Islamic State is sending a message, but is Washington?

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Gregory Daniels's picture

One of the most telling quotes about the methodology of terrorism was written by a young Brian Jenkins in a 1975 report for the RAND Corporation titled Will Terrorists Go Nuclear: “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead..."[1] These words were written shortly after transnational terrorism had become a significant reality (the 1968 hijacking of El Al Flight 426 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and this group’s successful negotiation of concessions from Israel, is cited as the beginning of modern terrorism).[2] Almost 40 years have passed and Jenkins’ mid-1970s representation of terrorism as theater[3] has been tested over and again, with tragic results. Islamic State (IS; aka ISIS or ISIL) is the most recent terrorist group to use performance and online video distribution as a means of political influence and they have been greatly effective, garnering international media coverage and response with the beheading of two American journalists and one British aid worker—James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines.

How is Washington countering ongoing terrorism by Islamic State? In a nationally televised address on September 10, President Barack Obama detailed a four-pronged strategy to “degrade and destroy” IS, which will consist of (1) continued airstrikes in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, including airstrikes in Syria, (2) the deployment of 475 additional servicemembers to train and support these forces, (3) broad coalition building to cut financing, improve intelligence, counter ideology, stem the flow of fighters to and from the Middle East, and (4) humanitarian assistance for peoples displaced by IS.[4] Obama’s strategy is detailed, but his public address does not outline how the US will counter Islamic State’s system of ideas and punishing theatrics—it does not advance a communication strategy that would check the spread of Islamic State’s “warped ideology”.[5] The United States could better counter IS with a communication strategy that presents positive alternatives to terrorism that are able to be acted upon.

On August 22, three days after IS uploaded a video to YouTube titled "A Message to America", in which the beheaded corpse of James Foley is shown,[6] the US Department of State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) posted English and Arabic language versions of a video titled “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ land” (henceforth “IS Land”) on a dedicated YouTube channel, as part of their “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign.[7] Upon review, the video’s language is sarcastic and patronizing, ending with the line: "Travel is inexpensive, because you won't need a return ticket!" This is followed by footage of marred corpses and a body being thrown off a cliff.

The IS Land video represents Washington’s first significant counterterrorism communication targeted at Islamic State. According to a State Department official, the “CSCC uses brief clips of terrorist propaganda in much of its messaging across various languages in order to contrast the gap that exists between ISIL rhetoric and reality. It [the IS Land video] serves to clearly demonstrate the hypocrisy of an organization claiming to defend Muslims, yet at the same time slaughtering Muslims, destroying their cultural patrimony, and depleting their economic wealth."[8] Unfortunately, in its message, the CSCC’s video does not succeed in an educational capacity and is unlikely to turn Muslims away from Islamic State. If a person is genuinely considering membership in IS, it is likely that they are politically, economically, and/or socially disenfranchised to the point that violence and terrorism have become rational means of claiming a stake in their community. Therefore violent imagery would not be a deterrent.

Nor would the hypocrisy of Islamic State killing Muslims. In a 2004 study, psychologist Anne Speckhard of Georgetown University Medical Center and colleagues from the Russian Academy of Sciences interviewed 11 hostage survivors of the 2002 Moscow theater crisis, during which 41 armed Chechen terrorists held hostage 800 theatergoers for almost three days. Terrorists committing suicide attacks are rarely observed and hostage observations provided a unique glimpse into the terrorist mind. One hostage recalled, “We saw pregnant women and children and asked the terrorists to let them go.” Their captors answered, “All of us have the same fate here. We are here to die.”[9] This statement is demonstrative of the “us v. them” mentality that characterizes terrorist groups, including Islamic State. A person who identifies as a member of IS is likely to consider just one variable when deciding whether to act violently: Islamic State v. non-Islamic State. The hypocrisy highlighted in the IS Land video would thus not be a deterrent because, in the collective mind of Islamic State, the killing of unaffiliated Muslims (even adherents of Sunni Islam) is a rational—not radical—pathway.

While Washington’s first counterterrorism communication targeted at IS misses its mark in terms of message, the State Department has in fact been active in supporting positive, societal change in the Middle East since 2002 through the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). In the more than 10 years that MEPI has been active, it has partnered with civil society organizations, community leaders, youth and women activists, and private sector groups in 18 countries and territories to advance a variety of projects, including those that focus on economic opportunity.[10] MEPI has helped startups access capital, provided job skills training, and addressed regulatory issues in order to create legal frameworks that are more supportive of business.[11]

MEPI does not currently operate in Iraq or Syria (the likely result of wars that cross the past and present decades), but its programs do represent positive and practicable alternatives to radical action for peoples in the Middle East and around the world, including Muslims considering membership in IS. The Initiative hosts video interviews with program participants on a dedicated YouTube channel, “MEPIhighlights”.[12] The interviews are real, compelling, and embody the direction in which Washington should take their communication strategy, yet no video content has been uploaded to the channel in upwards of a year. Washington is missing an opportunity to show Muslims that they are a partner and that the administration is willing to invest in their future.

The immediate and near-term threat posed by Islamic State is less the total 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and much more the segment of 2,000 fighters with Western passports, as this group has significant international mobility.[13] The breakdown of Syria means that fighters who arrive from the US, Canada, UK, and EU do so through unprotected borders. Michael Schmidt, correspondent for the New York Times, sums up the consequences of this situation: “Without markings in their passports to show that they [fighters] traveled to Syria, American border authorities have few ways of determining where they were and stopping them from entering the country.”[14] Assuming that the end goal of these 2,000 fighters is a terrifying act of violence in the West, a successful entry rate of just one tenth of one percent (0.1%) into the United States would mean the physical presence of two IS operatives. This is as many terrorists as were necessary to carry out the most recent bombing attack in the US—the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

While it is unlikely that the pursuit of economic opportunity would turn already radicalized members of IS away from terrorism, Washington’s effective communication of a practical ideological alternative to radical action could deter unaffiliated Muslims and peoples the world over from future membership in Islamic State. The IS Land video tells Muslims what not to do. The natural follow up question: “What should I do then?” The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications continues to let this question linger, unanswered.


1. Brian M. Jenkins, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 1975), 4.

2. Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 63-65.

3. Brian M. Jenkins, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear, 4.

4. Barack Obama, “Statement by President on ISIL”, posted September 10, 2014,

5. Ibid.

6. This video was quickly deleted from YouTube and subsequently removed from other websites, but remains available on shock sites and through Bittorrent clients.

7. “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ land”, US Department of State, posted August 22, 2014,

8. Erin Banco, “US Mocks ISIS With Propaganda Video To Fight Militants In ‘Welcome To ISIS Land’”, International Business Times, September 4, 2014,

9. Anne Speckhard, “Research Note: Observations of Suicidal Terrorists in Action”, Terrorism and Political Violence (2004): 314.

10. “About MEPI”, The US-Middle East Partnership Initiative, US Department of State, accessed September 29, 2014,

11. “Fostering Economic Opportunity”, The US-Middle East Partnership Initiative, US Department of State, accessed September 29, 2014,

12. MEPIhighlights, The US-Middle East Partnership Initiative, US Department of State, accessed September 29, 2014,

13. “CIA says IS numbers underestimated”, Al Jazeera, September 12, 2014,

14. Michael S. Schmidt, “U.S. Pushes Back Against Warnings That ISIS Plans to Enter From Mexico”, New York Times, September 15, 2014,