Expert Commentary

Recruits Hear Extremist Messages in ‘Surround Sound’

Farah Pandith
Former Special Representative to Muslim Communities, U.S. Department of State

Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS have strategically disseminated propaganda that appeals to a wide variety of individuals. Although al Qaeda was the first terrorist organization to launch a media wing, ISIS has developed far more expansive media capabilities as it uses various platforms to attract new recruits or convince people to conduct attacks in their home countries. The U.S. government has implemented counter-messaging programs but has seen mixed results as the terrorist message continues to resonate with some disenchanted individuals here in the homeland. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Farah Pandith, former Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the U.S. State Department, to discuss the tools used by terrorist to circulate their message, as well as how the U.S. can more effectively combat the extremist ideology.

The Cipher Brief: Can you describe the main platforms that al Qaeda and ISIS use to disseminate their propaganda?

Farah Pandith: This is a critical question. Sixteen years after 9/11, right now we tend to be focusing on the newest and shiniest thing that groups like ISIS or al Qaeda are using, but in fact, it is very important that policymakers understand that it is not just one platform or just a specific technology platform that radicalizes and recruits young Muslims to their terrorist organizations. What both these groups, and other groups, have understood is that they need as many weapons in the marketplace as they can, which means they need as many touch points that they can get to appeal to a young person.

What this means is that their narrative is in surround sound. They’re using every single vehicle to weaponize their ideas, whether that is radio, pamphlets, DVDs, or YouTube. People think that some of these things are from the dark ages and no longer exist, when in fact they don’t die and still do exist.

Furthermore, the ideology hasn’t shifted, and the core messaging around belonging to a terrorist organization for the reasons that we understand hasn’t shifted. So if you go back to 9/11 and you look at a group like al Qaeda, and you see how former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s sermons were publicly posted on a regular news network such as Al Jazeera for hours, would you say that is a platform for radicalization? Sure, at that time it was, and the choices Al Jazeera made were frustrating for the U.S. government.

Remember that at that point in history, when Twitter had not arrived and there were fewer platforms, Al Jazeera was the all-day-every day news channel across the Middle East, not to speak of other places.  But ordinary television can be weaponized. But so too are the pamphlets that go out and the radio stations. I saw all kinds of pamphlets, “how to manuals” and clunky (non slick) reading material in bookstores, on the road in stalls or just laid out on the ground. In Africa, radio was the medium then and still is used today all over the world.

I want to be clear that the mechanisms that these terrorist organizations use are the very things that we use. And over time, we’ve migrated to using not just those older platforms that are still useful, but terrorist groups have also connected to the modern touchpoints that millennials – which is the demographic they’re going after – will want see. So they develop apps, and they are on platforms such as Telegram, Kik, and Twitter. Right now, I don’t believe they are on Twitch, but if you were a bad guy, wouldn’t you be looking to the places where your prey goes? They use the tools that we have to influence the behavior, the feelings, the emotions of people.

Video is a very important mechanism, but so too are music, poetry, and images that can come forward in the memes. Let’s remember that they’re doing what any organization in the world tries to do to make sure that you buy their product. That online and offline simultaneous approach is what is winning over the demographic of young people who see their message in every place that they are.

TCB: How effective are these platforms at attracting new recruits? Are there any statistics that demonstrate a direct correlation?

Pandith: It’s hard to measure the impact of an internal emotional change that is happening within someone. We can measure how many foreign fighters go to a physical space or how they move online (where they go, what they see, what they then do online because of where they have been), but that’s not the full number or a complete way to measure. If you’re looking at and thinking about how people absorb information—news, what’s happening in their virtual space and in their offline space, and how do they change their sentiment—how do you measure that? You’re not doing polling every week the way you would during a presidential campaign.

We have the tools to measure sentiment. We do that in every one of our political campaigns. But you’re not undergoing that kind of vigorous, consistent attention and focus on one quarter of the planet, which is the demographic that they’re recruiting from.

This is the mistake we make. We think we’re looking at a physical space and just one or two particular groups. But while the genesis of these groups may be different, the ideology of the “us” and “them” transforms in many different ways. Whether it’s in Mindanao in the Philippines and what’s happening there and why, or what’s happening in Syria, the change in mood and behavior in feeling around identity is what we have to measure, and we have not measured that. There’s no global compass that can give us a systematic assessment over time about how things have changed within a person. And thus, how you correlate the shifts and migration of these ideas into different platforms?

We need to have a steady and precise collaborative effort by government and non government that really looks to change behavior within communities – what is taking place in terms of how youth are reacting to what they feel about their place in the world, their culture, religion, et cetera. Moving from how someone feels outside of the virtual world and into the virtual world requires an overhaul of how we approach emotional listening and why it matters to national security.

Extremists prey upon youth using different tools on and offline, but they can’t get their attention if the kids are not seeking information, explanation, belonging, purpose – an identity they feel fits. Looking at this 16 years after 9/11, we know peer groups matter, and what is taking place within that young person matters. Thus, unless you are focused on this aspect, you can’t have an accurate indicator. You have numbers that tell you what happens in real time as people are connecting to extremists, or what happens after they leave to join a group. We have information that can tell you where youth are from.

Everyone wants data. We want to get serious about fighting the recruitment and radicalization, and we think this kind of data will get us there. Unfortunately, that is not all we need to be doing.

Just because ISIS and al Qaeda’s strength is less on the battlefield, their materials both physical and virtual, don’t get killed. Their ideas are powerful weapons. So that measurement is around the compelling nature of their messaging and the internal changes that are happening. One could argue that we are only concerned with the people who have been radicalized to violence.

But while that is critical, it is really vital that we understand that even the migration of someone from being a normal person to becoming more and more sympathetic to these groups destroys communities. It changes the feeling and atmosphere of these communities as well, which could result in a wide range of things. Messaging is not just about what we think it is, it is about something far bigger.

TCB: Have these groups evolved and adapted to our efforts to counter their messaging?

Pandith: These groups are consistently current, which means that they are watching and listening, they are cultural listeners, and they understand what’s happening in the foreign policy sphere as well as in the cultural and political sphere. They’re taking advantage of everything that’s happening in real time and are understanding Generation Z and millennials. And they are targeting their messages and the way they manifest that message, so that it is appealing to the demographic they’re trying to recruit.

This is a series of actions by these groups that reflect an understanding of the world we live in – 24/7, always changing, different languages, different feelings, understanding what needs to happen, having flexibility to experiment and be innovative when they need to be, and understanding when to pull back and give attention to other places. They are flexible, creative, determined, and focused. They are doing what they need to do to recruit.

TCB: How effective has our counter-messaging been? How can we more effectively combat the dissemination of this type of propaganda?

Pandith: You have to contrast what these terrorist organizations are doing with the government approach, which is problematic on many levels. Government doesn’t have the authenticity to be able to give any kind of message to young people about who they are, what their identity is, or how they should think about themselves. That’s not the platform young people go to to learn about who they are.

What we know is that there is a crisis of identity happening with both Generation Z and millennials around what it means to be Muslim, which is the starting point for their movement along what I would call a conveyor belt towards violence. And government is not part of that equation in terms of changing behavior or emotion. Government messaging is always going to be government messaging. Young people in Generation Z and millennials are moved by their own peer group. So, the messengers must be their own peer group. They’ve got to be influencers from that demographic in a very nuanced way. It can’t just be somebody who is a millennial who has influence in San Francisco, but nobody in Boston has ever heard of them. It doesn’t work like that. It needs to be very granular.

So, if we know that and you compare it to what our government has been doing, we’ve been approaching things from a position of “Let’s just create the largest bureaucracy we possibly can to demonstrate that we are going something.” I’m not saying that our government doesn’t want to diminish the appeal of the ideology, of course we do. We are just approaching this in completely the wrong way. It isn’t going to be government that does this, it is going to be the non-government sectors that are able to get the messages out.

Where government should be putting their money and their ability to leverage the thing that they know the best, is in intelligence. We know what the bad guys are doing. What we haven’t done is to use our power as government to bring the right actors to the table to be able to do this – real cultural listeners, anthropologists, child mind experts, behavioral scientists, and all of the people who deal with young people up until the age of 30, who are part of teams that you work with when you are trying to move behavior. That is what we are talking about. And we haven’t done that. I call that Open Power, and it’s how we can win.

There is no 50 state plan across America to inoculate young Americans from this external ideology, not to speak of the global platform that many governments can execute on. And the result is what you see right now – the extremists are winning.

You hear governments say that we are succeeding, and their measurement is that we are pulling back on the physical space. There we are succeeding. But my question is, why haven’t we killed the vast appeal of the ideology, made it unfriendly, or poisoned the atmosphere so that young people don’t absorb it? That is within our capacity. We have skills as governments around the world to access people who know how to change behavior, if in fact we re-thought the way in which we were going to go about it. Building a new entity within the U.S. government is not the answer.

TCB: Can the U.S. government play an important role by pressuring other governments, for example, Qatar, to remove extremist content from their news website or by providing local communities with resources for them to leverage?

Pandith: Government needs to be determined and focused and put the money where their mouth is on this issue. The ideology that is being spread around the world is not just from one country that is spreading it or one way of doing things, though there are so vitally important actors like Saudi and Qatar. The Wahhabi ideology of Us versus Them was present in a real and systematic way in nearly 100 countries I visited when I was at the Department of State. It is more than just their impact on free textbooks or training of imams. Pressure by the U.S. government needs to go beyond harsh words. There needs to be diplomatic and economic consequences. Putting some teeth on our statements may change their actions.

The U.S. government and other governments should hold nations accountable if we know they contribute to the spread of extremist ideology. Sending our troops overseas to fight when a crisis happens isn’t the way to win. We have to do more. We must stop recruitment, and if nations contribute to radicalizing youth to join terrorist organizations, governments like ours should be stating what we know. It isn’t just about calling out one or two things in an annual report by the Department of State.

We have seen some really powerful leadership by governments where they have spoken very clearly about platforms that extremists use to spread their messages. This was happening way back around 9/11 when al Qaeda used video tapes that were aired on Al Jazeera. The governments and citizens in America and other parts of the world were engaged actively on the issue of why Al Jazeera was giving Bin Laden a vehicle to spread his message. U.S. government called out the airing of those videos very clearly.

We’ve heard governments in Europe strongly speak about the need for technology companies to do more to make sure their platforms are not being hijacked by extremists. We see the role of government in a very important way, and continue to do that.

We don’t see it go far enough, however. We don’t see the kind of money that governments need to put into the ideological war. But, we shouldn’t be doing that by building buildings; we should be doing that by scaling the ideas that are coming from civil society that have a legitimacy to be able to stop that. We need a 24/7, credible machine at the pace and with the kind of determination, focus, and spread of groups like ISIS or al Qaeda. That isn’t impossible.

When you talk to people who are in the business of changing behavior, some things seem like an impossible act. At one point in American history, the kind of movement we saw that would change a behavior such as smoking, people would have said that was impossible. You would have said it is impossible to see Americans become more eco-friendly or change the behavior around how we think about our food. What about the way Americans responded to HIV? Safe sex education, systems of behavior and peer influence revolutionized the way Americans protect themselves from this virus. There are many different behavioral changes that we have invested in to be able to access and change the direction of a problem and a challenge that we face.

This is a deadly problem. When you look at the numbers, there are more than one billion young Muslims around the world who are under the age of 30. That is the demographic from which they are recruiting. So, this isn’t “just” one part of a world or another. As technology advances and as these groups get even more determined, even if ISIS as a group goes away tomorrow, the next thing that comes up will be as diligent and as focused on making sure that their message is in every place that the demographic of the group they are trying to recruit goes. Even worse; the collaboration of groups, the weaponization of ideas, and the way they will continue to use media, social platforms, and old school communication, and younger and younger recruits.

But government has a chance. We know that government understands what’s happening. With regard to the intel, they are watching very carefully, not just our government, but governments around the world as well. We have a lot of knowledge, even if we didn’t learn one more thing by tomorrow.

My question is, how do we re-strategize? The strategy that has to be created around stopping recruitment isn’t just a messaging one. That is the wrong way of looking at it.  It is about understanding the identity crisis that is happening, finding ways to maximize those on the outside of government who know how to get into this space, and going at it at full speed for a decade to begin to see that change happen. Government needs a real plan that combines hard and soft power equally and the money to support those on the outside who know how to do this. Scale is the issue. Government has proclaimed a lot, said the right things. Yet, 16 years after 9/11, the resilience of the ideology is stronger than ever, and I would argue even stronger today than it was then. The Us versus Them drumbeat is in surround sound – all kinds – and they all connect to each other and effect the way a young person feels.

This is not a 100-year project. It may be considered an impossible thing by many, but I don’t buy that at all. There is a path ahead and solutions are available and affordable. The question that we have to be asking is: If ISIS and al Qaeda know how to manipulate everyday life, how is it that we can’t get ahead of them?

The Author is Farah Pandith

Farah Pandith is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ms. Pandith served as a political appointee in the George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack H. Obama administrations at the National Security Council, US Agency for International Development and US Department of State. She is a frequent media commentator and public speaker. Her book How We Win will be released in 2018... Read More

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