Resisting Daesh's Message: On Strategic Communications in War

FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with
FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. slamic State militants are barricading down for a possible assault on their de facto capital Raqqa, hiding among civilian homes and preventing anyone from fleeing, as international airstrikes intensify on the Syrian city in the wake of the Paris attacks. For many, the threat of missiles and bombs from the enemies of Islamic State is more of an immediate threat than the vicious oppression of the jihadis’ themselves. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

It may seem simplistic, but definitions are important in war. William C. Martel frequently stressed this. Goals and objectives, the enemy, and victory must all be defined in order to bring clarity of thought to operational planning and public messaging.

In an era when mass-casualty human conflict was primarily characterized by war between nation-states, this was relatively easy to do. Destroy the military, take the capital, or subdue the population, and victory came in a neat little package known as "surrender."

But it has gotten more difficult as interaction capacity has increased across the globe due to modern cyberspace, open borders, and low trade barriers. Combined with the destructive capacity that can be wielded by small non-state groups because of the potency of a range of potential weapons, armed conflict is harder to label in distinct categories than it used to be. It has become more fluid and less constrained to specific spaces, although geography still matters a lot.

In the American public discourse about transnational terrorism, we are currently having difficulty defining the enemy, let alone what victory means. I do not know what victory looks like, but we should debate it as a society, with Congress taking the lead. In the meantime, we could stand to define the enemy better.

To call Daesh the "Islamic State," "ISIL," or "ISIS" are poor strategic choices. Those labels are part of Daesh's international psychological operations campaign to create the perception that Islam is a monolith and that they speak for it, which fits nicely with their political goal of building their own state and recruiting fighters to help them do so.

That they have been rejected as un-Islamic by countless Muslims, renowned Islamic scholars across a range of sects, and governments of Muslim-majority countries around the planet is old news for people paying attention. For a tiny minority of violent extremists to claim to speak for Islam as a whole is deeply offensive to the Muslims that are most-victimized by them, which is why so many of our friends and allies have referred to this particular group as Daesh since at least 2014.

As explained by Lauren Markoe, "'Daesh' is simply the acronym for the name in Arabic. 'Daesh' has allowed Arabic speakers to play with the name in pejorative ways, because it sounds like or rhymes with many words that have negative connotations -- 'daes,' for example, which means someone who tramples something underfoot, or 'dahes,' the Arabic word for 'sower of discord.'"

Many books, news stories, and government documents have been written using "ISIS," "ISIL," or the "Islamic State." These have created certain path dependencies of behavior, both mental and bureaucratic. But it would be wiser to consistently call the group we are at war with Daesh in order to make common cause with our friends and allies in the Middle East that refer to them as such, as well as to blunt the psychological impact of the "Islamic State" terms. Secretary Kerry already does so and we should follow his lead. As Seth Jones notes, there are good reasons to call them Daesh. One is that "using Daesh does not give legitimacy -- even perceived legitimacy -- to the organization's claim that it is a veritable 'Islamic State.'" Moreover, it makes it harder to linguistically and conceptually conflate this specific group and its strategic objectives with Islam as a whole.

In short, why are we helping Daesh with its strategic communications campaign by using its intentionally chosen words? We do not owe any respect to a pseudo-guerrilla terrorist organization that burns people alive and sells young girls as sex slaves.

Apart from Daesh, it is also clear that violent extremists from various groups claiming the mantel of Islam seek to do us harm. For those specific groups that demonstrate a sufficient level of operational sophistication and intent, the line between armed conflict and law enforcement starts to blur depending on where those groups are located and whether they have actually attacked us or not.

Offshoot organizations from core al Qaeda are still a threat to the United States, EU, Yemen, and elsewhere, but a group like Boko Haram currently appears to be primarily a threat to innocent civilians in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, and Benin. The United States is providing support to our African friends in the joint campaign against Boko Haram, but it would be a stretch to say that we are at war with Boko Haram.

When it comes to the "war of words" about radical Islam, it is normal to get angry when there are people behaving as Daesh, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram do. I'm angry too. But it is wise to be cautious and cool-headed when speaking publicly (including campaign rallies and on "social" media).

Language is a primary factor in conditioning thought, and thought can lead to action, so when it comes to political-military groups that perpetrate unspeakable crimes against humanity and who claim to do so in the name of large and diverse religions, it is important not to accidentally treat hundreds of millions of people across five different continents as one and the same. That is part of Daesh's mind-game and we shouldn't play on their terms.

We are at war with Daesh, but defining our relationship to radical Islam writ large is harder. "Radical" as a word can mean "very different from the usual or traditional." Clearly we should not be worried about people who are merely different. It is those who preach hatred and violence that are the problem. Those who have committed acts of violence should be removed from society, through force if it is necessary and legally sanctioned.

Groups who have demonstrated the capability, intent, and operational sophistication to cause death and destruction on a large scale or in a sustained way should be the focus of our military and law-enforcement efforts, especially if specific groups have already successfully perpetrated attacks. But for non-violent people who have beliefs or use words that we consider threatening or disrespectful, perhaps all we need to do is publicly disagree with them and explain why their rhetoric is harmful to innocent people. It might be emotionally satisfying to claim that we are at war with a set of ideas, but it does not help us understand the actual threats, allocate resources, or devise a coherent strategy for countering violent extremism.

Daesh will eventually be destroyed. I have overwhelming confidence in the ability of the U.S. military, law enforcement, and intelligence communities to systematically map, monitor, and dismantle that specific group and its organizational structure though watchful patience, robust international partnerships, and with lethal precision. I also have faith that when it comes to "winning the argument" -- as Wilson Center President Jane Harman so often puts it -- the American people will overcome the voices of fear and hatred, leading by example with the courage of our convictions, backed by the strength of our laws and institutions. In these tense times, the way we talk about our fellow citizens of the Islamic faith is more important than ever.

Demonstrating respect and reaffirming our commitment to equal treatment for all people will not only help many of our fellow citizens feel less afraid, it will hopefully reverse the disconcerting growth in attacks on innocent Americans who look different or pray differently from the mainstream, and it is fundamental to resisting the message of Daesh and like-minded sowers of discord. Muslims are an integral part of the rich tapestry of cultures and faiths that make America a great nation. They are our fellow inhabitants of this planet that we call home.

Though but one piece in the whole picture, strategic communications matter. Being precise, diplomatic, and intentional about the words we use while actively engaged in armed conflict is important to protect the innocent from the dangers of small-mindedness everywhere. It also helps bring clarity to our thinking and focuses attention on the actual enemy, not an imagined one. This is especially incumbent upon those with greatest influence in society, whether they are elected officials or campaigning politicians, corporate executives, media figures or celebrities, public intellectuals, or religious leaders.

Behaving like mature adults is incumbent upon all of us. But when we feel the need to vent our anger and frustration during this time of war, Daesh is fair game.