Islamic State Dominates the Digital Battlefield

Farah Pandith

In the first 24 hours following the terrorist attacks on Paris, there were hundreds of thousands of celebratory tweets from supporters of Islamic State. Some 46,000 Twitter accounts send out a steady stream of photo essays, audio, video, news bulletins and theological writings on behalf of IS.

This is the digital communications battleground in the fight against IS. It’s where the rest of the world is losing. Without at least as swift and powerful action in the digital theater, air attacks may bring only temporary victories and could even help IS's effective recruitment drive.

Similarly, better intelligence is necessary but not sufficient. IS recruits not only in the neighborhoods of Brussels and the suburbs of Paris, but among nearly 1 billion digitally native Muslim millennials around the world. These young people are much more likely to come across IS messages promoting extremist ideology than messages pushing back.

IS issued more than 1,146 communications in a single month on their official channels, an October study found. Those messages are the work of a determined army of online IS foot soldiers that has won over tens of thousands of recruits worldwide.

Like all marketers trying to influence millennials, IS uses social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and SnapChat as well as peer-to-peer platforms such as Telegram and Kik and video gaming platforms. Videos of beheadings and bombings send a message of indomitability and build momentum; but there is also poetry, music, promises of communal brotherhood/sisterhood and portraits of a caliphate utopia finely gauged to woo Muslims who face a crisis of identity.

Though there has been much talk of the “soft war” in the 14 years since 9/11, the West’s approach has been hugely lacking. So has the response from Muslim countries.

Most people see the war on terrorism as a war between IS and national governments, yet all governments lack credibility in the soft war. Western governments carry the baggage of their foreign policies or colonization, perceptions of how they treat their Muslims, and complexity around post-9/11 security measures. Muslim-majority governments come with their own baggage of credibility based on their worldview and cultural history.

But credible voices who can engage Muslim youth online with alternative narratives are not scarce in the non-governmental sector; they are practical and affordable. They use the same social media that IS uses, as well as local grass-roots programs and ideas to counter IS's appeal.

In visits to more than 80 countries around the world, I have met thousands of individuals who are eager to present alternative narratives to the claims of victimhood and triumphal war that IS puts out. At the community level, these include athletes, graffiti artists, hip-hop activists, comedians, imams, business icons and others.

A number of NGOs are also making an impact. Gen Next Foundation and Google Ideas helped set up the Against Violent Extremism network, through which former extremists speak powerfully about the realities of life within an extremist group. Together with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (where I am an advisor), this network is countering IS's message in the digital space. Generation Change is another. This network comprises Muslim "change-makers" under the age of 30 in dozens of countries, who seed local efforts to give alternative narratives to their peers through film, youth radio and platforms where kids can talk about identity and belonging. Extreme Dialogue is a coalition of local NGOs, currently focused in Canada, which fund teacher training and youth awareness about online predators and the road to recruitment and radicalization. Comic books have also been a fruitful tactic in communicating to Muslim youth. Initiatives such as 99 Kids, created by the social entrepreneur Naif al Mutawa, and Marvel's Muslim superhero, help young Muslims perceive new role models. The London-based twitter movement #NotInMyName has been a simple but effective way for Muslim kids to express to their peers their horror at the Paris attacks and other terrorist violence.

The war on extremism, in this respect, is no different from the war on poverty or global warming; it's time we stop thinking of it as a uniquely government-driven fight. While government funding can be useful (even essential) in seeding some of these efforts, the response to IS’s ideological warfare must be driven by NGOs, philanthropists and the private sector, especially tech companies who can help fund and train counter-extremists in data analytics and the effective use of social media. In my experience in raising funds for and interest in counter-extremism projects, large corporations are keen to play a role (but less keen to be seen doing it). Companies can do more.

The mobilization of a massive online effort to flood the marketplace with counter-IS messages and with alternative narratives from credible sources requires digital professionals and infrastructure. Not one NGO exists in the world today with the ability to match IS's social media machinery. This is a gap that companies, philanthropists and individuals must fill so that IS can no longer build its army of recruits.