How America Can Exploit ISIL Fighters Who Hate ISIL

on November 4 | in Bureaucracy, cyber, Terrorism, War of Ideas

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Let’s say you’re considering joining ISIL.

First off, please don’t.

But let’s say you were—what would convince you to turn away from that path and toward a peaceful and productive life? There are probably numerous ideological and situational factors consciously and subconsciously factoring into your decision—maybe you’re a second generation immigrant whose community has not been fully integrated into its adopted country, maybe you really hate the Assad regime, or maybe a few of your friends are going to Syria and you’re looking for adventure.

Someone could certainly try to influence your decision, but only a credible voice with a compelling argument will tip the scales one way or another. Global leaders should put more resources toward such efforts, but as of now, short-sighted and overall poor management keeps practitioners tripping over each other, stuff trying to shift minimal funds or track the latest “summit” where his or her boss will be giving a speech.

When I worked at the State Department, I was frequently asked why the U.S. government would bother with “counter-messaging” to convince would-be recruits to “turn away.” When it comes to whether ISIL practices the right kind of Islam or the fact that your parents would mourn your loss if you die on the battlefield, no one outside of your immediate community—much less the U.S. government—is likely to be a credible voice.

And that’s probably why some view the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) as a waste of money. But when it comes to providing those credible voices with both the information and the tools they need to put their best argument forward, there are resources that the government can bring to bear to act as a fact-finder or megaphone for more credible influencers. I think my former colleagues at CSCC know that, and are leveraging their recent #WhyTheyLeftDaesh twitter campaign to push information on ISIL defectors out, rather than to try to directly influence ISIL-wannabes.

Counter-messaging activity is part of the broader fabric of initiatives known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which has been the subject of a series of high-level Obama Administration events throughout the year, culminating in counter-ISIL and CVE discussions at this year’s UN General Assembly.

I had the privilege of working on some of these issues while in the government. I also saw firsthand how hard working midlevel officials developed counter-messaging efforts like #WhyTheyLeftDaesh only to have short-sighted senior management cast them aside in favor of holding large events, or re-labeling existing efforts to fit the issue-du-jour. There is little-to-no new funding to capitalize on new information like why ISIL recruits defect—only an uptick in the lip service paid to it. This is incredibly shortsighted.

Fortunately, some progress is being made. While doing little for bureaucratic efficiency, the new political attention to CVE incentivized some small increases in research funding. For example, radicalization experts at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) recently released a report in which they dissected what has led ISIL members to defect from the group – important research like this can be leveraged by counter-messengers like CSCC worldwide.

ICSR looked at motivations to defect such as infighting, brutality against Muslims, corruption, and un-Islamic behaviors. To the mix, I’d also add: lack of tangible progress in helping Muslims, failure to actually combat the brutal Assad regime, ire from disrupted local communities, and a lack of legitimacy.

This plays out in many instances. For example, Abu Abdullah “could no longer face the brutal behavior” of the Islamic State. Abu Ibrahim felt the locals hated him because he was with associated with ISIL’s bad reputation. “Murad” castigated his former brothers in arms because ISIL is “not protecting Muslims, [but] killing them.” These defectors are the most credible messengers in convincing the next generation of recruits to turn away, and their stories provide a blueprint for counter-messengers.

Yet it would be a mistake to think defectors’ mere existence will stem the tide of ISIL’s recruitment efforts. It would be an even larger error to think the U.S. government is the best messenger within Middle Eastern or North African communities at risk of radicalization to argue that ISIL doesn’t help Muslims.

But for a small subset of would-be recruits still on the fence about their decision, hearing about disenchantment from former fighters or knowing the specific reasons why they defected—such as tangible evidence of ISIL brutality—from local community leaders might steer them away from a tragic and short future.

President Obama has drawn crucial attention to radicalization prevention efforts, like when he hosted a high-level CVE summit in February. But while attention to the issues has been crucial, these events have translated into little more than exercises for policymakers to rename initiatives in order to engage in credit-claiming. What is needed is new funds, new activities, and building of partnerships with credible voices who can play a real role in stemming radicalization and recruitment.

Here’s one rough way to divide the work: partners from Middle Eastern countries can carry messages on Islam and regional security—the UAE’s new Sawab Center signals a stepped-up effort in this regard. Meanwhile, Western governments, with deep significant political and media clout, can amplify the brutality of ISIL, and create political incentives to funders for supporting CVE efforts in the field. Finally, the UN itself can be both a credible voice for global political legitimacy (and should speak out more to critique both ISIL and Assad) and as a convener for funders to pool resources like its recently-established CVE research network.

For the United States, we must not only increase funding for projects like #WhyTheyLeftDaesh – the CSCC’s budget is a paltry $5 million — and for research that supports it, but we also have a long way to go on a broader set of related issues, such as more targeted counter-messaging campaigns, more unclassified information on ISIL’s brutality, and deeper capacity to engage local communities and understand local radicalization methods.

Our government may not the best positioned to be telling disgruntled Arab youths how to channel their frustration, but we are on sound footing with resources to collect information on ISIL’s brutality, as well as underscore its poor track record in securing local communities.

CSCC’s “Think Again Turn Away” initiatives are not the best vehicle for counter-messaging, but that’s because (I hope) the CSCC’s motivation for the Twitter handle is not to be an “influencer,” but rather to be a megaphone. As more defectors tell their tales for changing course – and as ICSR and other researchers expose those reasons – stemming the flow of ISIL recruits will depend on the Administration and partners abroad understanding their comparative advantage in the fight.

And the preliminary results are in: General Allen testified just last week that over 900 media outlets worldwide have picked up ISIL defector-related stories, reaching 90 million people

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. Individual non-profits and community members lack such a reach, but those who can be influential with youth in their community can use defector stories as ammunition to push the vulnerable toward the right path.

It’s the less-than-sexy program implementation, combined with bureaucratic and strategic communications work that might begin to move the needle. Annoyingly, this kind of work won’t generate provable metrics of success overnight.

But in this war of ideas, much of the research is already out there. Leveraging it for CVE initiatives will help us move on from speeches and conferences—and towards providing resources and taking action.


Ryan B. Greer is CEO of Vasa Strategies – a social impact strategic advisory firm with a focus on countering violent extremism – and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. The views expressed are his own and not those of previous employers.

Ryan recently left the State Department, where he served as a Policy Advisor for counterterrorism, and prior to that had managed Afghanistan reconstruction programs. He has also served as a Special Assistant at the White House National Security Council and on staff for two Members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

photo: President Barack Obama works with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, left, and Terry Szuplat, Senior Director for Speechwriting, on remarks in the Oval Office prior to the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Feb. 18, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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