Commentary: Islamic State militant group ran an info war like a viral marketing campaign

WASHINGTON, DC: In December 2018, US President Donald Trump declared victory over Islamic State (IS), tweeting that “IS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. Were coming home!”

And in the first three months of this year, Trump said or tweeted 16 times that IS was either completely defeated or soon would be.

Advertisement

Advertisement

But the United States government appears to disagree. In August, the three lead inspectors general from the Department of Defense, Department of State, and the US Agency for International Development submitted a joint report to Congress reviewing Operation Inherent Resolve, the US campaign to defeat IS in Syria and Iraq, over April to June of this year.

They concluded that: “Despite the loss of physical territory, thousands of ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria and are carrying out attacks and working to rebuild their capabilities.”

ISLAMIC STATES RESURGENCE

The IS resurgence is partly the result of Trumps December 2018 decisions to withdraw all US troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, which prompted Secretary of Defence James Mattis to resign and made Americas regional security partners less able to conduct counterterrorism operations.

Advertisement

Advertisement

READ: Commentary: Afghanistan is not ready for foreign troops to leave

In Iraq, IS is regrouping and building clandestine terrorist cells in key areas of Baghdad, Ninewa, and Al Anbar provinces, and in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

In Syria, the group is mounting strong counteroffensives in Al-Raqqah and Homs province, and is aggressively seeking to establish a safe-haven zone.

Trump is not likely to reverse his decision on troop withdrawals. But ISs battlespace is digital as much as physical. And in that regard at least, the Trump administration must strengthen Americas capacity to wage war effectively.

A US soldier stands guard during a joint patrol with Turkish troops in northeastern Syria. (File photo: AFP/Delil SOULEIMAN)

A VIRAL MARKETING CAMPAIGN

When IS attacked the Iraqi city of Mosul during height of the groups insurgency in 2014, millions of people watched in real time by following the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS on Arabic Twitter.

They included the citys Iraqi defenders, who became increasingly demoralised and fled. As Peter W Singer and Emerson T Brooking write in their book LikeWar: The Weaponisation of Social Media, ISIS ran “a military offensive like a viral marketing campaign and won a victory that shouldnt have been possible.”

Similarly, the resurgent IS 2.0 uses press releases and social-media savvy to spread its influence worldwide and recruit foreign fighters, sympathisers and financial backers.

In April 2019, for example, the group released a video of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claimed responsibility for the deadly Easter Sunday bomb attacks in Sri Lanka. ISs global media operation also produces Soldiers Harvest II, an upgraded weekly publication covering the groups military operations.

READ: Commentary: How the Easter Sunday bombings reshaped Sri Lankas political landscape

READ: Commentary: Who bears responsibility for the children of Islamic State?

This communications offensive is enabling IS to contest the global view that the group has been defeated following the collapse of its caliphate.

Even more fundamentally, as Singer and Brooking point out, IS has weaponised the Internet itself, creating a digital battlespace in which an online narrative of victory can translate into success on the ground.

Women believed to have been the wives of Islamic State fighters, being held in the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. (Photo: AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN)

A CONFLICT NOT WON ALL AT ONCE

Americans and publics around the world must finally understand that the war against IS and other terrorist groups is a new and different kind of conflict that will not be “won” once and for all.

Support for IS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the like reflects multiple social, economic, and demographic factors, from corruption to climate change.

The fight against these groups must therefore take place in many different arenas, starting with the domestic politics of the countries in which they operate.

This struggle must also take place online, as the US military well knows. In 2016, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff published a paper that focused on how to win the “battle for the narrative”.

READ: Commentary: Social media and live-streaming have created performance terrorism

It opened with the quote: “Its easier to kill a bad man than a bad idea.” With that in mind, US Cyber Command will be transformed into an information warfare operations command by 2028, with the goal of integrating cyber, electronic warfare and information operations.

A still image taken from a video posted to a social media website by the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq News Agency shows a man appearing to be an Islamic State militant firing a weapon, said to be in Raqqa, Syria. (Photo: Reuters)

AN INFORMATION WARFARE DEPARTMENT

But 2028 is almost a decade away, and ISIS wont wait. Moreover, this fight is too important to leave only to the soldiers.

The US National Security Strategy should thus recommend a collaborative model similar to the British Armys 77th Brigade, which combines government departments under one umbrella to conduct information warfare.

Regrettably, the Trump administration has gutted the US State Departments Global Engagement Center, which originally countered terrorist propaganda and is now tasked with fighting gRead More – Source