CounterPropaganda · ISIS

Time to whip ISIS on the Internet, Part 1: The secret of the terrorist group’s success

James K. Glassman

 Full Disclosure: the author and I are acquaintances.

I only wish I could call him a friend but we don’t move in the same circles.  We’re Facebook friends, does that count?

Mr. Glassman is the former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and was responsible for selling the US’ national message abroad. Some folks have said he was the most effective person in that position, I can’t say one way or the other, but I respect the heck out of him.


Nearly every day, we hear how brilliantly ISIS is using the Internet to recruit jihadists, frighten opponents, and build support for its new state. The US and its allies, meanwhile, seem to be lagging far behind. In this three-part series, we will explore why ISIS’s digital strategy has been so successful, what the US should be doing about it, and what public- and private-sector Internet policies we need to achieve the mission.

Typical criticism of US performance includes an op-ed last month by former Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) in The Washington Post, titled “America is losing the digital war against the Islamic state.” Harman, who heads the Woodrow Wilson Center, wrote, “We’ve failed to mobilize tech and messaging talent to counter the Islamic State on social media. This country built Silicon Valley; we shouldn’t need computer lessons from seventh-century thugs.”

Actually, the story about ISIS whipping our butts on the Internet is more complicated – and, in one way, more distressing. But a clear-eyed view of what ISIS is up to can also liberate US government media strategy to achieve some success.

ISIS’s messaging: It’s working because it’s true

First, it is essential to understand that ISIS’s communications advantage is not the Internet itself; it is the simple and powerful message that the terrorists project.

As the smartest media analyst I know puts it, “Al Qaeda recruited on the basis of the defensive slogan of martyrdom, ‘Islam is under attack.’ But ISIS is recruiting on the basis of ‘Islam is on the attack.’”

This positive, join-the-movement narrative is powerful. ISIS is building a caliphate, and based on the way the terrorists have seized and held territory over the past two years, it’s no fantasy. “ISIS,” write Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan in their history of the terrorist group, “has destroyed the boundaries of contemporary nation-states and proclaimed itself the restorer of a lost Islamic empire.”

As long as ISIS is winning, it has an enticing tale to tell. A vision of seventh century renewal does not attract mere thugs. Back then, the Umayyad Caliphate, which saw a flowering of the arts and philosophy, stretched from Spain to Afghanistan (with Damascus as the capital). Today’s terrorists want to recreate it – and more.

By far the best message for the United States and its anti-ISIS allies – on the Internet and elsewhere – is, “ISIS is losing.” But until things change on the ground, that message is not believable.

The second-best anti-ISIS message is, “Join your fellow Muslims to achieve freedom and justice in a new order of peace.”That message is not believable either.  Strategic communications and influence campaigns work most effectively when they have a clear political goal. Right now, there is none.

(We will explore a different messaging approach for the US – allowing us to work with what we’ve got – in the next installment of this series.)

Two ISIS approaches: The megaphone and the whisper

How does ISIS put its own messages to work? Through two different means of dissemination: old-fashioned, one-to-many broadcast propaganda and more individualized recruitment.

About the first, Charlie Winter, using the acronym IS for “Islamic State,” writes in an excellent study for the Quilliam Foundation:

IS has a number of official outlets that produce propaganda videos and publications. However, it has raised the bar when it comes to their circulation and production value – indeed IS’s centralized network of propaganda disseminators has flourished through online platforms and, accordingly, can make a seriously big noise. Using social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Kik,, VK and Facebook, the network delivers a high-definition IS view of events in Syria and Iraq to an audience of millions.

These videos, like the violent “Clanging of the Swords,” and publications like the online magazine Dabiq are slicker than you would expect but still not in a class with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi films or the average video game. One astute observer has noted that ISIS’s media productions remind him of Dr. Johnson’s famous comment about a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well, but you are surprised that it is done at all.”

The second use of the Internet by ISIS is more intimate and more dangerous. It was illustrated best in a New York Times article about the attempted recruitment of a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher in Washington State. Like other recruits to cults, gangs, and terrorist groups, the young woman was susceptible; first, because she was lonely and alienated and, second, because she was besieged by people who seemed to care about her – for the first time in her life:

For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online – the most attentive she had ever had – who were teaching her what it meant to be a Muslim. Increasingly, they were telling her about the Islamic State and how the group was building a homeland in Syria and Iraq where the holy could live according to God’s law. One in particular, Faisal, had become her constant companion, spending hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and email and painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals of the faith.

Faisal sent her pastel-colored hijabs, a green prayer rug, books with a strict interpretation of Islam, and bars of Lindt chocolate. He also said he knew someone who wanted to marry her and that she should travel to “a Muslim land” – Syria.

Here, Internet tools (and even snail mail) are used in a way that’s impossible for broadcast to replicate. They’re used to touch someone directly. Here are two other, similar ISIS recruitment stories: about a Belgian teenager and about three young children of an Indian Muslim immigrant couple in the Chicago suburbs.

The Internet can be used both as a megaphone and as a whisper, but in either case, its use requires a powerful message. In Part 2 of this three-part series, we explore what the U.S. and its allies are doing to respond – and what theyshould be doing.

Read Part 2 here.