In late December, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio message that was interpreted by analysts as an attempt to rally supporters in the face of the setbacks. “Your state is still good,” he assured his followers.
Before the anti-ISIS coalition can take a victory lap, however, it needs to re-examine its efforts to counter ISIS propaganda. The fact remains that ISIS has attracted more than 20,000 foreign fighters over the past couple of years, including more than 3,000 from Europe. Much of this success is due to the group’s effective exploitation of social media.
According to an investigative report by the Washington Post, ISIS’s media wing “employs a virtual production line, turning battle footage captured on GoPro cameras into polished propaganda films”. The Brookings Institution in Washington says at least 46,000 Twitter accounts are linked to ISIS followers.
The US effort at countering extremist propaganda only really started in 2011 with the establishment of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), housed in the US State Department. Originally set up to counter al-Qaeda’s propaganda, it shifted its focus to ISIS after 2013.
The centre has been plagued by funding and staff shortages — only 20 people worked in the centre’s main office as of late 2015. Some of the centre’s programmes have been controversial and counterproductive. For example, in 2014, it attempted to mock ISIS with a YouTube video called Welcome to ISIS Land, which was meant to parody ISIS propaganda about how great things were in the territory under its control. ISIS counter-attacked with a video called Run, Do Not Walk to US Terrorist State.
Some US terrorism experts say that engaging in a parody war does not work because the message is not taken seriously by young people and depictions of ISIS violence in US-produced videos only expands the pro-ISIS audience.
US Representative Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the video “ineffective”. Even Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department Richard Stengel who oversees the CSCC, admitted that such videos were “not resonating in ways I would have hoped”.
Such soul-searching prompted the White House to bring in an outside panel of experts, including some from Silicon Valley, to review the CSCC. Although the review panel endorsed more recent State Department efforts to bring in Middle East allies in the anti-ISIS propaganda effort and to highlight personal stories from ISIS defectors, it questioned whether the United States “should be involved in overt messaging at all” because young Muslims do not see messaging from Washington as being credible.
Outside Washington, US diplomats have worked with UAE officials to set up an anti-ISIS messaging operation in the United Arab Emirates and other such operational centres are planned for Malaysia and Nigeria. But this begs the questions of what Muslim nations have been doing so far in this ideological struggle and why they have not done more themselves.
Egypt’s political and religious leaders, from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, have taken the lead in denouncing ISIS propaganda, which seems to be a good start. But for many disaffected Muslim youth, such messaging probably falls on deaf ears. It may make more sense to have young ISIS defectors talk directly to youth groups about how they were swayed by ISIS propaganda only to find a completely different situation once they arrived in Syria.
Other Arab and Muslim states need to step up and reach out to their own young people in more imaginative and effective ways than simply having establishment preachers and political leaders give sermons and lectures on the evils of ISIS.
A better use of US resources would be to work quietly with those countries in devising effective messaging techniques rather than producing videos with a US imprimatur.
The war against ISIS is not just one of territory but also of ideas and the only way to counter an idea effectively is to discredit it from credible and believable sources.