Iraq remains a divided country riven by sectarian grievances and political and internal security challenges. The government of Iraq has also failed to efficiently curb soaring corruption, address security violations, and give a real voice to all segments of society. These issues threaten to undermine the country’s significant progress achieved against ISIS, namely efforts toward reducing violence in the country and strengthening trust in the military and state institutions. More importantly, these very same issues gave rise to the resurgence of first al Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIS, with the latter heinously ruling a third of the territory of Iraq for more than two years. Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS, Iraq struggles to contain ISIS’ ideological appeal and propaganda. Moreover, actual ISIS cadres still have a strong enough foothold in the country to not only wage insurgent-style attacks, as evidenced in the most recent attack in Mosul, but also exploit Sunni discontent and foment popular unrest, which, if left unaddressed, can almost certainly result in continued instability and possibility for relapse to violence. Researchers at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) were curious to learn if, and if so, counter-narratives can help in the fight against ISIS in places like Iraq.
Over the past three years, ICSVE researchers have interviewed over 100 ISIS defectors, returnees, and prisoners (alongside another 16 al Shabaab). Their stories are captured on video and later transformed into short counter-narrative video clips that feature ISIS (and other terrorist) insiders denouncing the group as un-Islamic, corrupt, and overly brutal. Given that ISIS remains active on the Internet and continues to mount lethal attacks – coupled with the fact that ISIS has also managed to branch itself into formal, and less formal, affiliates in the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt), Libya, Yemen, Southeast Asia and western Africa, where they continue to leverage instability in these already beleaguered areas by mobilizing fighters and executing attacks against local governments and rival groups – ICSVE’s aim is to break the ISIS brand in Iraq and globally. The primary goal of the Center is to continue to create and distribute these counter-narratives around the globe in all the languages in which ISIS recruits, namely distributing them both to those who work with vulnerable populations in face-to-face interventions and in a coordinated series of globally placed Facebook campaigns.
In recent online research, ICSVE researchers ran four Facebook campaigns across Iraq, featuring these counter-narrative videos. The aim of the research was to attempt to test their overall utility in disrupting ISIS’ online and face-to-face recruitment efforts in Iraq as well as to dispute their ideological and propaganda claims. The researchers found that these types of counter-narratives, which appear at first glance as actual ISIS propaganda and not ISIS insiders denouncing the group, can engage large numbers of viewers, stimulate much-needed discussions on contentious socio-political issues that often fuel violent extremism, drive viewers to a website with much more substantial Islamic arguments refuting terrorist claims (i.e. www.TheRealJihad.org), and perhaps even dissuade vulnerable viewers from joining or supporting the group.
In 2017, ISIS suffered major territorial and military defeat in Syria and Iraq. According to recent estimates, its territory in Syria and Iraq has shrunk to merely one percent. Despite the achieved success, the group remains active and in control of small pockets of territory in both Syria and Iraq. It also continues to lure foreign fighters into the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq at somewhat astounding rates, given their so-called defeat. According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, foreign fighters continue to come over the Turkish border at a rate of about 100 a month. Although not comparable to 1,500 a month at the height of the group’s recruitment, the numbers remain worrisome and problematic.  In this regard, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, observed, “We’ve expected that as the physical caliphate went away. The remnants of this would attempt to revive themselves and revive their networks, and take on these insurgent, guerrilla-like tactics. We’re well prepared for that. These organizations never go away in one fell swoop.”
Indeed, many ISIS cadres interviewed by ICSVE researchers over the past three years stated that in the event they lost their territory, the plan was to shave their beards and go underground, which is what has in fact happened in many cases.
While the expectations were that the territorial defeat of ISIS would not entirely defeat the group, the ability of ISIS to sustain itself is worrisome. In Iraq, ISIS sleeper cells have carried out attacks in recent months against Iraqi security forces and civilians, particularly in Anbar, Kirkuk and Salahuddin governorates. In the district of Hawijah of the Kirkuk governorate, some villagers complain that Iraqi security forces rule only in the daylight, as ISIS comes out and rules at night. Yazidi families that ICSVE researchers interviewed this September in Esyan Refugee camp near Mosul cited the Iraqi security forces’ inability and dismal record of providing safety and security as main obstacles to returning to their homes on Sinjar Mountains anytime soon. They cited the government’s failure in offering the protection they feel is necessary to risk returning home. Indeed, the Yazidi female victims of rape and captivity fear their captors can reach them, even in the refugee camps, and it appears they have – even following one victim, Ashwaq Haji Hamid, all the way to Germany.
Likewise, ISIS continues to carry out a worrisome trend of assassinations of moderate Islamic scholars and opposition figures, this activity akin to when they first began their offensive in Syria and Iraq. “On its current trajectory, ISIS could regain sufficient strength to mount a renewed insurgency that once again threatens to overmatch local security forces in both Iraq and Syria,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington concluded in a recent analysis. Moreover, public distrust toward the government of Iraq, millions suffering from conflict-related traumas and injuries – including youth and children – and community and sectarian distrust enduring all represent volatile conditions that can individually and collectively lead to the return of violent groups like ISIS. These are especially problematic conditions when considering the group’s ideology, including in Iraq, remains widespread and still legitimate, especially in the eyes of some who continue to perceive terrorism as the only means to address socio-political grievances.
ISIS and Iraqi Social Media
On social media and social media platforms, violent extremist groups continue to “harass, recruit and incite violence.”  In this regard, more efforts are needed to counter jihadists’ already existing Internet-based and face-to-face recruitment efforts.
As of December 2017, Iraq had 14 million Internet users.  A more recent statistical report on the share of Facebook users in Iraq showed that Facebook, with 17 million users, remains an extremely important social media communication platform, particularly to Iraqi youth between the ages of 16 and 34. In our sample of 20-plus interviews with ISIS cadres in Iraq – out of more than 100 to date – we also found Facebook to be especially popular among the 14-35 age group and that some ISIS cadres first interacted with and followed ISIS on Facebook before joining.
ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Campaigns in Iraq
The first ICSVE Facebook campaign in Iraq was carried out during December 2017, using one of their Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos: The Promises of ad Dawlah.
The video features the testimony of a Belgian female ISIS defector who had taken her young son to live in ISIS territory. The December campaign led to a total reach of 1,287,557, while also leading to a total of 2,339,453 impressions and close to 1.7 million views. In 2018, between July and September, respectively, ICSVE also ran three additional safety awareness campaigns in Iraq using Facebook ads. Three ICSVE-produced videos, Rewards of Joining the Islamic State, Swearing my Bayat to the Islamic State in Fallujah, and Swearing my Bayat to the Islamic State in a Time of Sectarianism, all featuring Iraqi former ISIS cadres, were used in the campaign.
The first video features a 33-year-old Iraqi, Abu Ghazwan. In the video, he discusses his desire to restore rights and dominance to Iraqi Sunnis, which he claims led him to join ISIS. He also discusses his involvement with ISIS, namely his role in placing bombs and attacking the enemies of the group.
The second video features 46-year-old Iraqi Abu Bassim, who, according to him, was forced to join ISIS after being imprisoned by them.
The third video features a 28-year-old Iraqi, Abu Omar, who, similar to Abu Ghazwan, was lured by al-Qaeda and ISIS’ promise of restoring Sunni rights and dominance in Iraq.
The four video campaigns in combination led close to 2.5 million views. The campaigns also led to thousands of post reactions (e.g. like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry), comments and shares, including thousands of visits to our new landing page, TheRealJihad.org website and ICSVE’s YouTube channel. The videos also generated hundreds of comments related to ISIS, the message, and the messaging strategy applied to our counter-narratives. While it is likely difficult to observe or report direct cognitive or behavioral changes resulting from our campaigns among those reached in our sample, particularly in those who support violent extremist groups or ideologies propagated by groups like ISIS, we hope that may in fact be occurring. As some researchers have observed, “It is possible that some of the counter-narrative narrative videos have managed to dissuade individuals from joining or supporting extremist groups, but those users are simply not leaving comments like, ‘Great, video really changed my mind.’”
By analyzing Facebook metrics as well as the comments generated by these four campaigns, we were able to observe that those reached have both thoughtfully engaged with the content of our videos and initiated online debates on ISIS and other contentious socio-political issues that often influence and drive violent extremism. This impact should not be underestimated, as talking about grievances, namely providing a platform for raising grievances and discussing contentious socio-political issues, could be considered an intervention in the way of redirecting viewers from considering, or actually engaging, in violent extremism and terrorism.
The results of the campaign represent short-term measurements of the impacts of our videos, which allow us to utilize such data to further improve our future targeting campaigns over the next year, as we also continue to create counter-narrative video content from Iraqi and non-Iraqi ISIS defectors, returnees, and prisoners. By gaining an increased understanding of user behavior on Facebook and other social media platforms we target online, we are able to more carefully create and target our counter-narrative content. Moreover, in our future campaigns, we will continue to expand our targeting campaigns in Iraq to also drive further engagement on our newly created TheRealJihad.org website, which is currently running in Arabic, and with the content and language alternatives growing on a monthly basis. We are also working to seek support from those who may be willing to act as influencers and magnify the impact of our counter-narratives, as well as those who can use the counter-narrative videos in face-to-face interventions, which we at ICSVE have also found useful to turn individuals away from groups like ISIS. The goal of our work, both offline and online, in Iraq, and elsewhere, is to break the ISIS brand by using insiders’ voices to discredit the group as un-Islamic, corrupt, and overly brutal. Judging from the results of these four campaigns, the videos are effective and making an impact in Iraq, and can likely do the same elsewhere in the world.