Experts weigh in (part 2): 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.

To kick things off, I offered a few thoughts of my own and asked the first director of the U.S. government’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), Amb. Richard LeBaron (@RBLeBaron), to share his thoughts. The CSCC is an interagency body housed in the public diplomacy section of the State Department. Richard is now retired, which made his post on the subject of countering ISIS messaging especially honest, and thus insightful and fun, to read.

Richard’s successor at the CSCC was Amb. Alberto Fernandez (@VPAFernandez), who retired recently and is similarly free to speak his mind. If you follow him on Twitter, you know he’s elevated post-government truth telling to an art form. To my knowledge, this is the first time he and Richard have compared notes about their trauma time directing the center.

Alberto Fernandez: It is not easy to add to the superb introduction by Will McCants and excellent contribution by Ambassador Richard LeBaron in terms of insight but here goes.

As Ambassador LeBaron notes, it is important to remember that ISIS propaganda does not happen in a vacuum. Western governments, including the current administration, would be well served by starting from a position of humility and recognize that the problem of ISIS messaging is fundamentally a political problem reflected in social media and not the other way around. All too often the press, policymakers, and legislators have focused on the “slickness” of the message and not on the power of the content. ISIS propaganda succeeds— when it does and it doesn’t always— because a good part of it is based in real events. The best propaganda is the truth. 

Let’s recall that Syrian Muslims have been slaughtered in large numbers by the Assad regime. From 2012-2014 that was the single major factor that mobilized thousands worldwide to the war zone. But you didn’t need to watch ISIS videos to see this carnage. It was all available in the mainstream media as was the embarrassing, weak responses by Western officials clothed in the language of international humanitarian doublespeak. It is sad testimony to America’s lack of imagination in its messaging response that instead of being bolder, the U.S. government was reduced to hectoring the Western media or highlighting worthy but irrelevant issues such as protecting antiquities.

It’s not just a matter of spending more money or talking more about religion. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom started earlier and have heavily outspent the United States in countering jihadist messaging with the same supposedly inconclusive results. And if we want to talk about messaging failure, there is no greater failure— if measured by the rise of ISIS —than that of al-Qa’ida itself and of the (much valued in Washington) efforts of Arab regime Islamic clerics to try to counter the ISIS message. The real problem is that much of the funding for countering the siren call of the ISIS project has been poorly aligned to counter its “velocity, volume and venom.”

There practical steps that haven’t really been attempted by government that are worth at least trying. Here are three that were discussed at the ISIS propaganda working group I convened earlier this month at the Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum:

While indeed there needs to be more and better content, volume has never been really tried. The number of people who tweet against ISIS numbers in the dozens while ISIS online “fan boys” still number in the thousands. Despite much touted efforts by social media companies, I can find an ISIS supporter or video on YouTube or Twitter within seconds. Online content that counters ISIS is much harder to find.

Russia has created an aggressive online network by spending its money wisely. Others, including ISIS, have built equally effective networks of volunteers online by stoking the zeal of its partisans. We certainly don’t work toward the same goals as the Russians or ISIS but it’s worth learning from states and non-state groups that use social media effectively to further their policy objectives. If the private sector, because it is concerned about physical security or because it has other priorities, can’t mount a challenge to ISIS messaging then government needs to find ways to create these loose networks. Volume alone, occurring in the time zone where events are breaking, should create organic opportunities for messaging that do not exist today.

Remote Intimacy:
People are not radicalized evenly across the board. As the work of RAND Europe and ICSR have shown, they are radicalized in clusters, often inspired by radical content on social media and some sort of personal interaction with a relative, friend, neighbor, religious leader or someone communicating with them one on one online. Somehow seeking to replicate or morph the ISIS model of individualized, tailored recruitment has not been tried, except perhaps by law enforcement seeking to arrest someone. It is a cliché to say that “counselors are standing by,” but creating online mechanisms that could provide such an individualized counseling service in communities that seem to be particularly at risk seems worth trying. Especially in Europe, there are organizations that are already beginning to work in this promising field that could use support to expand their efforts.

More B-Roll:
One of the daily challenges confronted by the tiny but intrepid team at CSCC to counter ISIS messaging was finding enough images to counter the flood of original images that ISIS was producing. ISIS is itself a full-service news operation that both seeks to “make” news and provide the footage for the news it is making. Creating a central repository of images, testimonies and stories for use by counterterrorism communicators is a practical commonsense step that would not only provide the building blocks for anti-ISIS messaging, it would also enlist the power of citizen journalists and civil society activists in Syria and Iraq, which was one of the inspiring developments to come out of the Arab spring. We know, for example, of the hundreds of Sunni Arab Muslims killed by ISIS in Syria and in Iraq in 2014-2015 and that survivors and relatives are scattered in refugee camps. It is inconceivable that the U. S. government, which spends over a billion dollars a year on public diplomacy, can’t be nimble and flexible enough to find someone to track people down and help them tell their stories – like ISIS does – in first person testimonies and in high definition. The same should be done with every single “recanter” returning to Western Europe after a sour experience in ISIS land. One of their first stops, in addition to the police station and court, should be at a television studio.

If anyone is interested in these and similar ideas, I’ll be publishing a paper in a few months with Brookings explaining how we might do a better job at curbing the ISIS recruitment machine.