Counter-Propaganda: The Case of ISISJanuary 13, 2015
I’ve spent far too much time over the last few weeks thinking about counter-propaganda without really getting to a satisfactory conclusion so I’m just going to throw out some ideas and move on. I’ll post on ISIS, then Russia, then draw a few general conclusions/recommendations.
- ISIS exists in two spaces. Firstly, on the ground in Iraq and Syria and secondly, in the transnational space of the ‘global jihad’. These two spaces are connected but they are not identical. Recent studies on ISIS have placed more weight on the first of these while a lot of Western political discourse either doesn’t discriminate or places more weight on the latter – in particular on the Western citizens becoming radicalized, travelling to the Islamic State and then returning to carry out terrorist actions in the West. The argument is that it is the excellence of the IS information offensive that is allowing it to recruit foreign fighters and hence become successful on the ground. I think that this is precisely the wrong way round. The global rise of ISIS is not because of its excellent propaganda: it has excellent propaganda because of its military success. The capture of Mosul and the defeat of the Iraqi Army gave it the basis for the proclamation of the Caliphate and at that point is launched an international strategic communications campaign to market itself. It’s a basic rule of wartime communications (see for instance the memoirs of British propagandists during the Second World War) that it’s much easier to make yourself look good when you are winning. Of course when you inflict a major defeat on the opponent the international news media will multiply the message while you will have plenty of images of captured equipment and personnel for your own productions. This is not to say that activities aimed at potentially radicalized groups outside the region are completely useless but they are working at a major disadvantage.
- The most powerful counter-propaganda strategy in dealing with the IS will be to dislodge it from the territory that it holds. Where the two spaces come together is in the state-like nature of the IS this allows it to transmit the call to Muslims to come and live in the IS. It’s interesting that the message doesn’t seem to be come and fight but come and live. The more that the IS territory resembles a war zone and the more that its messages are focused simply on fighting (in the context of losing battles and news coverage that is about their defeats) the less potent their narrative will be.
- Western political leaders are in danger of forgetting that ISIS is not the only Salafi-Jihadi group out there. ISIS is successful in the jihadist space because there is a demand for what it is providing. The preferred aim must be for the Salafi-Jihadi social movement to run its course, the defeat of ISIS won’t necessarily do this although the baroque cruelty will probably help to discredit the whole movement. The defeat of ISIS in Syria-Iraq may just create more market space for other Salafi-Jihadi movements ie Al-Qaida/Nusra Front which aren’t that much of an improvement.
- What’s the plan B? The difficulty is that the weakness of the Iraqi army, the lack of any solution in Syria, the history of sectarian politics in Iraq, the ambiguous attitude of Turkey makes it difficult to see when a narrative of military reverses is going to become established. This leads to the question of the extent to which IS can stabilize itself? Many observers assume that over time it will alienate local tribes and become progressively more fragile. One reason to attract foreigners to the caliphate is that that immigration produces groups that are not embedded in the local context and presumably more supportive of the overall project. But if ISIS is going to be there for sometime how to deal with it. Here a strategy of economic warfare might be the solution.