P.J. Whalen

Countering the ISIS Narrative

May 27, 2015  |  Blog

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.

Joshua Huminski

The coming arms race in the Middle East

May 14, 2015  |  Blog

What’s more concerning than Iran with nuclear weapons? The Middle East with nuclear weapons – a scenario that is becoming more likely as the United States and Iran gradually walk closer to a nuclear agreement. While administration officials are crowing that the deal will curb Iran’s program for at least ten years, according to recent media reports, some countries may see this as a deadline for the acquisition of their own nuclear arms. Should we be surprised by this possibility? No. Not at all.

States build nuclear weapons for a number of reasons – in some cases states build weapons for domestic political considerations, advancing internal bureaucratic interests; in others, states build weapons because they see them as a symbol of power and modernity, but for our purposes the third reason is the most important – simple security. In the absence of an international leviathan, states, such as Saudi Arabia, must pursue their security needs by one of two methods – balancing by entering into alliances that will safeguard their interests, or pursue their own, independent means of protection.

For many decades, Riyadh looked to Washington to be its balancing partner. Oil rich, but militarily weak, by itself Saudi Arabia could not hope to defend itself from the predations of the Soviet Union or the aggression of Iraq. It looked to the United States to guarantee its security and defense, to provide it with advanced weapons systems and training, and to give it the outsized diplomatic clout necessary to stabilize the region.

That is security balancing at its finest, and in the eyes of both Washington and Riyadh it could be said that this security architecture maintained a relatively favorable environment for many years. Yes, Iraq was an issue, and yes these interests needed to be balanced against those in Jerusalem, but overall the situation remained stable.

Fast forward to today – what do you see? From Riyadh’s perspective this administration is so focused on securing a deal with Tehran that it is not listening to the advice of its allies, seemingly abandoning its closest partners to befriend a regional bully, and rewarding intransigence while abandoning the few sticks it has to influence behavior. From Riyadh’s perspective, Washington is even ignoring Israel’s warnings – something that was surely unthinkable a few years ago.

If your balancing partner goes wobbly on you, what do you do then? If we follow the realist model of international relations and security, you pursue your own independent means of defense, and sadly the only balance against the existential threat of a nuclear weapon is another nuclear weapon. Sure, there are those who will say that we are beyond the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, but that is looking at the world from a biased security view, and it is critical, above all else, to look at the world through the eyes of your ally.

Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon will not stop, and removing sanctions will only embolden the regime. If and when Iran does gain the bomb, the security architecture in the Middle East will be shaken.

Undoubtedly, developing a nuclear weapon would be difficult – the components of such a system are complex and expensive, from the raw materials of uranium and plutonium, to the warhead or bomb, to the delivery vehicle, to critical command and control systems. And yes, this could be bluster by the Saudis to get America’s attention – but Washington should be paying a lot more attention to the risks that this deal presents to regional security and what it says that our allies are questioning our commitment and attention.