The images of Christians crucified, innocent civilians shot in the head and journalists brutally beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – in Arabic, Da’esh – play like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Retired Marine General John Allen calls the extremists’ propaganda machine ‘cruelly effective’ and argues that defeating ISIS requires exposing it as the ‘un-Islamic, criminal cult of violence that it really is’.

His solution is both right and wrong. He’s right that Muslims need to drive the messaging that discredits ISIS. But he and others are off the mark in presuming that the US is the right messenger. The US State Department is no less misguided. Its recent video mocking the idea that ISIS offers a life of thrills and adventure – rather than death – misreads the group’s attraction. ISIS followers embrace both its brutality and the likelihood that its fighters will be ‘martyred’.

ISIS recruits through messaging that proclaims a sense of purpose, worth by identification with a holy cause, and a cause to die for that offers unparalleled jihadist thrills, companions, training and the opportunity to beat the US and to kill infidels while vindicating Allah’s vision for the world. US rhetoric that builds up ISIS only helps to draw new recruits. And recruitment is working. The United Nations Security Council reports that 15,000 foreign jihadists have swarmed into Syria and Iraq on an ‘unprecedented scale’ from more than 80 countries. Media reports suggest that 1,000 fighters arrive in Syria to join each month.

Getting the basics right

Winning the information war requires a realistic strategy – which, in this case, means accepting certain basic principles.

Firstly, while projecting a sense of purpose and power – an unattained goal, so far – the US must avoid injecting itself into tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites that have persisted for over a thousand years, and avoid making itself the issue as a rallying point for ISIS fighters.

Secondly, Muslims need to lead the information war and its messaging. Western countries can provide support, while working on getting communications towards their own domestic audiences right.

Thirdly, the stakes must clearly be defined, as must narratives and messages that strike a responsive chord with Muslim audiences in particular. Adverts like the State Department’s miss that point.

Fourthly, as President Obama has put General Allen in charge of coordinating US efforts in the Middle East, he should be empowered fully with resources and authority across the whole of government to get the job done. That includes empowering him with authority over US information warfare in the region, not dividing it among government bureaucracies that by nature act slowly and often inflexibly.

No single narrative, theme, or message fits every strategy. But these components must be consistent and tightly woven, gamed and coordinated – and tailored to each target audience. While offering core observations about these below, we consciously avoid identifying a sophisticated array of options, including denial and deception campaigns that make information warfare especially effective.

Finally, a communications strategy must integrate with military choices and align with political realities.

Towards a strategy

With these principles in mind, how should the information war against ISIS be fought? This is a question with neither a simple nor an unchanging answer. Beating ISIS will take time, resources and the patience to reconcile conflicting political and military imperatives. What’s more, the conditions that produced ISIS are likely to produce other groups like it, unless they are themselves addressed.

All of this makes it rather easier to identify elements of the right approach than to specify exactly how they are to be executed. But without an attempt to identify those elements, a winning strategy is likely to remain out of reach.

Winning starts by recognising that ISIS is no ordinary enemy. It manifests true evil; it revels in its barbarity. You don’t defeat evil: you eradicate it. Winning requires its destruction; any outcome short of that is failure.

After an understanding of the enemy must come an understanding of political realities. US policy today presumes the Iraqi government will unify the country. We doubt this will occur, which could crater any current strategy for destroying ISIS. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is entrenched in Iraq’s sectarian politics. Many Sunnis and Kurds are sceptical about his leadership and his promises for reconciliation. Perhaps a loose confederation among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds might work, but that is not current policy. Whatever the political solution, winning the information war requires getting the politics right. Sunnis will not risk their lives to destroy ISIS only to restore the oppressive status quo ante. Why should they?

Well, assuming an inclusive political order is achievable; the next step should be to show Sunnis, clearly, that ISIS will lose. Telling Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis that ISIS is barbaric tells them nothing they don’t already know. Motivating and mobilising Iraqi Sunnis to actively oppose ISIS requires them to decide both that they can trust the central Iraqi government, and that the government will prevail. A communication strategy aimed at making that point – both to Sunnis and to the government’s own battered, demoralised army – is vital.

By way of example, US marines achieved historic success in mobilising tribes against al-Qaeda in Anbar Province. How? They forged bonds of trust with Sunni leaders, provided meaningful support, acted as true partners and persuaded the Sunnis that the US were winners. Thus, for the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004, savvy US commanders went out of their way to communicate that they would prevail, through concrete demonstrations of power and resources and close coordination with Iraqi allies. It made a pivotal difference.

General Allen needs the authority to make this happen today. So far, President Obama has rejected advice from General Lloyd Austin and others to embed US Special Operations Forces with the Iraqi army in combat roles, except as requested on a case-by-case basis – although he has doubled the number of advisers in non-combat roles, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has since mentioned the possibility of this occurring again. We leave military strategy to the military, but, if taken, steps like this have a significant impact on the information war. 

Meanwhile, many Shi’ites have answered the Iraqi government’s call to arms. We should encourage the Shia-led government to conduct a communication campaign aimed at blunting Shia hostility to Sunnis, by making clear that past divisions will be fatal to their future. And despite understandable doubts about anything Iran does, Iraqi Shia leaders need to persuade their allies in Tehran to actively support that message.

Iraqi Kurds will also require reassurance that the US will stand with them – and for good reason: the United States’ track record in supporting allies is dicey. Turkey may worry about the Kurds, but in Iraq the Kurds have stood with the United States. They merit public support. America should drive home the message that it will support the Kurds, upon whom it is heavily depending to provide ground troops to fight ISIS, especially with new doubts about the viability of Syrian rebels, some of whom have surrendered to Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkish antipathy makes this especially vital: the Kurds need to know the US won’t make a deal with Turkey that undercuts them.

Convincing our friends that the fight against ISIS will be won, however, is not enough – the message must be carried to the group itself. Even the most committed are vulnerable to doubt and demoralisation. It is ISIS’s Muslim adversaries, not the US, who must lead in making this point, by military means, including taking down the somewhat centralised upper-tier leadership. That will enable ISIS’s enemies to drive the message that the group is doomed.

The messenger matters…

This raises another, broader point – namely, that the US is not a credible messenger to Muslims in the Middle East. Communication campaigns that regional partners themselves mount at home and in the region, using credible spokespersons, are essential. The United States’ role is to provide support. US proficiency in cyber technology and social media can help identify resonant voices – positive and negative ones – whose messages arouse emotions that influence behaviour. Such assistance can help regional partners mobilise positive voices and neutralise hostile ones.

The US can also provide support through sophisticated, in-depth opinion research to help regional partners identify narratives, themes and messages that will strike a responsive chord among their populations. It bears stressing, however, that it is up to Muslims to lead. The US must communicate clearly through words and deeds that it will not and cannot itself assume that role.

Individual Muslim states need to mount their own campaigns, but it makes sense to create a regional team that can help coordinate communication efforts. Again, whatever its role, the US should remain in the background. This will not be easy, but it is necessary in order to expedite the undoing of ISIS. So too is an effort to give international visibility to resonant Muslim voices who attack ISIS’s credibility and legitimacy. The details of how this will be done need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis, but the task is essential.

One creative approach may be to develop messaging specifically for female audiences. Again, this should be done on a country-by-country basis, and led by credible, resonant voices. In this case, such voices may include those of mothers of former jihadists and martyred sons who have felt the impact of self-selection for ISIS.

Identifying credible voices and mobilising influential Muslims to stand up and speak out against ISIS is important. No less important is for the Arab street and Muslims internationally to make their opposition seen. This means that regional partners must permit, and indeed encourage, their populations to make visible demonstrations denouncing ISIS, something which these states may be reluctant to do. But such demonstrations matter to target audiences in the region, and we need to encourage partners to make them happen.

…as do the message and the medium

At home, the United States and other Western nations should mount communication campaigns to deter recruitment. ISIS has displayed a sophisticated capacity for using social media to communicate with English-speaking audiences. In the US context, such efforts fall outside of General Allen’s mandate in the Middle East, but the messages need to be consistent with what is said there. The US and Western partners should avoid presuming which narratives, themes and messages resonate with ISIS’s target audiences. Let’s find out – and then identify credible messages and messengers (who almost certainly will be Muslim) to undercut ISIS’s credibility and legitimacy. Western efforts will need to be coordinated so that messages are consistent.

At the same time, it should not be presumed that each Western-based Muslim audience is the same. We need a multi-pronged, nuanced approach that is well targeted at distinct cultural communities. For example, second-generation Muslims who are not fully integrated into US communities, and feel alienated, may be motivated by different factors than older generations. The US should fund these discreet campaigns, do so transparently, and show deference to leaders in letting them communicate to their communities in culturally appropriate ways.

We should be careful, in all of this, not to make ISIS larger than life. Exaggerating their power or describing them as warriors will simply attract new recruits. General Allen is correct: let us treat them as an organised criminal gang of thieves and murders. Apparently ISIS does not like to be called Da’esh – a sign of vulnerability that can be exploited. Any step that provokes ISIS can cause it to make a mistake, and a thoughtful communication strategy offers a lot of options for causing ISIS grief.

Finally, though ISIS’s leaders avoid social media to conceal their locations, its fighters and supporters use it widely. Let’s do as much as possible to shut down their ability to be heard (though accepting that they can always move to new sites), while enabling credible voices – certainly not State Department or other US government messengers – to inject themselves into online forums to counter ISIS propaganda and discourse.

Taken together, these elements represent a starting point for winning the information fight against ISIS. It is worth emphasising that a communication strategy can only truly work when based on the right political and military foundations. The Iraqi aspect of the military conflict is difficult enough, and thus far the military or political strategy for prevailing in Syria is oblique. But once those are forged, an effective, well thought-out, innovative and flexibly executed communication strategy will be crucial.

Darby Arakelian is a national security expert and former CIA officer.

James P. Farwell is a national security expert who has advised the US Special Operations Command, and is the author of Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012). He will explore ISIS’s own propaganda efforts in the December–January issue of Survival, in an article entitled ‘The Media Strategy of ISIS’.

Together, Darby Arakelian and James P. Farwell are the co-authors of Communication Strategy: How to Forge One That Wins, soon to be published by the Joint Special Operations University. The views expressed here are their own and not those of any US government body.

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