Fixing How We Fight the Islamic State’s Narrative


Over the past couple of years, counter-messaging has been driven to the forefront of countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts undertaken by the United States and its allies. From defense agencies to diplomats to civil society groups, almost every actor involved in CVE is committed to developing narratives to counter the potent propaganda and appeal of groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The need for effective counter-messaging is apparent: The Islamic State in particular possesses an agile and robust propaganda machine that has helped to inspire as many as 31,000 people from across the globe to leave their homes and join the cause.

While there is no shortage of actors interested in developing narratives that can counter violent extremist propaganda, the CVE space is noticeably lacking in analytic frameworks that illustrate the various purposes of counter-messaging efforts, highlight how parallel projects fit together, and help practitioners evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives. Thus, much of the work in this sphere has been ad hoc and piecemeal. It is often unclear who the target audiences are for counter-messaging campaigns, and even the campaigns’ objectives can be amorphous. This absence of an analytic framework leaves CVE practitioners at a disadvantage.

We aim to fill the gap by providing an analytic framework illuminating the variegated purposes of a counter-messaging campaign, and demonstrating how these various purposes can be applied to different aspects of the Islamic State’s narrative. The framework is obviously applicable beyond the context of the Islamic State, but we use that group as an example because the Islamic State’s robust social media machine makes it a unique challenge, allowing the group to mobilize extremists to violent action at an unprecedented rate and scale. The Islamic State is truly revolutionary in medium and message, and thus is an appropriate case study for this analytic framework.

The framework outlined below can help CVE actors better understand how various counter-messaging and counter-network policies interact with, and reinforce, one another. This in turn will help CVE actors maximize the impact of all the tools in their toolkit, enabling a more efficient and comprehensive strategy. This article does not directly provide evaluation metrics, which are also vital for answering questions of resource allocation in CVE campaigns, but our framework can be used as a jumping off point for crafting them.

There Can Be No Strategy Without Objectives

The logical starting point for developing an analytic framework is outlining the central objectives of a counter-messaging campaign against a given violent extremist organization (VEO). These objectives should relate to the VEO’s core messaging and recruitment strategies. Beginning with goals that relate to the VEO’s objectives allows CVE practitioners to develop an enemy-centric counter-messaging campaign — one that is appropriately mapped to the adversary’s strengths — rather than beginning with a set of policies that practitioners wish to pursue, and then fishing around to find their purpose.

We delineate possible counter-messaging campaign objectives in the next section of this article. There are several obvious advantages to outlining objectives at the outset of any such campaign. First, it helps ensure that a campaign doesn’t fail to address key VEO messaging strengths that are subject to disruption — and, conversely, it can reveal if practitioners have overinvested in certain policies. Second, beginning with overarching objectives allows practitioners to identify the full range of purposes that specific counter-narratives might satisfy. No single counter-narrative will address every goal simultaneously; outlining the spectrum of objectives allows practitioners to produce counter-narratives tailored to specific aspects of a campaign. This approach also enables practitioners to better evaluate the effectiveness of counter-narratives. For instance, a campaign that serves a disruptive purpose (forcing the Islamic State to expend resources on refutation) has not necessarily failed if it does not deradicalize current supporters.

Once objectives have been outlined, the next step is developing specific narratives and policies that CVE actors can pursue to advance these objectives. Individual counter-narratives can advance multiple objectives: A well-designed counter-narrative often addresses various components of a VEO’s messaging strategy at once. Publicizing defections from the Islamic State, for example, undermines the group’s core narratives of strength and legitimacy, places the group on the defensive from a messaging standpoint, and helps to dissuade individuals from supporting the Islamic State.

CVE practitioners should incorporate the capabilities and resources of a variety of stakeholders, including governments (central, state-level, and municipal), civil society actors, and — where they are willing and capable — tech firms. Each of these actors can play a unique role. For instance, it may not be appropriate for the federal government to take the lead in disseminating certain counter-extremist content, but it can play a vital purpose in supporting the efforts of civil society actors, both financially and through the provision of subject matter expertise. Tech companies may be reluctant to engage in counter-messaging, but might provide assistance to actors seeking to develop compelling web-based counter-narrative content. An initiative recently undertaken by YouTube shows how such assistance might look in practice.

The below graphic illustrates the relationship between certain key objectives and policies in a counter-messaging campaign against the Islamic State, after which this article expands upon what these objectives and policies mean, and how they fit together to form a cohesive whole.


Objectives of a Counter-Messaging Campaign against the Islamic State

Though various governments and civil society actors will doubtless quibble about the framing or details, we might see the broad goals of a counter-messaging campaign against the Islamic State as: 1) undermine the group’s appeal; 2) reduce the group’s ability to exploit social media and other online communications platforms; and 3) diminish the Islamic State’s capacity to engage with and recruit supporters. Several core objectives can advance these goals.

Undermine the Islamic State’s core narrative. The Islamic State’s propaganda fuses religious, political, and personal narratives to attract supporters, foreign fighters and “migrants.” Its narrative fundamentally hinges on the group’s ability to project an image of strength and momentum: If it cannot do so, the group’s use of excessive brutality may become an albatross around its neck, as was the case for its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Indeed, the Islamic State’s slogan — baqiya wa tatamaddad, or remaining and expanding — is illustrative of the group’s “winner’s message.” The Islamic State has often exaggerated its gains and downplayed its losses to bolster perceptions of its strength.

A second aspect of the Islamic State’s core narrative is the assertion that it has established a religiously and politically legitimate caliphate. As Charlie Winter noted here at War on the Rocks, the Islamic State has devoted considerable resources to portraying its caliphate as an Islamic utopia, where food is abundant, public services top-notch, and Islamic law (sharia) implemented as it was during the Prophet Muhammad’s time.

A third noteworthy aspect of the Islamic State’s core narrative is the perception, widely shared by young jihadists, that the Islamic State is a “cool” organization, and that fighting abroad is an opportunity for adventure. To perpetuate this view, the Islamic State has produced slick propaganda videos depicting scenes of violence that mirror video games like Call of Duty (a term that Islamic State militants on social media have at times appropriated). Such images of adventure and accomplishment are often incongruent with reality.

Undercutting the Islamic State’s core narratives is perhaps the most critical element of a counter-messaging campaign. Exposing the group’s embellishments and outright fabrications can do a great deal of damage to the Islamic State’s overall appeal.

Put the Islamic State on the defensive. Another aspect of a comprehensive campaign is placing the group on the defensive rhetorically. For instance, calling the Islamic State out on social media when it exaggerates military successes might not persuade its supporters to abandon the organization, but may force the group into a defensive posture. The Islamic State may find itself dedicating valuable time and resources to fending off negative perceptions — time and resources the group would prefer to devote to its recruitment and mobilization initiatives.

Break up Islamic State relationships. A counter-messaging campaign can focus on accentuating disagreements and schisms within the social networks that the Islamic State uses to communicate with and recruit at-risk individuals. In the Islamic State’s online recruitment architecture, social media operatives constantly interact with recruits to foster a sense of what analyst J.M. Berger describes as “remote intimacy.”

Peel away Islamic State supporters. This objective is to facilitate deradicalization from the Islamic State’s ideology, or at least disengagement from the group. As John Horgan has noted, deradicalization implies the abandonment of an extremist outlook, while disengagement “might indicate some continued adherence to these values and attitudes, and engaging in some other socially relevant ‘support’ behavior but no longer engaging in actual terrorist operations.” While individuals known to deradicalize or disengage on the basis of messaging alone are relatively rare (there are more known cases of disillusioned foreign fighters or migrants), hope can be found in cases like the Finnish teenager known as Abdullah who once served as a powerful online English-language propagandist for the group.

Provide alternative pathways. Individuals who become radicalized often struggle to find meaningful ideas and identities, or believe that violent extremist groups offer the only way to address their political or personal anger. The Islamic State’s worldview may fill the void that such individuals feel in their lives. Practitioners may try to intervene to highlight alternative pathways — such as political activism — for dealing with such individuals’ anger and dissatisfaction, or offer different outlets and opportunities that at-risk individuals see as meaningful. While a messaging campaign is capable of highlighting such alternative pathways, it is difficult to make them robust solely through communicating them. The promotion of alternative pathways is probably better achieved through a broader CVE campaign that is not limited to counter-messaging.

Prevent mobilization to action/violence. In lieu of trying to deradicalize the Islamic State’s supporters, CVE practitioners may focus instead on deterring or preventing radicalized individuals from mobilizing to violence. Many people harbor extremist sentiments but never act on them.

Bulwark against future radicalization. An effective counter-messaging campaign may develop counter-narratives that appeal to neither a VEO’s current supporters nor at-risk populations, but instead serve as a bulwark against future radicalization and recruitment. These counter-narratives aim to ensure that people disinterested in the Islamic State’s dark worldview remain disinterested, thus denuding the group of its appeal to future generations.

From Objectives to Policy

A variety of narratives and policies, detailed below, can be implemented that advance one or some of these objectives. These narratives can be promoted by a variety of actors, including governments, civil society actors, journalists, activists, analysts, or academics. In many cases, the audience will be most receptive when the government is not the messenger. This section illustrates such policies.

Campaign to undermine the Islamic State’s narrative of military strength. Practitioners could develop a campaign designed to target and undermine the image of success and military strength that the Islamic State seeks to project. The Islamic State’s narrative of military dominance is vulnerable to disruption, as the group has exaggerated its gains and sought to distract attention from its losses. The fact that the caliphate lost about 14 percent of its territory in Syria and Iraq in 2015 illustrates the gap between perceptions of the group and the military realities. Practitioners could undertake this campaign in various ways. One option is establishing a counter-Islamic State social media cell whose primary function is publicizing the group’s losses and highlighting where the Islamic State has inflated or lied about its exploits. Such a cell could establish direct relationships with members of the media to help prevent the Islamic State from dictating the media narrative, such as when major media outlets, influenced by Islamic State propaganda, erroneously reported that the group gained sole control of the Libyan city of Derna in November 2014.

Exposing the Islamic State’s inability to provide public services. While the Islamic State portrays its caliphate in utopian terms, the group has a poor track record of providing services to populations under its control. Numerous news reports have noted that citizens in the caliphate suffer from shortages of food, medicine, and other crucial goods, and that public services and infrastructure are deteriorating in the Islamic State’s territory. Practitioners can reveal the Islamic State’s failings through videos, graphics, articles, and social media accounts focusing on the poor quality of life under the Islamic State.

Challenging the Islamic State’s religious narrative. Challenges to the group’s religious narrative are likely best left to non-governmental entities in most Western states, as governments may be best advised not to make theological declarations about Islam. Certainly, having the secretary of state declaring takfir on Islamic State members was an embarrassment for the United States. That being said, attacks on the Islamic State’s religious arguments strike at one of the group’s core narratives. There are various approaches to doing so, such as providing a social media platform for clerics who are seen as legitimate by mainstream Muslims to critique the Islamic State through the texts and precepts of Islamic law.

Publicizing defections. Defectors from the Islamic State are among the greatest propaganda pieces available to practitioners. The disgruntled foreign fighters who found that the caliphate did not meet their expectations stand in stark contrast to the group’s claims. Defectors can debunk the myths and legends that the Islamic State perpetuates, speaking with the authority of first-hand experience. For instance, a young engineering student from India who defected after six months explained that he never saw the battlefield, and instead was tasked with such menial chores as cleaning bathrooms. Defectors’ stories can be utilized in a variety of ways, including high-quality videos of defectors telling their stories. These videos would directly challenge the sleek recruitment videos that the Islamic State produces, and may counter the group’s claim to epitomize “jihadi cool.” At the very least, these stories might dissuade individuals who are already radicalized from mobilizing and traveling to Syria or Iraq.

One-on-one intervention with at-risk individuals. The Islamic State has created a deeply intimate online community of supporters, recruiters, and potential recruits. Recruiters speak constantly with supporters throughout the world, fostering bonds of trust that are integral to mobilizing vulnerable people to violent action. To counter this, CVE practitioners could create a cadre of online counselors who mirror the Islamic State’s own recruiters. These counselors could consist of U.S. government employees, contractors, members of civil society, or concerned Muslim community members — or even networks that span some or all of these sectors. This team would monitor the jihadist social media sphere to identify at-risk individuals who are engaging with jihadist recruiters and propagandists. Counselors could reach out to them through public or private messaging to establish contact and develop relationships, then engage at-risk individuals on critical issues, including religious ideology and political grievances. This option could disrupt relationships the Islamic State has established with potential recruits, with counselors inserting themselves into the group’s social networks and forcing recruiters to either drown out the counselors or try to conceal their recruitment. Neither option is ideal for the Islamic State.

Online discussion forums. A central obstacle to counter-messaging is that at-risk individuals frequently stay below the radar, and do not engage with community leaders on critical and controversial issues. At-risk individuals may be reluctant to discuss their fringe political sympathies with their friends or imams for fear of being stigmatized or prosecuted. Thus, the Islamic State and its online supporters may be the only actors actually speaking to at-risk individuals’ deepest held doubts and concerns. To address this, CVE practitioners could create online forums where at-risk individuals can discuss their political disgruntlement, salafism, or jihadist ideas with knowledgeable community leaders in a candid, safe environment. Such forums would provide at-risk individuals an alternative outlet to the echo chamber of salafi jihadist networks, and would help community leaders and religious figures engage young people who may have isolated themselves from mainstream Muslim communities. These forums could address several CVE objectives, breaking up the insular networks upon which the Islamic State relies and offering an alternative pathway to individuals who are at risk of becoming radicalized.

Taking down jihadist social media accounts and websites. Actors involved in counter-messaging can counter the Islamic State’s messaging by facilitating the suspension of pro-Islamic State social media accounts and taking down jihadist websites and forums. (If these actors are in the tech sphere, they may be able to pull down the accounts directly; otherwise they can facilitate the accounts’ suspensions by reporting them.) Pulling down jihadist accounts, even if they create new profiles almost immediately, has a disruptive effect on their relationships — but this approach is not a silver bullet. Account suspensions can keep online operatives off-balance temporarily, but cannot permanently dismantle the Islamic State’s online networks. The Islamic State has already adapted to account suspensions on Twitter by moving to other social media platforms and developing strategies to quickly reestablish their old networks.

Toward a Better Understanding of Counter-Messaging

Counter-messaging is just one component of a CVE campaign. A successful campaign will have several complementary approaches, including counter-network (i.e., disrupting VEO online networks) and counter-recruitment (i.e., undermining VEO engagement with potential recruits) operations. Further, though discussion in this article is limited to policy options and counter-narratives in the realm of social media and online communications, the importance of the online space — as opposed to messaging in the physical world — should not be exaggerated.

By breaking a counter-messaging campaign into component policies and mapping them to objectives, this framework can help answer the question of how we evaluate the effectiveness of counter-messaging policies. CVE policies can be notoriously hard to evaluate because of the difficulty of proving a counterfactual: demonstrating that, had it not been for the CVE campaign, various people would have become radicalized or mobilized. Mapping policies to objectives can help CVE practitioners ask targeted questions. If a policy is designed to have a disruptive effect, is the Islamic State forced to modify its messaging? If a policy is designed to break up Islamic State relationships, has the shape of the group’s social network changed?

This analytic blueprint can also help CVE actors make resource allocation decisions. For instance, should the Islamic State begin to experience significant battlefield losses, CVE actors may shift more resources toward highlighting the group’s military weakness. If the Islamic State mounts a resurgence and seizes more territory, CVE actors can instead focus on the group’s inability to govern. Mapping policies to objectives can help practitioners determine if some goals are not being sufficiently advanced, and conversely can help identify objectives in which the level of investment has been too high.

Governments can play a central role in facilitating a whole-of-community approach among government, civil society, commercial, and other actors. Counter-messaging is most effective when various actors are incorporated into a broader strategy, and governments alone have the resources, capabilities, and connections to manage these multiple lines of effort. Indeed, while governments are rightly reluctant to take center stage in counter-messaging efforts, their role as backstage managers is potentially even more important to the overarching strategy.

Most important, this framework takes a much-needed first step toward developing a more methodical approach to counter-messaging. As CVE continues to grow in importance, now is the time to establish foundational blocks upon which future counter-messaging campaigns can be erected and evaluated. The Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other VEOs have carefully refined and structured their propaganda operations to maximize their appeal to target audiences. We will have to do the same.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the chief executive officer of Valens Global, a consulting firm that focuses on violent non-state actors. Nathaniel Barr is the research manager at Valens Global. The authors would like to thank Paxton Roberts, who worked as a research intern at FDD in the summer of 2015, for creating the graphic that accompanies this article.