British intelligence chiefs used to listen to people but nowadays the people are meant to listen to them too. Out of the shadows, Robert Hannigan, the new director of GCHQ, a British government intelligence and security organization, issued a stern warning in a Financial Times article on November 3 to U.S. tech giants – such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. He wrote that they had “become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals”, including ISIS.
The argument is cogent, reasoned and plausible. But it does distract from the bigger issues as to why ISIS has become a magnetic attraction for many young Muslims. For sure, ISIS and like-minded groups are populated by those born in the Internet age, totally at ease with advanced programming and ICT skills. Their videos, their newsletters and use of social media are slick and professional. The mass of users and data combined with readily accessible encryption software must understandably give Mr. Hannigan sleepless nights.
The trouble is that the real reasons ISIS and other extremist groups have been successful is only partially due to social media and far more to do with international and regional policy failures. Just as there was no Twitter revolution in Iran and no Facebook revolution in Egypt, ISIS is not merely a social media phenomenon. The real questions are why does ISIS attract followers and why does the West and its allies have such a poor record in countering this?
Winning ‘hearts and minds’
The West has a long record of trying to win ‘hearts and minds’ especially in the Arab and Islamic world. Even in 1830, French invading forces sent out leaflets over much of Algeria proclaiming their supposed intent to bring democracy to the country. The U.S.’s war in Iraq was propped up by the broadcasts of Al Hurra TV and Radio Sawa to seemingly little effect. The former Royal Navy spokesperson in the Iraq war of 2003, Steve Tatham, subsequently wrote a book about the inadequacy of coalition communications, “Losing Arab hearts and minds.” My main contention with Tatham was that there was no evidence they had ever been won in the first place. I have not met a single Arab who admits to having had his heart and mind won over by U.S. communications– whether it be over fighting Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, Assad or ISIS. Imagine if U.S. outreach to the Arab world was even half as competent as Facebook and Twitter.
The real questions are why does ISIS attract followers and why does the West and its allies have such a poor record in countering this?Chris Doyle
President Obama referenced ‘hearts and minds’ in his latest speech to the United Nations, albeit with little enthusiasm. He was not the first nor will he be the last American leader to do so but he at least acknowledged, “No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.” He does not seem a disciple of the view that if only their communications were better, Iraqis would become at least passive allies in that latest Anglo-American military adventure.
Have Obama and fellow Western leaders finally abandoned the absurd notion that somehow a few neat, sound bite sprinkled speeches laced with charm and warm gushing words about democracy and Islam works. Most Arabs do not trust politicians anymore than most voters in Oklahoma or Arkensas?
This is what ISIS and like-minded groups have worked out. They have a far better appreciation of their constituency than those in the West that oppose them. And as much as spy chiefs may blame the likes of Facebook and Twitter, they are just tools. Nobody was tweeting on 9/11 as Twitter had not been born. The absence of Facebook did not stop Al Qaida’s worldwide atrocities. Sadly, the message for some remains appealing. Indeed much of the radicalization amongst the British Muslim community for example is done by face-to-face contact.
Papering over failures
Going after the social network giants is papering over the huge strategic policy failures of the international community and Middle Eastern regional powers. Ultimately what Arabs are looking for from the U.S. and allies is a genuine change of policy and action as part of a winning strategy. Nothing but that will be convincing at all. Weeks after U.S. did nothing about Israel bombing schools in Gaza and flattening much of it for the fourth time since 2006, the U.S. takes action over ISIS. Whilst the U.S. is bombing ISIS, Assad’s warplanes are still barrel bombing Aleppo and other cities. The English-speaking media went into overdrive in covering the executions of American and British hostages held by ISIS but all too frequently Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese victims were just footnotes. For Arabs, Muslims and indeed many others across the globe the contradictions are massive.
ISIS’s harsh brutal methods could not be less appealing to the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims and yet the U.S.-led coalition seems incapable or unwilling to mount a successful communications campaign. The trouble is, all the regional powers are seen as having exacerbated the crises in these countries rather than resolving them. The U.S. and its allies are seen as devoid of any strategy and serious intent to work for the interests of the population of the region.
The American President does not even bother to hide this disinterest. Obama’s last minute intervention in Iraq and Syria is more about damage limitation to his own domestic reputation as a weak and vacillating President in the run up to the mid-term elections than any desire to end the war. It is American voters that matter not the views of Muslims globally. He knows that airstrikes alone will, at best just contain the problem, and that seems to be the limit of his ambition.
Does winning ‘hearts and minds’ matter? To solve the Iraq and Syria crises and reconstitute these countries, the answer is yes, but at a political level more than a political. But some argue in the conflict with ISIS, only winning will persuade people to back the U.S. effort. In this case, the key for the U.S. will be to convince the region that its efforts will prevail, and given recent failures, that is an almost impossible sell. The U.S. lost whatever trust it had in the Arab World decades ago but after Iraq and Afghanistan, it has lost respect as well. ISIS believes it will prevail by surviving and so too do many in the region. The U.S.’s biggest problem is therefore – it no longer looks like a winner, and through social media, the whole world can read, watch and share it.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.