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Public Diplomacy and the Digital War Against ISIL

November 21, 2016
When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took over swaths of land in Iraq and Syria in early 2014 the world was completely caught off-guard. With astonishing speed and horrific brutality, ISIL appeared to be erasing the borders of the Middle East. Today, the self-proclaimed caliphate is trying to do something that terrorist groups traditionally have not done, occupy and control land.

By Conner Evans C’18

NOTE: The following reflects my own personal views and not those of the State Department.

In addition to spreading fear through violent attacks, the group aims to govern via the establishment of an Islamic state. However, as unprecedented as ISIL’s territorial control is, what is more remarkable is the means by which it has maintained dominance in the region and influence around the world. ISIL’s sophisticated use of social media in the digital space allows it to recruit thousands of people and perpetrate attacks far outside of its physical domain [1]. While the fight against ISIL requires a robust military campaign to recapture land in Iraq and Syria, their strong online presence demands an equally aggressive response [1]. In a realm where governments have never before engaged in battle, the challenge has been and will continue to be determining an effective strategy in the digital war against ISIL.

As I began my internship in the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs this summer I never imagined that I would get involved in the fight against ISIL. For one, I had no idea what public diplomacy meant and what type of work it included. The U.S. State Department defines public diplomacy as “expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and Government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world” [2]. With this definition in mind, it would seem that the fight against ISIL is far removed from public diplomacy. So often we hear about the military campaign against the caliphate, but we rarely hear about how public engagement is used as a strategy to counter the group’s efforts. Therefore, when I was assigned to work on the State Department’s online policy to counter ISIL I was intrigued because of how unfamiliar I was with this aspect of the coalition, yet confused as to the link between public diplomacy and digital strategy.

The Global Coalition Against Daesh is divided into five working groups: the military campaign, communications, post-liberation stabilization, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, and financing. Each working group is headed by two to three countries and supported by several others. The online campaign against ISIL is hosted under the communications working group, which is headed by the United States, United Kingdom, and United Arab Emirates. The communications group, also known as the Coalition Counter-Messaging Working Group, focuses primarily on countering ISIL’s propaganda on social media sites and other online networks. This includes constructing counter-narratives against ISIL and developing methods for distributing those messages.  The White House states, “to counter ISIL’s online propaganda and recruitment network, the State Department has launched a Global Engagement Center to integrate and synchronize our communications against violent extremist groups, including ISIL and al-Qa’ida” [3]. The Global Engagement Center, along with the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Office of the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, formulates U.S. policy on the digital strategy against ISIL and contributes to the larger Counter-Messaging Working Group.

My work on the Coalition this summer focused on engaging these three offices in the State Department in preparing for a Counter-Messaging Working Group meeting in Washington. This meeting included delegations from twenty-plus countries, supranational organizations, and other U.S. government agencies. While I began to understand the structure of the coalition and the counter-ISIL work within the State Department, I was still puzzled as to why public diplomacy was so integral to digital strategy. Every day I was communicating with foreign diplomats and working on logistics with U.S. government officials, but nowhere in my work was I engaging the public. Clearly social media involves the public, it is a platform for anyone to express themselves. However, the coalition’s work appeared to be constructing social media campaigns for governments to communicate themselves. It was not until the meeting itself that I recognized how the communications working group is more than that.

<p>A tweet from the Sawab Center, a US and UAE funded media center in the UAE focused on countering ISIL's messaging on social media. This tweet, in Arabic, states that ISIL is losing territory and that the coalition is making progress.</p>

A tweet from the Sawab Center, a US and UAE funded media center in the UAE focused on countering ISIL's messaging on social media. This tweet, in Arabic, states that ISIL is losing territory and that the coalition is making progress.

What struck me most about the Counter-Messaging Working Group meeting was the narrative that was formed. Although the meeting was primarily conducted between government officials, the discussion was not “how can we help ourselves fight ISIL online,” but rather, “how can we help others in society fight ISIL online.” There was an implicit understanding that governments, particularly in the west, are not the best at preventing people from joining ISIL. For example, the U.S. is worse at communicating to people in Iraq than Iraqis themselves. Thus, it was stated time and again that the role of governments in countering ISIL’s propaganda is to engage with partners on the ground in the Middle East to understand what strategies best captivate people and to work with these partners to convey the messages to communities. As the White House states, the focus is shifting away from “direct messaging and toward a growing emphasis on empowering and enabling partners, both government and non-government, across the globe”[3]. The Coalition echoes this and states that it is “committed to working with all parts of society – civil society, religious communities and their leaders, as well as commercial partners – to build resilient communities able to respond to the challenge of extremism”[4]. Public diplomacy now grounded my understanding of what the communications working group is trying to do; to create a message and enable partners to relay that message in communities all over the world.   

My internship this summer showed me that the fight against ISIL is no ordinary conflict. It is more than government negotiations and military strategy. For the first time, governments are beginning to use the digital space as a way of fighting the enemy. As a result, civil society and the public have been increasingly included as part of the strategy to counter ISIL’s appeal and propaganda. While the road to defeating ISIL will be nothing short of challenging, the rise of the internet will make public diplomacy in the digital realm key to the Coalition’s success.


  [1] Cohen, Jared, “Digital Counterinsurgency: How to Marginalize the Islamic State Online,” com, November/December 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/digital-counterinsurgency

  [2] “Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,” gov. [Online]. Available: http://www.state.gov/r/

  [3] Office of the Press Secretary, “FACT SHEET: Maintaining Momentum in The Fight against ISIL,” gov, January 15, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/15/fact-sheet-maintaining-momentum-fight-against-isil

  [4] “Countering Daesh’s Propaganda,” org. [Online]. Available: http://theglobalcoalition.org/mission/countering-daeshs-propaganda/

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