This article was originally published in Portland’s 2016 Soft Power 30.
When the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS formed in September 2014, it outlined five core areas to concentrate efforts. The most prominent is the military action to degrade and destroy the terrorist organisation. The other elements include stopping foreign fighters from travelling to join ISIS, cutting off sources of funding, stabilising liberated areas, and strategic communications – or, in the Coalition’s words, “exposing ISIS’s true nature (ideological delegitimisation)”.
Despite these strands appearing equally weighted on paper, the urgency accorded to each has varied. Strategic communications has failed to make the intended progress. Undermined by limited funding and a lack of cooperation among partners, the Coalition’s communications work achieved little impact in its first year, leaving ISIS’ ideological momentum largely unchecked.
Efforts have improved since the Coalition Communications Cell, led by the UK, was created seven months ago. It offers a vehicle through which Coalition partners can deliver a unified, coordinated campaign attacking ISIS propaganda and promoting the Coalition’s achievements in the non-military strands. But it still faces those same obstacles, which, unless fixed, will continue to hinder anti-ISIS messaging programmes, and diminish the Coalition’s ability to control the narrative.
The US is the most powerful country in the Coalition, both in hard and soft terms. It is clearly committed to the Coalition militarily – it has repeatedly demanded contributions from partners and has publicly criticised those not carrying their weight. But the US is not so committed to collaboration when it comes to communications. It has pushed forward on its own capability building and messaging initiatives, which cuts across the Communications Cell’s efforts.
The US State Department has been hard at work setting up messaging centres in partner countries. The Sawab Center, based in the United Arab Emirates, has been operating since July 2015 and is often cited as a good example of counter-ISIS messaging operations. Encouraged by this, the US has continued down this path of overt partnership. Malaysia and Nigeria are setting up similar centres, while countries like Jordan are also increasing direct collaboration with the US.
At the same time, the State Department has been pushing out its own content and working bilaterally with individual partners to develop messaging. The Global Engagement Center (GEC), the rebranded Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) and the primary vehicle for these efforts, publishes a half dozen tweets every day. One current campaign, #LifeUnderDaesh, aims to expose “Daesh’s Lies” about life under its stewardship, while other content focuses on Coalition successes.
This is not productive in the long-term. It creates a “my way or the highway” environment and undercuts the Coalition’s multilateral approach. From a communications perspective, the basis for the Coalition is an understanding that communications is as much about where you can speak and where you cannot, and that members must collectively enable partners – whether countries or actors at the local level – to speak where they themselves can’t. The US’ insistence on unilateral action and overt bilateral partnerships undermines this.
To start, the GEC is repeating many of the CSCC’s mistakes, just on a larger scale and with better funding. Developing and implementing messaging and campaigns from a Western perspective and position does not create a great chance for success when speaking to audiences abroad. It also does not create a good environment for generating buy-in from partners who could view following the US’ approach as a necessary condition for receiving funding.
The bilateral, overt efforts to create messaging centres are similarly flawed. The Sawab Center was pioneering, and it is reasonable to expect the centres in Southeast Asia and Africa will be for those regions as well. But transparent support from a government like the US delegitimises messages in the eyes of target audiences.
The combined effect of these factors is to pull the communications fight’s centre of gravity away from the Middle East and the Coalition towards the US. Everyone knows that the US is the best-funded and most powerful member of the Coalition, so it is easy to understand why partners might not immediately look for support from the Coalition Communications Cell, which has a budget of just £10 million. But the US is not best positioned to lead communications across the entire Coalition to achieve its goal of “ideological delegitimisation”. This will be most successful if it is a collaborative and locally-driven effort.
Solving this imbalance is important both immediately and looking further down the road. Building a global coalition that can empower local actors isn’t just relevant to the fight against ISIS. The communications of terrorist organisations from Nigeria to the Philippines have evolved along with ISIS’ own propaganda. Similarly, whatever comes after ISIS will likely continue this communications innovation. Fighting this will require the flexibility and insight that can only be drawn from empowered local actors.
The Coalition Communications Cell recognises this and is looking past the first year of the anti-ISIS campaign. But a major obstacle to this vision is funding. Coalition members are loathe to commit significant sums to initiatives over which they will not have direct control, while the “results now” mentality endemic to politics makes long-term funding difficult to secure.
Unlocking more funds will rest on the Coalition’s ability to demonstrate concrete return on investment beyond traditional communications engagement metrics like retweets and media coverage. Evaluation should be geared to test the underlying conditions of the environment in which the Coalition is communicating – public attitudes towards specific indicators associated with religion or government, for example. It will also require decision makers to demand less than total certainty when choosing where to allocate funds. When the measure of success is in effect an absence of action over a long period of time – a potential recruit not traveling to join ISIS, for example – it is more subtle measurements of public opinion that demonstrate the value of communications work.
If this return on investment can be seen, it will cement the understanding that strategic communications is an integral part of national security. There is a growing recognition of this – soft power and strategic communications appear in the 2015 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review, for example – but communications remains more associated with the soft aspects of international relations than hard.
We saw the power of collaborative advocacy in the comprehensive and unrelenting communications campaign surrounding the Iran deal. Can the Coalition achieve the same?