Dr. Houda Abadi, Associate Director at the The Carter Center
Traditionally, psychological warfare has been supplementary to conventional warfare. From synchronized marching and the repetitive clashing of swords on armor, to the infamous work of Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany; methods of psychological warfare have continually developed to make use of the technology at hand. In the 21st century the tools available to disseminate information and propaganda are abundant, and can be easily manipulated by groups such as the Islamic State to pursue a disturbing agenda.
Question and answer with Egypt Today
1. ISIS has been more successful than any other international terrorist group in attracting support from abroad, as well as locally. Is this more the result of a personal detachment and discontent with society, or a true belief in its narrative?
Daesh has an excellent understanding of youth and their grievances. Their narratives focus on injustices youth can relate to and they offer them a way out. Daesh has also capitalized on the political vacuum created by failed states and the failure of national governments to address core sociopolitical grievances. They have taken advantage of the youth’s feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization in its recruitment by emphasizing the idyllic notion of utopian “Islamic State” that addresses Muslim grievances across the globe. Some of the main reasons why youth join Daesh and other extremist organizations are social-political grievances which encompass moral outrage, humiliation, marginalization, search for identity, meaning, and belonging. Radicalization of these youth needs to be understood fully, paying special attention to not only the political and the religious appeals that provide the foundation for the discourse used by Daesh recruiters, but also how Daesh’ various online branding efforts have been employed to influence public opinion. AT the Carter Center, we analyzed over 600 Daesh propaganda videos and identified 7 meta-narratives Daesh uses. The religious narrative represents less than 10% of total videos. If interested in learning more about Daesh meta-narratives, please visit our site for more info. We have an article published that discusses solely Daesh narratives.
2. How important was propaganda and psychological warfare in bridging the gap between the ISIS’ military capabilities, and its ambitions?
Daesh has relied heavily on social media platforms to recruit and spread its messages of terror. It has
used digital communication to build a multifaceted, charismatic, modern and sophisticated brand. For Daesh, the virtual media battlefield is as important as the physical battlefield. Through its social media engagements, Daesh media strategies vary by region, race, and gender, but they share some of the following elements: 1) the appropriation of western media conventions and platforms; 2) the use of multiple languages with subtitles; 3) appeals to local grievances and other hyperlocal contexts; 4) the narratives of Daesh converts; 5) humor, provides alternatives with concrete chance of realization; 6) simple messages and easy to understand, and ; 7) emotional appeals. While online recruitment plays an important role in Daesh propaganda, offline relational networks are equally important. The convergence of Daesh online and offline media strategies as they work upon potential recruits in particular communities is of particular concern as we work to develop effective counter-media strategies in both contexts.
3. How far do you believe this extensive propaganda campaign was a pre-determined ambition of the skilled Ba’athist hierarchy who dominate ISIS, or the result of a natural, organic growth in the reach of propaganda through the technologies available today?
Daesh learnt and built its recruitment propaganda from Al Qaida. For Daesh, the virtual media battlefield is as important as the physical battlefield. Ayman Al Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaeda Central stated in 2005, “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle for the heart and minds of our ummah.” Through its social media engagements, Daesh projects an image of acceptance in which all are united under the banner of Islam regardless of race, socio-economic barrier, physical disability, and country of origin. While online recruitment plays an important role in Daesh propaganda, offline relational networks are equally important. The convergence of Daesh online and offline media strategies as they work upon potential recruits in particular communities is of particular concern as we work to develop effective counter-media strategies in both contexts.
Houda Abadi (photo from The Carter Center)
4. As the influence of ISIS decreases, and with the likelihood that it will be pushed underground, do you predict a major push in its social media/propaganda campaign to re-gain support? If so, how can ISIS maintain the integrity of its narrative since its success has been relatively short-lived?
While Daesh’s loss of territory is certainly militarily and symbolically important, it is unlikely to completely eradicate the organization’s rhetorical credibility and recruitment expertise for three main reasons: 1) Daesh’s strength has resided in its ability to control narratives and to motivate individuals; 2) Daesh has pioneered the use of online media and evolved the use of offline recruitment networks in a way no other group has; and 3) we have still not addressed the root causes that breed violent extremism in the first place.
With its loss of territory, Daesh is adopting new strategies to assert its power in the region. It deploys theological appeals to explain loss of territory, reassuring its supporters while warning its enemies. Setbacks are reinterpreted as obstruction in path to inevitable victor. It is increasingly focusing on simple messages that are appealing and calling for homegrown attacks by any means necessary. Daesh propaganda now includes instructional how-to videos and articles for homegrown terrorists. For instance, articles from its social magazine, Rumiyah, describe when and how a large-scale attack could be executed and what types of weapons to use. Videos are more violent and gruesome. Daesh’s print and visual media are evolving to serve, in part, as more than a recruitment tool: media has become a virtual training ground. However, an important thing to note is the drop of Daesh video production. There was an average of 30+ video releases per month in early 2015 versus roughly 13 per month in early 2017.
5. The use of children as soldiers to commit barbaric acts has been adopted by ISIS as a method of psychological warfare to instil fear in the hearts and minds of the population. How can trust be rebuilt in society after years of brutal indoctrination and fear-mongering?
Thousands of children are serving as soldiers in Daesh. These boys and girls, some as young as 5 years old may fight on the front lines, participate in suicide missions, and act as spies, messengers, or lookouts. Girls may be forced into sexual slavery. Many are abducted or recruited by force, while others join out of desperation, believing that Daesh offers a better alternative. Children, as young as five years old, are forced to witness public executions and torture.
The visual symbolism of having an organized army of young soldiers serves as a crucial element in Daesh’s psychological warfare. They are referred to as: “the cubs of the caliphate,” “tomorrow’s mujahedeen,” “the next generation,” “the future flag bearers”. With loss of territory, we see more children videos. It’s also a way to shame men and tell them that if children can fight then they have no excuse.
Governments must provide legal services to returning Daesh child soldiers and their families. They need to ensure that those who abused, manipulated, and recruited child soldiers are prosecuted and tried in a court of law. Many children who were involved in armed conflict receive little or no support to reintegrate into their communities, and are shunned. There’s a dire need for reintegration and rehabilitation programs which provide psycho-social support and are gender conscious. We need Outreach programs, educational opportunities (formal and informal), and influencing the larger context in which these youth live.
6. What should the international community have learnt about constricting the channels of propaganda, and countering propaganda, in order to prevent its replication in the future?
There is a dire need for a sustainable, community-based approach in preventing violent extremism. Military power alone cannot defeat the violent ideologies or address grievances that gave rise to Daesh in the first place. Perceptions of social injustice, socio-economic development, identity politics, and marginalization are at the heart of Daesh recruitment propaganda. We need a multi-modal approach that surpasses Daesh’s imagination and its effective use of media to recruit and spread violent ideologies. If we are going to prevent violent extremism, our efforts have to address root causes.
We must reduce the emotional appeals and confront the romantic image of these extremists. There is no single pathway to becoming radicalized. There is no one-size-fits-all response strategy. Drivers and enablers of violent extremism are context-driven and hyperlocal in nature, complex and diverse; interventions should reflect these realities. Interventions should include all three dimensions: 1) emotional appeals; 2) cognitive appeals; and, 3) behavioral appeals or alternatives.
Well-crafted and localized counter-messaging is an important tool in the fight against violent extremism; however, it is insufficient in and of itself. Government counter-messaging programs and religious institutions devoid of credibility have little impact. Trust is the most valuable currency in effective PVE work and in the credibility of counter-narratives. At times the messenger is more important than the message itself. There is a need to move beyond counter messaging and instead provide offer alternatives where local grievances from a granular level are addressed.
For effective and sustainable community Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) initiatives, the following actions are recommended:
• PVE initiatives should be based on local research and nuanced understanding of the contextual push and pull factors.
• Religious actors are social actors who hold credibility and legitimacy within their local communities. Engaging with religious leaders across ideological and political divide is key.
• A gender-conscious agenda for PVE should be embraced, with a focus on youth as peace-builders.
• There is a need to move beyond counter-narratives. The focus on PVE interventions needs to shift to providing alternatives to disaffected youth in advocating for local change.
• Hyper-local media strategies that include emotional and rational appeals should be developed.
• There is a need to develop a comprehensive, rights-based approach to the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-foreign fighters and former political detainees. Prisons are a breeding ground for recruitment and circulation of violent extremist ideologies. There is an indoctrination and formation of tight networks. Enduring harsh treatment and at times torture, Daesh members are able to convince others to join their “just” cause. While still locked up, prisoners are invited to join Daesh and promised a better future. The failure of rehabilitation programs inside and outside of prisons remains a major security concern.
• Intra-Muslim dialogue is needed to address the gaps between Salafi communities and the government religious apparatus. Continued marginalization of Salafi communities will increase resentment and encourage recruitment.