With the recent U.S. military raid in Yemen and the ongoing campaign in Mosul, the Trump Administration is so far continuing the United States’ longstanding counterterrorism strategy: conducting drone strikes to eliminate terrorist leaders; launching Special Forces operations to capture or kill high-value targets; and working with allies on the ground to offset conditions that foment extremism.
Beyond these battlefield undertakings, the U.S. has more recently intensified its focus on countering the narratives put forth by terrorists in an effort to deter individuals who may be drawn to their messages.
The dissemination of jihadist propaganda by ISIS and al Qaeda, often via social media, has encouraged thousands of supporters to travel abroad to fight on behalf of the terrorist groups. The jihadist storyline pits the West as an enemy of Islam, claiming that the West is trying to impose its will on Muslim land. Only by partaking in jihad against the West will Muslim lands be saved, an Islamic caliphate created, and the world reach a phase of final salvation.
Governments and companies worldwide have attempted to combat terrorist propaganda in various ways. Within the U.S. government, the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism housed at the State Department has implemented several programs, where the U.S. works alongside foreign partners to strengthen their law enforcement and judicial capabilities, and enhance their counter-messaging strategies.
According to Michael Ortiz, Cipher Brief expert and former Deputy Coordinator for Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department, it is critical for the U.S. to double down on its own counter-messaging endeavors.
“We spend billions of dollars on technology that’s able to take terrorists off the battlefield,” says Ortiz. “I’d rather spend billions of dollars trying to prevent people from getting to the battlefield in the first place, and using that technology as a last course of action.”
On the private side, companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have identified and shut down users who promote terrorist content. Last year, it was reported that Twitter disabled 235,000 accounts that had essentially served as terrorist recruiters.
Google’s in-house think tank, known as Jigsaw, is also developing a new advertisement-based counter-messaging initiative known as Redirect Method. When Google algorithms determine that an individual could be attracted to ISIS based on his or her keyword searches, advertisements linking to videos that counter ISIS’ messages immediately pop up.
“This came out of an observation that there’s a lot of online demand for ISIS material, but there are also a lot of credible organic voices online debunking their narratives,” Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw told Wired last September. “The Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.”
In addition, other organizations, such as Quilliam in the UK, aim to fight extremism through direct outreach to local communities.
“It’s really about countering these messages, using a whole range of theological, political, social, economic tools,” explains Haras Rafiq, Cipher Brief expert and CEO of Quilliam. “Teachers need to make it very clear to youngsters, through critical thinking, that the values that extremists send to children are not messages that we will accept in our society in the same way we wouldn’t accept racism.”
Despite these efforts, however, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University questions whether the U.S. should be using resources to develop counter-jihadist arguments rather than spending those funds on preventing the dissemination of terrorist propaganda, promoting American values, or closely monitoring those seeking to carry out violent acts.
“I would emphasize less the message and more the technological solutions of depriving the terrorists of the platforms that they use to communicate those messages,” said Hoffman during his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this week. “The counter-messaging should prevent the resurgence of these groups, not attempt to address them right now.”
At the same hearing, Brian Michael Jenkins, of the Rand Cooperation expressed his skepticism over counter-messaging’s actual impact.
“I’m not sure we can effectively persuade people to alter their views about religion, and I’m not sure that that is necessarily a productive path,” explained Jenkins.
“It is an extremely difficult thing to do, trying to change people’s worldview,” continued Jenkins. “It is far more effective for us to project our own beliefs and to live by those beliefs than it is for [us] to try to discredit how someone else views God.”
Furthermore, according to Jenkins, additional challenges stem from the fact that more and more ISIS-inspired individuals are not necessarily sharing ISIS’ religious beliefs.
“Jihadist ideology is becoming a conveyor for individual discontent, that is for individuals who are unhappy with their lives, who are aggressive, who are suffering from issues of substance abuse, even mental illness,” Jenkins concluded. “That is going to be just the continuing phenomenon we’re going to be dealing with.”
Bennett Seftel is deputy director of editorial at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.