As the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has spread, part of its success has been its ability to dominate the message online, with slick propaganda helping it develop legions of fans across the globe. For now, ISIS is winning the messaging war.
But what if you deployed those same tools to offer a compelling counter-narrative, to lay bare, for example, the devastating humanitarian toll that the Islamists’ campaign is having on women and children in Iraq and Syria?
This is exactly what the Sawab Center, opened jointly on Wednesday by the US and Emirati governments, aims to do. But can a government-funded body with paid staff compete in an ideas war with the fervent and more spontaneous support ISIS now enjoys?
Former US State Department counterterrorism coordinator Alberto Fernandez told IRIN the Abu Dhabi-based venture is the first of many regional hubs needed around the world to combat ISIS on the airwaves and on social media.
“We need multiple points of action against the Daesh (ISIS) threat,” said Fernandez, whose former office, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), crafted the new approach.
“The idea isn’t a single hub, but many lines of effort in the propaganda media space sending messages working against ISIS. The Abu Dhabi hub is the pioneer. They are at the vanguard of what one hopes will be many efforts.”
Learning from the masters
The loose coalition of countries around the world opposed to ISIS faces an uphill struggle if it is to steal back the social media initiative from the Islamists.
ISIS propaganda has spread organically, through thousands of accounts that – largely speaking at any rate – aren’t paid or even instructed to send out its call.
“ISIS doesn’t have official disseminators who tweet in its name,” Charlie Winter, the author of a study on this topic published this week for the UK-based Quilliam Foundation, told IRIN. “It’s done by supporters of ISIS who are not employed to do it.”
To counter that push – which Winter estimates comes from between 45,000 and 90,000 social media accounts – the coalition “will need to throw the kitchen sink” at its own messaging system, he said.
The lure of ISIS goes deeper than just its brutal media image.
After analysing a trove of propaganda, Winter found that the majority of messages actually focus on softer themes such as mercy, belonging, and utopianism. This more nuanced messaging – when geared toward recruits and latent supporters – can be a powerful draw, especially in communities that feel disenfranchised.
The response of the coalition so far has been to say that the image of life in ISIS-held territory is far more grim and terrifying than the rose-tinted view being propagated by the Islamists, but this kind of negative campaigning may not be winning over hearts and minds.
“It’s easy to say how awful something is, but this is only the beginning of a conversation,” said Fernandez. “It’s not enough to say ‘don’t do this.’ You have to say, ‘do that instead,’ and the coalition doesn’t quite have a handle on that latter part.”
In Syria, for example, he said, ISIS has become the only alternative in many regions to the government, which has itself carried out countless atrocities against civilians.
Syrians logically respond to coalition messaging, saying, “Ok, ISIS is bad, but Assad is worse, and you guys aren’t doing anything about it,” Fernandez said.
ISIS also has the advantage of being far more nimble than the coalition, made up of 60 countries, each with their own governments, bureaucracies, and red tape. Individual states have launched their own counter-terror messaging centres, such as the CSCC in the United States, but neither lessons learned nor resources have been shared until now.
A New Approach
As the first hub, officials and analysts hope the Sawab Center will change that. They suggest that a creative, grassroots approach can be effective, particularly if several more similar centres open in the coming months.
The Sawab Center was opened jointly by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash and US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel.
It will be staffed by UAE, US, and other coalition members’ nationals and operate 24 hours. The focus will be to analyse and then counter ISIS “messages used to recruit foreign fighters, fundraise for illicit activities, and intimidate and terrorize local populations,” according to a US State Department release on Wednesday.
“The Centre will open a new online community that will provide the people of the region and the world an opportunity to launch and share our own content – text, graphics, video clips and animations – that puncture ISIL’s grotesque propaganda,” Stengel and Gargash wrote in a joint op-ed published in The National on Thursday.
The new hub-based strategy comes amid official gloom over the coalition’s inability to counter ISIS propaganda.
“Our narrative is being trumped by ISIL's,” Stengel bluntly assessed in a 9 June memo to US Secretary of State John Kerry, leaked to the New York Times.
Success may require reinventing some of the very tactics that ISIS itself has benefitted from, analysts say. For example, the coalition might try to get a few of its own fanboys – people who feel so strongly about the cause that they become unofficial advocates. That will require creativity – and allowing social media to run its own course. “The hub will fail if it is completely scripted, completely controlled, completely artificial,” Fernandez said. “It needs to have some sort of room to breathe, to organically experiment and figure things out.”
Terrorism experts suggest that an emotional, nuanced message could work best.
“ISIS is very good at simplifying everything into a binary question, black and white. What ISIS is offering is simple answers to all your questions,” terrorism analyst J.M. Berger told a small group of journalists, including IRIN, last month in Doha. “The more you can encourage them to see the world as a complex place, the better.”
The message of humanitarian suffering is one example that could cause militants and supporters to think twice about the nobility of their cause.
Some 4.4 million Iraqis now need food assistance, the UN reported in its most recent assessment — an indication of the suffering ISIS’s advance has wrought.
In Syria, the group has killed nearly 1,000 civilians this year, including 59 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Crucially for the messaging campaign, many of the victims are Sunni Arab Muslims, the same group that ISIS claims to represent.
Winter is confident things are moving in the right direction — at last. “There is more recently a significant desire to change and adapt to the situation” within the coalition, he said. “Even if the messaging is not effective now, I think there is growing recognition that it’s absolutely critical.”