How to Beat Back ISIS Propaganda

The war of information has no silver bullets.

Deep into the second decade of Western efforts to counter the propaganda of groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS, results are mixed. Many would consider even this cautious assessment to be optimistic. Almost a decade ago, then U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates lamented how “one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society.” Those frustrations have arguably intensified. As Alberto Fernandez, former director of the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), candidly asserted in his report for Brookings: “Efforts to blunt ISIS propaganda have been tentative and ineffective, despite major efforts by countries like Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Kingdom, and even al-Qaida.”

Many factors contributed to this situation, but perhaps the most significant are intellectual. For instance, the belief that ISIS’s (and before them Al Qaeda’s) propaganda is unheralded—typically highlighting slickly produced communiqués and use of social media as evidence—implies that history offers little for improving contemporary efforts. The long history of messaging during conflict suggests otherwise. As Professor John Arquilla suggests: “information strategy did not spring forth fully formed . . . It has formed and reformed, shifted shape and emphasis, for millennia. We ignore this long experience at our peril.” Indeed, the use of visual and aural (e.g., spoken-word) communication by combatants to boost the fighting spirit of comrades, win over neutrals and intimidate enemies predates even the ancients.


Get Some Perspective

Whether one calls it “propaganda,” “information operations” or “strategic communications,” the evolution of messaging during conflict has been driven by three persistent factors: (1) developments in communication technologies, (2) advancements in military technologies and strategies, and (3) changing relationships between the political elite and the populace. Consequently, trends and themes emerge and reemerge throughout this history as actors grapple with how best to harness the latest communication, whether Gutenberg’s printing press or Twitter, and military technologies (from gunpowder to the IED) in order to shape how the conflict is perceived by friends and foes. This history offers important lessons for the ongoing battle against extremist propaganda—starting with a morale boost.


The West Has a History of Success in the “Information Theater” of Modern War

From the Great Wars to the Cold War and Gulf War (1990–91), Western nations have been adept at using strategic communications to great effect during war. When the slow starts and glitches of these successful campaigns are considered, there is even more reason to take heart from this history. The organizational problems that have often dogged anti-ISIS efforts are not historical anomalies.

For example, in the first two years of World War II, four successive heads of Britain’s Ministry of Information resigned or were dismissed. Sure, the seemingly “slick” Nazi and then Soviet propaganda machines enjoyed early successes—thanks partly to the tendency of Western nations to dismantle their strategic communications capabilities after the war—but those adversaries were soon eclipsed once awe was replaced by clearheaded strategizing. Of course, politico-military successes were vital for creating opportunities to shift momentum in the “information theater.” Likewise, as ISIS continues to rapidly lose territory, anti-ISIS propaganda efforts will receive new opportunities. History also offers pertinent lessons for how to best leverage them.


Expose Your Adversary’s “Say-Do” Gap and Minimize Your Own by Synchronizing Words and Actions