By: Ayşan Berfu Yurdakul
On May 10, 2016, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Texas Christian University held an event titled “Breaking ISIL’s Brand.” It was hosted by Bob Schieffer with panelists Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs; Farah Pandith, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, First-Ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, U.S. State Department; and David Sanger, National Security Correspondent, New York Times.
The first panelist to speak was Richard Stengel. He started his remarks by saying that breaking a brand means not mentioning it at all, but this is being violated in the first place by talking about ISIL. He mostly talked about the importance of the information battlefield, messaging, and the misconceptions that come with it. For example, the fact that more than 80% of ISIL messaging is done in Arabic, followed by Russian, and thirdly American English and French. Together with these misconceptions and the fact that ISIL does most of its messaging in Arabic, the U.S. government was not considered the best messenger. and this was not just the U.S. but the whole world, including 1.6 billion Muslims against ISIL. The best messengers would have to be voices of mainstream Islam, credible voices, effective messaging campaigns, Muslims who are aware that their religion is being high jacked, and data analytics. Current research shows that ISIL’s messaging volume has come down 40% and there is five times more anti-ISIL messages than there are in support of ISIL. A contribution to these statistics could be the U.S. Counter Messaging Center in Abu Dhabi. It collected testimonies from people who were seduced by the ideology and sparked a large amount of interest and engagement with the campaign through this center.
The second panelist to speak was Farah Pandith. She agreed with Richard Stengel that ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ was hard to define, but with more and more people across the globe having sympathy for ISIL each day, there was a big problem. The U.S. government had not done what it was capable of doing to defeat this ideology, and was not fighting the fight it should. What should have been done was to understand why this ideology was appealing in order to actually break the brand and to remember that it had become an issue beyond specifically being related to ISIL. This was a spread of ideology of the extremist groups becoming a global threat and affecting the new generation. Farah Pandith also agreed that the U.S. was not the best messenger but that it failed to scale up credible voices across the globe. She listed what should be done, starting with developing the mechanics which requires more skilled man power, more money, and more motivation.
All panelists had comments on how the measuring was done: how long people stay on a message, the engagement and the numbers of foreign fighters, the numbers of non-governmental organizations, and what the civil society does (but with different tools) suggested, it was possible to see that it was difficult for such measurement in this space.
It was obvious that such a big issue would not reach a conclusion at the moment, but the discussion and possible solutions were effective for future debates about the topic. The conclusion as to this being a global problem and not just the United States, or another state against ISIL, raised hopes for the probability of cooperation and collaboration of states in finding solutions to put an end to it.