#Fighting the Narrative: Understand to Effectively Engage in the War of Ideas

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

In 2004, I served in the Baghdad-based Coalition headquarters responsible for the conduct of the campaign in Iraq. We were, to put it bluntly, bloody busy dealing with the day-to-day issues that impacted the information aspects of that campaign. On arriving in Iraq, I immediately immersed myself in the complex information environment that entwined tactical actions by Coalition soldiers with strategic reactions on the other side of the globe.

My job, with the support of a small Coalition team, was to observe, analyze, and contribute to the action and reaction battle between increasingly connected and tech-savvy adversary groups and the mass and reach of the US-led Coalition. On a late October 2004 morning, though, something in my own understanding of that environment changed. That changed understanding has defined my ongoing role in the planning and execution of activities in the information environment during the past 10 years.

A short video appeared on the World Wide Web and it, like hundreds of others since, needed to be reviewed in order to gain the latest insights into our adversary’s narrative. In hastily shot, standard definition with terrible audio, five cowed, expressionless Iraqi men sat in front of the black and gold banner of the self-proclaimed ‘Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers.’ The five Iraqis were policemen, a Lieutenant and four of his men, dragged from their Anbar Province station at gunpoint in the middle of the night.

They became immortalized through the brutality of their public execution in the streets of what we later learned was Ramadi. It is a scene that has repeated itself hundreds of times across the Middle East and the Levant since that video was released. The stoicism of the Iraqi Police Lieutenant as he and his men were led to their death is something that has stayed with me since my first watching. To my great shame, I have forgotten his name.

That the public execution of five men for doing their job was not the noteworthy event in this video says something of the complexity of the global conflict we have been immersed in for the past decade. For weeks the Iraqi rumor network indicated the Al Qaeda franchise had shifted to the ‘near enemy’ and were gunning for those Iraqis they considered apostates for working with the Iraqi Interim Government. This short clip provided the first clear evidence that the near battle was underway.

It was the harbinger to a reign of terror across the Middle East coordinated by Jordanian-born Abu Mosáb Al Zarqawi. This video clip, like the hundreds that followed, was designed to instill fear in an Iraqi population who had aspirations for a peaceful future. It was also a warning to the Coalition and the world of what was to come. Most importantly, however, the clip highlighted the value in thinking critically about what our adversary was releasing to better understand why these barbaric acts were taking place.

Several masked men wearing black leather jackets executed the Iraqi Lieutenant and his men in a public street. In the background, citizens of Ramadi can be seen watching the terrible event unfold. After the Police Officers crumpled into the street, blood flowing freely from the wounds to their bodies, several masked men took turns walking forward and firing yet more pistol and assault rifle rounds into their prostrate bodies. The shooting continued even as another man left a note detailing the warped reasoning for the murders. For several hours we re-watched the video and discussed the finer details in an attempt to glean meaning from the bizarre ritual that played out after it was clear the Iraqi Policemen were dead. Perhaps it was because we had become so desensitized to the brutal violence Zarqawi’s followers could impose on the population, that it took some time before the events depicted in the video made sense.

The numerous shooters, through the act of taking life, were now ‘blooded’. They were cognitively coerced to complete acceptance of the Al Qaeda cause because there was simply no going back from the murders they had just committed. As much as the execution was exploited as a warning to Iraqis and the world, the event itself was designed to be the contract sealer for those young, impressionable men who had heard Zarqawi’s call to arms. The act was a vehicle through which total compliance was assured and it marked a continuation of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ concept in which acts are planned and undertaken for their specific cognitive effect on target audiences.

In a 2005 paper that sought to understand an individual’s path to terrorism, Georgetown University psychologist Fathali Moghaddam used the metaphor of a staircase to describe the carefully constructed approach by leading terrorist organizations to recruit, subvert, and then exploit impressionable young people into the cause. In Moghaddam’s Stairway to Terrorism, a recruit or an aspirant is coached through the levels, with each floor offering a choice to step off the ultimate path or continue on to fully embracing the ideology and actions of the sponsor group.

For the past few months, the world has watched in horror as thousands of people of all faiths, most of them Muslims, have been brutally and publicly murdered by throngs of young men called to another black banner in the Middle East.

The murder in Ramadi’s streets solidified the shooters’ position on the fourth floor of Moghaddam’s staircase and marked the transition to the fifth and final floor. In the Stairway model, there is no simple way to turn back once a person leaves the fourth floor. By participating, these young men, and many others like them, were able to wage a brutal and seemingly limitless, murderous onslaught on the population of Iraq in the following months. They were no longer just welcoming receivers of Zarqawi’s message, they fully embraced it.

For the past few months, the world has watched in horror as thousands of people of all faiths, most of them Muslims, have been brutally and publicly murdered by throngs of young men called to another black banner in the Middle East. These acts have also occurred for a cold and calculated reason. There simply is no return once an atrocity of this nature has been committed. Recent reports of sodomization of new ISIL recruits achieves an equally brutal coercion to the cause. ISIL now ‘owns’ the heart, body, and soul of these men.

The final moments in the lives of that Iraqi Police Lieutenant and his fellow officers are a reminder that we should start our search for meaning based on what is presented to us. The seemingly endless stream of propaganda coming from ISIL, in reality Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers V2.0, coupled with our own understanding of communication and psychological theory, allows for a range of simple and immediate actions, reactions, and counteractions that could prevent more young Australians from ascending Moghaddam’s staircase.

While the Georgetown University psychologist’s theory has been criticized by some as being too simplistic, in a rapidly expanding conflict that seems to be drawing in more foreign fighters each week, it does offer a way to prioritize limited or developing resources. Most importantly it allows those seeking to engage in the information environment to clearly break the problem set into defined target audiences and treat them as distinct entities. It is those heading to the third floor within the staircase metaphor, the moral engagement phase, who should be the primary focus of this work. For those who have already ascended past the fourth floor, there simply is no immediate option to turn back, and efforts to turn them from their chosen path will require much longer term and intensive actions.

ISIL has fully embraced the global communication skills of its new members to propagate its message across a variety of platforms in high definition and with cinema-quality audio. Most importantly, however, this effort is not solely focused on dissemination of propaganda material, but on active engagement on a global scale to sustain the flow of recruits. This decentralized and distributed approach, the exact opposite of the tight control we often expect of those in the terror business, allows those seeking to understand and then engage in the ‘war of ideas’ to build a relatively clear picture of the narrative arcs, communication approach, tone, and style being employed across a complex information environment. The sheer mass of content and free reign of the ISIL members themselves also limits the impact of deliberate misinformation as carefully constructed activities are lost to the noise.

While the central narrative of ISIL remains firmly grounded in promoting that the West is seeking to destroy Islam through a continuation of the Crusades, the regular operational updates provide insight into specific language usage and, through analysis, identification of those areas that truly concern the ISIL leadership. Central to understanding this effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere is a review of events and actions against ISIL’s campaign intent. Volume 1 of the ISIL magazine Dabiq lays out this campaign approach over several pages, including acknowledgement that Zarqawi’s methods and techniques are the appropriate way to shock the global Ummah into action. The close links between Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers and ISIL were graphically displayed to the world in the death of US journalist James Foley, which in many ways recreated the brutal murders of Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, Kenneth Bigley, and Margaret Hassan.

Reacting to these adversary operational announcements does little beyond let us feel good that we contested the message. It is the Information Operations variation of ‘whack-a-mole.’ Playing the counter-propaganda game in this era of instantaneous global reach is for the most part pointless unless it is nested within a wider and comprehensive anti-propaganda concept designed to partially inoculate our own populations and persuade those who are yet to enter the Moghaddam’s Staircase. Reacting provides effects that are bound by space, locality, and time. We need to become proactive with an integrated, coordinated, and synchronized approach that is inherently interagency and supported across the Australian and like-minded communities in its implementation. Creating this ‘dominant narrative,’ in military lexicon, is one way that young men or women, bombarded with mixed messages, can make better informed decisions for their future.

This communication strategy needs to be less about reacting to media cycles with catchy grabs and more focused on achieving the desired effect of deterring young Australians from seeing the alternative offered by ISIL as their best option for the future. In my experience, sustained subtlety is far more effective. We should forget the Australian Khalid Sharrouf’s of this world as there simply is no redeeming them in the short term. By highlighting their continued actions, we have created perverse, aspirational role models. Instead, we should ensure that what we are saying, printing, broadcasting, or even inferring speaks to those who as yet have not taken the next step.

We can start, very simply, by not adopting the language, tone, and style of those who seek to draw more young fighters to their murderous cause. In the past few months, the terrorist group at the heart of this problem has changed its name at least three times and each time we have dutifully adopted the new term. By doing so we are simply confirming, in the minds of those on the second and third floor of Moghaddam’s staircase, the legitimacy of the organization they are moving towards. In no definition of ‘state’ does the current regime qualify for the title, yet we dutifully call them the ‘Islamic State,’ because that is what they have decided to call themselves. By continuing to do so we give an implied authority to the cause, its actions, and the leadership.

Why give legitimacy and credibility to an organization that has been universally condemned?

The recent announcement proclaiming the establishment of a Caliphate falls into the same category. By repeating the term, we give it credibility. Conversely, it is also important we ensure the threat posed by the group remains at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The organization’s initial self-proclaimed name was Dawla Islamiya fee el-Iraq wa el-Shaam which translates to The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It was a name that foretold the group’s ambitions because the Levant includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. We should continue to refer to them as ISIL, but never spell it out in full as it reinforces the claim of statehood. Why give legitimacy and credibility to an organization that has been universally condemned?

By intentionally shifting towards The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the implicit threat to other nations in the region is reduced. Importantly and despite the obvious linkages to Zarqawi’s organization, ISIL has not taken on the Al Qaeda moniker. Zarqawi’s reign of terror was delegitimized when Al Qaeda-central denounced his organization’s targeting of civilians. By creating a new, stand-alone ‘brand,’ Al-Baghdadi has ensured there is no higher authority that can similarly criticize his actions.

The young men and women who have joined this cause refer to themselves as Jihadists; a name they view as a badge of honor. It is repeatedly drilled into them through social media, online videos, and in some cases, through sermons. The term Jihadist applies a degree of elitism and righteousness to their cause. Yet we dutifully call men like Sharraouf Jihadists, a term that is in only found in modern Islam and does not fit within the history ISIL leaderships draws from for inspiration. Continuing to use this terminology by reinforcing it daily through the media and other activities gives Sharrouf and others like him exactly the credibility and status they sought by joining the terrorist group and justifies the murderous acts they are alleged to have participated in. More importantly, those lower down the staircase receive an inspirational model through our own use of the terminology.

Instead we should be turning language back against the organization. One way is to adopt a term from the Quran, Mufsidun, which translated means ‘condemned evildoer.’ In fact, in the Quran it is difficult to find a more pointed word to describe who these people really are. If that is too unwieldy, we should at least use Irhabi (terrorist) rather than the term they choose to call themselves which they have appropriated as a term of honor. Embracing these terms as the world embraced the completely unfamiliar ‘mujahedeen’ in the 1980s is critical to reshaping the narrative. Unfortunately, as we have learned over the past 13 years, attempting to use the English version in the hope it will be translated is unlikely to be effective. An option could be to describe prominent ISIL individuals as Mufsidun and the group as ISIL Irhabi linking the negative terrorist description with the organization.

Similarly, our over-simplified understanding has led many to make comparisons between the brutality currently on display in Iraq and Syria and that of the Middle Ages. Decapitations, torture, crucifixions, and mass slaughter of personnel who have surrendered all fit our understanding of this time in global history. But ISIL wants us to speak of the Middle East returning to the Middle Ages as it was the absolute high point of the Islamic faith. This also supports their narrative of the ongoing Crusade against Islam. There are large numbers of Islamist propaganda clips on social media that seek to reinforce this link – perhaps the most instructive through its words, images, and sound effects is titled War of the Cross. By continuing to make comparisons with the Middle Ages, we risk slipping into this well-thought narrative from which young people are inspired to climb higher.

We collectively need to move beyond acting in response to this shock and ensure that how we choose to engage in the information environment degrades rather than reinforces support for ISIL.

The language we deliberately choose to adopt is only one part of this problem set, but it is the simplest element to implement as interagency and Coalition coordination continues. Most importantly however, crafting this strategic narrative on our own terms allows all to align efforts and continually reinforce our perspective on what is occurring rather than continuing to contribute to ISIL’s information fight. The shock of James Foley’s execution, captured in high definition, led many to consider exactly how their actions in this interconnected world may be contributing to ISIL’s legitimacy. We collectively need to move beyond acting in response to this shock and ensure that how we choose to engage in the information environment degrades rather than reinforces support for ISIL.

Unfortunately, none of this is new. These concepts were developed in 2001 in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. I was first exposed the word Mufsidun in Iraq during 2004 as we reacted to Zaraqawi’s brutal modus operandi. A book was published in 2007, coinciding with the upsurge of terrorist violence in Afghanistan, extolling the virtues of Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War. During the past ten years, sporadic efforts to create a narrative through specific terminology have occurred at the tactical level but no one has been able to pull together the cohesive anti-propaganda approach to baseline all activities in the information environment. Perhaps the global threat ISIL seeks to be will be the catalyst for some real critical thinking about the words we use and the unintended consequences of what we say? The recent release of Dabiq Vol 3 and its call to Hijrah is further evidence that we need to sensitively and deliberately engage within the information environment, particularly on social media, to provide an alternative narrative to ISIL’s potential recruits. There have simply been too many Iraqi Police Lieutenants during the past ten years for us to indirectly support ISIL in continuing to orchestrate barbaric acts designed to coerce the full cooperation of young men and women.

Jason Logue is an Australian Army Information Operations specialist. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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