While President Donald Trump is reportedly weighing delegating more flexibility to the Defense Department to engage directly in anti-terrorist operations, it’s clear that governments are going to need to move the fight against ISIS to the internet.
The Islamic State may soon not hold significant territory in Iraq, but it will still be able to inspire one-off atrocities, like the slaughter in an Istanbul nightclub and the deadly truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market late last year. To truly obliterate the terrorist organization, the United States and other governments need to destroy the ideology — spread largely online — that the group uses to win recruits.
Here are five ways the United States can win the propaganda war against the Islamic State:
1. Share intel to delegitimize the group’s leaders
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the other leaders of the Islamic State are unlikely to practice the 7th Century lifestyle they demand of their followers. Take Anwar al-Awlaki, who led al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate. His radical ideology inspired the bombers of the Boston Marathon in 2013 and the assassins who attacked the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, among others. As the FBI knew, the married cleric lectured against pre-marital sex and harangued Hollywood for promoting it, while secretly spending his family’s small budget on American prostitutes. If the U.S. government had chosen to make this information public before killing him, it would have been a severe blow to his moral authority.
The United States and other governments should gather and share evidence to expose the gaps between what the leaders of the Islamic State practice and what they preach.
2. Stop rhetoric that helps the Islamic State recruit
Former President Barack Obama said the Islamic State is not Islamic and is not a state. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed the same sentiment when, using another name for the group, he told Parliament that “British Muslims are appalled by Daesh . . . these people are not Muslims.”
Both leaders had good intentions to draw distinctions between peaceful Muslims and the terrorists who use the religion to justify their extreme ideologies. But statements like these are a gift to ISIS because they offend and help rally recruits.
As al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden’s son Omar bin Laden wrote in the book “Growing Up Bin Laden”: “There is no bigger insult for a Muslim” than to suggest that the person is not a true believer. ISIS sympathizers also are likely to view the idea that they are not true Muslims as personal affronts, helping fuel the hatred of secular states upon which the terrorist group relies.
Furthermore, according to the Prophet Muhammad, if a man accuses another man of being an infidel, or nonbeliever, “then one of them is right.” If the accuser is incorrect, he is guilty of apostasy, a crime punishable by death. So, this rhetoric only encourages attacks on the West.
The lesson is especially important for Trump, who has a proclivity to fire off tweets without adequate research. He should rely on experts to carefully vet everything he says about ISIS, to make it tougher for the terrorists to use his words against him.
3. Depict life under the Islamic State
ISIS offers men opportunities to get involved in a cause, cash and women. In its recruitment propaganda, the group has portrayed life in the Islamic State as Edenic. For example, British recruit Ifthekar Jaman posted online that “there are people who think that the jihad in Syria is 24/7 fighting but it’s much more relaxed than that. They’re calling it a 5-star jihad.”
In his analysis of a week of Islamic State media outputs, Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, found that one of ISIS’ messages is “how idyllic, pristine, and beautiful” the land is, and the group touts the benefits of the social services it offers, such as health care.
And a study by the University of Oxford and Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that, unlike other terrorist groups like the prudish Taliban, ISIS “heavily sexualises females” in its propaganda, promising them to recruits as wives or sex slaves.
A program exposing what it’s really like to live in the Islamic State could be funded by the U.S. government, but done by a human rights group. The human rights organization could shoot videos of people who lived in territories controlled by the Islamic State, telling their stories in their own words. This way, others can hear what it’s like to live in a war zone where alcohol drinkers are lashed, adulterers are stoned, and those who shave their beards or wear Western clothing are murdered.
4. Get local influencers to promulgate messages
The State Department tries to counter Islamic State messaging online by posting in Arabic, English, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu using the hashtag #ThinkAgainTurnAway, and by responding to tweets by terrorists. That’s great, but as Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, has said, “People who are attracted to this don’t go to the government for their guidance on what to do.”
That means the State Department should provide support and funding to people who are respected among potential Islamic State sympathizers, so they can create and share content that may be more influential. To find the right partners, the United States will need to work closely with governments in the Middle East.
5. Shut ISIS’ media platforms
Research by the Brookings Institution finds that ISIS supporters use at least 46,000 Twitter handles, and as many as 90,000. It will be impossible to identify and shut down all of those accounts, and even if the government does, others will pop up. However, the United States can and should disrupt the major sources of Islamic State propaganda.
Jared Cohen, president of Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas), agrees that law enforcement should focus on suspending accounts of and arresting the organization’s digital leaders, since “once ISIS’ online leadership has been separated from the rank and file, the rank and file will become significantly less coordinated and therefore less effective.”
Kara Alaimo, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.”