Analyzing (mostly) mediocre US anti-Jihadism messaging – p1


This is the first in a series of posts analyzing US government efforts to undermine the recruiting appeal of ISIS and other Jihadist groups. As noted in a post last week, these efforts have been ineffective at very best.

For two core reasons:


#1. The Lack of Arabic speakers: we don’t have the Arabic-speaking manpower capable of producing sustained, “industrialized” content in the dialects needed to reach local audiences throughout the Middle East

#2. A P.C. Risk adverse Mindset: we are culturally basically afraid to say “offensive” things that might generate results in undermining Jihadism, having the effect of leading to watered-down & ineffective content

This post will focus Factor #2.

I looked at 100 or so posts from the State Department’s Think Again Turn Away campaign.

And here’s my simple litmus test for judging “Effectiveness:”

If read by the target audience (20 & 30 something males throughout the Muslim world) what is the impact of the specific message? Are they less likely to consider joining a Jihadist group? If the answer is yes, it’s good content. If the answer is No, than it is bad content.

Some Thoughts on Ten Postings:  

Reads “When we allow extremist groups to determine our activities, we give them power and control.”

Frankly not only was this one of the worst messages in terms of effectiveness in countering the appeal of Jihadism, I’d even say it’s “pro-Jihadism” from a recruiting perspective.

“Power and control” is precisely what these Jihadist movements strive for and what they offer potential recruits. There is clearly a huge element of Jihadism’s appeal that is about providing a sense of masculinity that they can’t find otherwise in their local community.

Furthermore, 99% of potential Jihadist recruits are coming from traditional Middle Eastern cultures that by US standards are to varying degrees “Sexist.”   For most of these recruits, the concept of “power and control” as stated in this photo, would be an enticement to join Jihad and gain “power and control” over the types of people in the above photo.

Under no circumstances would the concept of power and control as stated above, have an effect in deterring them from joining a radical Jihadist group. See the next post for more on why the above is ineffective.



This post is more bad propaganda for two reasons.

First, the picture only emphasizes the strong sense of camaraderie that joining a Jihadist group offers (not unlike say, joining the Marines).  That’s going to be the main takeaway of a sympathizer who reads this, not the accusation by the US government that ISIS fighters are feasting while citizens are going hungry. Why? Anyone predisposed to join such groups will automatically assume that is a lie by the USG.

Second, this photo directly above strongly reinforces why the first photo is so ineffective.  Potential ISIS recruits are not American-style Feminists.  99.9% of them by American standards are “sexist” in every possible way in which that term is currently thrown around.  Just look at the guys in the above picture – does anyone really think that the first photo would have any effect at all in convincing them not to join an ISIS-type group?

There is, however,  so much we could do here to flip this around more effectively to the favor of the US, but it would require a certain “non-PC mindset” that probably is too controversial currently in the USG.



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There are many variations of this slide throughout Think Again Turn Away – “look at how terrible it is that ISIS is destroying ancient monuments.”

However, it is hard to see how this message can have any effect in influencing the thinking of the target audience. It’s neutral at best. If anything is slightly pro-Jihadism.

Remember – we are talking about ultra-conservative Muslims who in this case can be described as “extremists.”  Most Muslims generally see anything that came before the age of Islam as “barbaric” in some sense. That is quite explicit in the Holy scriptures. For the vast majority that’s not something that they will think about in their daily lives.

But for a segment of the population who are “very conservative,” it is. For example, this is why there is a significant number of Egyptians that will never visit the Pyramids.

So when our target audience here is people who have likely already demonstrated some Indicator of Interest in Jihadism, I find it hard to see how this is going to be an effective message.  Frankly, the chance to blow up and destroy ancient pre-Islamic monuments, such as the Greek ruins in Palmyra is part of the sense of adventure that being a part of Jihadism in Syria entailed.



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There are many varieties of this – statements from the POTUS to this effect. I can’t see it having any effect. It’s neutral. Remember – anything the US government states about ISIS or other Jihadist groups (who hate the US) is instantly dismissed by anyone considering joining these groups. We are the enemy! Why would they care what we say?



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What does this have to do with anti-ISIS propaganda?  If anything this is a quasi justification of ISIS’s violence.

Key point- an element of ISIS’s appeal in certain Gulf countries is the idea that they’re doing the necessary “dirty work” against Iranian aggression in Syria and Iraq, needed to keep Iranian aggression away from the homeland.

So I am confused how a post emphasizing Assad’s “evil”  would have any effect in denting the appeal of ISIS-style Jihadism.



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In Think Again Turn Away there are dozen of images with this exact theme of aid to the Syrian Civil War.  But again, what does this have to do with anything that the target audience cares about?



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Focusing on the brutality of ISIS is a common theme of  Think Again, Turn Away and it’s going in the right direction. Let’s be honest, we have no ability to convince disgruntled young men in the Arab world, to suddenly think there local status quo is something good that they should just be happy and accept.

We the US can’t provide a “positive” alternative” to the Jihadist approach. However, if done effectively we can deter some recruits by focusing on the brutality of what being a part of ISIS or similar groups entails.

Hammering away on this point is clever….BUT it can’t be overstated that it must be done organically in the Muslim world, and not be tied at all to the US government. Because if done by the USG it is automatically delegitimized.



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Again, headed in the right direction. Showing real interviews with defectors and why they left might do something.   But to be effective has to be done in quality local language targeting, which we currently don’t have the ability to do.




Neutral effect at most. Again, there isn’t the slightest bit of empirical evidence that what the US does at home has any effect on jihadist recruiting one way or the other.



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Again, important sentiment, but again, the Queen of Jordan is the epitome of the Muslim establishment that Jihadists are trying to overthrow. So the King’s family making these statements is important but it’s not going to have an effect in persuading anyone that already hates their government.



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This is BY FAR  the theme in Think Again Turn Away that I think could really be effective. Highlighting the dishonor and shame brought upon the family of somebody who gets thrown in jail for joining ISIS.

From people in cultures where the family unit and the family’s honor is far more important in determining people’s choices than their individual desires, there is clearly something to work with here. Somebody from say, the Somali immigrant community in Minnessota who joins a group and gets thrown in jail for 20 years, not only ruins their life, they cause enormous negative consequences for their sisters, their brothers, in terms of jobs and marriage prospects.

This is even more so in the Middle East.  So if a potential Jihadist knows their actions will have enormous social consequences for their family, it might have some impact. This is a clever path that merits more focus.  But then again we are moving into non-PC areas….



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Not sure how this is effective. If anything it highlights the comradery that being in a Jihadist group entails.  I could see potential recruits in Tunis, Saudi, Cairo etc seeing this as appealing…



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No relation to the topic at play. What does this have to do with countering the Jihadist recruiting appeal?




Hard to say about this one. It’s a clever graphic image by the State Department to highlight. It will certainly scare the you know what out of many Arab Christians, but I don’t see it having any effect in convincing people considering joining, not to join.


Do you want to read more analysis like this on US Middle East policy?  Sign up to receive content via email (upper right) or get posts via Twitter at @nathanrfield1. In the meantime, here are 5 related posts you might find worth a read:  

(1)  What “America First” Means for US Middle East Policy

(2) Ayman Zawahiri is irrelevant to 2017 and onwards US CT policy

(3) Why It’s Not True to Say That The Saudi Government “exported” Radical Islam

(4) Three Reasons for Optimism About a Revitalized US-Saudi Relationship Under President Trump

(5) What’s the Main Reason Awlaki’s Influence Lingers? Because he was Bi-Lingual



7 thoughts on “Analyzing (mostly) mediocre US anti-Jihadism messaging – p1

  1. Yeah, I don’t buy this at all. American propaganda on its own people is so well executed and effective, there is absolutely no way that this was intended as a serious campaign to combat jihadi recruitment.

    I mean what the hell is this?

    This isn’t the consequence of “not enough Arab speakers” or “not getting their mindset” or “being too PC”: it’s objectively terrible.

    I was never one for conspiracies, but from reading your article and the tweets on that account, I’m now pretty convinced that the US government is fine with ISIS’s continuing existence and has no real intention of putting an end to it.


    1. Nathan


      Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, I just think it’s more of a question of willful but unwitting incompetence/ arrogance.

      The PC issue to me is the fundamental obstacle, more than the language issue.

      After all, the USG has scattered Arabic resources around the government.

      But until the PC issue isn’t putting a constraint on the messaging, perfect grammar and Arabic style can’t hide embarrassingly bad content.



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