Remarks on Waging a Digital Counterinsurgency

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Chatham House
London, United Kingdom
January 18, 2016

UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Thank you, Clarissa. Good evening, everybody. Clarissa mentioned at the top that I’d spent most of my life and career in journalism, and I’m still getting used to being a government person. In my old life, I didn’t know very much and I tried to be as controversial as possible. Now I know a lot and I try to make no news at all. So I hope I accomplish that tonight. So I want to answer your question, but I also want to respond to Jared and Yasmin, and thanks so much for having me tonight.

It’s a little bit contrarian to begin where I’m about to begin at an event that basically is animated by Google, which is to say that ISIL messaging is not all about social media. Social media is in some ways the tip of the iceberg. There’s a very fancy term in sociology called the availability heuristic, which means that thing that you see assumes gigantic proportions, much bigger proportion than it actually is. Because we see the few things they do on social media in English, we think everything they do is on social media. Can I tell you something? In Iraq and Syria, they’re on billboards, they have kiosks, they do flyers, they have imams preaching sermons.

Believe me, in this – in that place in the world, social media doesn’t count for anything with what ISIL is doing. In fact, one of the things that we have found most effective in the counter-narrative, and I’ll get back to that later, to people who are young men and women who are thinking of going to Iraq and Syria is when we tell them – we tell them you’re going to get killed there, that doesn’t bother them. We tell them you’re not going to find a husband or wife, that doesn’t bother them. But when we tell them they won’t have internet access there, “I’m not going.”

So one of the things that – I want to confirm some of the stuff that Jared and Yasmin talked about, because I think there are a lot of myths about ISIL in the information space. One of the myths is that they’re winning. Really? Their popularity in Muslim countries, and let’s say that’s really their audience, is in the single digits. In many Muslim countries, it’s 2 or 3 percent. When you ask people in Muslim countries, “Do you approve of their methods,” it goes down to less than 1 percent.

They’re not winning. But the irony is in a messaging war, you can – and I know this from my old life and it was about advertising and getting profits. But in my old life, if you were winning 99.9 percent of the audience, you were winning. The problem in this information war is you can win 99.9 percent of the audience and those tiny percentage – one-tenth of 1 percent – like one one-thousandth of 1 percent of the Muslim population of the world is still a couple of million people, and you could lose the whole thing. So that is the problem there. But they’re not winning in any kind of mass way.

In fact, what they are from a marketing perspective is they were a niche organization that became a global brand. They never suspected they would be – we would be talking about them in Chatham House, whether under Chatham House rules or not, which I assure you they don’t know about. So they have exploded in a way that they hadn’t ever anticipated.

So the second myth that I want to explore is that somehow their social media messaging is so fiendishly sophisticated that they are taking otherwise nice young Muslim boys and girls, who would be otherwise living with their parents, and getting them to go and chop heads off in Iraq and Syria. That is absolutely false. They are exploiting a vast market of grievance, of unhappiness, of unemployment, of lack of meaning. They’re not creating a market, they’re exploiting a market. And what you know from advertising is it’s very – it’s much easier to exploit a market than to create one. They’re not creating one.

The bigger problem that we will reckon with and I think my colleagues will talk about tonight is there – they – there are these serious, serious problems in the Muslim world, in the Arab world that they’re exploiting, and that is why they have had some leverage there.

The third myth is that their messages are dark and negative. Now, we see that, because I talked about in the beginning – because we see what they do in English and it’s pointed to the West. Their message to most people, to those young Muslim men and women, is a message – a positive message: “Come to the caliphate. It’s every Muslim’s responsibility to come to the caliphate. That’s what the prophet said.” They’re exploiting the fact that people feel insecure about their sense of themselves as Muslim men and women. They are painting this picture that you will achieve bliss, you will achieve happiness, you’re doing your duty as a Muslim to come here.

I look at a tremendous amount of ISIL content every week with Haroon Ullah on my staff who helps with that. And what I see most of the time – hey. What I see most of the time is these positive messages. I see jihadi fighters, ISIL fighters giving fruit and vegetables to young Muslim boys and girls. I see – they have this – they had this whole series with this Ferris wheel where they had kids on the Ferris wheel. It’s a very positive message. And when we in the West particularly think that somehow we rebut their negative message by saying this is wrong and that is wrong, we’re missing the boat, because the point is this message appeals to people. And so many people – it’s a noble, altruistic message to so many people, and that is one reason that it is appealing and that’s one reason it’s so hard to combat.

The other thing, and Yasmin touched on this, is anybody want to guess – or some of you probably know – how much of their content is in Arabic or is in English or any of the other languages you mentioned? Anybody know? I should have set somebody up to make a really wrong guess. (Laughter.)


PARTICIPANT: You told me earlier. (Laughter.)

UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Okay. Oh my, you’re cheating. So 82, 83 percent of their content is in Arabic. Anybody want to guess what the second – the language where they do the second-most content is? Do you know?


UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Someone guess English. Russian. About 12 or 13 percent. English and French are about the same, 6 or 7 percent. Folks, we are not the target of their content. We’ve been alarmed by it, we get obsessed by it, but we’re not the target. I mean, speaking of numbers – I mean, like, this idea that they’ve taken over the whole internet – Kim Kardashian is retweeted more in three days than ISIL has done on social media since they were created. (Laughter.) That is seriously true, and that does put it in some perspective. So if we could only get her to tweet against them. (Laughter.) Maybe that’s my job.

So to get to your point, Clarissa – so one of the things under me at the State Department is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which was actually created in 2010 under Secretary Clinton to combat the online terrorist threat from al-Qaida, and because al-Qaida had differentiated themselves in terms of being more sophisticated than any terrorist group in history in using the internet. So what CSCC started seeing a year and a half ago was this – the rise of this other group, and they were exponentially more sophisticated than al-Qaida. And this became – CSCC was focusing exclusively on ISIL.

One of the things we realized from this very central insight over the – and I’ve been doing this now for almost two years – is that we the government, the U.S. Government, any government, is not necessarily the best messenger for the message we want to get out there. In fact, they use us as a recruiting tool. They use our messaging as a recruiting tool. The most effective counter-messengers are Muslim men and women with a mainstream view of Islam who can say that this is a violation of everything the prophet ever stood for, that Islam is a religion of peace and reciprocity, and this is an abuse of the Qur’an, of hadiths, and all of that.

I cannot say that. I shouldn’t even say that now as a member of the USG, but private groups can say that. And we realize that really the best thing that we can do as a government messaging agency is really to help those voices get out there. So we’re turning the CSCC into something called the Global Engagement Center, which is to help optimize these kinds of third-party messages and help optimize these groups and do some seed funding with those groups and help them figure out how to message against this pernicious message that’s out there. And that is the vision that we’re trying to execute.

I’m so happy to be here tonight and I’m happy to answer noncontroversial questions later on. (Applause.)

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