How Research Can Help Counter ISIS's Success, Part 1

My recommendations to the UN Security Council on how to deal with ISIS.

Posted Dec 17, 2015

The following are the research recommendations I submitted to the UN Security Council on how to treat ISIS. This is Part 1 in a series, and outlines what ISIS wants and how research can help counter ISIS's attraction and success.

Click here for the video of my address.

UN Web TV
Source: UN Web TV

A. What ISIS Wants

The following are axioms drawn from The Management of Chaos-Savagery (Idarat at-Tawahoush, required reading for every ISIS political, religious and military leader, or amir), and from the February 2015 editorial in Dabiq (the ISIS publication online), on “The Extinction of the Gray Zone.” ISIS’s actions have been, and likely will continue to be, consistent with these axioms:

  • Work to expose the weakness of the so-called Great Powers by pushing them to abandon the media psychological war and war by proxy until they fight directly.
  • Draw these powers into military conflict. Seek the confrontations that will bring them to fight in our regions on our terms.
  • Diversify the strikes and attack soft targets—tourist areas, eating places, places of entertainment, sports events, and so forth—that cannot possibly be defended everywhere. Disperse the infidels’ resources and drain them to the greatest extent possible, and so undermine people’s faith in the ability of their governments to provide security, most basic of all state functions.
  • Target the young, and especially the disaffected, who tend to rebel against authority, are eager for self-sacrifice and are filled with idealism; and let inert organizations and their leaders foolishly preach moderation.
  • Motivate the masses to fly to regions that we manage, by eliminating the “Gray Zone” between the true believer and the infidel, which most people, including most Muslims, currently inhabit. Use so-called “terror attacks” to help Muslims realize that non-Muslims hate Islam and want to harm all who practice it, to show that peacefulness gains Muslims nothing but pain.
  • Use social media to inspire sympathizers abroad to violence. Communicate the message: Do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.
  • Pay attention to what works to hold the interest of people, especially youth, in the lands of the Infidel [e.g., television ratings, box office receipts, music and video charts], and use what works as templates to carry our righteous messages and calls to action under the black banner.

B. How Research Could Help Counter ISIS's Attraction and Success

  • Understand and use the ISIS playbook against ISIS (as it now uses our own media against us). Know the messages that resonate and why. Include: cognitive and social scientists, historians, geo-political experts, spiritual leaders, scholars, security and intelligence professionals, content and marketing experts, bloggers, media and gaming creators and story tellers. We already know the people ISIS targets. We need to research and test messages of hope for those who are disillusioned and disaffected—those seeking meaning, glory, esteem, adventure, respect, remembrance, camaraderie, justice, rebellion, self-sacrifice and structure around personal chaos.
  • Fortunately, there is no shortage of credible voices ready to engage globally. There are thousands of individuals and organizations around the globe that know the social platforms and have the alternative narratives to the claims of victimhood and triumphal war that ISIS puts out. At the community level and from popular culture, these include athletes, musicians, graffiti artists, hip-hop activists, actors, comedians, imams, business icons and others. But systematic study is needed to show which narratives work, for whom, and in what contexts.
  • Use research to find the counter-narratives that work and curate an independent influencer network of credible global voices, local content creators, bloggers, etc., who grasp the generational, cultural, theological and geographical nuances of their communities.
  • Build a network of social media “early responders” to monitor, obfuscate, overwhelm, disrupt and block the distribution of ISIS content. Study what methods worked in the past.
  • ISIS implements marketing and data services to map and profile “susceptible” audiences. Integrating data on consumption (what people watch and click), natural language (what they say) and relationships (whom they connect with) culled from social media, search, web programmatic, dark social and web. We should do much the same with these “at- risk” audiences.
  • Governments are useful, even essential, in seeding these efforts, financially and with organizational support. But societies have always needed commitment and leadership from their citizens and the private sector. Across the world, people want to help. Research into crowd-source funding and volunteers could show them how.
  • Involve media in recognizing the need for responsible restraint. Media exposure, which is the oxygen of terror in our age, not only greatly amplifies the perception of danger, but in generating fear, makes the threat to our own societies greater. Because our own media are mainly designed to titillate rather than as a public service to inform, it is has become child’s play for ISIS to turn our own propaganda machine, and the world’s mightiest media, into theirs—a novel, highly potent jujitsu style of asymmetric warfare that could be countered with responsible restraint. Research could help indicate when and where restraint has most effect and least limits free expression and provision of information to the public.
  • Inquire into the successes and failures of past revolutionary, insurgent and terrorist movements. For example, there are striking historical parallels with the rise of ISIS. The French Revolution suffered through internal factionalism and fighting, “the Terror” was introduced as a political tactic, the realms of the revolution were invaded by a fractious coalition of outside powers, yet the revolution survived, transformed, and emerged as the Empire.
  • The failure and aftermath of the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe is somewhat suggestive of what happened with the Arab Spring, when participatory democracy had not yet sufficiently developed the underlying values and institutions—free press, independent judiciary, tolerance of minorities, etc.—needed to make popular choice and elections more than a tyranny of the majority.
  • The rise of al-Qaeda in the late 20th century is reminiscent of the rise of anarchism in the late 19th century. The present dwindling of AQ relative to Daesh is similar to the co-opting and near annihilation of the anarchists by the Bolsheviks, who knew much better how to manage a shared political ambition through military and territorial administration. And there are lessons to be learned from the experience of the Nazis as well: The National Socialist movement had genuine appeal as it asked for self-sacrifice in a glorious mission of radical, world historical change that rejects all prior international norms governing the relations between peoples and nations.
  • Study how reaction to terrorism is affecting the resilience and ability to respond in our own societies. Many governments are sacrificing liberties for security, which plays into ISIS’s hands. Research could help indicate which security measures are most effective in thwarting terrorism with minimum effect on human rights.
  • More generally, study and understand the noxious effects of reaction to terrorism on our own societies. For example, the U.S. Justice Department and Congress now consider the common kitchen pressure cooker to be a “weapon of mass destruction” if used for terrorism however defined. This novel legal concept of “weapon of mass destruction” places a cooking pot on par with a thermonuclear bomb that has many billions of times greater destructive power, which preliminary research suggests is trivializing true weapons of mass destruction in the public mind, and making their acceptance more palatable and their use more conceivable.

In Part 2, I will outline how research can help in the fight against ISIS. In Part 3, I discuss who fights for ISIS and why, and in Part 4 I break down what we have wrong about ISIS and what we can do about it.