President Obama says exposing the “warped ideology” of the Islamic State (IS) will be a key part of the strategy for defeating the militant organization controlling large parts of Iraq and Syria.
A slick new video released by IS Thursday that forgoes the shocking beheadings of Westerners and instead employs a British journalist hostage as a spokesman for the group’s cause demonstrates just how difficult the information battle with IS is going to be.
The propaganda film, entitled “Lend Me Your Ears,” shows British journalist John Cantlie seated behind a desk, explaining to the camera what he says is the “truth” about IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL. He warns Westerners that “our governments” are getting involved in “yet another unwinnable war.”
Previous IS videos, including those showing the horrific beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and of British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines, appeared to be primarily aimed at young disaffected men in Muslim and Western countries drawn to the jihadist cause. A perception of empowerment is drawing thousands of foreign fighters to join the group’s ranks, experts in terrorist ideology say.
But Thursday’s video appears to target the war-weary populations of the West, the United States and Britain in particular. “After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mr. Cantlie says, Western media and leaders are once again “drag[ging] the public back to the abyss of another war.”
Cantlie was taken hostage in Syria in November 2012 as he rode in a car with Mr. Foley.
The video was released a day after the US House voted overwhelmingly in favor of Mr. Obama’s request for funds to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting IS forces. The Senate approved the authorization later Thursday.
US officials charged with developing the ideological dimension of the administration’s anti-IS strategy bristle at the suggestion that the US is in a battle with a group whose ideology is attractive to significant numbers of young Muslims around the world.
“There is no battle of ideas with ISIL [because] ISIL is bereft of ideas: They are bankrupt of ideas,” said Richard Stengel, the US undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, speaking this week at the American Security Project think tank in Washington. IS is nothing more than “a criminal, savage, barbaric organization,” Mr. Stengel said.
But he acknowledged reasons the group is able to recruit foreign fighters, including the lack of economic opportunity for many young Muslim men and a scant “ability of individuals to be empowered in the Arab world.”
Stengel, a former managing editor at Time magazine, also acknowledged what many media and communications experts have said for months: IS knows how to manipulate modern media methods.
“They are very adept at information warfare, at digital warfare, where they are laying a kind of predicate for what they do on the battlefield in the digital space,” Stengel said. “They’re very sophisticated.”
The latest IS video offers additional evidence of that sophistication.
Cantlie, who lists the British publications he’s worked for, answers directly the assumed suspicion of viewers that he is speaking under duress. “Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: ‘He’s only doing this because he’s a prisoner. He’s got a gun at his head, and he’s being forced to do this.’ Right? Well, it’s true. I am a prisoner, that I cannot deny,” says Cantlie, who appears wearing a prisoner’s orange jumpsuit.
But he goes on to say, “Having been abandoned by my own government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic State, I have nothing to lose. Maybe I will live and maybe I will die,” he adds, “but I want to take this opportunity to convey some facts that you can verify.”
Appearing to read from a script and at times sounding nervous, Cantlie says he will be back with a series of videos offering more “verifiable facts” about IS.
Cantlie, who notes that IS controls “a landmass bigger than Britain and many other nations,” also makes a point of saying that some European governments have been willing to “negotiate” with IS to free their hostage citizens, while the US and Britain have not. That issue has developed as a wedge between Western governments, with the US and Britain criticizing the French and other governments for paying large ransoms in exchange for their citizens.
Experts note it’s impossible to know if Cantlie was speaking sincerely, and they’ve speculated that other hostages have read under force.
In his Washington talk, Stengel said the US government is actively countering the messages that IS and other groups are issuing on a daily basis. He cited in particular the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which works in real time and in six languages to respond to and debunk IS’s expanding cybermessaging.
The CSCC only recently added English to the list of languages it works in, Stengel noted. The latest IS video – featuring a British journalist announcing a series of coming lectures in English – suggests that decision was a timely one.