In the west, the Islamic State (IS) is usually described as a new type of insurgent group that is exploiting technological advances to spread its message to create a new global brand of jihad that has attracted followers from around the world. Haroro Ingram, a Research Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, Canberra argues that IS is actually following in the footsteps of previous insurgent groups. What follows is an interview with Ingram, about IS’s information campaign and how western governments have tried to counter it.
1. Many western reporters and commentators have suggested that the Islamic State’s (IS) media campaign, especially its use of social media and new technology, sets it apart from previous jihadist and insurgent groups. You’ve argued that at its core IS uses very similar communications strategies to those advocated by other insurgency thinkers and revolutionary groups throughout history. Could you explain how IS is following in the path of those older thinkers?
I think it is important that the field doesn’t see IS as simply an historical anomaly and, in doing so, dismisses the important lessons history provides us for not only understanding but countering the IS phenomenon. For those that are interested, this is a major theme in Three traits of the Islamic State’s information warfare and The strategic logic of Islamic State information operations.
The core strategic mechanics of IS’s ‘information operations’ (IO) campaign are not particularly unique. In fact, IS’s IO strategy appears to share some really fundamental principles that can be found in the writings of modern insurgency thinkers such as Mao, Guevara, Minh, Muqrin and others. So let’s take a look at some of these core principles.
Firstly, like many other insurgency thinkers and revolutionary groups, IS seems to understand that modern insurgencies are characterized by two distinct but interconnected ‘competitions’. The first is pretty obvious and broadly recognized in the field: the clash of what Bernard Fall describes as ‘competitive systems of control’ i.e. the battle between rival politico-military apparatuses. The other competition is characterized by the clash of ‘competitive systems of meaning’ i.e. the battle for the perceived credibility and legitimacy of each side’s ‘cause’.
Secondly, IS mirrors the thinking of other modern insurgency movements by affording ‘information operations’ (some may prefer the terms ‘media’, ‘communications’ or ‘propaganda’) a central strategic role in its politico-military campaign. The result is that IO is rarely used in a secondary and largely reactive strategic role as an ‘information tool’ to let contested populations know when and why a particular action was taken (probably the dominant trait of counterinsurgency IO efforts). Rather, IS uses IO as a means to ‘shape’ the human environment (contested populations, supporters and enemies alike) for its politico-military activities and continues to use IO as a means to sustain and compound those effects in the field. This is not the only way modern insurgencies like IS tend to use IO but it underscores the broader point.
Thirdly, like so many of their historical ‘predecessors’ (Islamist or otherwise), IS leverage both pragmatic (e.g. appeals to security, stability and livelihood) and perceptual (e.g. appeals to the cause) factors in its IO messaging as a means to shape the perceptions and polarize the support of contested populations. What IS does so well in its IO campaign, perhaps better than many of its Islamist predecessors (e.g. AQ), is weave pragmatic and perceptual appeals together in its messaging as a means to align rational- and identity-choice decision-making in its audiences. In doing so, its messaging seeks to harness powerful psychosocial dynamics in its audiences.
Again, these three traits are not particularly unique to IS’s IO campaign. Moreover, a lot of what IS does with its IO campaign isn’t even particularly unique to the militant Islamist milieu. During a recent visit to Kabul University I was exploring the Afghanistan Centre’s extraordinary collection of primary source materials and found a collection of Al Jihad magazine issues which Abdullah Azzam played a central role in producing and disseminating around three decades ago. These issues of Al Jihad were filled with a diverse array of articles – some focused on jurisprudential themes while others promoted the mujahideen’s politico-military efforts or eulogized martyrs – accompanied by eye-catching photos and graphics. The broad similarities with AQAP’s Inspire or IS’s Dabiq are clear.
Now, there is plenty that is unique about IS’s media campaign but its core strategic mechanics aren’t.
2. Western governments have tried to counter the Islamic State’s appeal by arguing that moderate voices within the Muslim community should speak out against the group. There were also the comments by President Obama that IS did not represent ‘real’ Islam. Is it an effective strategy to try to get into a religious debate with IS?
Western governments need to fight the urge to launch a counter-proselytizing campaign against IS (and other militant Islamist groups). At best, such efforts are likely to fail. After all, why should the adherents of a particular faith give any credibility to the ideological opinions of those outside of their faith? At worst, such efforts may act as a catalyst of radicalization by giving veracity to the claims of more radical fringes that suggest Western governments are actively trying to change Islam.
Some western governments have tried to overcome these problems by co-opting ‘moderates’ as the community advocates of such campaigns. I suspect that may actually compound the problem because it tends to be perceived by those most vulnerable to radicalization as the championing of a government-sanctioned Islam by those moderate voices that are most important in countering radical narratives. This is a lever militant Islamist narratives regularly manipulate. For example, AQAP’s Inspire and IS’s Dabiq magazines are filled with articles that compel western audiences to be aware of how governments are seeking to change Islam using ‘moderates’ as agents.
In the media battle against IS and similar groups, it is far better to err on the side of strategies that are more likely to work than less likely. A counter-proselytizing campaign epitomizes the type of strategy that falls into the latter category. It’s very difficult to predict what types of communication strategies will resonate in an audience but surely we can start with working towards our strengths and avoiding our adversary’s strengths.
3. The Islamic State not only uses jihadist-Salafist thought in its information campaigns, but also portrays itself as the champion and protector of Sunnis. What does the group say about its latter role, which doesn’t get as much coverage in the west?
Coverage of IS’s media efforts has tended to disproportionately focus on its extreme violence and proselytizing. While these are important features of its IO efforts, I think it is important that the field develops a greater appreciation for the breadth and diversity of IS’s messaging, especially if better counter-narratives are to be developed.
The bulk of IS’s messaging appears to be devoted to showing how IS are practically addressing the needs of Sunnis via appeals to pragmatic factors like security, stability and livelihood. This type of messaging is characterized by two aims. The first is to promote IS’s system of control and synchronize its narrative and action (what a colleague of mine describes as narrowing their say-do gap). The second is to denigrate its enemy’s system of control and rupture the link between its enemy’s narrative and action (exacerbate their enemy’s say-do gap). IS’s series of mujatweet videos are excellent examples of this dynamic (e.g. mujatweet 7 and mujatweet 3).
The messaging produced and disseminated by IS’s wilayat-based ‘information offices’ tends to be dominated by these very pragmatic appeals. Strategically this makes perfect sense. In order to maximize the appeal of IS’s system of control and diminish the appeal of its enemy’s system of control, IS prioritizes communications that are designed to leverage a population’s need for security, stability and livelihoods in addition to coercing them through violence. Having spent the last couple of years speaking with Syrian opposition elements and Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing IS-controlled areas, a common sentiment expressed by these interviewees is the ruthless pragmatism of not just IS politico-military efforts but its communications too.
4. You’ve said that what is unique about IS’s propaganda is its mix of identity- and rational-choice appeals in its messaging. Can you explain what you meant by that?
There is no single factor that explains the apparent effectiveness of IS’s IO campaign nor singularly captures its uniqueness. Rather, it is the cumulative impact of a range of subtle differences that is most significant when trying to understand the appeal of IS’s messaging. And yes, this is a dimension that distinguishes IS from many of its peers.
Appeals to pragmatic and perceptual factors in IS’s messaging are designed to drive different types of decision-making processes in its audiences, especially amongst supporters. Messages that appeal to pragmatic factors, like those I just discussed, are designed to compel its audience to engage in rational-choice decision-making (i.e. decisions based on cost-benefit consideration of options).
In contrast, IS messaging that draws on perceptual factors (IS’s ‘cause’) are designed to present IS as the champion and protector of the in-group identity (Sunnis), IS’s enemies as Others responsible for Sunni-crises, and thus IS as the bearer of solutions to that crises. This type of messaging compels its audiences to engage in identity-choice decision-making (i.e. decisions made in accordance with one’s identity).
While I wont bore you with any of the conceptual and methodological details (instead see here), I have compared the contents of thirteen issues of AQAP’s Inspire, five issues of the Taliban in Khurasan’s Azan and ten issues of Islamic State’s Dabiq and the differences are potentially very significant. While Inspire’s contents are dominated by narratives designed to empower the in-group (Sunni Muslims) and provide operational advice and Azan focuses heavily on in- and out-group identity choice appeals, Dabiq is characterized by a pretty even fusion of identity- and rational-choice appeals.
IS have demonstrated an adeptness for weaving together rational- and identity-choice appeals in their messaging in a manner that is perhaps more nuanced than many other groups. The implications are noteworthy: by weaving together pragmatic and perceptual appeals, IS messaging is designed to align rational- and identity-choice decision-making processes in its supporters. This approach is not only designed to ensure IS messaging appeals to the broadest spectrum of potential supporter motivations but may help to explain the seemingly rapid radicalization of IS supporters from the sidelines to action (whether as foreign fighters or ‘lone wolves’).
5. Finally, what ways can both Arab and Western governments counter IS’s appeal particularly in the ‘media theatre’?
Western counter-narrative efforts against IS have generally been pretty poor. Like many, I thought the State Department’s sarcastic ‘Welcome to the “Islamic State” land’ video is a baffling example of counter-narrative messaging. Indeed, a lot of the messaging that has been released as part of the State Department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ strategy appears to be pretty ad hoc and not driven by a coherent overarching strategy. Other western governments have struggled too. For example, the Australian Defense Department’s counter-IS twitter campaign has stumbled through its first few weeks with basic errors that have left their efforts looking very amateurish.
I suspect there are two issues at the heart of many flawed counter-narrative efforts. The first is an intellectual one. Counter-narrative strategies need to be based on a nuanced understanding of an adversary’s IO strategy. This analysis should then inform the overarching counter-narrative strategy. Only then can an effective and coherent messaging campaign be developed and implemented. I suspect this regularly hasn’t happened or, if it has, then the process has not been adequately comprehensive.
I have spoken to Syrian opposition groups who are involved in a daily battle against IS propaganda and, despite many of them engaging in in-depth analysis of IS messaging with the expertise one would expect from locals, they remain very cautious with the messaging they disseminate for fear of counter-productive consequences. Many western efforts have not demonstrated such a nuanced awareness of the ramifications of ill-conceived messaging and continue to forge crudely ahead.
The second is an issue of personnel. More often than not the architects of anti-IS messaging campaigns are the same COIN IO specialists who are broadly recognized to have lost the IO war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and AQI in Iraq or the CT strategic communications experts who have been overwhelmed by AQ propaganda for over a decade. New ideas are desperately needed in the ‘media theatre’ and this may often mean bringing in new people.
More specifically, the approach of Western (more broadly non-Muslim) and Arab (more broadly Muslim) governments should have some fundamental differences. For example, governments of Muslim majority countries should make some attempt, if a light-footed and careful one, to actively engage in debates about pertinent religious issues.
Broadly speaking though, the core principles of an anti-IS counter-narrative campaign should be based on similar strategic principles to those applied by our adversaries. This would involve developing and disseminating messaging that attaches IS to perceptions of crisis, links solutions to ourselves (i.e. government efforts), highlights the synchronicity of our narrative and action while disrupting the connect between IS’s narrative and action. From a western perspective, this would ideally be pursued while avoiding the minefield of engaging in a counter-proselytizing campaign. Having a broad strategic framework as a driver would help to ensure a coherence to the messaging that is produced in the short, medium and long terms whilst facilitating the flexibility necessary to leverage situational factors.
While this may seem a very rational-choice heavy counter-narrative approach, it is designed to take advantage of what has thus far been a strength of IS’s IO campaign: the interweaving of its rational- and identity-choice appeals. By demonstrating how IS in fact isn’t providing solutions, is causing perceptions of crisis and regularly disseminates hypocritical messaging, its identity-choice appeals that declare that it is the provider and protector for Sunnis weakens considerably. However, a communications strategy that isn’t synchronized with effective politico-military efforts in the field will be susceptible to IS’s highly effective counter-narrative efforts. These points may seem simple or even obvious to many but they have rarely been applied effectively against IS (or AQ for that matter).
In short, without considerable and frankly very unlikely changes to the way that COIN IO and CT strategic communications campaigns are developed, I suspect IS and others will continue to enjoy a strategic advantage in the ‘media theatre’.