The Blog

Credible Messengers Are Legitimising The ISIS Narrative

With the deluge of ISIS propaganda infiltrating mainstream and niche social media platforms, the need to produce more effective and powerful counter-narratives online is urgent.

Since the attacks on Paris, security concerns towards migrating Syrian refugees and the potential for further airstrikes have deflected attention away from the more pressing concern of domestic radicalisation. As shown by the Belgian and French born nationals involved in the attacks, ISIS is continuing to persuade European Muslims to not only kill for them in Syria and Iraq, but to die for them at home.

At the heart of this persuasion is a powerful narrative, voiced by extremists with direct access into the lives of potential recruits. With the deluge of ISIS propaganda infiltrating mainstream and niche social media platforms, the need to produce more effective and powerful counter-narratives online is urgent.

The media division of ISIS are some of their most well paid members, and are directly involved in decisions on strategy and territory. It is made up from a mixture of experienced soldiers, foreign recruits and women living under ISIS rule. Their presence as "authentic" voices is helping to galvanise a well-worn Islamist-extremist narrative with a renewed sense of legitimacy to its new online European audience. This combination appears central in the radicalisation, recruitment and mobilisation of what the UK government labels 'non-traditional groups' - people who have grown up, lived in and experienced European society and culture.

In the days after the Paris attacks, ISIS Twitter accounts were busy setting out their defence and support of the atrocities. Many stated that to be called terrorists by France was hypocritical, with images being shared of the bodies of Syrian children following airstrikes on Syria and photographs of French atrocities from the French-Algerian War. Their heavily politicised message uses genuine humanitarian concerns and historical conflicts to justify the murder of civilians, and to emotionally resonate with those sympathetic to their agenda. The members of ISIS tasked with spreading this message use this and their own "credibility" to legitimise the ISIS narrative.

The number of committed ISIS recruiters, activists and cheerleaders spreading this message dwarf the capacity of any one NGO currently working within the counter-narrative field. Establishing cooperation and relationships between NGOs (and the private sector for funding) will be vital in maintaining the steadily increasing presence of counter-narratives, and active counter-messengers, online.

Another facet of the ISIS online strategy is to display their messages in a variety of different ways and across different online platforms. Each message and platform is designed to connect with a specific target audience. To encourage male foreign fighters, ISIS soldiers are filmed showing off their military prowess in high-quality action packed videos. Footage of executioners, with cameras attached to the barrels of their guns, displays their brutality in the same fashion as a first person shooter game. ISIS women help present a distorted version of the life a woman can expect in ISIS controlled territories by hosting blogs, posting photos and updates on Instagram and Twitter. Such tactics highlight the lengths the group will go to connect with these 'non-traditional' recruits.

The central narrative being offered by them is a heady, seemingly utopian mixture of adventure, purpose, brotherhood and sisterhood. In truth, many foreigners who join ISIS find boredom and brutality rather than adventure, submission over brotherhood, and oppression, forced marriage and rape instead of sisterhood. In this reality, the key to countering the ISIS message and undermining its messengers is revealed.

Revealing the stark truth of living in the Islamic Caliphate requires people who those at risk of radicalisation will consider credible and authentic. Ensuring the authenticity of these people is important to creating an enduring counter-narrative. If counter-narratives fail to deploy credible voices to spread their message then they will find it difficult to challenge the false-offering of fulfilment ISIS promises.

Western governments are ill-suited to this task, laden as they are with the weight of foreign policy decisions, military intervention and resource exploitation. The US State Departments "Think Again, Turn Away" campaign is perhaps the most high profile case of the shortcomings of explicitly government run counter-narratives. It is therefore down to civil society and the private sector to be the curtain between the government, and the counter-narratives which undermine the ISIS message.

What more can be done? One challenge is that ISIS offers an alternative lifestyle. Counter-narratives that dismantle the ISIS narrative need to work in tandem with positive alternatives to avoid becoming to terrorism what the 'Just Say No' campaign was to drugs in the US: we can't offer you an alternative, but we can assure you that saying yes will ruin your life. Such campaigns dismiss one thing as a negative choice, but then fail to reconcile the genuine grievances that people at risk of radicalisation have. Greater focus should therefore be afforded to not only giving at risk people advice on how to say no to extremist recruiters, but also to make positive alternatives available to them when they do. This will lend genuine weight to counter-narratives and valuable support to people vulnerable to radicalisation. NGO's that then involve the voices of people with experience and credibility (formers extremists, survivors of extremism and religious leaders), will legitimise their anti-ISIS message in much the same way that experienced soldiers, foreign fighters and women do so for the ISIS narrative.