In the Propaganda War Against ISIS, US Flails

Written by Ted Rall

In the propaganda war against ISIS, the US needs some serious help.

aNewDomain — While watching an ISIS video I wondered why “we” — the United States government — doesn’t issue propaganda as effective as theirs.

The Obama Administration insists that the West is not engaged in a great war of civilizations against Islam — radical Islamism, anyway.


When’s the last time the United States bombed a non-Muslim country?

The White House hosted a conference on terrorist extremism this week. Even if you were born yesterday and thus deny that the idea came up in a meeting about ISIS (and perhaps also the recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen), the big tell was what never came up on the summit agenda: non-Muslim extremist groups like, say, white-power militias.

So when ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamist organizations characterize it as a war between the West and Islam, their messages enjoy the great advantage of ringing true.

Not that, until now, the U.S. has tried to engage them in a debate.

Groups like ISIS, new and deploying novel tactics and messaging, know they have to explain themselves to their target audience, fence-sitting Muslim moderates. ISIS videos frame barbarism into a context of vengeance and religious self-defense, arguing that the immolation of the Jordanian pilot and mass beheadings of Egyptian Christians on a beach are justified. You may not buy it completely, but every bit of doubt helps…ISIS.

Since 9/11 the United States has followed the “Love Story” narrative: superpower hegemony means never having to say you’re sorry — and never having to explain your actions.

This is odd. Perversely, the more America’s invading armies lashed out overseas, the more its messaging turned inward. Bush’s justifications for invading Afghanistan and especially Iraq were transparently ridiculous, and designed exclusively for domestic political consumption, which is why the Global War on Terror pushed America’s approval ratings around the world to record lows.

ISIS’ slick online videos prompted me to imagine what an American counternarrative might look like. Like many people, I was disgusted by the news that CIA torturers waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times. But propaganda might have introduced enough doubt to blunt our outraged reaction. Open a video with images of civilians dying and suffering on 9/11: running, crying, nursing wounds, people jumping out of the Twin Towers. Intersperse that with footage of KSM laughing and hanging out with Osama bin Laden. So what if we got the guy a little wet?

This week the State Department announced that it was bringing in former Time magazine editor Richard Stengel to head the Obama Administration’s recently-created propaganda bureau, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.

Early indications are not promising.

The New York Times reports: “One online image two years ago, for instance, showed photographs of three American men who traveled to Somalia and died there, including Omar Hammami, a young man from Alabama who became an infamous Islamist militant. The accompanying message reads, ‘They came for jihad but were murdered by Al Shabab.'” Get it?

I say if you’re going to resort to rhyming, why not work in “kebab”?

“Another image showed a young man weeping over a coffin. The message read, ‘How can slaughtering the innocent be the right path?’ Each of the online posts carried a warning: ‘Think again. Turn away.'”

Turn away to what?

That’s the billion-dollar-a-week question — one the U.S. can’t answer.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told the terrorism conference that young Muslim men (and women) would turn away from jihad if they were employed. She included “lack of opportunity for jobs” among “the root causes that lead people to join these groups.” Lowering unemployment would be great but researchers have established that, contrary to Harf’s oft-repeated talking point, suicide bombers and Islamist extremists “tend to be more prosperous and better educated than most in their societies, and no more religious or irrational than the average person.”

“They are like you and me,” says Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Like you and me, Muslims open to joining radical groups call bullshit when they see and hear it.

Which the U.S. supplies in abundance.

“Al Qaeda and ISIL [sic] and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy,” Obama told the gathering. “They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam.” But “we must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie.” Al Qaeda and ISIS “are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.”

America’s “radicals aren’t the real Muslims” line doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in the Levant.

The Islamic State appeals to its adherents because of its radical fundamentalism, not despite it. If you’re attracted to ISIS or Al Qaeda, you like their messages of purifying Islam by returning to its original medieval form. You want to live under Sharia. Which means you view “moderate” Islam as dissolute, corrupted by the West, and watered-down.

Not to mention, if you’re Muslim you probably aren’t going to listen to anything Obama — a Christian “Crusader” who destroyed Libya, ordered the Afghan “surge,” continues torture at Guanatánamo and has slaughtered thousands of innocent Muslim civilians with drones — has to say about your religion.

Propaganda can’t work unless it’s supported with at least some basis in fact. Given the vacuous rhetoric Richard Stengel is being given to work with, his efforts to push Team America are as doomed as his efforts to save Time from the tsunami of digitalization.

Consider, for example, Obama’s apparent belief that he is an angel flying aloft on feathery wings of peace and love.

“We have to confront squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence,” he said. “We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion, and we especially need to do it online.”

Offline in the real world, the president has ordered 2,500 people murdered by drones, of whom roughly 2,450 were random, untargeted, nothing-personal civilians. No one knows how many more have been maimed, but people in drone-infested countries live in constant fear of American attack.

On September 8, 2012 Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died at Gitmo years after the military ruled that he was innocent and should be released. Obama hadn’t lifted a finger to free him.

Thousands of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of civilians, almost all Muslim, have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq under Obama.

You couldn’t fault a Muslim for cynically observing that the U.S. is promoting a “twisted ideology” of militarism for profit, that Obama is “inciting people to violence,” and that he is the last person on earth in a position to preach the gospel of “peace and tolerance.”

For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.

Cover image: Austro Prussian War AT propagandaCZ1” by Unknown – Humoristické listy, vol. 8, iss. 20, digitized by Czech Academy of Sciences. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.