Fighting ISIL needs more than air strikes

Without a coordinated media campaign to counter ISIL’s legitimising narrative, the group cannot be defeated.

A Muslim boy looks on as he holds a placard at a rally organised by a Muslim charitable trust in Mumbai, India [REUTERS]
A Muslim boy looks on as he holds a placard at a rally organised by a Muslim charitable trust in Mumbai, India [REUTERS]

The war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group cannot succeed without a bold, comprehensive international communication strategy consisting of smart media programming.

ISIL’s media campaign has been a significant component of its operations against the West. The West’s response needs to be equally potent and waged through local and international communication channels.

So far, the United States-led coalition’s plans to bomb Syria have not included any new or coherent global strategy to discredit and challenge ISIL’s messages.

“Terrorists do not primarily aim at the physical, but on the psychological effect of their attacks,” according to research by the Marshall Center for Security Studies.

Terrorism uses a strategy that primarily relies on the symbolic strength of the act.

Are more air strikes exactly what ISIL wants?

“Its primary purpose lies in the conveying of messages to the target audiences,” the study says.

“It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods,” said Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, in a letter to Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader. “In fact, its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.”

Symbolic strength of terror acts

The US and international community’s plan to defeat ISIL consists of a military campaign, training and equipment, disrupting plots, cutting finances, and pursuing a ceasefire. All of this sounds fine but it is not sufficient. It needs to include the component that responds to the symbolic strength of acts of terrorism.

ALSO READ: Unpacking the ISIL paradox

US President Barack Obama’s speech on Sunday suggested that ISIL does not speak for Islam. True, but how do you convince many of its sympathisers that it does not when the group is claiming to fight in the name of Islam?

How do you convince many of ISIL’s sympathisers that it does not speak for Islam when the group is claiming to fight in its name?


“They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death,” says Obama.

That’s also true, but he doesn’t tell us how to uproot the appeal of the cult, which even seems to have attracted members from Western societies.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech to parliament for permission to bomb Syria was equally devoid of a coherent strategy that would tackle more than just the military or security aspects. His counterterrorism plans mainly include police operations and targeting activists in the UK.

The terrorist attacks that killed more than 130 people in Paris last month were seen by counterterrorism officials as a demonstration of ISIL’s expanding reach. Such attacks are meant to disseminate a specific message; they serve to recruit sympathisers by flaunting the group’s accomplishments.

The media hype may also be used to demonstrate the effective execution of terrorist attacks to those who have provided financial support. Once these messages are converted into images on TV and the internet and spread across the world, their impact is amplified.

So, air strikes alone would not destroy the impact of these graphic messages. There is an urgent need for a globally coordinated communication strategy over the internet and social media, as well as conventional media, such as television and radio, for the more remote or war-torn areas. The aim should not be propaganda or war messaging but a more sophisticated communication technique that defuses the marketing of terror as martyrdom or freedom-fighting.

ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [AP]ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [AP]

Global counter narrative

The campaign should be coordinated with local, regional and international talents. Intellectuals, writers, film-makers, and media producers in affected countries could play a major role.

Specially made TV serials and feature films, even cartoons and games, could provide a strong local, regional and global counter narrative that exposes the contradictions between terror groups’ messages and the more conventional teachings of Islam. The long-term survival and success of these organisations depend on their ability to project a legitimising narrative.

ALSO READ: Dismantling ISIL’s propaganda machine

For example, it could be argued that Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, which was turned into a film, did more to discredit the Taliban than any military campaign.


Likewise, some social media campaigns initiated spontaneously by ordinary people, such as #NotInMyName or #YouAintNoMuslimBruv on Twitter and the Open Letter to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Facebook have been effective in providing that counter-narrative.

These are individual examples but their impact is short-lived. For an effective communication strategy, you need a long-term horizon, and messages that are repeated in different media packages globally.

The only counter-messaging strategy so far adopted by the US and Britain are the measures introduced for restrictions on the use of internet when the police and intelligence agencies were given new powers to track down those who plot terrorist attacks over the internet.

Terrorism is not an ideology

The newly proposed Europe-wide counterterrorism unit plans to do the same. And attempts at flagging or hacking “terrorist and extremist online content” have so far not succeeded in curtailing the activists’ ability to expand their operations.

“They learn from their mistakes. They change and adapt to the digital battlefield,” said Richard Stengel, US under secretary of state for public diplomacy.

In military terms, terrorism is a tactic not an ideology. But even with that logic, if the terror group’s tactic is to use communication channels to convey its messages then the counteroffensive should also employ a communication strategy to defuse its claims and at the same time educate the marginalised groups which appear to be most attracted to it.

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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