Why ISIS Propaganda Works

As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization does not enjoy mass appeal, but it is certainly having mass impact. After but 18 months of caliphate-hood, the group’s preeminence is already coming to shape what it is to be a millennial Muslim and inspiring attacks far outside the caliphate. Hence, the strategic communications war—where hearts and minds are won and lost—is just as important in the long-term as any military campaign, if not more so.

ISIS Is Not Winning the War of Ideas

To be fair to the coalition, it has not missed the ideational menace that the Islamic State presents. As a direct result of coalition efforts, especially those of the United States government, counter-Islamic State information operations are more prolific now than ever before, the quantity of counterpropaganda is snowballing, and social-media giants like Twitter are being more aggressive in their efforts to hobble ISIS propagandists. Even Anonymous has thrown its hat in the ring.

In January, the State Department restructured its own counterpropaganda apparatus, creating a “Global Engagement Center” to “more effectively coordinate, integrate and synchronize messaging to foreign audiences that undermines the disinformation espoused by violent extremist groups, including ISIL and al-Qaeda.” However, even in this new guise—which, while it marks an important push in the right direction, risks being too centralized within national governments at the same time that it lacks the requisite level of coordination among different countries—the coalition’s information operations are facing an almost insurmountable challenge. Such a state of affairs is untenable. To ameliorate it, a new communications architecture is required, based on three pillars: global strategic direction, local delivery, and a broader, more accurate understanding of how and why the Islamic State appeals.

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The Competition

It’s no secret that the caliphate has a compelling story, coupled with a sophisticated ability to deliver it. But what is often overlooked are the underlying strategic elements that enable the group to land its messages so effectively.

First, while the international media tends to obsess over the Islamic State’s ultraviolence, the group’s propaganda is incredibly varied. Unlike the coalition’s primary weapon in the information war—negative messaging—the caliphal narrative combines positive and negative themes that appeal to both ideological and political supporters. On a daily basis, the group parades images of civilian life, ruminates upon the concept of mercy, and highlights the visceral camaraderie allegedly felt among its members. Crucially, it doesn’t just do this online—propaganda is just as important in person in the Islamic State’s heartlands as it is on its members’ smartphones.

The Islamic State expends huge amounts of energy building this composite narrative because its propaganda is being created for, and directed to, a number of audiences: potential members, sympathizers, enemies, general publics—the list goes on. Whoever they are, the Islamic State propagandists tie them all together by communicating the same core narrative to each—that its caliphate is a triumphant, model society that offers community to all who desire it, and destruction to those who don’t.

To active supporters and potential sympathizers, in particular, the power of this narrative steamrolls the coalition’s counter-messaging, which is currently set up only to address a handful of discrete strands of the Islamic State idea, instead of the core narrative in its entirety. This has led, at times, to coalition counter-messaging being bogged down by well-intentioned but questionable reproductions of the Islamic State’s ultraviolence, and social-media posts intoning variations on “The Islamic State is brutal and isn’t Islamic—so don’t join it.”

Saudi Arabia-led Islamic alliance against terrorism, the Paris attacks, and the refugee crisis demonstrate, if the “Base Foundation”—which is how the Islamic State refers to its “corporate headquarters”—issues a communique saying “Jump,” all its provincial foundations are on standby to say “How high?” and respond a few days later with the on-message HD fruits of their labor.

Critically, the aggregate impact of the offices is greatly amplified because, instead of disseminating the material themselves, the ISIS outreach team actively cultivates unofficial spokespeople who share their media outside the caliphate’s formal communications structure, encouraging others around the world to autonomously spread the Islamic State message alongside them. Because those unofficial propagandists are best-suited to identifying the ideal channel for reaching their respective local audiences—and tailoring the core narrative accordingly—the influence of the Islamic State’s communications skyrockets.

The Current State of Play

For the coalition to have lasting communications impact against this formidable enemy, it requires a similarly nuanced—and expansive—understanding of message delivery and audience segmentation. Twitter suspensions are not nearly enough.

As it stands, the coalition’s counter-messaging is not structured to attack the Islamic State’s entire narrative, but instead looks at and attacks specific elements of its messages individually. This structural weakness is compounded by a lack of credible voices and a surplus of risk-averseness, in large part because these efforts have, so far at least, been both led and delivered by a handful of Western governments. The resulting, overly bureaucratic approach persistently gets in the way of flexibility and dynamism, both of which are required for success.

Shared Values” campaign (an early-2000s set of commercials aiming to show Muslims living happy lives in the U.S., which was mocked as the “Happy Muslim” campaign); the ultraviolent approach to counterpropaganda embodied in a State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign (which, in purporting to show “some truths about terrorism,” disseminated gory videos among other things); and government officials swapping insults with jihadists on Twitter tend to be the most memorable, defining points for U.S. forays into counter-jihadist public diplomacy.

And, while it’s true that for every mistake there is a success story, even those are but drops in the information ocean. Indeed, even when supplemented by the efforts of the newly formed £10 million UK-based Coalition Communications Cell—not to mention other strategic-communications centers proliferating globally, from Nigeria to Malaysia—overtly government-directed initiatives are fighting an unwinnable battle. They are too centralized, too rigorously managed, and too reactive. The amount of their activity is structurally bound to be insufficient, and its content bound to lack credibility among the most at-risk target audiences.

Marginalized communities that feel indifferent or hostile to their respective governments, let alone supporters and potential sympathizers of Mr. al-Baghdadi, will never, ever be swayed by a foreign state telling them on social media that the Islamic State’s caliphate is not Islamic or that it is killing more Muslims than anyone else. For that reason, even initiatives that are ostensibly tailored to be more “local,” like the UAE’s Sawab Center (“the first-ever multinational online messaging and engagement program,” which operates in overt partnership with the U.S. government), are bound to struggle, simply for the fact that their messaging is unable to truly resonate with the right people.

To be sure, the people that matter have not missed this problem. In June 2015, for example, Rashad Hussain, former coordinator of the U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, noted that Islamic State recruits and sympathizers are “almost always influenced by a figure in their community […] who uses grievance and ideology to reel them in.” Such recognition is all well and good, but there is a big difference between not missing a problem and being able to take effective action to mitigate it.

A New Approach

What needs to happen is, in conceptual terms, simple. Instead of governments, the burden for reaching potential Islamic State supporters must rest entirely on the shoulders of local, non-government actors. They can be Muslim or non-Muslim, individuals or institutions, community leaders or cultural organizations. What matters most is that they are trusted as enemies of the Islamic State and hold preexisting and offline relationships with—and are respected by—those at risk of radicalization, the communities around those at risk of radicalization, and the general audience being targeted by the Islamic State’s propagandists. It is crucial that they are not perceived as being under the thumb of the coalition’s Western leadership.

To achieve this separation, governments should provide funding, logistical support, and training in communications best practices, whether to groups already doing counter-radicalization work or to those wishing to start from scratch. Since all this must contribute toward the shared goal of undermining the Islamic State’s brand, it will only work if governments never publicly endorse these actors or include their communications on official channels, unless specifically requested otherwise. With governmental support and the coalition’s core messaging priorities in hand, local actors will be able to benefit from a globally coordinated campaign that will, in theory, amplify the anti-Islamic State message more widely, in turn creating a better condition for success in each local context.

There are two major benefits to empowering such communicators. First, doing so would dramatically increase the volume of audience engagements, which is a fast way to expand the number of people delivering anti-Islamic State communications. Second, and more importantly, using the right channel to broadcast to each audience increases a message’s impact.

Islamic-State-is-a-Western-conspiracy” trope that is so widely accepted in the Middle East, the anti-Islamic State message is dressed up in a way that does not necessarily cater to Western fancies, then that must be accepted as a necessary evil. For example, a Friday sermon criticizing the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam would need to be considered acceptable, even if it contained a condemnation of Israel’s settlements. A closely monitored “anything goes” approach is the coalition’s only chance of success.

The Architecture

If that’s the theory, what does the structure look like in practice? First off, it would need to operate on three tiers: coalition, national, and local.

The coalition level—which would operate behind the scenes, except for direct communication with select audiences like global media and policymakers—must have primary responsibility for developing the core narrative of the operation. Ideally, that narrative would be developed by about 20 people operating full-time, drawn from the governments of a diverse range of coalition members, as suggested by U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel. This range would provide the coalition with the global perspective required to combat the entirety of the Islamic State’s propaganda narrative. It is critical that this unit have the authority to disregard outside influences, such that no one member state can direct the coalition’s narrative to its own geopolitical advantage. With this structure in place, the coalition would have responsibility for setting the strategic narrative, updating its constituent messages to reflect recent events, and regularly communicating this messaging framework internally to each member. However, its responsibility must stop at core narrative development and coordination. Decisions about how that message is delivered need to be left to the lower levels of this structure.

as the U.S. government announced it would do last month, is a start, but it is nowhere near enough, not even when it’s coupled with the U.K.’s building of a coalition communications cell. Without revising the communications campaign’s underlying principles and implementing a wider, more holistic approach, the coalition will never be able to meaningfully undermine with the Islamic State’s outreach in the long term.