The U.S. Department of State vs. ISIS – The war of Ideas
While I was still on active duty, I witnessed some of the severely incompetent planning, policies and execution by the Department of State (DOS). De-Baathification, disbanding the Iraqi Army, rebuilding Fallujah and the use of contractor vice uniformed military details for standard security operations are but the tip of the iceberg. Their inability to adapt over the course of a decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their arrogant adherence to bad policy was, and continues to be staggering. Their latest foray into anti-ISIS propaganda was a video titled, Welcome to Islamic State Land. Like much of the entire Think Again, Turn Away program, it waivered between sarcasm, attempts at humor and grisly depictions of inhumane activity. It is indicative of the colossal gap between how the DOS views ISIS and what ISIS is actually trying to achieve. Here is their anti-recruiting video, and below are some samples of ISIS recruiting videos.
Warning Graphic Content:
Most young males in their early life, rightly or wrongly, grow up judged to a large extent based on their physical prowess. Those who are not physically skilled have to find others means of competing. Humor, intelligence, emotional IQ, etc.. become more important as we age especially into the teenage years and on to adulthood. Over time, raw physical ability becomes less and less important. Some successfully make the transition, some spend their lives competing in the physical area, and some do a bit of both. In the gap between those who create their identity via physical prowess and those who create their identity based on other skills is subset of the population who simply does not fit. Some of them will find their path later in life and be truly impactful; others will simply accept their place with resigned frustration.
A small subset of that population will come to resent what they see as a society that does not value them as individuals. This particular subset of young adult males is likely to feel powerless against what they view as an oppressive society. Some will independently lash out at home and commit petty crimes or worse (Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza, etc…). Others drift to the fringes of society and live out a comparatively isolated existence. These fringes are the population of society that ISIS is targeting with its western recruiting efforts.
The Department of State’s Message to would be Jihadists:
The video starts with people being shot, tossed from a cliff and beheaded while the leader of ISIS proclaims “Syria is no longer for Syrians, Iraq no longer for Iraqis”. What the Majority of Americans see is brutality at the hands of a terrorist organization, and human beings who need to be defended from oppression and abuse. That video may be an effective means of raising awareness of the brutality to ISIS, but to those who are considering ISIS as a means of lashing out at the society who has shunned them, it is exactly the opposite. What they see is a minority of righteous followers who have seized power from an oppressive society and are exacting their revenge under the banner of a higher cause. ISIS is largely depicted in the video as acting at will, and as all powerful in their area of control.
The scenes of abuse continue, and cements in their minds that ISIS can do whatever it wants to not just people, but religious institutions, organizations and governments. Worse yet, they take an almost sarcastic approach to closing in saying “Travel is cheap because you won’t need a return ticket”. I am not sure if that is intended as a threat – but all the would be recruit hears is sarcasm… Just like the sarcasm and the bullying that that they feel has marginalized them in society. “Think again, Turn Away” is the final message which will be perceived as a society, which has rejected them, attempting to keep them in their current condition – marginal and irrelevant. This video practically does ISIS’s job for them.
The ISIS message to would be Jihadists:
When we contrast that with the videos produced by ISIS, they communicate a very different message. First, there are no messages of what not to do, but messages of joining a cause that is larger than yourself. It is an inclusive message of acceptance. The choice of western recruits is also well made. This is not the captain of the football team, these are smiling young men, who could be anyone. Every day people who may even be exactly the the type of people who might not fit in at home. Below are some short samples from There is no life with Jihad, one of the ISIS recruiting videos targeting westerners to which you can compare the messages.
When we view the clip of western males talking about their experience, these are not the popular kids in school. The speakers do not appear exceptional in any way. The subtle message is – Any of you, can be one of us. They visually display the symbol of power they possess with the constant images of a gun in the frame. They are positive in their choice of words and message. Join us, come to us, fight for something that matters. The message is: join our team; we will accept you, everyone is capable. They are not communicating a message of what not to do, they are communicating a vision of what you can be a part of.
Through most American’s eyes, we see ISIS behavior as twisted. ISIS is not recruiting most of America. We have recently taken a look at the execution videos of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. There we see an even starker image portrayed to the Muslim world and both speak volumes to potential recruits. To review the highlights: both theses videos convey that ISIS is the victim of western aggression, ISIS is firmly in control of its lands, even American ISIS victims agree with their “punishment”, and that ISIS is energetically moving forward, while American leadership is portrayed as defeated.
When we contrast the ISIS message of “You can join a successful cause, greater than yourself, that will give you the power to exact revenge on the society that does not value you” with “Think again, Turn away” it does not take rocket science to understand who is winning the war of perception – in the eyes of the target population.
As long as we view ISIS through an American lens, we will fail to check their pursuit of their goals. The intelligence community has experts who could produce videos that could both insulate the target population from infection, and deter potential recruits. Clearly the DOS in its arrogance did not bother to seek them out. They continue to steadfastly view the world and ISIS through an American lens. That view is as ineffective at checking ISIS goals as is the video they produced. In the U.S. Department of State Vs. ISIS – the war of ideas is what fills their armies, and the DOS is grossly unprepared to fight it.
We are not at any more significant risk from ISIS in America than we were six months ago, however, if this ineffective bumbling approach to dealing with ISIS does not change, we one day will be.
For more on ISIS, check out Is ISIS the future of Islam?
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