A Counter-Messaging Campaign Against The Islamic State

Three broad goals of a counter-messaging campaign against the Islamic State:

1) undermine the group’s appeal

2) reduce the group’s ability to exploit social media and other online communications platforms

3) diminish the Islamic State’s capacity to engage with and recruit supporters.

Undermine the Islamic State’s core narrative. The Islamic State’s propaganda fuses religious, political, and personal narratives to attract supporters, foreign fighters and “migrants.” Its narrative fundamentally hinges on the group’s ability to project an image of strength and momentum: If it cannot do so, the group’s use of excessive brutality may become an albatross around its neck, as was the case for its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Indeed, the Islamic State’s slogan — baqiya wa tatamaddad, or remaining and expanding — is illustrative of the group’s “winner’s message.” The Islamic State has often exaggerated its gains and downplayed its losses to bolster perceptions of its strength.

A second aspect of the Islamic State’s core narrative is the assertion that it has established a religiously and politically legitimate caliphate. As Charlie Winter noted here at War on the Rocks, the Islamic State has devoted considerable resources to portraying its caliphate as an Islamic utopia, where food is abundant, public services top-notch, and Islamic law (sharia) implemented as it was during the Prophet Muhammad’s time.

A third noteworthy aspect of the Islamic State’s core narrative is the perception, widely shared by young jihadists, that the Islamic State is a “cool” organization, and that fighting abroad is an opportunity for adventure. To perpetuate this view, the Islamic State has produced slick propaganda videos depicting scenes of violence that mirror video games like Call of Duty (a term that Islamic State militants on social media have at times appropriated). Such images of adventure and accomplishment are often incongruent with reality.

Undercutting the Islamic State’s core narratives is perhaps the most critical element of a counter-messaging campaign. Exposing the group’s embellishments and outright fabrications can do a great deal of damage to the Islamic State’s overall appeal.

Put the Islamic State on the defensive. Another aspect of a comprehensive campaign is placing the group on the defensive rhetorically. For instance, calling the Islamic State out on social media when it exaggerates military successes might not persuade its supporters to abandon the organization, but may force the group into a defensive posture. The Islamic State may find itself dedicating valuable time and resources to fending off negative perceptions — time and resources the group would prefer to devote to its recruitment and mobilization initiatives.

Break up Islamic State relationships. A counter-messaging campaign can focus on accentuating disagreements and schisms within the social networks that the Islamic State uses to communicate with and recruit at-risk individuals. In the Islamic State’s online recruitment architecture, social media operatives constantly interact with recruits to foster a sense of what analyst J.M. Berger describes as “remote intimacy.”

Peel away Islamic State supporters. This objective is to facilitate deradicalization from the Islamic State’s ideology, or at least disengagement from the group. As John Horgan has noted, deradicalization implies the abandonment of an extremist outlook, while disengagement “might indicate some continued adherence to these values and attitudes, and engaging in some other socially relevant ‘support’ behavior but no longer engaging in actual terrorist operations.” While individuals known to deradicalize or disengage on the basis of messaging alone are relatively rare (there are more known cases of disillusioned foreign fighters or migrants), hope can be found in cases like the Finnish teenager known as Abdullah who once served as a powerful online English-language propagandist for the group.

Provide alternative pathways. Individuals who become radicalized often struggle to find meaningful ideas and identities, or believe that violent extremist groups offer the only way to address their political or personal anger. The Islamic State’s worldview may fill the void that such individuals feel in their lives. Practitioners may try to intervene to highlight alternative pathways — such as political activism — for dealing with such individuals’ anger and dissatisfaction, or offer different outlets and opportunities that at-risk individuals see as meaningful. While a messaging campaign is capable of highlighting such alternative pathways, it is difficult to make them robust solely through communicating them. The promotion of alternative pathways is probably better achieved through a broader Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) campaign that is not limited to counter-messaging.

Prevent mobilization to action/violence. In lieu of trying to deradicalize the Islamic State’s supporters, CVE practitioners may focus instead on deterring or preventing radicalized individuals from mobilizing to violence. Many people harbor extremist sentiments but never act on them.

Bulwark against future radicalization. An effective counter-messaging campaign may develop counter-narratives that appeal to neither a Violent Extremist Organization (VEO)’s current supporters nor at-risk populations, but instead serve as a bulwark against future radicalization and recruitment. These counter-narratives aim to ensure that people disinterested in the Islamic State’s dark worldview remain disinterested, thus denuding the group of its appeal to future generations.

From Goals to Policies

1) Campaign to undermine the Islamic State’s narrative of military strength.

2) Exposing the Islamic State’s inability to provide public services.

3) Challenging the Islamic State’s religious narrative.

4) Publicizing defections.

5) One-on-one intervention with at-risk individuals.

6) Online discussion fora.

7) Taking down jihadist social media accounts and websites.

This article is an adaptation from “Fixing How We Fight the Islamic State’s Narrative” (Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, War on the Rocks).

Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli

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