Experts weigh in: Can the United States counter ISIS propaganda?

Will McCants: A few days ago, the New York Times reported on a leaked memo written by Richard Stengel, the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy, who criticized America’s foreign partners in the effort to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda. It’s the latest chapter in the U.S. government’s decade-long saga to counter jihadist propaganda, which Greg Miller and Scott Higham documented so thoroughly last month in the Washington Post. 

With the presidential election coming up and U.S. messaging strategy against the Islamic State uncertain, I figure it’s a good time to pause and take stock of where things stand. Over the next week or so, I’ll be asking some of the folks who’ve wrestled with the problem inside and outside government to share their thoughts on what can be improved and whether the United States should even bother trying to persuade a small minority jihadist recruits not to throw away their lives.

Having been involved in this effort myself inside and outside government, I’d like to offer a few things I learned along the way to help folks understand why the problem is so difficult for policymakers:

  1. You never know if you’re succeeding in dissuading young men and women from joining a militant organization. How can you know that your program has worked when its goal is to make sure someone doesn’t do something?
  2. Many people (especially journalists) are skeptical that messaging works and that U.S. messaging against jihadists can achieve anything positive, even though they can’t empirically back up their skepticism (see point #1). So most news stories about U.S. government messaging imply or say explicitly that the programs are abject failures.
  3. The U.S. government has already tried everyone’s Great Frick’n Idea over and over, and no one knows when the shiny new Great Frick’n Idea was last tried and how well it did. Staff turnover and the gigantic size of the U.S. government ensure this will always be the case. Repeated calls for coordination, strategy, etc. will never herd these cats. 
  4. America is a CAN DO country and Washington, DC is an exceptionally CAN DO place. Doing nothing is never an option—at least not for long. This is especially true when it comes to countering jihadist recruitment. It’s not enough to say, “We’ll leave this one alone.” 
  5. “Credible voices” is usually code for “non-government people who’ll mouth my talking points but probably don’t have sway with anyone who matters.”
  6. The Islamic State’s messaging strategy is fundamentally different from al-Qaeda’s messaging strategy. As I document in my forthcoming book, al-Qaeda cared a lot about Muslim public opinion during its war with the United States over the past decade so it made sense for the United States to try and tarnish its image by advertising its brutality against Muslims. The Islamic State doesn’t give a damn about building broad support among the Muslim masses, so using the same messaging strategy against it that the U.S. government used against al-Qaeda has led to some misfires. When we advertise the Islamic State’s brutality, the Islamic State loves it.

With that, let me hand the mic over to Amb. Richard LeBaron, the guy who had the (mis)fortune to be the first director of the the U.S. government’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an interagency body housed in the public diplomacy section of the State Department. Richard is now retired, which makes his writing on the subject of ISIS counterterrorism especially honest, and thus insightful and fun, to read.

Richard LeBaron:
 Both policymakers and the media seem to view the social media battle with ISIS as some sort of high tech ping-pong game, with the two sides firing messages back and forth, with maximum spin and force. This cartoonish perception singles out the online battle for hearts and minds, and especially for ISIS recruits, as an independent phenomenon with no relation to other forces that go into the radicalization of the tiny minority of people who actually ever get radicalized. We count tweets and forget that they are just tweets — they are not a very good indicator of ISIS recruiting abilities.

We are astonished that these tweeters for ISIS have so many followers, as if we cannot imagine that Arabs and their sympathizers could possibly have the social media abilities to rally people around perceived injustice and possible solutions to address it. How can they possibly sell their message of terror? What is their secret? One glance at the number of victims of Assad’s forces in Syria provides an obvious example of how utterly easy it is to promote a vision of victimized Muslims who need aid.  One glance at how the international community has failed in its response to this humanitarian disaster indicates why fabled “counter-messaging” is so difficult. Social media tells a story, but you have to have a somewhat compelling story to tell in the first place.

But let’s not over-estimate the impact of the “crusaders of the caliphate.” We can be sure that they are agonizing, just as American and other officials are, about why their “slick” media campaigns that impress the Western media so are having such sparse results. Why are the vast majority of Muslims simply ignoring them? Is this not an existential moment for the Arab/Muslim/Sunni world? Why only a thousand new recruits from the millions available around the world?  (And where do these numbers about new recruits come from anyway? If we actually had such precise numbers, we’d likely be able to block many more from joining.) Where are the millions of Muslims from outside the Middle East, in Southeast Asia and South Asia? We’ve got the best thing going in years and still we can’t get anything but a trickle of recruits compared with the eligible population?

What the ISIS recruiters know, and what we know but often ignore, is that social and other media are useful but not critical elements in radicalization and recruitment. Social media provides access to a large audience but it rarely is an independent force that mobilizes an individual to take off for the Turkish border. Otherwise there would be a lot more recruits. Motivations for taking the step from sympathy for a cause to individual action are varied: personal circumstances of social isolation, resentment in one form or another, the urge to “do something” in the face of persecution of fellow Muslims, the lack of other things to do, and political marginalization. The motivation of a former Iraqi army major is quite different from that of a teenager from Wales. And only in the rarest cases does the religious/political ideology of ISIS appear to be a determining factor. This is not a war of ideologies any more than the 11th century Crusades were all about saving Christianity from the ravages of the Islam.

However, the notion that the United States lacks influence on the decision-making of young Muslims is also flawed. It may well be true that we are still trying to figure out how to get at and change the views of that very tiny number of people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause that has barely perceptible support among the Muslim mainstream. We may also be discouraged if we examine only one tiny element of the efforts by the United States — the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) — an interagency body at the State Department where I served as the founding coordinator. But we forget that CSCC is part of a broader information and outreach effort by the U.S. government. We forget that we have a large system of international exchanges with the Muslim world that is in great demand and produces outstanding results with populations ranging from high school students to mid-level professionals who come to the United States for life-changing experiences. In essence we forget that most people in the Muslim world are not terrorists, are not at risk of becoming terrorists, and resent being viewed by some Americans only through a security prism.

CSCC and other similar organizations being formed around the world are in the special operations category of the information world. They are asked to influence the hardest target — people on the cusp of radicalization who live in a constructed world of conspiracy and isolation. We need to give our people the space to act imaginatively in this hall of mirrors, without fear of ridicule and abrupt changes of course as they experiment and innovate.  I know how hard this work is and I also know there is a legitimate role for an overt U.S. government mechanism that adopts a sharp edge to make prospective terrorists aware of the human consequences of terror. People do listen to that voice, despite the skeptics who contend that only credible Muslim voices resonate. In concert with all the other sources of information that flow from the United States to the world, the work of the special operators at CSCC deserves respect and support.