Winning the Battle of Legitimacy

This post is a continuation of a series on strategic communications, narrative, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant titled, Fighting the Narrative.

In mid-June 2014, fighters from the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) overran the Sunni town of Tikrit in Sal-a-Din province. Poignantly, this town sits next to an airfield that was once the site of the Iraqi Air Force Academy during Sadam Hussein’s regime. This base was also known as Camp Speicher and was my home for 15 months during 2006–2007. During that period of time, I served as planner on the Multi-National Division North’s (MND-N) staff. Under our watch, the al Qa’ida-led Sunni insurgency in Northern Iraq both hit its peak and later imploded following its rejection by Sunni tribes during the “Awakening.”

Many of the visible trappings from al Qa’ida’s success in Northern Iraq in 2006 are similar to ISIL’s recent propaganda blitz — beheading videos, media products intended to garner support and honor their martyrs, and a global fan base willing to further promote extremist messages. Much of what worked for us in MND-N is equally applicable in today’s fight against ISIL. Although the stakes are not lower, the resources dedicated to this current effort pale in comparison to that committed by the U.S and its allies during the “Surge.”

A Turkish Kurd on the Turkey-Syria border watches smoke over Kobani Syria Oct 12 2014 (AP)

During our deployment we learned that you can’t kill your way out of this type of problem. You only beat violent extremist groups such as AQ or ISIL by winning the battle of legitimacy. This has to be done through a combination of counter terrorism operations, programs to counter violent extremism, strategic communication, and diplomacy. Put another way, you have to drain the swamp, kill the snakes, and explain to audiences, both at home and abroad, why these actions are just and necessary.

Draining the Swamp

In 2006 when we arrived at Camp Speicher, Sunni tribes had aligned themselves with AQ for protection against the Government of Iraq’s (GoI) Shia-dominated security forces. This distinction is important because the tribes themselves had no great love for AQ. Rather it was a marriage of convenience.

This problem was most extreme in Diyala province, where the Euphrates River bisects this rural province North of Baghdad. Possessing an eclectic mix of over 20 Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish tribes whose interests and allegiances span sectarian lines, this became MND-N’s operational center of gravity against AQ.

Soldiers take cover behind a Stryker vehicle during a firefight  (Wikimedia)

Diyala’s provincial seat, Baqubah, was the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State in Iraq’s emirate. Alternately, both the Iraq Army Division stationed in Diyala and its Provincial police force were Shia dominated. The harsh treatment of Sunnis at the hands of the province’s security forces and allegations of extrajudicial killings further stoked violence between Sunni and Shia. This tension only served to further drive Sunnis closer to AQ.

The ensuing cycle of violence, and the channeling of accelerants into Baghdad, contributed to the increasingly dire security situation we found when the 25th ID deployed to Iraq in August 2006 to serve as the MND-N Headquarters. That Fall and Winter were tough. They were tough on our combat units who were stretched thin across an area about the size of Pennsylvania. They were tough on our convoys that ran the gauntlet of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) laden Main Supply Routes (MSRs). They were tough on many local Iraqis who only want to live for another day and provide for their families.

Our campaign to break this cycle of violence focused on a few lines of effort; increasing the legitimacy of local security forces, promoting tribal reconciliation, encouraging GoI outreach to the provinces, and finally, destroying AQ. One of the key resources that MND-N needed to accomplish our plan’s goals were more combat troops. GEN David Petraeus’ Surge guaranteed those. Although it would take some months for the additional forces to reach Northern Iraq, we started operations immediately that would ultimately contribute to AQ’s defeat in Diyala.

Of our campaign’s efforts, legitimizing local security forces was arguably the toughest. To build trust in the ISF across sectarian lines, we needed to help reshape the force to ensure that its composition was reflective of the communities it served. This involved getting the GoI to enable local tribal leaders to “vet” recruits for the ISF – both Army and Police. Also included in this task were Sunni tribal security forces, empowered and paid to secure their communities from AQ. The GoI ministries responsible for the Army and Police were very reluctant to delegate control over their hiring practices to local tribes. They were equally skeptical over the notion of arming Sunni tribes to secure their villages. Both of these proposals were viewed as a loss of control for the central government. Never mind that the country was embroiled in a civil war marked by mass killings across sectarian lines.

Gaining GoI support for both proposals took place over several months and included weekly engagements from senior leaders from MND-N and Multi-National Corps – Iraq (MNC — I). These engagements included local leaders – both Sunni and Shia – as well as members of Iraq’s Parliament and key Ministries. Although some of the meetings were held in Baghdad’s Green Zone, every effort was made to promote meetings in Diyala. Finally, after months of negotiations, an agreement was reached to enable local Shia and Sunni Tribal leaders to vet Police and Army recruits. The GoI also consented to the proposed “Sons of Iraq” program. The implementation of both schemes helped set the conditions for the unraveling of AQ’s grip on Northern Iraq.

Concurrently, with the efforts to legitimize local security forces, concerted outreach was made to key tribal leaders to promote reconciliation among Diyala’s tribes. Two complimentary efforts that supported this process were MND-N-hosted gatherings of tribal leaders known as “Sheik Fests” and the development of the Diyala’s “Top 10” List. This later effort was simply a list of the top 10 infrastructure or governance issues within the province. This list was reviewed and prioritized during the “Sheik Fests”. MND-N then partnered with local government at the Qada level, local security forces, and local tribal leaders to ensure the projects were completed. Every effort was made to ensure that work on these projects was Iraqi-led and done with the consent of local stakeholders. The combination of pledges made between tribal leaders to stop the violence and progress made against the “Top 10” list began to provide credible local alternatives to AQ.

Killing the Snakes

Although many of the efforts to drain the swamp were successful, they did not address the problem posed by hard-core members of AQ. Although some Sunnis who had aligned with AQ out of necessity crossed sides once conditions started improving, others were reluctant to make the leap while AQ retained some grip over their areas. Only deliberate combat operations could dislodge AQ from areas it controlled.

Samuel William Reynolds after James Northcote Lion and Snake, 1799, mixed method engraving (New Haven Yale Center for British Art Paul Mellon Collection)

Operation ARROWHEAD RIPPER, conducted over several months in 2007, drove the Islamic State in Iraq from Baquba, the self-declared capital of their caliphate. This operation entailed a deliberate cordon of the city. To support efforts to seal AQ within the city and mitigate civilian casualties, U.S. and ISF messaging efforts informed Diyala’s residents that a major operation was going to be conducted and encouraged them to leave. These messages also assured safe passage and places to stay and ensured that basic needs would be met. While we understood that some members of AQ would leave when they heard our messages, we knew others would stay. Diyala was the capital of ISI’s emirate. To simply abandon it would be a crippling blow to the group’s legitimacy and undermine their propaganda.

The fight to clear Baquba lasted almost five months, from March to July 2007, and involved over 7,000 U.S. troops plus partner ISF units, Sons of Iraq local security forces, and local police. Many areas of the city were heavily fortified by AQ and the streets were full of IEDs. This led to brutal house-to-house fighting and required very deliberate clearing of IEDs. It was the courage and skill of the soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division, 3/2 Striker, 4/2 Stryker, 3/82 Airborne, 3/1 CAV, the Iraqi Army’s 5th Division, and many other supporting units who broke ISI’s back in Diyala.

Once U.S. and Iraqi forces began to clear the city of AQ, Sunni tribes and nationalist groups that had previously rejected calls to split with AQ began to jump ship. Those that had once helped AQ were now providing information to U.S. and Iraqi forces on the location of IEDs and volunteered to join the fight against their former comrades. One key element of our plan was the rapid return of cleared areas to local control. Once U.S. and Iraqi forces cleared a neighborhood, local leaders were identified and efforts were made to help repair damage from the fighting and transition responsibility for security to local police and legitimate local security forces like the Sons of Iraq. This model stood in stark contrast to that employed by AQ in areas they controlled. When AQ or ISI gained control of an area, they imposed their extreme version of Sharia on the local people, issued Fatwas allowing their fighters to claim local brides, and held their own courts, dispensing their brutal version of justice.

By July 2007, Baqubah and the rest of Diyala was largely quiet with the majority of violence being related to criminal, not extremist, activity. On July 27, 2007, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki travelled to Baqubah to meet with local leaders including Diyala’s governor. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s visit to Diyala was his first trip to a Province since taking office in 2006, not only a very visible example of GoI’s outreach, but his visit also further signified the ISI’s defeat in their own “capital.”

Telling the Story

Messaging played a very central role in our efforts to defeat AQ in Northern Iraq. These efforts ranged from Public Affairs activities to inform domestic audiences of our operations, to Military Information Support Operations (MISO) to influence Iraqi audiences, interagency efforts to counter AQ’s propaganda, Coalition efforts to develop the ISF’s messaging capabilities. One critical element of all of our messaging efforts was the truth. To win the battle of the narrative against AQ, we had to not only tell a better story, we had to prove it.

US and Iraq flag and the US Forces-Iraq colors are carried during ceremonies marking the end of US military mission in Baghdad, Iraq  (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Oftentimes, AQ had it easier in this regard. They only had to issue a challenge based on a real or perceived injustice with messages like “the ISF are Shia death squads.” AQ didn’t have to bear the burden of proving that they could govern effectively or prove that their vision for Iraq’s future was better. Alternately, we had to ensure that our words and our actions were consistent and could be clearly understood by a wide range of audiences. We also had to make sure that we didn’t show favoritism for one sect or group over another. Simply, in all we did, we had to be professional, transparent, and accountable against a set of adversaries who followed a completely different set of rules.

Efforts by our Public Affairs officers, Combat Camera teams, and embedded U.S. journalists helped tell our story to the American people. Although we were fighting a smash-mouth insurgency in Iraq, it was important that the people back home understood not only why we were fighting, but how we were fighting. They needed to know that our troops were well-led, well-equipped, well-trained, and that our operations were conducted in accordance with our nation’s laws and values.

MISO’s main focus was driving a wedge between AQ and the Sunni tribes. Key to this was the amplification of AQ’s extreme beliefs and actions. From beheadings, to bombing mosques, to attacks against fellow Sunnis, AQ provided ample visible proof to support our claims. One successful MISO series focused on the “Most Wanted” members of AQ in Northern Iraq. This series used print, radio, and TV to show who these AQ “Taqfiris” were, provide information on their crimes, and the complimentary “Justice Served” series alerted audiences when one of the Most Wanted was killed or detained.

An important influence tool in the MND-N toolkit were our Tactical Psyop Teams (TPTs). These small teams directly supported combat troops on the ground interacting directly with the Iraqi people and supporting troops in contact. Though few in number and never enough to go around, the TPTs were sought after by our tactical units. When they went into a fight, they wanted one of these teams, along with their loudspeaker system, in direct support. These teams could not only broadcast messages instructing people to stay-out – and safe from any fighting – but they could also tell locals why U.S. and Iraqi forces were conducting an operation, helping to prevent an angry mob from forming.

Applying These Lessons to ISIL

In many ways, today’s fight against ISIL is another chapter in the fight that we had against AQ and ISI in 2006–2007. ISIL’s success today is based on a combination of factors that includes ineffective governance, success on the ground, and sophisticated propaganda. Although it does not seem likely that U.S. and its allies will commit ground combat troops to fight ISIL in Iraq, there are things that can be done to help Iraqis defeat ISIL.

Not all are inherently military functions and require support from across government departments and agencies. These include:

  • Tell a better story than ISIL. The sophistication of their message, their ability to amplify their successes, and their general freedom to communicate needs to be challenged. Many of the following recommendations directly support this goal.
  • Working with the GoI and local leaders to improve the responsiveness and transparency of local, Provincial, and national government. Sunni tribes moved toward AQ / ISI in 2006 because GoI’s sectarian policies favored. The same type of improvements that helped turn the tide in 2006–2007 will turn the tide today.
  • Increasing the capacity of legitimate local Iraqi security forces to safeguard their communities and support the rule of law. Targeting of Sunnis by Shi’a dominated security forces in 2006–2007 legitimized AQ / ISI’s presence in Sunni communities as “protectors.” These same Sunni tribes are allowing ISIL foothold in their communities. The “Sons of Iraq” program could be reinstituted to usurp ISIL’s current claim to protect these communities.
  • Increasing the professionalism and acumen of the Iraqi Army. As we learned during the surge, the ISF needs to be professional, transparent, and reflective of the communities they serve. In many ways, the current composition of the ISF mirrors that of the overly sectarian pre-Surge ISF.
  • Enhance the capacity of Iraqi leaders, both inside and outside of government, to message effectively with the population to increase transparency. We learned in 2006–2007 that leaders who maintain an open dialogue with their constituents not only provide more responsive governess, but offer a type of positive feedback that AQ / ISI wasn’t capable of providing.
  • Continue to conduct airstrikes in support of ISF to help them beat back ISIL on the ground. Our operations that targeted AQ / ISI leadership during the surge bought operational space for the GoI and ISF to get on their feet and build momentum. Additionally, any opportunity to illustrate your adversaries vulnerabilities and losses to contested populations help support our story at the expense of our enemies.
  • Continue to expose ISIL’s extreme agenda and actions in public communications. ISIL, like AQ / ISI before them, claim a religious legitimacy not supported by their terrible actions. Using ISIL’s own actions against them will help further catalyze movement away from this group by most supporters.

Although these recommendations do not address other ISIL-related issues, like the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, they do provide a framework for disrupting and defeating ISIL over the long-term. Like MND-N’s fight against AQ during the Surge almost eight years ago, the fight against ISIL will neither be quick nor easy.

Dean Case is a United States Army Information Operations Officer. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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