Why ISIS propaganda has been so successful and how to counter it

Editor’s Note: As part of this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum, many of our participants are writing posts on Markaz to share their thoughts on one of the diverse topics discussed at the Forum. We hope you will join us by watching live webcasts from Doha, Qatar, on June 1-3, 2015, or following the conversation on Twitter with #USIslam15.

At least 20,000 foreigners—a conservative estimate—have left their homes in over 80 countries to join the ranks of ISIS. While most of them have been young men wanting to become fighters, young women have also joined, as have professionals offering their skills to the nascent state. These individuals were “radicalized,” that is motivated to the point of taking concrete action to join a cause almost universally reviled by mainstream media and the nation-state, whether in the East or in the West. Usually, the blame is placed on “slick” ISIS propaganda.

Foreign fighters are not a new phenomenon. Che Guevara was a “foreign fighter” and so was the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who fought alongside George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. Foreigners flocked to fight for the Pope in the 19th century and for an absolutist Spanish pretender. Thousands of leftists volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and thousands of Europeans volunteered for the Nazi Party’s Waffen SS. In an analog age, all were motivated at least as much by a powerful idea, a cause greater than themselves, than by the medium. As a Rand Europe study pointed out in 2013, social media makes things easier: it serves as an accelerant and as an echo chamber and it facilitates self-radicalization. But it is always the message that has the power to mobilize.

While certainly steeped in its particular take on the Islamist Salafi-jihadi worldview, the ISIS messaging style we have become so familiar with looks more like that of the Western grassroots movements propagated by a countercultural use of new media, such as Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, anarchist, and far left movements that utilize smart mobs. But ISIS is powered first by the body count of Sunni Arab Muslims in Syria and then by dreams of resurrecting a past Islamic glory in the form of a restored caliphate. This is a powerful and poisonous idealism.

If ISIS is a countercultural movement—and it is—then governments (and their semi-official religious mouthpieces) are going to be hard-pressed to mount an effective response. Countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade in poorly monitored efforts to curb these extremists. But it is hard, if not impossible, for regimes—even Western ones—to be attuned with the counterculture of jihad in order to combat it.

Ending the Assad regime’s bloodletting in Syria and ensuring true power-sharing in Iraq would go a long way in blunting the appeal of ISIS propaganda. Taking back ISIS-controlled territory punctures its image of inevitable victory. But a new approach is also needed, one in which states embrace the chaos of the new media space and try to subvert a message that is powerful because it is both contrarian and sincere, and because it offers meaning and deadly purpose clothed in the most powerful and stimulating packaging our modern age produces—violence, power, sex, and the exaltation of the self. At the 2015 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, I look forward to discussing new, effective ways that the international community can use to degrade the power of this message to help bring down ISIS and other extremist groups.