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Getting a digital foothold against the world’s most dangerous start-up

Editorial by Dr Christina Schori Liang

The “Islamic State” (IS) is celebrating its first year anniversary, regardless of a US-led opposition coalition of more than 60 states, of which 12 nations are waging airstrikes and 4 nations are active on ground, it is difficult to argue that the Islamic State is losing. Every day it is not losing, it is winning new recruits, attracting young men through its strategic messaging campaigns. These recruits are moving into Iraq and Syria faster than the coalition is able to stop or kill them. It may be time to acknowledge that the current approach is not working.

What makes IS so difficult to subdue is that it is much more than just a terrorist organisation: it is a state, a criminal enterprise, an effective army, a counter-insurgency all wrapped up in a dynamic young start-up company with a corporate strategy. 

First and foremost, the Islamic State is a purported “caliphate” that has managed to hold and administer land that it has overtaken. Second, like many of the terrorist organisations today, IS is a criminal enterprise earning most of its proceeds from criminal acts, including looting oil and artifacts, kidnapping, extortion, and trafficking. Third, IS is also an effective military force, displaying effective leadership and military capabilities. Its intelligence and logistics skills stem from its original Ba’athist military operations and intelligence ties to both Bashar Assad’s regime and Sadam Hussein’s security state. Finally, IS behaves like an effective young start-up company – a sort of Monster Inc.– and in order to counter it more effectively we must address it as such. If we consider the IS to be organized like a business, it will allow us to think more creatively about the tools that we will need to counter it.

Like any young start-up company, the Islamic State has adhered to some important business lessons that have brought it success.

Lesson 1: Have a plan, prepare and be patient

The Islamic State has a corporate plan which originates from a blueprint designed by Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khifani, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defence force. Also known as the “Lord of the Shadows”, he meticulously designed the original structure of the Islamic State. Today’s master plan articulates its strategic goals, complete with a 2020 vision and 14 key indicators that measure its monthly performance and investments from region to region. To emphasize its transparency and professionalism, it publishes an annual report which articulates its business strategy of terror and destruction, including specific investments.

Lesson 2: Go global but customize for each market, offer personalisation

IS has several effective communications departments that have been able to brand the organisation with its strategic vision and goals. It has branded itself as the most powerful of all global terrorist organisations, and it targets specific customers most vulnerable to the lure of extremism, while at the same time adapting itself to suit the needs and desires of its customers. 

Islamic State fighters seen here in Anbar province, Iraq.

IS represents extremism and jihad as a normal lifestyle choice, marketing itself as a respectable state complete with marriage bureaus, passports and health services. Life in the Islamic State is filled with adventure but also stability. IS even maintains that it offers educational opportunities, such as in the field of information technology and medicine. 

Like a successful business, IS has successfully analyzed its market, studying the factors that are pushing normal citizens to become terrorists. It personalizes its message, managing to attract followers from poor and disenfranchised youth in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey, to rich well-educated boys and girls from the UK and the US. IS has even succeeded in developing a gendered approach in its strategic marketing campaign targeting boys and girls, men and women. 

IS marketing includes financial incentives, such as a well-paying job, a house, money for furniture, and free health care. It offers marriage for those who will never be rich enough to marry. One media wing, the Zora foundation, is dedicated to luring young women with romantic illusions, as women are an increasingly important asset for helping to populate the caliphate with new “cubs”. Even the cubs of the caliphate have a role: children are used to lure other children with toys and candy into IS’s indoctrination and combat training programmes that culminate in them becoming full-fledged fighters.

ISIS video footage showing children carrying guns during a training session

Lesson 3: Find partners who can distribute the product, locally and globally 

Its branding ability has enabled IS to attract no less than 21 other terrorist organisations to offer their formal support or swear allegiance (bay’ah). IS has won support from its neighbors and groups spanning from Africa to Southeast Asia. IS reaches out to all walks of life, ranging from the low-hanging fruit such as convicted criminals, to elite professionals – doctors, professors, cyber technicians and engineers. At the same time, IS has enough resources to send its messages in multiple languages and through multiple social media platforms, such as AskFM, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, SoundCloud and Twitter.

Lesson 4: Emphasize brand loyalty

IS also brands itself as having supreme religious authority that demands extreme team loyalty. It maintains that it is the only country where one can practice true spiritual purity, and proclaims that “good” Muslims have the duty to undertake (hijrah) religious migration to the caliphate. IS maintains that life in the caliphate will bring a sense of empowerment and agency: “you will have a meaningful life.” 

Opening a new digital campaign front

While the IS has been effectively projecting its marketing and psychological operations campaign, nations are spending most of their resources on developing an effective counter-terrorism strategy based on kinetic power, largely ignoring the fact that what is feeding the terror mill is being driven by the Islamic State and its global supporters online. Only recently have countries begun addressing the threat of the “cyber caliphate”, recognizing that the online war and its effective psychological operations will never be defeated effectively with kinetic force. One can cage or kill the singer but not the song.

One can cage or kill the singer but not the song.

Designing a counter-narrative

While nothing is easier than to denounce the opponent, it is difficult to build an effective counter-narrative that resonates with the population targeted by IS recruiters. Those who are attracted by the IS narrative online can simply avoid messages that promote an alternative narrative. Additionally, official state online engagement moves slowly and is constrained by bureaucratic processes and timelines, while jihadi social media moves in real time. Rather than countering the narrative online, it is far better to undermine the brand of the company, helping IS to defeat itself by making its members villains rather than martyrs. Some messages that could be promoted include:

Criminal behavior of IS members – IS maintains that it is an Islamic State that upholds Sharia law, but IS steals livestock, sells foreign fighter’s passports, taxes minorities, truckers and farmers, runs extortion rackets, empties bank vaults and kidnaps women and children for ransom payment. IS also steals oil, wheat and bulldozes ancient artifacts for profit.

Abuses of local populations – The violence exacted against the local population and its minorities, especially its brutality and human rights offences against the weak and vulnerable, can help weaken the image of IS. Detailing the exploitation of men, women and children, including their brutal acts of violence particularly by Muslims against other Muslims, could dissuade future recruits from coming.

Messages from defectors and returning foreign fighters – Messages from defectors and returning foreign fighters detailing the horror and human rights abuses they witnessed and their disappointment in the IS promises can also be an effective tool in dissuading foreign fighters from joining. Moreover, such a message can emphasize how the Iraqi-dominated IS leadership have abused foreign fighter recruits and uses them recklessly, putting them in situations where they will meet certain death in battle for no purpose. Describing how foreign fighters are forced into battle with limited training skills and are used largely for suicide missions or to score personal vendettas between IS leaders could also undermine the portrayal of IS as a grand foreign adventure.

Describe the infighting between jihadi groups – Showcasing the fighting between Al Qaeda and IS in Syria and how in-fighting between groups has led to foreign fighters being killed by their fellow jihadists might further undermine the IS brand.

Deny IS successful battlefield stories – Widely diffusing stories about IS defeats in battle through traditional media, internet and social media can help portray IS as the losing team.

Raise awareness of brutality of life in the Islamic State – Remove the image of ‘jihadi cool’ associated with the war, and describe what life is really like in a war zone, in an unforgiving environment governed by fear, with limited food, water and sanitation, surrounded by criminals, rapists and war mongers. Local activists can help in this effort. An organisation in Raqqa calling itself Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, is systematically filming footage of life under IS – people standing in line for bread, children being exploited and trained for military combat and the public attending executions. These videos are uploaded on the internet or smuggled across the Turkish-Syrian border. The organisation is also taking photos, painting on walls and dropping leaflets, risking their lives daily to damage the IS brand.

Effective CVE messaging strategies are needed to build effective societal, national and regional resilience.

In order to effectively counter the message of this successful start-up there needs to be an effective global countering violent extremism (CVE) campaign at the local, regional, international and corporate level.

At the national level, each country must design and develop its own national CVE strategy taking into account UNSC Resolution 2178. The U.S. State Department has recently launched the Information Coordination Cell which plans to enlist regional allies, military leaders as well as U.S. embassies worldwide in a global messaging campaign to discredit groups such as IS.

At the national level, it is important that leaders work closely with community leaders and stakeholders, so that messages flow not only from the top but are driven by the street, the village, the community, and within each individual family. Every parent must take it upon themselves to protect their sons and daughters from radicalisation. Governments should step up efforts to assist families in developing greater awareness of signs of radicalisation, and to offer them the right tools to effectively intervene in their child’s radicalisation process.

Governments also have an important role in raising awareness and building capacity of parents, teachers, social workers, youth workers and local police in protecting children and young people from falling prey to online and offline recruitment. Schools have a role in teaching young people to have the necessary skills, including critical thinking and Internet safety, in order to recognize and reject violent extremist narratives and terrorist recruitment tactics.

US Centcom Twitter account hacked by pro-IS group - January 2015

At the regional level, organisations must work together to design best practices such as those recommended by the recent OSCE-wide Counter-Terrorism Expert Conference on “Countering the Incitement and Recruitment of Foreign Terrorist Fighters”. Regional organisations such as the OSCE can be very effective because they focus on a ‘whole of society approach” – focusing on civil society actors, women’s groups and youth groups across 57 member states. NGOs focusing on Women such as Women Without Borders can also be effective and its initiative Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE).

At the international level, actors such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are important to strengthen the message of unity across the Arab world for greater religious tolerance and to highlight Islamic values of peace, compassion, tolerance, equality, justice and human dignity. The UN and the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) are important in uniting global CT efforts in sharing best practices and recommendations. The Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) financially supports CVE efforts at the grassroots and community level. The International Institute for Justice and Rule of Law (IIJ) is important in delivering training to implement CT related rule of law. Hedaya is effective in supporting dialogue and research on CVE. The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) is also delivering training on CVE and is fostering dialogue.

The internet has become the new battlefield against terrorism. (...) We need a new paradigm shift to understand this new battleground. (...) Only by gaining digital supremacy can we ensure that our kinetic forces can defeat the Islamic State.

Finally, we must build and develop public-private partnerships with the media, ICT industry, and marketing experts to work together to counter the IS brand. PBS Frontline documentaries are already a great start in broadcasting the reality of life in the Islamic State. Working with video game designers, graphic artists and musicians to produce video games, music and comic books to thwart the appeal of IS can also be a tool.

The internet has become the new battlefield against terrorism. This front has invaded our homes where it has the ability to nurture and incite young men and women to become fully fledged terrorists. We need a new paradigm shift to understand this new battleground. In order to counter terrorism today, we must not only focus on our kinetic response but also on our cyber defenses. Only by gaining digital supremacy can we ensure that our kinetic forces can defeat the Islamic State.