Experts weigh in (part 3): Can the United States counter ISIS propaganda?

Will McCantsA 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 was the first time he and Richard have compared notes about their trauma time directing the center.

Alberto writes that Western governments would be well served by recognizing that the problem of ISIS messaging is fundamentally a political problem reflected in social media— and not the other way around.

Next up is Kamran Bokhari, an expert on the geopolitics of the Middle East & South Asia and author of Political Islam in the Age of Democratization.

Kamran Bokhari: This month I participated in two different events at which participants were invited to discuss how best to counter-message ISIS’ electronic propaganda. The first was at the annual Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha in a working group led by Alberto Fernandez, and the second was a roundtable organized by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs under Chatham House rules. At both events participants understood the term ‘counter-narrative’ in two separate ways.

To counter the narrative of ISIS, for some, meant advancing an interpretation of Islam that could delegitimize Jihadism. For others, a counter-narrative should expose the fallacies of the geopolitical analyses and claims of ISIS. These variant perspectives inform a lively public debate on “What’s the counter-narrative?” – a question that Aaron Miller highlighted in a Foreign Policy piece.

Miller goes on to point out how the United States has long been trying to convince Arabs and Muslims that Washington is not at war with them. War here should not simply be viewed in the classic military sense; rather in terms of a war of ideas, which is where counter-narratives further exacerbate matters. ISIS is able to pre-emptively strike by painting U.S. government counter-narrative campaigns as an effort to intellectually subvert Islam.  

For this very reason many insist that counter-messaging must avoid discussions of religion and instead focus on demonstrating how ISIS cannot address Arab/Muslim political grievances and instead worsens matters. But devising a counter-narrative first requires a comprehensive understanding of the narrative that needs to be countered. Not surprisingly, the neat analytical bifurcation between these two notions of a counter-narrative doesn’t cohere with ground realities. 

In fact, it’s very difficult to separate the religion from the politics in ISIS’ narrative. Yes, it is crucial that the U.S. government show that ISIS is not victorious on the battlefield, as Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger make a case for in their article for Time, and demonstrate that the movement is not making progress in establishing a polity that is improving the lives of its citizens. But ISIS’ claims are intertwined with the doctrine of the caliphate and thus we cannot just focus on the Islamic State as an organization without addressing the concept of an Islamic state. 

Not only is the U.S. government incapable of doing this; even Muslims with ties to Washington lack the ability as Will McCants powerfully argues in Foreign Affairs. The American linkage isn’t the only problem though as credible Muslims also can’t be from the sectarian ‘other’ as I noted in my last piece for Stratfor. Moderate Salafists may have a reasonable chance of convincing extremists that they are on an un-Islamic path. 

However, they also need to have an effective alternative to offer as I pointed out in my contribution to a recent Brookings debate. A compelling story (to borrow from Richard LeBaron) is necessary for both political and religious counter-messaging. Each has to be pursued separately and extremely carefully if we are to defeat not just ISIS but the ideology of Jihadism.