While U.S. fighter jets wage a battle against the Islamic State from the air, the terror network with aims of establishing its own caliphate is waging a battle for followers -- over the airwaves.
America’s point person for countering Islamic State, or ISIS, propaganda said this week that the militant group now has seven TV stations in two major cities in Iraq and Syria. This, on top of the robust social media operation ISIS already is well known for, is posing a steep challenge for western officials trying to chop off the tentacles of the group’s media ops monster.
Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), explained how ISIS, also known as ISIL, is using its outreach to bolster recruitment.
“ISIL controls five TV stations in Mosul and two in Raqqah [Syria],” he said at an event earlier this week. As ISIS militants ravage towns, execute soldiers and behead journalists, Fernandez said that from the Islamic State’s perspective, still, “media is more than half the battle.”
The office Fernandez runs was established in September 2010 to “coordinate government-wide public communications activities directed at audiences abroad … against terrorist organizations,” according to the State Department.
In short, its job in large part is to counter propaganda from ISIS and other groups – an increasingly challenging task.
“There is a Mount Everest of radicalization material and only a foothill of counter-propaganda,” Fernandez said.
In July 2014, ISIS launched a new TV channel called “Dabiq,” stationed in the Iraqi city of Mosul, according to Baghdad-based Almasalah.com. It also was reported that ISIS had started an Arabic and English electronic newspaper under the same name. ISIS based the name “Dabiq” on a decisive victory by the Ottoman Empire over the Mamluk Sultanate, based in Cairo, during the Ottoman-Mamluk War in the early 16th Century. The Ottoman Empire's victory in this battle gave it control of the entire Syria region.
On Twitter, the hashtag #dabiq has proved to be a rallying cry and tool of recruitment for ISIS. The group also has named its official magazine “Dabiq,” another vehicle to push its extremist views and report on the latest fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Given this growth, U.S. officials say ISIS has made media a major part of its campaign plan, and the United States must aggressively counter the message.
“[ISIS has] very slick social media and very slick propaganda,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday in Washington, D.C. But he warned that the danger from ISIS’ media operation is not limited to Iraq and Syria. He said he’s also concerned about U.S.-based “lone wolf acts of terror inspired by the social media of [ISIS] groups … We have seen cases where somebody arrested, prosecuted was motivated by some literature put out by a terrorist organization.”
Fernandez, who spoke at George Washington University, lamented that “it is difficult to match” ISIS propaganda like its recent 55-minute “Flames of War” video. “It really draws on young people’s emotions,” and there are many more “ISIS fan boys” and “knights of the upload” who help spread their ideology, he said.
Fernandez’ unit has tried to battle the message with its own videos. The team produced the scathing “Welcome to the Islamic State land” and released it in August 2014 as a way to “contest the space” of jihadist propaganda.
“Run – do not walk to ISIS Land,” the video implores viewers. The video, which includes graphic images, sarcastically tells recruits they can learn “useful new skills” -- like “blowing up mosques” and “crucifying and executing Muslims.”
It has generated close to 800,000 views on YouTube worldwide, and is part of the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign.
Explaining the apparent appeal of the terror group, Fernandez described it as “murder for a good cause, a cool flag, a slogan.” The Syrian rebellion against President Bashir al-Assad provided that “good cause” initially, according to Fernandez.
He said the “thrill of adventurism [in joining ISIS] looks like the [video game] Call of Duty.” The personal testimony seen in well-produced ISIS propaganda films also serves to boost recruitment, he said. “The lack of personal testimony is a challenge to the West,” said Fernandez, who wants to hear more from those that have fought for ISIS but became disenchanted.
One woman did come forward and spoke with CNN recently to tell her story about meeting a Tunisian man on social media pages who convinced her to join an all-female ISIS brigade. It is this type of account that Fernandez would like to highlight. His targeted audience is the “fence sitters,” those that have not already joined ISIS.
The “Think Again Turn Away” Facebook page lists the most engaged readers as being from Baghdad in the 25-35-year-old demographic. “Our mission is to expose the facts about terrorists and their propaganda,” the page says. While noting the English page has only 8,000 “likes,” Fernandez said there are over 70,000 on its Arabic Facebook page.
To counter the violent ideology of Islamist radicals, Fernandez says he has 15 full-time professionals messaging in Arabic, four in Urdu, two in Somali and two in English.
Fernandez summed up the strategy in 2013: “What we try to do is not to affirm the positive about ourselves but to emphasize the negative about the adversary. It is about offense and not defense. The third goal is to try to unnerve the adversary, to get in their heads.”