The United States Will Never Win the Propaganda War Against the Islamic State

Opinion Articles


When Ndugwa Hassan joined his friends on July 11, 2010, at the Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala, Uganda, he did not know his life was about to change forever. He was there to watch the World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain, which was being broadcast from Johannesburg; white chairs covered the rugby pitch where the crowd viewed the two teams on a giant screen. But as the game closed on the 90th minute, two explosions rocked the field in quick succession, killing dozens. The militant Islamist group al-Shabab had targeted the gathering, along with a restaurant elsewhere in the Ugandan capital, in a coordinated suicide bombing. It was the group’s first attack outside its home base of Somalia. At final count, 74 people were dead.

Hassan walked away from the carnage feeling numb. It was not until he saw news reports on television two days after the incident, and al-Shabab’s claim to be acting based on Islamic values, that he realized what he wanted to do: combat the people who had hijacked the religion he loved in order to justify violence.

“That is when I became angry,” he told me in Amman, Jordan, this past June. Five months after the attack, Hassan and his friends founded the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum (UMYDF), which works to connect Muslim youth to the political processes that shape their lives. Through UMYDF, Hassan is able to directly reach 10,000 Ugandan youth through direct training and online platforms.

Telling Hassan’s story is my response whenever I am asked a common question about the Islamic State, another extremist group that operates much like al-Shabab: How can the United States counter the group’s violent narrative? The reality is that it can’t. And perhaps even more importantly, it is possible that it shouldn’t try to — at least not directly. As the United States tries to craft a strategy to counter the propaganda war overlapping the military one it is waging against the Islamic State, it should think of people like Hassan, and support them, because they are the ones who can credibly deflate extremists’ messages, providing peaceful alternatives to the problems that inflame potential recruits.

The first step here is to recognize the limits of what the United States can accomplish in a war of words with extremist groups and how going head-to-head can often be counterproductive. 

When a U.S. administration engages rhetorically with a group such as the Islamic State — attacking extremists on Twitter, for instance — the first thing it ends up doing, regardless of intent, is providing the group with a wider, global platform for its recruitment.

When a U.S. administration engages rhetorically with a group such as the Islamic State — attacking extremists on Twitter, for instance — the first thing it ends up doing, regardless of intent, is providing the group with a wider, global platform for its recruitment. It also often ends up unintentionally lending credence to the message at the heart of the extremists’ messaging: Their status as an object of U.S. ire proves that they are the legitimate opposition to countless Western-supported injustices and double standards across the Muslim world. And when U.S. countermessaging centers on religious ideology, it effectively confirms a second assertion from the Islamic State: that it is a genuine mouthpiece for Islam. U.S. engagement, in other words, provides fuel for the Islamic State’s spin machine.


So what should the United States do instead? There are three key facts to bear in mind when considering how to fight propaganda from extremist groups. First, a counternarrative already exists: Brutality speaks for itself, and there are hundreds of thousands of religious leaders, activists, and supporters — call them local voices — pleading to delink the peaceful teachings of Islam from senseless violence. Second, just as important as the message is the authenticity of the messenger. Third, the United States has to be strategic in considering how its connection to local voices will affect the way in which these partners are perceived by the audience of potential extremist recruits.

These three facts add up to a clear answer: The job of the United States should be to find local voices and amplify them.


In an interview with Brie Loskota, the managing director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California and a trainer with the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Generation Change project, which works with UMYDF, Hassan explained his thinking after the Uganda attack. “All suspects and accomplices were Muslim youth. I was so puzzled and asked myself so many questions,” he said. “Why would people believe that when you kill someone you get a passport to heaven? Why would a young person be lured into acts of terrorism? Why does a 17-year-old boy in a tough neighborhood join a gang? Why does a high school student in a quiet town sign on to terrorism groups who preach supremacy? Why does a young woman abandon her family and future and become a suicide bomber?”

These, of course, are questions being asked in communities affected by extremism around the world, and they are the roots of countless local attempts to change the dominant, violent narrative developed by extremist groups such as al Qaeda. For instance, in 1998, Rehema Zaid’s best friend lost her mother in the bomb blast outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. Her friend, a Christian, would tell Zaid that Islam killed her mother. Zaid, a Kenyan national, knew that her religion was being twisted to justify violence, but as many of her friends and neighbors received death threats from extremists, it became harder for her to disassociate from the violence. She responded in 2008 by founding the Integrated Initiatives for Community Empowerment (IICEP) in Kenya, which works with Somali refugees. IICEP has programs promoting peace in the Eastleigh community, an informal refugee settlement in Nairobi City County, training more than 250 teachers, parents, and community leaders to harness nonviolence tools for advocacy. Zaid has also worked with religious leaders to develop curricula in Islamic schools to enhance child-friendly teaching methodologies and religious tolerance.

The United States must help provide space and megaphones for these local messengers. No matter how powerful, well-scripted, and technologically advanced a U.S. counternarrative may be, it will never land in the same way as messages from authentic representatives within affected communities themselves.

It is difficult to exaggerate the effect community leaders can have on potential recruits of extremist groups. What these leaders offer is not only an alternative story, but an alternative call to action. Over and over, youth I work with admit to being angry over the international community’s double standards toward Muslim populations, such as people living in Gaza, and the world’s inaction on the bloody civil war in Syria. They feel disempowered in their daily lives, as access to food, health care, electricity, and other basic services remains a struggle. That outrage is legitimate. The message that there are peaceful outlets for these feelings is more likely to be heard when coming from community actors. In contrast, national messaging campaigns against extremist proselytizing supported by large investments of international money and expertise are often dismissed as a foreign agenda. This has been true for large, U.S.-sponsored programs from Iraq to Afghanistan and more recently in the well-intentioned State Department social media campaign called “Think Again, Turn Away,” launched in December 2013 “to expose the facts about terrorists and their propaganda.” Not only was the campaign ineffective, but it actually became a platform for different extremist groups promoting violence to engage with each other. Through the campaign, groups were able to reach out to a new target audience of youth, as well as improve and build on shared rhetoric.

It’s essential for the United States to understand that local partners are often challenged due to their association with America. It should not shy away from its connections, however. Instead it should strive to model the values it is promoting directly.

The Islamic State uses religious rhetoric but promotes itself through the claim that the United States is being hypocritical on human rights and applying a double standard with its allies when it comes to democratic values. The appeals to religion have very little traction with local communities — but the promise of doing something to right Muslim grievances worldwide entices people to align with groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, and al-Shabab. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see how the Islamic State uses injustices in Gaza and Syria to its advantage, but extremists are looking within the United States’ borders too. Countless photos were recently sent out from Gaza showing signs about the grand jury in Ferguson and the Eric Garner case, expressing a sense of solidarity. In my trips to the region, I am often questioned about whether I feel safe in the United States, in light of reports of the New York City Police Department having spied on members of the American Muslim community.

Put another way, many of the United States’ internal struggles with racism are used as part of the important rhetorical machine deployed by groups like the Islamic State to target more and more Western-educated youth. The central message they are exploiting is that if you are a racial or religious minority in the United States, there will never be a place for you in society or true access to justice.

To be effective in bolstering peaceful voices abroad, the United States needs to be open and honest about its political realities as part of its international messaging. A good example of this is the recent release of the torture report. Despite the fact that it showcases horrible actions on the part of the United States, the report also publicly shows that the U.S. government is taking an important step toward accountability and responsibility. There need to be more steps like it.

Tempting as it may be for the United States to directly attack the vile propaganda spewed by extremist groups, doing so only enlarges violent actors’ platforms and bolsters their legitimacy. Instead, the United States should focus on creating an enabling environment for authentic local voices to work for change — whether they are voices of dissent within Islam or voices of dissent domestically that seek to hold the United States to the standard of human rights and personal freedom at the heart of its national narrative. Until this happens, extremist groups like the Islamic State will keep winning the war of words.

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