Editors’ Note: How can the U.S. government better counter ISIS propaganda? As the State Department overhauls its counter messaging program, Will McCants and Clint Watts examine what makes ISIS’s online magazine, Dabiq, so successful, and the obstacles to the U.S. government producing a publication that effective. This piece originally appeared on The Daily Beast.
The Obama administration attributes much of ISIS’s success at communicating to its technological savvy, which has elevated the group to a global media and terrorist phenomenon. The president has gone so far as to say that the Paris attackers were a “bunch of killers with good social media.”
Despite the praise heaped on the so-called Islamic State for its cutting-edge propaganda online, one of its most effective products is decidedly low tech. Dabiq, ISIS’s online news magazine, has a small but devoted readership that spans the globe. News of advances on the battlefield excite them—more evidence that God’s kingdom on earth has returned and grows. Stories of fighters inspire them—more models to emulate as they contemplate what role they can play in the divine drama unfolding.
Journalists and analysts read it with almost the same intensity as ISIS fans; the contents of each volume fill newspapers and think-tank reports soon after it’s released. And no wonder: the magazine clearly states the organization’s goals; provides news of its activities that advance those goals; showcases personal stories of the people engaged in the activities; and announces major developments in the organization’s fight against its enemies. It’s a wealth of information presented between two covers every few months.
Can you name a single U.S. government publication or online platform devoted to the anti-ISIS fight that is as informative or as widely-read as Dabiq? Is there anything that tells us what all these air sorties are for? Who’s fighting this fight on the ground? What advances the coalition has made and why we should we care? We couldn’t come up with one either.
That got us to thinking: why can’t the U.S. government publish something like Dabiq online? Lack of imagination isn’t the reason. A news magazine isn’t a very creative idea—Americans perfected the form, which ISIS copied. And if anything, folks inside the government have too many overly-imaginative ideas, most of them involving whiz-bang technology. If you’ve thought it, they’ve thought it. A social media campaign for youth to come up with ways to counter violent extremism? Check. Sock-puppetry? Check.
The only real obstacle impeding the U.S. government is itself. The executive branch’s complicated bureaucracy, legal strictures, and sensitivity to criticism from media and Congress make it tough to publish a Dabiq-style magazine. To see what we mean, let’s look at two of Dabiq’s regular features and see what would happen if the U.S. government tried to mimic them:
Attack Reports: Each issue of Dabiq details its attacks on its enemies. One entry in issue 12 chronicled ISIS’s efforts to capture an airbase in Dayr al-Zawr, Syria. Another described four suicide attacks on the Saudi-led coalition fighting southern Yemen. Pictures accompany most entries, some quite gruesome.
The U.S. government routinely writes these types of reports for internal consumption. But when they’re public—and thus under the scrutiny of Congress that holds the pursestrings and the media that holds the careerstrings—routine gives way to caution and quarreling.
If the president asks his government to write attack reports for the public, the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense will quarrel about who will take the lead in writing and publishing them. Then they and the intelligence agencies will quarrel over which reports should be included. Will this report counter the president’s insistence that we have no boots on the ground? Will that report make it look like our Iraqi partners aren’t carrying their weight? Does this one tell the enemy too much about our game plan? Does that picture make U.S. soldiers look too menacing? Will this report later be discredited by the media? Will these battlefield successes be reversed in the future? Does anyone know if another agency has said this or its opposite? Will anyone trust what we’re saying? Shouldn’t someone else be saying this?
When something finally slides off the serpentine conveyor belt months later, it will be a bland blob devoid of detail and relevance. Meanwhile, ISIS will have added twelve more volumes to its shelves.
Biographies of Fighters: Dabiq sometimes profiles its fighters, including the young men on the front lines dying for ISIS’s cause. The fighters tell their stories and explain their reasons for fighting. In issue 8, for example, there is a Q&A with the man who murdered a prominent politician in Tunisia. He explains why he did it and how it advances the greater goals of the Islamic State.
The United States military used to feature these sorts of stories, too—back when the American war in Iraq was a massive, overt affair. Now, that’s not the case. The identities of the Americans fighting in Syria and Iraq are a well-guarded secret because the government does not want them or their families to become targets. The government would also frown on them for nonchalantly talking about killing lest the American public get upset. And then there’s that boots on the ground thing.
Without personal stories, we’re left with drones buzzing in the sky, and buzz-cut officers droning through stale Pentagon briefings. The human cost on both sides is reduced to numbers on slides, which means Americans can’t appreciate the true costs of war and foreigners can’t appreciate the sacrifices Americans are making on their behalf.
Some readers might feel that the U.S. government should be constrained in these ways. They want the government to be sensitive to public opinion and exceedingly cautious when talking about war and violence. If so, they shouldn’t complain when the U.S. government explains its anti-ISIS fight in the vaguest possible terms—that’s the outcome of extreme caution compounded by bureaucratic bargaining on a mind-boggling scale. Others might feel we need to reform the way government does messaging. If so, don’t propose to change the system first. Rather, ask the system to perform a simple task like the one we’ve described and see where it breaks down. Then you’ll know what to fix.
Making a news magazine probably isn’t the high tech solution the government is looking for, at least judging by Friday’s pilgrimage of senior security officials to Silicon Valley and the revamping of State Department’s online counter messaging campaign. But if our byzantine, poll-sensitive government can’t do something so basic, it won’t perform better when it’s tasked with something more complicated no matter how much technology it uses.
For the past year, you've seen that perhaps no leverage that the US and the West thought it had — aid, sanctions, the freezing of Afghanistan's reserves — has really had an effect on Taliban behavior. The Taliban has essentially done what they had always done. The Afghan people have been in a humanitarian crisis because the Taliban hasn't budged.