Other Solutions Worth Thinking About

  • Initiate a U.S. government–sponsored global advertising campaign to counter ISIS’s own branding effort.
    • Hire a global advertising firm. In-house attempts by several agencies to run social media campaigns have not worked. Hire experts.
    • The goal is to make ISIS and radical Islam not “cool” anymore.
    • Recruit popular sports figures, political leaders, celebrities, and others to make anti-ISIS commercials across all forms of media (radio, TV, digital, print, social).
  • Develop authentic community outreach programs. Most government agency outreach we’re aware of has been disguised as informant hunting, and the Muslim community in America and abroad is on to this. It’s time to start meaning what we say and saying what we mean.
  • Stop profiling Muslim Arab men and women in America; it builds resentment. Profile history of actions, not skin color or religion.
  • Reduce the “Ugly American” footprint in the Middle East by downsizing the large military presence there.
  • Back Kurdish independence.
  • Focus a massive effort on building schools and hospitals in the Middle East and other areas of radicalism. We need to win more hearts and minds and give parents more options to send their kids to school. Many of the free schools available are run by conservative mullahs who preach and support a violent caliphate.
  • Most important, change the way we are thinking about dealing with this problem!

If Nike can authentically penetrate the action sports market in very small period of time, then the U.S. government can run similar campaign to combat the existing pop culture that makes it cool to support change through violence.

As the United States and its coalition partners conduct air strikes against ISIS and Khorasan Group targets operating in the chaotic Syrian battle space, the various ties of jihadist fighters to their extremist ideologies must also be targeted.

This chapter establishes a framework for understanding the problem of information exchange in the context of radical Islamist ideology, and proposes an outline for actions that can be taken to counter jihadist propaganda on an individual level.

With more than fifteen thousand foreign fighters currently fighting under the banner of ISIS or similar flavors of violent Sunni extremist groups, many jihadists—including two thousand Westerners—have been attracted to the Syrian battlefield by the allure of well-publicized and easily accessible radical Islamist ideology.

The global jihadist movement exemplified in Syria is a direct by-product of the rapid information exchange possible via the Internet and continues to be leveraged by jihadist organizations on a global scale to draw more followers toward radical Islamist ideologies.
Current CIA manpower assessments of ISIS and its foreign fighters confirm this and highlight the significant effect that a well-produced and streamlined message can have on the right target audience.

It’s Propaganda, and It Hurts

It is through proper targeting of vulnerable audiences using mass communications and social media platforms that groups such as ISIS are able to attract not only thousands of fighters to the jihadist cause but also rally a substantial base of popular support for their grievances on a global scale. Their propaganda efforts pose a significant threat to U.S. interests and require an equally significant counter-response.

In keeping with the concept of total war propounded by the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, it is critical that a nation or entity at war engage the enemy with the full spectrum of its power mechanisms, both hard and soft. Hard power in the form of military action is the most commonly applied mechanism, but it cannot be allowed to overshadow the soft-power mechanisms also at a nation’s disposal, including economic, political, social, and information. Given the significance of information exchange in the twenty-first century, the war of ideas must be fought to the fullest extent possible, in conjunction with military action.

While this war of ideas has not been lost on the highly asymmetric actors within the global jihadist movement (specific groups such as ISIS and the Islamic Front, radicalized individual fighters), nations seeking to mitigate the threat of radical Islamist ideology in their homelands have thus far failed to produce any effective mass communications movements or trends that are capable of rallying a substantial base of popular support against radical Islam.

Another Problem with Bureaucracy

Unfortunately for the United States, a centralized bureaucracy makes effective and succinct countertechniques to radical Islamist propaganda all but obsolete (read: current State Department anti-ISIS propaganda efforts). In order to effectively mount a succinct and well-produced effort to counter the highly effective radical Islamist propaganda, a decentralized and diverse information operations campaign must be in effect.

This campaign must capitalize on the very same strengths that allow radical Islamist ideology to spread to thousands of Internet users daily, using any and all social media and information exchange platforms (forums, Web sites, chat rooms, and the like). The campaign must seek to both counter the effectiveness of jihadist propaganda abroad and in the homeland, and produce a message capable of overpowering the narrative of radical Islam in the populations specifically targeted by jihadist propaganda. Admittedly, this is a daunting task that requires extensive long-term work, but there are several actions that will yield positive short-term results.

What You Can Do to Stop ISIS

The effectiveness of jihadist propaganda can be mitigated through a variety of platforms and attributed to both “white” (openly accredited to Western or U.S. audiences, for example) and “black” (a fake fatwa issued by a contrived, unverifiable online imam/entity) sources. For the purpose of producing the most immediate message to counter radical Islam using available means and platforms, it is recommended that white sources are primarily used. The following steps outline the progression of development for counterjihadist propaganda.

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1. Determine who’s in the crosshairs. As a starting point for a counter to jihadist propaganda, it is critical to identify the specific target audience that will receive or be exposed to the message. There are several groups that could be targeted. While not all-inclusive, this preliminary list—derived from a simple analysis of current known demographics of foreign fighters in Syria—identifies examples of groups that are most likely to be susceptible to the radical Islamic narrative.

  • Disenfranchised Arab populations that are dissatisfied with their current living conditions (political, economic, financial, etc.) and are therefore more vulnerable to messages that suggest the jihadist lifestyle offers them an avenue of escape.
  • Young and impressionable Arab males in their teens who seek validation as devout Muslims worthy of defending Islam and/or their way of life from the progressive and sinful West.
  • Relatives or close friends of former radicals, imams, or fighters who seek to continue the jihad against the West and nonbelievers.
  • Disenfranchised or distraught individuals who are susceptible to using violence as an alternative to peaceful, nonviolent resolution (school shooter mentality).
  • Moderate or poorly educated Muslims who have been exposed to radicalism for a prolonged period and also harbor grievances that would encourage them to morally rationalize and justify acts of jihad against nonbelievers.

2. Develop the content and message. After a target audience for messaging has been selected, the next step is to develop a base of content for the campaign. While the options for content are limited only by the imagination, it must be noted that this content base and message can be organic (created and produced locally) or a variation of existing content. As there is hardly ever a reason to reinvent the wheel, successful content often uses preexisting themes, slogans, or narratives. A prime example is a parody of a previously published ISIS banner or poster, or a message that knowledgeably (and therefore credibly) refutes the claims of a known radical imam or organization.

Some of the most effective campaigns are graphically produced. For example, simple designs or symbols that reinforce traditional Islamic values (meaning the most commonly accepted interpretation of moderate Islam) would hold great sway against the terror and fear-inducing banners of ISIS.

3. Identify a vehicle. The rise of the Internet and social media has spawned a wide and diverse array of options available to anyone seeking to rapidly disseminate information. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instragram, Skype, and many other platforms have been extensively used to spread jihadist propaganda to select audiences.

Once a specific target audience and message have been selected to counter this propaganda, it becomes relatively easy to disperse it through these various platforms. One of the most rapid options is Twitter, which has demonstrated itself to be a valuable tool capable of swaying public opinion, from both jihadist propaganda campaigns to presidential elections. Once a vehicle (Twitter, say) has been identified, the ability of a campaign to simply share information and content becomes invaluable.

4. Deliver the message. When executing the counterjihadist propaganda campaign, there are several underlying themes that must be the focal point of messaging efforts. We recommend that the message adhere to the following elements:

  • Time the execution of the campaign to demonstrate a close understanding of the target audience (exposing the target to the message before they’ve been exposed to prolonged jihadist propaganda).
  • Rely on themes that reiterate the campaign’s message again and again.
  • Provide memorable slogans, phrases, logos, symbols, and/or a brand that clearly identifies the campaign and its values.
  • Ensure the message is engaging for the target audience, using aesthetically appealing designs.

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

The target audience has been selected, the content and message have been created or modified from existing content, a vehicle or platform for dissemination has been identified, and the message has been delivered. What does this actually look like? Here’s an overview of one example, followed by several simple tactical-level solutions that would cause at least a minor level of disruption of jihadist propaganda.

1. Target audience: Male Arab Twitter users in the sixteen-to-twenty-seven age group currently living in London who have received some level of education or have recent experience with higher education and have links/access to international contacts. (The target audience was selected using publicly available data from BBC Monitoring and the Department of War Studies at King’s College London research on foreign fighter demographics.)
2. Content: Religious narratives that highlight moderate Islamic schools of thought and identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities of radical Islamist messaging.

3. Platform: Social media; Twitter.

4. Execution: Proxy, robot, or entity-based Twitter account(s) that has placement and/or access to the target audience network and is capable of producing twenty simple, similarly worded talking points per day in keeping with the content’s theme of moderate religious narratives.

Expedient Solutions

  • Locate current ISIS propaganda (images, infographics, messages); parody or counter them using humor, challenging statements, and/or direct questions.
  • Parody current ISIS or Islamic Front training videos.
  • Produce informational video contesting radical extremist narrative validity.
  • Identify online social media entities (Facebook or Twitter) currently producing or sharing radical Islamic narratives. Counter or degrade their ability to produce or share content (think denial of service, for example).
  • Employ common Twitter techniques to trend pro-moderate Islam message.
  • Identify common trending hashtags offering support for ISIS (for example, #EyesOnISIS), then override with organic message or content.
  • Create/produce proxy or robot Facebook accounts to counter individuals or groups known to support radical Islamic narratives.
  • Manipulate human emotions or attitudes by displaying graphic content of ISIS activity in Iraq and Syria (effects of beheadings, kidnappings, assassinations, mass murders, etc.).
  • Liaise with, or disseminate moderate Islamic content from, respected moderate imams or leaders in the Muslim community.
  • Disseminate moderate Islamic content that subverts the radical Islamic narrative, using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
  • Share and distribute mainstream media content decrying the radical Islamic narrative.

Social media is an excellent and readily available tool for most Americans. Consider it your own real version of Fantasy Jihad—share it with your friends and watch the results play out in real time on the Internet.