ISIS's Most Powerful Weapon

ISIS's Most Powerful Weapon
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co-authored with Ryan Phillips

When famed director, Frank Capra, was commissioned in 1941 by the U.S. government to create a series of propaganda films to inspire “our boys” as part of the war effort, he looked for inspiration at the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. He commented that the film “fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.” Now, several decades later, such sophisticated uses of media are key weapons in the arsenal of ISIS’s and Al-Qaeda’s recruiting tactics.

Not a day goes by that we aren’t bombarded with media and news broadcasts, with Americans consuming on average 10 hours and 39 minutes of media per day according to a new report. Some teenagers check social media a whopping 100 times a day. And while this increased technological interconnectedness has many benefits, ISIS and Al-Qaeda exploit the prevalence and power of the media, especially on young people.

J.W. Berger of the Brookings Institute, in testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee, reported that he had documented over 46,000 ISIS twitter accounts, which pass about 90,000 messages between members and sympathizers per day. Each ISIS Twitter account had on average 1,000 followers.

ISIS has the largest media involvement and investment of any terrorist group. Its specialized media wing, the “al-Hayat Media Center,” produces content consistently throughout the year. Al-Hayat broadcasts programs in several languages including German, French, and English. It has produced 1-minute videos and hour long documentaries including its notorious, Flames of War, which was renowned for its Hollywood-esque style (read, “gory”) depiction of ISIS’ campaign. Flames of War includes commentary that glorifies both war and ISIS’s cause, such as, “The heavy shelling let out thunderous roars that cast fear into the hearts of the enemy, and left them breathing the thick fumes of death.” ISIS also produces a slick online magazine, Dabiq, which uses high quality image-editing and graphical information to spread its radical ideology.

According to the Quilliam Foundation, al-Hayat releases, on average, 38 new items per day such as 20-minute videos, full-length documentaries, photo essays, audio clips, and pamphlets, and in languages ranging from Russian to Bengali. Its sophisticated communication techniques compare favorably to those of top U.S. media companies.

ISIS has clearly benefited from its media strategy, along with the internet’s ease of connection to sympathetic foreigners. According to the Soufan Group, more than 27,000 foreign fighters had joined ISIS as of 2015. Of those, 4,000 came from western countries.

Given the media fascination with and outsized coverage of ISIS’s vicious activities, one might be surprised at how few foreign recruits have flocked to their army. But a highly motivated few is more effective than a less-motivated many, and the motivating, force-multiplying power of ISIS’s ideology is alarming.

In The Guardian, Steve Rose notes that, “Isis has proved fluent in YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and other social media. Amateur videos and images are also being uploaded daily by its foot soldiers, which are then globally disseminated, both by ordinary users and mainstream news organizations hungry for images of a conflict their own cameras cannot access.” They even use internet memes and hashtags to push their content in front of as many faces as possible, such as the twitter hashtag “#catsofJihad.”

While the online recruitment efforts of terrorist groups such as ISIS are proving effective, recruitment itself is not the only goal of their media endeavors. As Yasmin Merchant from Fordham Political Review puts it, “Even if they only manage to recruit a small percentage, creating global sympathy for their movement is still dangerous. If ISIS continues this social media strategy, no amount of military strength will stop them from spreading their ideology.” The ideology of ISIS is so dangerous that with people who feel isolated and discriminated against it can prove deadly. A highly-motivated suicide bomber can wreak untold havoc without ever leaving their neighborhood.

ISIS’s primary media appeal is not, as one might think, religious. Young people are initially attracted by the chance to be part of a welcoming group and to contribute meaningfully to a just cause. “They are very adept at targeting a young audience,” says John Horgan, who is a leading psychologist from the University of Massachusetts who has long studied terrorism. “There’s an urgency: ‘Be part of something that’s bigger than yourself and be part of it now.’” The fulfillment of a desire to be accepted, to be part of a connected group, and to find a meaning in one’s life are common parts of the recruitment strategy employed by ISIS when communicating with recruits. This sense of purpose and belonging plays the most crucial role in the recruitment strategy of gangs, military bodies, and, go figure, terrorist groups.

We need to battle ISIS’s media onslaught with our own anti-ISIS media onslaught. ISIS’s vicious narrative needs to be pre-empted by counter-narratives of compassion. Such counter-narratives would fill up a young potential recruits mind with a deep and wide sense of mercy and justice and humanity, leaving no psychological space for ISIS’s cramped vision of Islam as violent, and non-Muslims as only worthy of death. Concurrently, we must counter the vicious, Western narratives that feed fear and hatred towards Muslims. Those narratives feed on media associations of Islam with violence, which reinforce our anti-Muslim biases. Western anti-Muslim narratives create the conditions of hostility that feed the sense of isolation that ISIS preys upon. We must stand up and counter the narratives that seek to drive chaos and fear into the hearts of the world.

Grand Valley State’s Counter Narrative Project has released several videos to counteract ISIS’s vicious anti-Westerns narratives AND our own anti-Muslim narratives. Please watch and share these videos.

Counter-narratives are no replacement for local communities and families finding ways to impart a sense of belonging and purpose to young people. But, sophisticated counter-narratives are needed to inoculate vulnerable young people, who are isolated and disconsolate, against the cleverly packaged messages of ISIS. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu so aptly put, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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