Though ISIS continues to lose territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya, its appeal internationally shows no signs of stopping. The organization continues to inspire lone-wolf attacks, taking the international community’s fight against ISIS in a new direction. While ISIS’s social media outreach maintains its consistency, their in-person outreach continues to be its driver for recruitment. The West, on the other hand, continues to debate digital strategy and struggles to follow-up with meaningful, in-person engagement.
As these debates endure, it is important to remember the context of the current fight against ISIS. The organization’s ability to maintain its brand in multiple languages as the almighty jihadi movement remains successful in projecting its image through multifaceted and multi-layered media coordination, particularly in digital media. And while the anti-ISIS coalition’s military campaign continues to succeed against ISIS, the allure of establishing an Islamic caliphate still endures among those inspired by the organization.
To defeat ISIS, attack their appeal.
Much of the focus on defeating ISIS has concentrated heavily on military tactics, and rightfully so. However, the “soft power” approaches in combatting the organization are severely lagging in comparison. The international community has not yet been successful in undermining the ISIS narrative because of a lack of effectiveness and proper time, resources, and effort in providing the necessary skills and public spaces for credible and esteemed voices within the Middle East and North Africa to speak out against ISIS.
Countering violent extremism should not focus solely on military strategy, but also on empowering and engaging marginalized communities in the Middle East and in the West. Those being targeted by ISIS — virtually everyone who doesn’t agree with their interpretation of Islam — should feel part of the solution to weaken the organization’s image. Legitimizing the voices of community and religious leaders drives home this message through respected messengers, lending credence to an alternative narrative to ISIS.
Yet in providing this public platform, the international community must also administer public speaking and media trainings for these leaders so as to develop their communication skills. These initiatives should be led by respected media outlets and NGOs devoted to press freedom to teach classes on interview training and press ethics so that rhetoric remains non-combative. This would enable religious scholars to have the ability to convey complex teachings and explanations in a manner that translates well to traditional media so the general public can better comprehend these intricate analyses. Community leaders should receive training in social media so as to maximize engagement and reach while communicating an alternative message to ISIS. Internet security courses for youth can provide the necessary skills for safe and smart digital engagement. Building capacities in public speaking and interview training enables these leaders the ability to implement a communications strategy that conveys a message of sympathy with the personal experiences of those marginalized communities.
It is not enough to simply counter the ISIS narrative, but rather provide an alternative to their way of life and their distorted interpretation of Islam. Messaging efforts must be tailored to each local community and sympathize with the lived-experiences of each respective communities. Having these messages disseminated from within these communities by well-respected influencers gives greater credibility to any messaging campaign against an extremist ideology. This has to be a genuine effort led on a community level rather than being fed from the top.
Yet as with any good campaign, what is said online should be backed up with actions offline as well. Radicalization does not happen in a digital vacuum. Promoting public spaces, civic engagement, and transparency enables citizens to work with municipal and national government officials to develop and further structures for good governance. Investing more resources in media training for community leaders empowers them to speak out in public. Creating more employment opportunities for youth undermines recruitment efforts by extremist groups. By engaging with the people on a local level and incorporating their lived experiences, citizens will feel more part of any decision-making process and allows for personal interaction and connection, ensuring that their voices are in fact being heard. It provides a sense of identity for marginalized communities.
Enhancing “soft power” engagement will significantly diminish ISIS’s appeal, and create a vibrant and interactive space for transparency, inclusion, and good governance.