United States lags in propaganda war against ISIS
In the war against Islamic extremists, fighting their ideology is as important as fighting them with bullets, bombs and special forces’ raids.
Or, to cite the official US view, “Lasting victories over terrorism and the violent extremist ideologies that underpin it are not found on the battlefield but rather in mindsets.” So says a US State Department fact sheet on the need for a counteroffensive against an Islamic State (ISIS) propaganda machine that makes skilful use of social media and produces up to 90,000 tweets and other online messages a day in Arabic and English.
As often happens in Washington, there is a gap between words and deeds — America’s “counter-messaging” efforts have been stymied by miserly funding and bureaucratic wrangling. The small State Department unit set up in 2010 to blunt extremist propaganda operates on a budget of $5 million-$6 million a year. That is roughly the price of a missile-laden Predator drone, US President Barack Obama’s favourite weapon in the shooting war.
How the team charged with the counter-messaging campaign views its success or failure was highlighted recently in a memo, leaked to the New York Times, by Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine who became under-secretary of state for public diplomacy in 2014. The departments he oversees include the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC).
“When it comes to the external message, our narrative is being trumped by ISIL’s,” Stengel wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, using the administration’s acronym for ISIS. “We are reactive — we think about ‘counter-narrative’ not ‘our narrative.’”
Stengel wrote the bluntly worded memo after a working-group meeting with officials from Britain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States charged with countering extremist propaganda. “The UAE is reticent, the Brits are overeager and the working group structure is confusing,” the memo said. One way to sharpen the anti-ISIS message would be to create a multinational communications hub in the Middle East, it suggested.
How long would it take to set this up and how many nations would it include? Not yet clear.
What is clear is that ISIS has been successful in attracting recruits from all over the world to its violent cause. Estimates vary but most experts agree there are more foreign fighters in the ranks of extremist groups, chiefly ISIS, than there were in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
What makes ISIS propaganda so effective, experts say, is an unprecedented mix of media. Apart from the grisly beheading videos that shock most people but attract the violent fringe, there are video games, rap music and, lately, documentaries focusing on health care and social programmes in areas under ISIS control.
“This is sophisticated. It is Madison Avenue meets documentary film-making meets news channel with sensibility and marketing value,” Scott Talan, a social media professor at American University in Washington, told ABC News.
ISIS is speaking to young people on edge in a language they understand — video, imagery and music.
The US counter-message has varied in tone since September 11, 2001. The earliest effort, in response to claims that the United States was waging war on Muslims, featured Muslims living contented lives in the United States. Critics mocked it as “the happy Muslim” campaign. Then there was a film produced by Disney entitled Portraits of America and shown in airports.
At one point last year, CSCC engaged in a tit-for-tat Twitter war with ISIS, responding to its tweets rapidly in blunt and often sarcastic language. One video that went viral, with more than 800,000 views on YouTube, was called Welcome to ISIS Land and uses the group’s own stomach-turning images of beheadings and executions to mock the notion that new recruits would fight a worthy cause in defence of Islam.
The video angered ISIS, judging from a storm of tweets, but it also irritated senior US officials who thought it unseemly that a government unit would adopt the enemy’s communications style. The veteran diplomat who masterminded Welcome to ISIS Land, Alberto Fernandez, lost his job.