More than guns needed to defeat ISIS

Posted: March 15, 2017

With his core national security team now in place, President Trump is poised to quickly respond to the Pentagon’s recent recommendations to hasten a rollback of the remaining ISIS strongholds.

Indeed, the recent arrival of marine artillery units outside Raqqa illustrates not only the administration’s readiness to up our direct military engagement from stand-off bombing, special operations, and support for proxy forces.

While most agree that we can and should do more to target known terrorists, the President should be advised that kinetic action alone, while critical, will not affect a final determination in this war. Like we experienced with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the will to fight and ideology of extremists will surge as the remaining terrorists revert to more traditional terrorist modus operandi of small disassociated cells hidden within marginalized communities with an enhanced online presence.

ISIS itself has long been preparing for such an eventuality. Pamphlets describing how to keep the Islamic State alive following a military defeat, such as “[T]he Caliphate Will Not Perish” are widely distributed through social media.

To defeat this enemy, we must not only remove them from the battlefield but also degrade their ability to replenish their ranks by discrediting the underlying violent ideology so prevalent in the digital world. As presidential advisor, Sebastian Gorka has pointed out, a war against the jihadist ideology should be prosecuted in the same manner that the West battled to discredit communism during the Cold War. (This, regardless of the label we choose to assign to the extremists.)

Unfortunately, fifteen years into the war on terror, the U.S. still does not have an effective, integrated “whole-government” strategy to counter violent extremist’ influence and ideology (CVEII). Efforts to-date are overly bureaucratic with misaligned resources and authorities that lack clear objectives.

Such conflicting, uncoordinated efforts have led to an environment in which the government machine produces ad hoc, largely ineffectual, Madison Avenue – like media products that waste taxpayers’ money.

For illustration look no further than the recent announcement that the Inspector General just opened a criminal investigation into the awarding of the largest federal CVEII contract worth over $500 million.

The Defense Department contract was won by the Northrop Grumman corporation and the London – based communications firm M&C Saatchi. The Associate Press reports that evidence indicates that the Counter Threat Messaging Support Program was awarded to Northrop/Saatchi on the basis of personal connections rather than an ability to counter ISIS’s communications machine.

Effective CVEII operations require an intimate understanding of local language, culture, personalities, and communications. Do they speak the local dialect? Highly unlikely. More importantly, neither reportedly draws upon a trusted network of local allies and influencers where it counts most, on the ground where the battle is being waged.

The idea that a potential convert to jihadism would give the time of day to a U.S.- branded website designed by a defense contractor in Tampa or a slick advertising campaign produced in London has long been discredited.

Like the myriad of other such international CVEII programs, such as that administered by the Department of State, Agency for International Development Board of Broadcasting Governors, the DOD – administered CMTSP program also suffers from a lack of streamlined control and inter-agency cooperation.

For instance, the program’s management cuts across at least three military commands (think large chunks of the globe), each with differing.  None of which has the authority to actually produce or disseminate content without advance approval from the U.S. Ambassador who reports to the State Department.

Therefore, in addition to pursuing a more robust military campaign, the President should seriously consider Secretary Tillerson’s recommendation to re-establish the US Information Agency that played an invaluable role in promoting the American message from 1953 to 1999.

Notwithstanding the President’s position on cutting the State Department’s budget, the U.S. needs to compliment kinetic counter-terrorism capability with an ability to produce and promote positive messaging in support of our national interests.

Additionally, the President should not delay in filling the vacant Director position for the Global Engagement Center (GEC) at the Department of State – created last year to lead “efforts to coordinate, integrate, and synchronize Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad for the purpose of countering violent extremism and terrorism.”

This critical position should have a direct line to the Oval Office and be empowered to oversee the many myriad of agencies and offices tasked with countering ISIS propaganda. Congress has already done its part by increasing the GEC funding from $16 million to over $100 million.

However, the lack of a director and with senior positions vacant, this critical office cannot effectively lead a “whole government” approach to countering the influence and ideology of extremists.

The new GEC director should be empowered to direct international programming but also issue policy guidance to the White House, integrate all non-covert efforts with the discretion to authorize timely operations, eliminate duplication and deal directly with local allied influencers.

James Prince is a leading expert on Arab civil society and the President of the Democracy Council, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting democracy and combating extremism. He is a former HFAC staff and has worked in Iraq and Syria for over two decades. 

By James Prince