This is a summary of an article originally published in The Atlantic, co-authored with Charlie Winter.
As it stands, the international coalition is not winning the information war against ISIS. At the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners joining militant groups in Iraq and Syria — predominantly ISIS — had more than doubled over the last 18 months. And while that may be striking, numbers are less important than intent when it comes to ISIS’ actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
Stemming this tide and diminishing ISIS’ appeal globally requires a combination of military and communications tactics. On the communications side, the coalition would be best off adopting a new architecture based on three pillars:
- A broader, more accurate understanding of how and why ISIS appeals: ISIS propaganda is incredibly varied, presenting a broad array of messages that appeal to a diverse set of audiences. Acknowledging this and adopting similar tactics would enable the coalition to have a far greater impact in the communications war.
- Global strategic direction: The coalition nerve centre should set the core narrative for the anti-ISIS communications campaign and provide the logistical and financial support to enable its members states to deliver this narrative.
- Local delivery: Local actors are far better placed than foreign governments to credibly communicate with those at risk of radicalisation. These actors, whether individuals or organisations, should be empowered through funding, training, and logistical support to deliver anti-ISIS communications on behalf of the coalition, rather than coalition governments communicating directly.
These principles should be tied together in a new, global communications structure that operates on three tiers: coalition, national, and local. The coalition level, which would primarily operate behind the scenes, would be responsible for setting the global narrative and delivering a unified messaging framework to its members. The national level would focus on enabling local actors to deliver communications autonomously but in coordination with the global campaign. The local level — the largest level in this new structure — would shoulder the majority of the responsibility for direct communications with ISIS’ target audiences.
Governments, led by the UK, which is establishing a Coalition Communications Cell, have started to make some of these steps. But without undertaking a further review of the campaign’s underlying principles and implementing a wider, more holistic approach, the coalition will not be able to meaningfully undermine ISIS’ outreach in the long term.