In the first post in this series, I argued that Islamic State (IS) is neither a terrorist organisation nor unique as some claim, and that it’s better seen as an insurgency. In the second post, I explored the range of motivations that its supporters have for backing IS—a range which doesn’t support the idea that IS rose using coercion alone nor that it can be defeated similarly. In this final post, I want to focus on ‘Information Operations’ (IO)—arguably the strategic heart of any modern insurgency, and simultaneously the single greatest weakness in counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. As then US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates lamented in 2008: ‘we’re being out-communicated by a guy in a cave’. Contrasting the US State Department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ counter-IS campaign with IS’s latest video ‘Flames of War’, that strategic deficit seems to have grown.
From Mao and Guevara to Ho Chi Minh and Bin Laden, there’s almost universal agreement in modern insurgency thinking that IO should have strategic primacy in any small-wars campaign. That’s exactly how the Islamic State (IS) calibrates its strategy. The new anti-IS coalition is confronting an insurgency that’s demonstrated a near-mastery of IO as a strategic mechanism to shape perceptions, frame politico-military actions and thus magnify the effects of its efforts in the field. By contrast, against the Taliban in Afghanistan, COIN IO has been acknowledged by senior commanders (eg Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup and former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer) as a strategic weakness. That’s not a good sign for confronting IS whose IO is far more sophisticated than the Afghan Taliban’s.
Another important distinction between insurgent and COIN/CT IO lies in its messaging. COIN/CT IO tends to focus on the ‘rational choice’ benefits of its politico-military actions. Conversely, IS’s seemingly magnetic appeal is rooted in how it leverages psychosocial dynamics to maximise the impact of its message. IS communiqués portray a bi-polar world in which out-group identities (eg anyone not IS-aligned) are responsible for causing crises and the in-group identity (IS-aligned Sunni Muslims) are framed as the only hope for solving those crises. In its war for meaning and control, IS IO doesn’t merely inform its audience but shapes their perceptions and polarises their support.
IS appears to heed a lesson perfected by bin Laden: the impact of insurgent narratives and actions can be exponentially boosted by misguided enemy responses. Nowhere is that dynamic clearer in the info-war space than when Western political leaders and their strategic-policy architects perpetuate the ‘war on evil ideas’ hubris (eg US, Australia, UK). Whenever a Western politician delivers a sanctimonious sermon on ‘real’ Islam or the US State Department launches a bizarre sarcastic anti-IS narrative, they’re succumbing to a key aim of IS IO: to coax out-group representatives (eg Western politicians) into rhetorically reinforcing IS narratives.
If Western politicians and strategic policymakers insist that an ‘ideological battle’ lies at the heart of this counter-IS campaign, then the conflict becomes a war of meaning and control about what constitutes true Islam. That’s exactly what IS wants. Military and civilian departments would never strategically decide to forfeit their resource and technological advantages in the fight against IS to ensure they fight on IS’s terms. Yet they rush to do so in relation to IS’s narrative.
Engaging in an ‘ideological battle’ is not just hubristic; it’s counter-productive. A counter-IS campaign which instead reverse-engineers IS’s info-war playbook would probably look to use IO to attach perceptions of crisis to IS (especially drawing on its acts of extreme violence), highlight discrepancies between IS narrative and action, and expose behaviours that rupture perceptions of IS as a powerful politico-military force.
There would be little value in adopting that utilitarian IO campaign and abandoning the ideological war yet symbolically perpetuating it with IS’s name. Strategically there are benefits to Western politicians referring to IS as ‘Daesh’—as the French are already doing. The term is used derogatively by many in the region and is despised by IS. Its broader use would show solidarity and reflect a common lexicon across the new coalition. One could even anticipate the abandonment of terms like ‘jihadists’ or ‘salafists’ to instead describe IS members as ‘Daeshists’. This type of hypothetical strategic shift would simultaneously attach IS to crisis, symbolically and rhetorically dislocate IS from its ideological proclamations and ensure the anti-IS coalition doesn’t perpetually succumb to the coaxing of its adversaries.
To avoid the mistakes of a mere decade ago, some harsh realities must be realised. Once we acknowledge that IS is an insurgency and that its supporters are driven by a range of motivations, it’s possible to understand why we can’t simply kill and proselytise our way out of this mayhem and why IS desperately hopes we’ll try. But to appreciate that, it’s necessary to understand the nuances and role of IS’s information war. Meanwhile, another generation in the Middle East is born into a world of almost incomprehensible suffering; an ideal incubator for the rage that so often seems to fuel violent revolutions.
Haroro J. Ingram is a research fellow with the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies (ANU). His ARC-funded project, ‘Through Their Eyes’, analyses insurgent ‘information operations’ and explores its role as a determining factor in the success of insurgent movements. Image courtesy of Flickr user Beshr O.