The violence in Garland, Texas, like recent events in Ottawa, Sydney, and a foiled plot against the U.S. Capitol, captured the attention of western media organizations, further inflating the reputation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, better known as ISIS, as the most fearsome Islamist movement on the planet. While ISIS has proven itself to be a barbaric, murderous force, capable of overwhelming poorly trained Iraqi troops and displacing Syrian groups, its successes outside the region and long-term sustainability are questionable. Yet, the U.S. government and the West have ceded this point to ISIS by not cancelling out its most effective weapon: the propaganda machine.
President Obama should be particularly disappointed because he has failed to take the tools that propelled him to two historic political victories, and mobilize them at a proportionate level to counter ISIS’s false narrative of strength and reach.
ISIS has distinguished itself by mastering Web 3.0 technologies to spread its message of violent extremism around the world, at zero cost. The failure of the U.S. and its western allies to effectively push back against ISIS’ false narratives has provided it with the space on platforms like Twitter and Facebook to propagate its populist message of violent jihad, and mobilize thousands of young people to travel to the war zone in Iraq and Syria. It has inspired populist attacks globally in ways that go far beyond what Anwar al-Awlaki and al Qaeda achieved. Its tweets and posts encouraging the targeting of law enforcement and the military have also kept our men and women in uniform, and the nation’s security apparatus on alert for months now.
This is both disturbing and frustrating because the U.S. government is missing an opportunity. For all of ISIS’ presumed success over the past two years, airstrikes and limited military involvement on the ground have blunted its ability to expand its territorial footprint. The need to back the narrative of unrelenting momentum, on which ISIS’ derives strength and reputation, has exposed the group by overextending the organization and forcing it to engage in battles on multiple fronts. As ISIS has made more and more enemies, its strategic communications program has therefore become the critical piece in preventing the overstretched caliphate from collapsing. While it is essential that ISIS maintains this narrative of momentum and success to reinforce the belief in its power, draw new recruits, and attract satellites in Africa and Asia, its reliance on propaganda is ripe for disruption.
The slow, uninspired response to countering the ISIS narrative by the U.S. government is reflective of the Administration’s delayed, indecisive reaction to the group’s rise and growth. This is a deadly problem that requires a serious commitment of funds and personnel.
The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and the Information Coordination Cell which have both at times been tasked with countering ISIS’ messaging, are reportedly under-resourced and seemingly incapable of keeping up with a problem set that exists in the Web 3.0 world. The mission of undermining the ISIS narrative needs to be handed to an organization far more agile than the current interagency process. The good news is that a model does exist- the President’s former campaign organization, with its thorough opposition research ability and rapid response team, effectively blunted Republican attacks at warp speed during two election cycles. In the aftermath, both Democrat and Republican parties have built lean organizations that have become very adept at these functions.
The tactics they perfected are now being adopted by private sector companies engaged in battles to disrupt entrenched institutions and gain market share. Former senior campaign operatives are being brought onboard to develop counter-narratives and lead messaging operations. Wouldn’t they be valuable and effective if properly mobilized in the fight against ISIS?
The Administration needs to take a new approach to ISIS and seriously consider a task force that employs a campaign-style mentality with opposition research and rapid response components. This group would have access to the resources of the Department of Defense, State and the U. S. Intelligence Community to provide timely content to counter and disrupt ISIS’ prolific stream of shock and awe messaging. This task force could then publish content on social media as well as work with contacts in the broadcast, radio and print worlds, to show that ISIS is truly an emperor with no clothes.
While ISIS is contained within the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria, the threat it poses to the public due to its ability to influence, inspire and claim credit for cowardly acts of violence has never been greater. However, all truly successful narratives depend on truth and credibility. A serious challenge to ISIS’ messaging is long overdue. The first step to pushing ISIS back and diminishing the threat is to look outside the bureaucratic box. One more campaign Mr. President.