January 11, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Battling the Islamic State’s Message

• On January 8, the U.S. Government announced a reorganization of its disparate efforts to counter the messaging and ideology of the Islamic State

• The ubiquitous propaganda of extremist groups continues to inspire people across the world to act in their name; countering this phenomena will require a comprehensive campaign and not just a counter-narrative

• The reorganized U.S. approach enables the government to empower existing credible voices that are able to reach target audiences

• Assigning responsibility for multi-agency performance to one office is vital, as is further funding towards effective approaches.


The U.S. government’s battle against the ideology of groups such as the so-called Islamic State has faltered for a number of reasons—primary among them the inability to effectively reach the target audience. The self-selective nature of social media interactions all but guarantees that government-created content will not reach its intended audience. A person following the U.S. State Department Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Twitter account is likely not among the target audience of the Islamic State and other like-minded groups. Other factors frustrating official CVE efforts include: the absence of ownership, paucity of funding, reluctance to cede creative control to local entities, hesitancy to forge a campaign and not just a counter-narrative, and a lack of metrics to determine success or failure.

On January 8, 2016, the U.S. government took steps to remedy these frustrations, announcing that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would assume a central role in the government’s CVE efforts. The DHS will lead a CVE Task Force—with the Department of Justice (DOJ) also in an important position—and will have additional support from eleven other agencies. U.S. history against multi-causal issues such as extremism, narcotics, and gang violence is awash with both effective and ineffective task forces; the new CVE task force will have its work cut out for it against growing security concerns.

The CVE task force will work to fill gaps identified during several of last year’s initiatives and conferences. The identified gaps in to-date strategy and previous approaches have been exacerbated by lack of both ownership and clear division of responsibility. The recent announcement provides direction and places knowledgeable leadership from key agencies—who have experience and background in the subject matter, as well as established relationships of trust with essential stakeholders—in primary positions to direct this critical effort. Paramount to success will be engagement with valued partners on all levels who have academic, operational, and communications experience in dealing with the subject matter.

The Department of State (DOS) also announced that it was reorganizing its much-maligned CVE programs, some of which sought to engage online Islamic State supporters in their own element of sarcasm. The new Global Engagement Center will shift the focus from content created by the U.S. government and move towards a long-needed approach of quietly enabling and enhancing effective local initiatives across the globe. The approach of DOS efforts like ‘Think Again Turn Away’ was well-intended but, like all U.S. government-branded initiatives, struggled to reach the target audience, creating another echo chamber of like-minded supporters and practitioners.

The DOS will also focus on hotbeds of terror—long-problematic areas in TunisiaLibyathe Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, and Belgium. Violent extremist propaganda may have a global reach, but its most profound impact is in the areas that disproportionally produce foreign fighters and clusters of recruitment. The Internet is not the most powerful driver of extremism; clusters formed around charismatic individuals and family ties consistently produce extremists and will need to be addressed on a local level, with national and international assistance.

More than anything, the reorganization of U.S. CVE efforts is an acknowledgment that the issue is nuanced, and that even the most nimble governments struggle with granular approaches. When it comes to terrorism, understandable security concerns often override best practices—such as the increased use of ‘formers’ and ‘off-ramp’ programs that provide alternative ways to step back from the path of extremism without fear of prosecution. There is no singular approach to social work, and there should not be one for violent extremism. Combining federal support and information-sharing with local awareness and capability is the optimal approach, and recent announcements signify a step in the right direction.


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