Winning the hearts of Islamic State’s potential recruits

As it has lost ground, the militant group issued a strategy on ways for Muslims to operate as its online activists. The best counter strategy? Positive messaging.

Iraqi children who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul play at Hassan Sham camp, east of Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 12.

As it began to lose more territory last year in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State (IS) posted a 55-page document online that aims to entice Muslims to operate on its behalf – as “media operatives” – in spreading its radical and violent message in the digital universe. “Media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs,” one passage states. 

After translating the document, researchers at King’s College London issued a report this week that offers an important recommendation: To counter the group’s attempt to deputize Muslims as propagandists will take more than showing the negative aspects of IS, such as the dismal life for its jihadi fighters or its misguided ideology. “[R]efuting the Islamic State’s claims to legitimacy is not enough – and will never be enough – to degrade its brand,” the report says. Rather, potential recruits, who may be young Muslims looking for a life purpose in a chat room or on social media, must be offered positive messages that meet their needs and prevent their radicalization.

Governments, in fact, “should learn from the way in which the Islamic State galvanizes and sustains voluntary activism in its name,” write the researchers at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College.

The IS document is a media strategy that spells out how to tell a rosy narrative about IS – despite its losses of land and fighters – in what is fast becoming its new front line: an information war.

The document also tells how to use the news industry’s desire for “clicks” and ratings to recycle the group’s point of view, its videos of terrorist attacks, and other messages, or what is called “media projectiles.”

Online tech giants such as Facebook and Google have been assisting Western governments in taking down the group’s propaganda. And the United States and its European partners produce online content to tear down IS. While that has helped stem recruitment by IS, the militant group hopes to keep alive its cause by enlisting an army of online messengers. The best defense should indeed be counternarratives that offer constructive ways for Muslims to build peaceful and free societies. 

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