ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and other militant jihadist groups have in recent years managed to produce vast amounts of terrorist propaganda as well as mount massive global social media campaigns, resulting in blanketing the Internet with their ideological and propaganda claims. ISIS, in particular, has been exceptionally adept at using social media’s immediate feedback mechanisms to hone in upon and swarm those vulnerable individuals who show interest by sharing, liking, or otherwise endorsing their propaganda posts. In this regard, terrorist recruiters function similarly to cult recruiters who skillfully identify vulnerabilities, needs, and desires in their particular recruits and then cater to such as they individually groom them, in this case, over the Internet or by arranging face-to-face meetings to draw them further into the group. By doing so, ISIS has managed to attract thousands of foreign fighters to the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq. They were seduced into the group with promises of marriage, sex, salaries, dignity, significance, honor, purpose, adventure and the opportunity to be part of the state-building exercise of creating an Islamic Caliphate run by Islamic ideals.
The Call for Counter Narratives
In response to ISIS’ prolific and successful Internet and social media mediated propaganda campaigns, international and inter-governmental organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, are increasingly encouraging their members states to exploit both alternative and counter-narratives’ off-/online potential as crucial tools in preventing and countering violent extremism. Yet, there remain serious questions as to what constitutes a useful counter-narrative – capable to any degree to prevent radicalization, violent extremism or terrorism – standing on its own or run inside a larger campaign. Moreover, despite the dearth of counter-narrative materials, including a lack of carefully targeted interventions that rely on the use of counter-narratives with metrics measuring their effectiveness in confronting groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, many are quick to point out the limited utility, ineffectiveness, and fallacy in creating counter-narrative materials.[i] While prevention, and even interventions, with vulnerable and radicalized populations are very difficult to measure, claims are often made that there is a complete lack of any actual evidence that counter-narratives are an effective method to fight radicalization or to prevent and counter violent extremism and terrorism.
This brief report examines these questions with a specific focus on the counter-narratives produced by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).
ICSVE and the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project
Over the past three years, ICSVE researchers have been interviewing ISIS and al-Shabaab defectors, returnees and ISIS prisoners. To date, the sample includes 101 ISIS and 16 al-Shabaab members interviewed. These research interviews, mostly captured on video, are made for the purposes of learning about the subjects’ trajectories into terrorism, the ways in which they learned of the terrorist group, their vulnerabilities and motivations for joining, how they were recruited and trained by it, their both positive and negative experiences inside the group, reasons for leaving, and thoughts about the group after having left it (for those who defected or returned). These video interviews are then also used to create counter-narrative videos and materials (e.g. memes and posters) from those who are willing to denounce the group. ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative video clips, posters, and memes feature terrorist insiders denouncing the group as un-Islamic, corrupt, and overly brutal, and advise others not to join. In an attempt to turn the terrorist propaganda back on them, their statements are illustrated with actual propaganda footage and clips used by terrorist groups. In addition, the videos are titled as ISIS video propaganda material to draw those viewers who have already narrowed their focus to ISIS-generated materials to also view ours and receive a very different message. The videos are also subtitled in the 24-plus languages in which ISIS and al-Shabaab recruit.
To date, ICSVE researchers have created 79 counter-narrative video clips and 100 posters/memes. The ICSVE researchers have also carried out over 60 counter-narrative campaigns on major social media platforms, such as Facebook and Telegram, aimed at disrupting terrorist groups’ online and face-to-face recruitment and delegitimizing the propaganda and ideological claims of groups like ISIS and al-Shabaab.
Targeting Vulnerable Audiences for Counter-Narrative Messaging
One of the arguments made against counter-narrative use is that when it comes to terrorist recruitment, “broad counter-narrative campaigns may not be necessary, as the propaganda and ideological claims of groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State only attracts certain individuals, and addressing a wider spectrum may carry risks of unwanted or even counter-productive side effects.” [ii] The term “counter-productive side-effects” is often used to denote potential negative side effects resulting from the use of counter-narratives (e.g. a change in mood, self-esteem, complicating prospects for intervention in the case of those who withdraw after being targeted online, etc.) and involve ideologically attenuated individuals, those already consuming and promoting violent extremist material, those who are unsure what to believe and are searching for violent extremist material, or mere passive observers of violent extremist material.
There are several limitations to such claims. Firstly, the framing and targeting of counter-narratives should not be limited to a single goal or objective. Namely, while more targeted interventions are needed to directly reach individuals already exhibiting violent cognitive shifts and behavior, broad counter-narrative campaigns are needed to prevent future radicalization by targeting those disinterested in violent extremist groups to “ensure they remain disinterested, thus denuding the group of its appeal to future generations.”[iii] Secondly, carefully crafted counter-narratives, such as the ones produced by ICSVE, will highlight human costs of engaging in violence both for the recruit and those harmed by the group, as well as serve to denounce and delegitimize the terrorist group and leadership, but not the recruit. Thirdly, in the case of the target audience that is already consuming violent extremist material, our counter-narrative videos do not generate “more extreme reactions than those normally encountered in the participants’ daily lives given they are already consuming violent materials.”[iv]
Lastly, the ideal counter-narratives identify and target those who are vulnerable to ISIS’s (or other terrorist groups’) recruitment and who may be interested to join. For this reason, ICSVE researchers name the Breaking the ISIS Brand counter-narratives with pro-ISIS names and start each video with the individual telling about how and why they were attracted to ISIS and about the needs they believed would be met by the group. It is our hope that by telling a real story, from a credible insider, the viewer who may share many of the same needs and attractions to the group will learn by example and take an instructive lesson from the speaker. Likewise, once viewed, the viewer is invited to read more at the Real Jihad website (www.theRealJihad.org), which serves as a counterblow to violent extremist groups’ deceitful, albeit carefully crafted, religious arguments that have lured tens of thousands of people into their ranks.
Although still a work in progress, the website contains Islamic articles that go into great detail on why the claims made by militant jihadist groups do not hold up to Islamic scholarly critique, namely arguments that there is no Paradise to be gained by suicide-bombing and “martyrdom” operations, that there is no individual duty required of all Muslims to fight jihad on behalf of Muslims, Muslim lands, or Islam, and that there is not any duty to make hijra (migration to lands ruled by shariah). Moreover, the website hosts all 79 counter-narrative videos produced in multiple languages by ICSVE, so that those accessing it will be drawn into viewing additional counter-narratives and informed about the grave error of joining groups like ISIS. Thus, by naming and design, ICSVE’s counter-narrative videos do not aim only at the wider unconcerned, passive observers of violent extremist material, but also hone in on the individuals whom violent extremist groups like ISIS aim to recruit. In fact, in some of the Facebook-focused counter-narrative distribution campaigns, ICSVE researchers have found ways to identify and offer these videos to viewers who have shown a propensity to like, sympathize, share, or disseminate pro-ISIS materials and viewpoints.
Wouldn’t Alternative or Government Messaging be Better?
A criticism commonly voiced about the utility of counter-narratives, particularly in the EU, is that to even speak about terrorist groups, much less to use their video and propaganda images, repeats their frame, and that it would be better to instead emphasize positive aspects of living in the EU – the opportunities and support provided within EU members states to all who live there.[v] While ICSVE-produced counter-narratives repeat the violent extremist and terrorist group’s frame, and do even use their actual images, they in no way repeat their messaging or glorify their actions. Instead, the defectors, returnees and prisoners reflect on these very images and the reality of their cruelty and deception with voices filled with horror, regret, sadness, and shame about their involvement. In this manner, our speakers thereby delegitimize the terrorist frame entirely.
Learning by Story and Role Modeling
There are also those who assert that “Counter-narratives are in essence reactive; using them is therefore in practice a recognition of the terms laid down by the declared opponents. In being so, they may end up reinforcing the very narratives they are attempting to stifle.”[vi] Indeed, that may be true in some cases, though not necessarily in the case of ICSVE-produced counter-narratives. Humans are prone to best learn through stories, role modeling and examples. In this regard, our counter-narrative videos feature real individuals who have been inside violent extremist and terrorist groups. This makes them the most credible messengers to warn others who are like them and share the same vulnerabilities and concerns, and thereby may also identify with them not to make the same mistake. This is not reactive, but instead pro-active, and involves learning by example.
Others reference this caution of not repeating the terrorist frame and avoiding reactive counter-messaging as well. For instance, CEO and founder of Narrative Strategies Ajit Maan stated, “The last thing we want to do is repeat the meaning the adversary has created in order to counter it with our facts.”[vii] She further added:
I am not a fan of counter narratives because they are defensive and reactionary when what we need is an offensive strategy that gets out ahead of an adversarial narrative and invites the target audience to understand events within a framework that is advantageous to us. But that framework, to be effective, has to come from the ground up, which means it has to come from the target audience themselves. It has to come from and speak to their identities, to the narratives they live by. We can assist them in connecting the dots in a way that is more meaningful than that which they have been provided by an adversarial narrative.
While the author’s contentions are worthy of consideration, the claims that we have to wait for the target audience itself to act have been echoing endlessly throughout the counter-terrorism and P/CVE space for years. Instead, it seems that others outside that target audience are needed to spur this very thing into action, as is the case with our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project, which provides a platform for ISIS, al-Shabaab, and other violent extremist group prisoners, returnees and defectors to denounce the groups they once served and have that message distributed widely in a way they themselves would never be able to accomplish in a safe or effective manner.
Addressing Real and Perceived Grievances and Concerns
As stated earlier, messaging efforts in the fight against violent and terrorist groups like ISIS are mostly focused on emphasizing positive and alternative narratives. In theory, as often argued by critics of counter-narratives, they serve to replace counter-narrative materials that their proponents argue are removed from the lives, experiences, etc., of the target audience and instead provide a platform to unify communities around common values of democracy, tolerance, citizenship, etc. That said, the argument in favor of alternative messaging falls flat when one considers who is vulnerable to ISIS and militant jihadist terrorist recruitment. Arguably, in reality, such an approach reinforces the themes that are intrinsic and crucial to the terrorist narrative, ideology, and their recruitment efforts.
The main recruiting pool for groups like ISIS are Muslim converts and second-generation Muslim immigrant communities who have not found the promises of the EU match their daily realities. In formal and informal interviews with hundreds of EU citizens to date, ICSVE researchers have found sentiments of Islamophobia, discrimination, and marginalization to be widely prevalent in their daily lives and experiences. Consider a Belgian respondent who stated, “I was told, Jamal, we could never have a Moroccan in our front office,” or “Samira, you’d have to take that headscarf off to work for us,” etc. In 2006, the first author asked a group of eight white, European students to apply for jobs in Brussels, Belgium – the heart of Europe – as two different personas. The first persona included the actual name and an unaltered resume of the applicant. The second persona was created with a resume slightly altered to include a Moroccan first and last name (still with European citizenship) and Arabic as an added language ability. Those with “white” European names were called into interviews while the “Moroccan-Belgians” were told over the phone that the position had already been filled or were otherwise turned away. Likewise, these same students reported on many incidents of being told by landlords they could not sublet their apartments to “Moroccans,” meaning Moroccan-descent Belgians. The first author herself also personally witnessed, on numerous occasions, groups of young “Moroccan” Belgians routinely being turned away from nightclubs with the statement of “Go home Moroccan.”
Jamila, a 24-year-old German Muslim of immigrant descent, whom ICSVE researchers interviewed in October 2018 in a detention camp in Syria, was being held as a former member of ISIS. She fell into ISIS while searching for her identity as a Muslim woman of immigrant descent living in Germany. During the interview, she recalled, “I was living in a very good family. We didn’t have any problems with money. My parents give me everything. I was sewing. I was a well-known dancer. I finished high school. I was working as a secretary. Then, I met a woman who told me, ‘Come, you are Muslim.’ I never entered one mosque. My family did not have this practice.”
When Jamila decided to delve into her Islamic heritage and don a headscarf, some members of her own community ostracized her: “When I wore my hijab, everyone [in Germany] was like, ‘Oh my God, why does she have this underwear on her head?’ I have a German passport, I was born in Germany, I studied there, and people tell me to go home.”
In crafting effective counter-messaging tools, one must consider the messenger, the audience and the medium. In this case, an alternative, pro-European message is likely to fall on deaf ears, as in the case of vulnerable populations like Jamila. While messages of inclusiveness are important, targeting those who are actively discriminating against such women as Jamila, they will not match her daily, lived reality at all. Customized messages are needed to address the grievances of those affected by Islamophobia, marginalization, and discrimination and those who are not finding the EU a receptive and nurturing place to live. ISIS knows this all too well, which is why it is crucial to delegitimize, if not entirely eliminate, ISIS’ messaging efforts that cater to these experiences and convey to the viewers that by joining they will escape from these negative experiences, that they will be ushered into a group that is all inclusive (when it comes to Muslims), that it offers them opportunities they currently do not see as available to them, and that it offers them opportunities to vent their anger and enact any desire they may have for revenge.
During her interview with Defense and Intelligence Norway, Ajit Maan stated, “Narratives are culturally embedded meaning-making structures through which we understand and create our identities. On the most basic level, to communicate effectively with an audience, one should understand the narratives that the target audience lives by.”[viii] She also added, “Narratives don’t represent the world as it is… [Groups like ISIS] project the narrator’s ideological stance and they do so without argument, without debate, without permission. That is representational force.” [ix] At ICSVE, when we can identify the vulnerable populations that ISIS is successfully recruiting within, we understand that we must take into account the way they see their place in the world and speak directly to that, which is precisely what ICSVE is doing.
Risks of Ridicule and Disrespect
Another criticism, also raised earlier in the article, is that “confrontational counter-narratives, which engage directly with a narrative to expose, correct or ridicule it, run the risk of being automatically rejected.”[x] In this regard, ICSVE researchers agree and take careful measures never to ridicule Islam nor to treat their subjects who are willing to tell their true stories of life inside ISIS with ridicule or any disrespect. Our view is everyone is capable of being deceived and falling into violent extremist traps and those willing to confess their mistakes and try to make them right – even only by warning others not to repeat the same – deserve some degree of our respect.
The Need for Understanding Terrorist Recruitment as Well as Recruits’ Vulnerabilities and Motivations for Joining
Another criticism of counter-narratives in the P/CVE space is that “the lack of knowledge about why and how the narratives and propaganda of groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State attract audiences makes it difficult to construct attractive counter-narratives, even if the relevant audiences could be identified.”[xi] ICSVE researchers understand how ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other violent extremist and terrorist groups attract and recruit, as questions about these issues are constantly part of our research interviews, and just as these groups refine and change their tactics, we measure and keep abreast of how they are working. Indeed, the first author has been interviewing over 600 terrorists and their family members and close associates (when they are already dead) for the past 20 years. Likewise, as stated above, we have become very adept at tracing user behavior online and pinpointing them for counter-messaging interventions. For instance, we target vulnerable audiences by dropping counter-narratives into ISIS Telegram. We also distribute our counter-narratives to ISIS promoting and supporting individuals on Facebook.
It is equally important to consider that groups like ISIS and al-Shabaab are using gender-based strategies to radicalize and recruit. ICSVE researchers have a deep understanding of the ways in which such groups exploit gender norms and dynamics. Angela Febbraro, a defense scientist in the Canadian Director General Science and Technology Centre Operations (DGSTCO) who studies gender-specific aspects of involvement in violent extremism, pointed out that ISIS “are using sophisticated, targeted marketing strategies (e.g., on social media), and gender-based messaging and incentives, to appeal to different gender groups.”[xii] To attract men/boys, their strategies include the promise of a wife, a paid job, and the allure of being a jihadi warrior. To attract women/girls, they appeal to the chance of getting married, to join a sisterhood, and the chance to build a state/Caliphate. [xiii] However, as Dr. Febbraro points out, “at present, few counter-terrorism initiatives consider gender dynamics.” There is a great need for counter-messaging that is targeted at females, and in general, for gender-based counter-messaging.[xiv] Dr. Febbraro added, “Within the United Nations, there have also been calls for a meaningful voice for women in developing counter-terrorism strategies, including the creation of counter-narratives. This is reflected in UN Security Council Resolution 2242, established in 2015. It focuses directly on the intersection between the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, and countering violent extremism and terrorism.”
At ICSVE, we interview both female and male members of ISIS and create counter-narratives that directly speak against these gender stereotypes and promises that ISIS makes to both men and women about the idealized lives they will live inside the Caliphate and serving the group. Our careful focus on gender-specific motivations and vulnerabilities for joining groups like ISIS help us create specially crafted counter-narratives that speak to these issues. We also support UN women and have recently written their training manual, “Women in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism” (pending publication).
Internet and Face-to-Face Hybrid Counter-Messaging Strategies
At ICSVE, we are also aware of the fact that groups like ISIS do not recruit solely over the Internet, nor do they obtain full buy-in solely in face-to-face contacts. In most cases, a synergy exists between the two. Thus, while we carry out large-scale global online counter-messaging campaigns using our counter-narrative video clips and posters/memes, we also train around the world those who are working in face-to-face prevention and intervention roles. Thus, we train counselors, prison staff, teachers, parents, law enforcement, intel, and other security and CVE professionals to understand the ways in which groups like ISIS operate and how to use our counter-narratives to fight back. In this way, we attempt to create the same synergy between online and offline counter-narrative work.
A Dearth of Responses to Terrorist Narratives and Counter-Narrative Campaigns
Search for Common Ground’s Dallin Van Leuven has rightly noted, “We are really failing at detecting and reacting to the narratives of extremist groups and individuals.”[xv] Moreover, we have been so horrified by them that we have for far too long failed to react with real and useful actions. At ICSVE, we are taking action and counter-messaging with strong and effective counter-narrative materials.
Van Leuven explained that Search for Common Ground, like other peace-building organizations:
Do see people’s life narratives or worldviews shift through [their work], but it is usually through the kinds of in-person interactions and dialogues that help them break down the stereotypes, prejudices, or misinformed opinions they had come to hold. In that way, narrative work should be seen more as a ‘facilitated learning’ process in that you are not telling someone what to think – they’ll usually defensively reject that out of hand anyway – but by guiding someone to another place where their minds will make the connections themselves. That’s why if narratives aren’t connected to actions or other people, they can often fall flat.
At ICSVE, we support such a viewpoint. We rely on the use of real-person stories to create campaigns that steadily counter violent extremist groups’ messaging, both in the online and offline spaces, where vulnerable persons are living. We also strive to connect our messaging to their real-life experiences. In referencing an ICSVE interview with an ISIS emir in Iraq in which he was confronted with two of our counter-narrative videos, Van Leuven noted, “I also think that’s why your case study of using a video with an ISIL sheikh [emir] was a good one. You used the video as a tool, and not an end in and of itself.”[xvi]
Where ISIS Is Winning
While we are aware of numerous efforts where our counter-narrative videos are being used as tools to create discussions for prevention and intervention purposes, we also acknowledge that ISIS is currently much more adept than any other organization, including ourselves, at persuading rather than dissuading potential recruits. When an individual likes, shares or otherwise endorses on social media an ISIS message, that person is very likely to be immediately contacted by ISIS recruiters who go to great lengths to identify and at least initially meet their needs while attempting to seduce them into the group. At present, ICSVE lacks that capacity to do the same in terms of dissuasion, and that is a serious limitation of our efforts. While U.S. CENTCOM operates a web ops team that does directly interact with militant jihadis and their recruits, as does the Saudi government and the EU, there are no data to suggest their effectiveness. Such efforts might be especially problematic given they come directly from government and may from the onset delegitimize the message by virtue of the messenger not being credible to those who are being contacted. That, however, does not imply that we should not to stand toe-to-toe and raise the same standards ISIS is meeting to dissuade against, versus persuade, into terrorism.
Bolstering Resources and Building Capacity
On the subject of counter-narratives, a Danish think-tank representative wrote, “With regard to early prevention in the broader population, the focus should be on bolstering general resources through capacity-building and inclusion and provide alternatives by facilitating open debates about difficult subjects, such as violent conflicts and international politics, where constructive and productive ways of engaging with them occurs.” [xvii] In that regard, we are proud to note that ICSVE counter-narrative videos are subtitled in Danish and are currently being provided through the U.S. Embassy Copenhagen to teachers to use to create exactly these types of debates in their classrooms for purposes of prevention. ICSVE recognizes that capacity-building is a necessary component of counter-messaging. In all of our trainings, we frequently hear from police, teachers, security officials, counselors and others that they need support in understanding how ISIS and other terrorist groups operate. They state that they lack adequate knowledge about the violent extremist groups’ ideologies and the psychology of those being recruited into their ranks. To fill such a gap, ICSVE researchers are in the process of creating study guides in multiple languages to accompany each ICSVE-produced counter-narrative video. They will serve to discuss the issues raised in each counter-narrative, provide discussion questions, and provide explanations regarding the Islamic scriptures that may be claimed by terrorist groups in regard to the arguments made in a particular video clip. Our aim is to create a counter-narrative manual, as well, in multiple languages that would support security and P/CVE officials’ work in the fight against violent extremism and terrorism.
While measuring the impact of these counter-narratives is difficult, ICSVE researchers have attempted to measure their impact in a number of ways. See the Table One below for direct and indirect measures of effectiveness of ICSVE counter-narrative efforts.
|Table One: Direct and Indirect Measures of Effectiveness for ICSVE Counter-Narratives|
Direct Measures of Effectiveness
Indirect Measures of Effectiveness
|A 13-year-old boy from London, hell-bent on going to Raqqa, Syria, turned back by viewing one of the ICSVE videos. The account was documented by Omar Mulbocus, a UK Prevent counselor, who worked closely with the boy.||Provide training on the use of counter-narratives to intelligence, law enforcement, and other CVE practitioners worldwide. In addition, continue to train such professionals and collect testimonies on the impact our counter narratives have had in reducing support for ISIS and other violent extremist groups.|
|Multiple focus groups with vulnerable individuals worldwide that led to better understanding of how youth views ISIS, who resonates with ISIS, and their potential vulnerabilities in being recruited by ISIS. Reactions and acceptance of our videos by such vulnerable individuals served a measure of the effectiveness of the videos in terms of both quality and content|
|Locating ISIS sympathizers and followers on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and tagging them with our counter-narrative videos and memes. Two large Facebook campaigns launched on Facebook, which led to identifying 50 English and 77 Albanian-speaking ISIS endorsers and sympathizers. Such individuals identified and served to generate increased cognitive dissonance and discussion against ISIS.|
|Launched 60+ Facebook campaigns worldwide using Facebook ads, leading close to 2.5 million views and thousands of page engagements and comments across four campaigns in Iraq alone.|
Conclusions: Soft Power versus Kinetic Responses
In 2017, former State Department spokesman and retired Adm. John Kirby criticized the Trump administration for running a mostly military approach to combating extremism and radicalism, as opposed to also looking into the root causes of violent extremism and terrorism. “You cannot kill your way out of a terrorism problem,” Kirby told CNN. [xviii] Equally important, Ajit Maan highlighted:
It is strategically imperative that we stop running around trying to plug the holes ISIS blows in our narrative and get out in front of their messaging. We need to undermine the appeal of the ISIS narrative in order to stem the flow of recruits and thereby not only weaken their military capacity at present, but also, address the threat that will continue to creep back up if we don’t address it at a foundational level now. We can kill bad guys with drones, but bad ideas don’t die that way. [xix]
In light of the aforementioned, given the prolific and successful propaganda and ideological claims made on the Internet and in face-to-face encounters by groups like ISIS, it is evident that counter-narratives are sorely needed. Such messaging initiatives need to be rooted in a clear understanding of grievances and motivations of those who might be susceptible to violent extremist group recruitment. Efforts to fight violent extremist propaganda must include targeting of both general and specific audiences (e.g. those already consuming violent extremist material or exhibiting violent behavior). While current limitations in the realm of counter-messaging come in the form of inability to match ISIS’ capacity to directly and immediately communicate with those who engage with their messages, the current counter-narrative targeting efforts, ICSVE included, are far from being considered ill-conceived, ill-designed, or failed counter-narrative campaigns. Although incremental, their role in diminishing and disrupting the appeal of violent extremist groups has been significant.