National Security

U.S. Propaganda Not Breaking ISIL's Inherent Resolve

Trying to parry ISIL's attempts to radicalize Muslim youth.

Nov. 6, 2014
State Department Twitter image

During the Cold War, the United States attacked the very idea of communism by sending jazz musicians to Budapest and sneaking novels like “Dr. Zhivago” into the Evil Empire. Propaganda was itself a weapon.

Today, the counter-propaganda arm of the U.S. government is taking on the beliefs and rhetoric of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL). The mission is critical. The Department of Defense and the State Department battle ideas reaching the very computer monitors of Americans, trying to parry ISIL’s attempts to radicalize Muslim youth.

But like the airstrikes in Kobani and on the slopes of Mount Sinjar, this latest U.S. effort has fallen short, and hasn’t stopped the march of ISIL propaganda. Instead, American propaganda visible to anyone with Internet access can see the U.S. government bickering with ISIL online like an ordinary teenager.

Ret. Gen. John Allen, special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, told the coalition in Kuwait, “[I]t is only when we contest Da'esh’s [the Arabic term for ISIL] presence online and deny the legitimacy of its message – the message that it sends to vulnerable young people – and as we expose Da'esh for the un-Islamic, criminal cult of violence that it really is – it is only then that Da'esh will be truly defeated.”

The U.S. government has understandably talked very little about its counter-propaganda programs, except to say that it’s important. It doesn’t have evidence it has stopped a single Muslim from taking a one-way ticket to Turkey to make their way to ISIL-controlled lands.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, spokesman for the Pentagon, told reporters, all the bombing, all the counter-propaganda has not slowed ISIL. “[T]here’s no question that they still possess the ability to reconstitute their manpower,” Kirby said. “[T]hat’s an indication of the strength of their ideology right now.”

One counter-propaganda program is the Think Again Turn Away campaign run by the U.S. State Department. Think Again Turn Away occupies social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. On Twitter, it tweets links to stories about ISIL, shares videos of ISIL defectors giving an unvarnished view of life amidst ISIL, and directs messages to Twitter users in vocal support of radical Islam.

While Think Again Turn Away says its mission is succeeding, that it’s muddling ISIL’s message and preventing the radicalization of some Muslims, critics say its efforts are too little, too late at best. At worse, it’s a springboard for even more ISIL propaganda, according to SITE Intelligence Group’s Rita Katz, because it gives jihadists’ ideas legitimacy and a prompt to rail against Western ideas.

The U.S. State Department tweets a handful of times a day, according to Katz. Contrast this to the speed at which ISIL distributes its message. According to a think tank in Saudi Arabia cited by Think Again Turn Away, ISIL tweets 90 times a minute.

ISIL was built on the ashes of al-Qaida’s old social media strategy. Osama bin Laden recorded videos, sent by messenger to mass media, who would turn around and publish the video. Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, says ISIL’s propaganda campaign is jihadi propaganda 3.0.

Using many individual users, ISIL spreads its message that no media organization will publish like a multi-headed hydra. It wins the propaganda war because it draws attention to itself through acts of violence, according to Khatib. It’s a vicious cycle. ISIL creates propaganda for social media. Social media fuels ISIL.

Granted, as the United States tries to counter ISIL’s war porn, it’s sticking to its values. It’s not endorsing or condemning any type of religion. Instead, many of the posts appeal to a sense of morality or honor.

But what makes ISIL propaganda so compelling is that it has an element of truth when it points to the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and positions itself as a force of revenge. The U.S. must present the different side of ISIL, the one that is not idealized, the one full of infighting, human greed and senseless violence.

National Review’s David French writes that ISIL “jihadists psychologically dominate the battlefield,” and they have more fighting spirit than their Iraqi opponents. But destroy ISIL’s propaganda, and the spirit of its fighters will be dulled.

The U.S. cannot remain silent. During the Cold War, we used novels and Jazz, and anti-ISIL ideas must be packaged in equally compelling mediums. But the U.S.‘s method, using the State Department to talk Muslims down from the edge of radical Islam, makes about as much sense as Michelle Obama’s campaign to get kids to like veggies. It’s the wrong speaker for the job.

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