By: Iona M Allan
Looking at any western media outlet over the last few weeks and you could be forgiven for making the assumption that the ‘war’ against ISIS may be approaching an emphatic ending. The Iraqi-led offensive on Mosul and the reclaiming of the so called ‘jewel’ of the Islamic state crown is being reported with an almost alarming degree of certainty. The territorial gains made by the Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and a hodgepodge of Shia militias may be beginning to tilt the momentum decisively in favour of this fragmented coalition. Victory in the military sphere may be forth coming; however there is a war waging in the virtual realm in which victory is far from assured.
The sophistication of ISIS’ propaganda and its global communication strategy is difficult to overstate. ISIS’ distinctive blend of violent aesthetics and fatalistic vision of jihad is directly taking on western messaging strategy and, for the most part, is winning. What explains this slick propaganda operation and frighteningly coherent narrative constructed by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ranks of what many consider as medievally inspired terrorists? Why is the west lagging behind ISIS on this front? And more to the point, why is the Achilles heel of western strategy not paid more attention?
The west on a virtual back foot
There has been a predictable tendency amongst western policymakers and pundits to draw a comparison between the current events unfolding in Syria and the folly of the U.S. – British involvement in Iraq a decade earlier. The Washington Post, for example, was quick to cite the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an explanation for the terror unfolding in Syria in 2014. Asking whether any lessons have been learnt has become a bit of an over-asked and threadbare question recently. Trying to identify the biggest mistakes made by the Bush-Blair partnership is an equally arduous task. Having said that, their strategic communications strategy does deserve a special mention. Even to this day, western leaders have been unable to adequately explain their eight-year presence in Iraq, let alone convince people at the time that they were acting under the legitimising auspices of democracy. Surely then, when terror began to escalate in Syria in early 2014 the Obama and Cameron governments would have stopped to consider the deadly consequences of adopting such an ad hoc and incoherent communication strategy?
The most serious problem affecting western communication strategy today is its imprecision. Since the Paris terror attacks in 2015 French President Hollande has pledged an all-out war against ISIS and has framed the conflict in terms of a fundamental ‘clash of civilisations’. On the other hand, President Obama has openly called upon the Arab and Western world to reject this ‘clash of civilisations’ notion and has insisted, even amidst continuing air strikes, that there can be no military solution to defeating radical extremism in Syria. How then, do we interpret western messaging? Is it a general condemnation of violent jihadism? Perhaps. Or is it about making Syria and Iraq a safe place for the displaced to come home to again? Or rather, should we understand it as constructing an alternative reality to violent extremism in the Middle East? Exactly what message western governments are hoping to project in the context of Syria is unclear.
Often western messaging presents radically different frameworks of what can and cannot be considered as legitimate actions. For instance, if one accepts the simple narrative of defeating jihadist terrorism, then there would be an argument for supporting Bashar al- Assad’s regime and overlooking its abhorrent brutality. On the other hand, if one understands Western strategy in Syria as restoring security and stability to the region, then any action supporting a repressive autocrat like Assad becomes obviously reprehensible. Within this framework, NATO’s wavering attempts to gain Russian support in Syria and compartmentalise the inflammatory words and actions of President Putin in recent months severely undermines the fidelity of its message. In essence, western communication strategy in Syria suffers from this body of interlocking discourses and in doing so makes it so much harder for its ‘actions to mirror words’ as President Obama once proclaimed.
Explaining the unlikely jihadist success
The success of ISIS’ communication strategy on other the hand, rests on its attractively simple and uncompromising ideology. Unlike its westerns counterparts, ISIS propagandists are better story-tellers and have been able to logically frame every action they have taken. More than this, they seem to have grasped that successful political marketing is not always based on rational truth but rather what Stephen Colbert has termed emotional ‘truthiness.’ In other words, a message which appeals on both the individual and emotional level, motivating new recruits into defending the future of Islam against the western crusaders. The cover of the second issue of Dabiq, (ISIS’ main online propaganda magazine) reflects the typically apocalyptic tone of their narrative. The image of the great flood set to destroy Salafist civilisation is another savage form of political marketing and taps into their religiously rooted understanding of the world.
Weaving this primordial vision of Islam into the contemporary media landscape is perhaps the most impressive feat of the ISIS messaging strategy to date. The ISIS propaganda machine has exploited the contours of this new communications space and has turned social media into a perpetually reinforcing narrative tool in ways that western leaders have hitherto failed to do.
The near continuous stream of digital reporting has allowed ISIS’ propagandists blur the distinction between what is happening in the virtual dimension and the realities of the physical one. Crucially, this has enabled jihadist ideology to persist in spite of many humiliating military blows and territorial losses. Al-Baghdadi and his band of jihadist spin doctors have clearly understood that ISIS’s strength does not lie within the military dimension. Instead, they have constructed a set of simple yet alarmingly resilient messaging channels and so far have outsmarted the Western coalition at almost every rhetorical level.
What the ongoing experience in Syria seems to be telling us is nothing new. It was over a decade ago that Colin Powell famously said that wars cannot be won unless they can be explained. Recent academic research into strategic communications from scholars such as David Betz and Neville Bolt similarly stress the importance of being able to logically frame your actions. Yet, western communications strategy towards Syria seems to be on course for spectacular self-sabotage. ISIS will not be defeated militarily. Let’s hope it won’t take another Iraq for western leaders to finally realise this.
Iona Allan is the graduate editor and representative at Strife Blog. She is currently studying for a Masters in Conflict, Security and Development in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. She holds a Bachelors degree in History and Italian from the University of Manchester and has spent a year studying Development and International Relations at the University of Bologna. Her main research interests include strategic communications, public diplomacy and foreign power intervention in the Middle East. You can follow her on @IonaMAllan
 Ishaan Tharoor, ‘Isis’s crisis: Don’t forget the 2003 U.S invasion’, The Washington Post (2014).
 ‘Paris attacks: Hollande says France is at war with ISIS’, The Financial Times (2015).
 Dan Roberts, ‘Ideological tensions overshadow Obama’s call to combat extremism’, The Guardian (2015).
 Stephen Colbert in David Betz, ‘The Virtual Dimension of Contemporary Insurgency and Counterinsurgency’,Small Wars & Insurgencies (2008) p 540.
 Colin Powell in David Betz, ‘Communication Breakdown: Strategic Communications and Defeat in Afghanistan’, Orbis (2011), p. 613.
Betz, ‘Communication Breakdown’.
Neville Bolt, ‘Strategic Communication in Crisis’ RUSI Journal (2011).
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