The Vision Thing

ISIS Has a Message. Do We?

You can’t say ‘just say no’ to the so-called caliphate if you want to win back its converts and ward off new ones.

12.08.14 10:55 AM ET

ISTANBUL, Turkey—Denouncing murder and enslavement should be an easy task, but for Western governments determined to counter the narrative of the militants of the self-styled Islamic State, it is proving much trickier than they thought. Efforts mounted so far don’t seem to be stemming the flow of foreign recruits eager to join the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—nor have they done much to deny jihadis online opportunities to groom followers and market their ideology.

When foreign ministers from nearly 60 countries met in Brussels last week for the first get-together of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, they identified countering toxic jihad ideology and restricting the flow of foreign fighters as objectives just as important to the defeat of the Islamic militants as overwhelming them on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

But while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry argued at a news conference that, militarily, the coalition is making progress, maintaining that two months of airstrikes had damaged the capabilities of ISIS, making it much harder for the militants to operate, he cited no progress in the information war and offered no new ideas about how to counter militants adept at spreading their message using Western-based social-media sites such as Twitter or Facebook.

Indeed, ISIS recently added SoundCloud to its arsenal. So now the jihadis are using what’s widely known as the “Audio YouTube” to upload streaming content to a service that boasts 175 million listeners a month.

Worries about the effectiveness of ISIS propaganda luring fighters from abroad—more than 15,000 foreign fighters are estimated to have been recruited, at least 3,000 of them Westerners—are driving Western concern. But counterterrorism analysts and experts in de-radicalization say governments are relying too heavily on censorship. This not only runs into problems with civil libertarians, it’s just not very effective against jihadis who view their laptops as weapons and their cause as holy.

De-radicalization experts argue there is much more that Western governments could do in counteracting the appeal of jihadi propaganda by being more creative and challenging ideas head-on. In a recent report, the Quilliam think tank faulted Western authorities who seem to believe “their case is so obvious it does not need to be made.”

Nothing could be more off-base where young militants and jihadi aspirants are concerned. They hold certain truths to be self-evident, starting with rejection of the authority structures in the governments of the West and the governments that the West supports in the Muslim world. If they accepted the status quo, they would not be so fascinated by people from backgrounds much like theirs who are fighting the tyrant Bashar al-Assad and cutting off the heads of non-believers in Syria and Iraq. If the message of the West is essentially, “Let’s not do these bad things, let’s keep everything the way it is,” that’s not going to fly.

Once upon a time, the United States might have preached, along with Superman, the comic-book credo of “truth, justice, and the American way.” But today all the jihadis have to do to shoot that down is point to Ferguson and Staten Island.

Anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues at Oxford University’s ARTIS Research & the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, warn that there’s been a failure to understand the ISIS “vision” and, most importantly, “the sacred cause of the caliphate.”

“This is often viewed in Western military, policy, and popular media circles as simply bizarre and opaque to reasoned analysis,” when “it is precisely the power of messianic values and ideals that enables ISIL to exercise extreme violence, and even suffer it, without remorse or fear and with utter confidence in eventual victory, however improbable,” Atran and his colleagues concluded in a paper prepared for a U.S. Defense Department project. “That belief and commitment is likely key to why a hodgepodge of people of mixed nationalities and mostly strangers to one another is able to defeat police and armies with an order of magnitude greater firepower and manpower.”

The effort to offset extremist content online has been mainly a negative one, laments Erin Marie Saltman, a researcher at Quilliam. She maintains that relying on censorship is ineffective: “Blocked content often reappears just as quickly as it is taken down. Censored videos are reposted, content migrates onto different virtual platforms, and blocked accounts are easily re-formed under different names.” So Western governments are caught in a cat-and-mouse game and at times it is unclear who is the cat and who the mouse.

Winning the censorship game outright will be difficult, agrees Steve Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors online extremism. “We are always a couple of steps behind the militants,” he says. “They are creative, investing a lot, and are forward thinking.” But he places some of the blame on social-media businesses, arguing that they are not doing enough to police accounts and block offensive content. “They could do a better job using algorithms and devoting more staff to monitoring activity on their sites. YouTube adopted a flagging mechanism for users to report offensive videos but only 40 percent of those flagged are removed,” he says.

Criticism of Western-owned social-media sites was leveled last month by the head of Britain’s eavesdropping and electronic-surveillance agency, Robert Hannigan, who in an opinion piece for the Financial Times warned that freely available Western technology is helping ISIS to grow. “To those of us who have to tackle the depressing end of human behavior on the Internet, it can seem that some technology companies are in denial about its misuse,” he wrote. He warned that there would be difficult debates ahead over privacy rights, apparently alluding to the possibility of new legislation being introduced in the U.K.

And it might not only be in Britain that politicians rush to legislate. In remarks at a news conference in Brussels, Kerry mentioned “enacting laws” when it comes to countering jihadi propaganda and restricting foreigners from joining ISIS. 

Quilliam warns that filtering and censorship is easily evaded and merely tackles the “symptoms rather than the causes of radicalization.” They maintain that the initial radicalization tends to occur offline before it is then reinforced online.

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Quilliam called on authorities to encourage what it calls “counter-speech initiatives” to critique jihadi propaganda. In the U.S., the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which is housed in the State Department and was set up in 2011, is meant to be doing just that and has mounted an aggressive “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign aimed at dissuading potential recruits from joining ISIS. Some of what the 50-strong group has produced has been praised, but Quilliam researchers question whether the State Department will be seen as trustworthy or believable by its target audience of young, disaffected Muslims harboring, rightly or wrongly, a deep-seated sense of grievance. “The government might not be the best messenger to give a credible voice to the campaign against extremism,” says Quilliam’s Saltman.

Better, she says, to use local Muslim leaders and others in civil society to criticize militant arguments.

“The heroes, armies, and sacred ideals needed to defeat ISIL, and radical Islam in general, will very likely have to come from within the Muslim communities threatened by ISIL,” the ARTIS report concludes. “Currently, there are many millions of Muslims who vehemently oppose ISIL and the brutal current in Islam that it represents.” 

But whoever takes on the task of attacking the caliphate’s vision will have to come up with a message that’s better than same-old same-old.