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Why the US is so bad at countering ISIS propaganda

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In the war against ISIS, one of the many fronts is recruiting. The US and its allies are trying to stem the flow of ISIS recruits into Iraq and Syria, partly by physically stopping them, but also by trying to convince them not to join up in the first place — and they're failing. The flow of foreign recruits is, despite their efforts to dissuade volunteers, growing.

Joel Wing, the author of the indispensable Musings on Iraq blog, recently interviewed Australian National University's Haroro J. Ingram on why the US's efforts to counter ISIS's message are failing.

The interview struck me because of a point that Ingram made, I thought persuasively: that Western governments fundamentally don't understand how ISIS's propaganda works — but he has an idea for how to fix it.

Ingram was not sparing in his criticism of US-led efforts to counter ISIS's recruiting messages:

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.

Ingram also said it was a common though well-intentioned mistake by Western countries to highlight "moderate" Muslim voices that challenge ISIS on theological grounds. "It tends to be perceived by those most vulnerable to radicalization as the championing of a government-sanctioned Islam," he told Wing. "This is a lever militant Islamist narratives regularly manipulate."

Ingram's idea for fixing this is an interesting one. He suggests the US and its allies refocus on challenging ISIS's core message — its claim to be "practically addressing the needs of Sunnis via appeals to pragmatic factors like security, stability and livelihood":

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 [sic] 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.

According to Wing, this is Haroro's novel — and helpful — insight about ISIS. "Most [writing on ISIS propaganda] focuses upon religious factors, jihad, etc.," Wing wrote via email. "What Haroro adds is that it is not all just about ISIS's religious vision but also pragmatic issues, especially the claim that it is the champion and protector of Sunnis, that it is building a state which can take care of basic issues like security and education."

There's some suggestive evidence that Haroro's approach could work. According to a recent report on ISIS defectors, people who quit the group tend to cite the group's ill treatment of the local Sunni population (but not its atrocities against other groups) as a key reason for why they quit.

Peter Neumann, one of the report's authors, told me that the US and allied governments should help disseminate their narratives as means of combating ISIS recruitment and retention. But like Ingram, he wanted them to be smarter and more subtle about it.

"You don't need a government to put that on their Twitter account," Neumann said. "All the government needs to do is make people feel confident that they can tell their stories [by protecting them against punishment or reprisal]. Civil society and the media will do the rest."

There's a lot more interesting stuff on the nuances of ISIS's information strategy, and how it affects the battlefield itself, in Wing's full interview with Ingram. Read it here.

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