Sowing Seeds of Social (Media) Destruction: ISIS as Disruptor and Political Weapon

By Hampton Stall ’15

In the past year, ISIS has grown in power. There is very little doubt about that. ISIS has secured major territorial advances across Iraq, made recent alliances in Nigeria and Libya, and gained a number of pledges of allegiance by more extremist actors (of varying levels of notoriety, from Boko Haram to extremists in Sinai to former AQAP supporters in Yemen).

What is up for debate, though, are the motivations of ISIS and the degree to which governments at ISIS’s borders and beyond can have an impact on the efficacy of ISIS military and human intelligence operations. Both of these require analysis from the level of al-Baghdadi to that of social media and film staff to that of foot soldiers carrying AK-47’s. Analyzing only one level of ISIS’s machine or writing policy aimed at one single aspect of ISIS’s broad mission means missing the mark on an organization that possibly is structured in a very interrelated way.

A popular piece written by Graeme Wood for the Atlantic tries to parse out the motivations of members of ISIS, using interviews from IS recruiters and members. Wood’s article is not a piece written in a vacuum of articles on ISIS, though, and there is no doubt one would encounter more English-language articles about ISIS written in an afternoon than could be read in a week; there is no real lack of coverage of ISIS advances, theories of ISIS motivations, predictions for when ISIS might fall, arguments about how ISIS is an existential threat to the West, et cetera.

This obsession with ISIS has played out in a number of ways. Before now, policymakers and mediamakers alike have never talked so much about an insurgent group or terrorist group, nor has the public consumed as much on a topic as we do when the media talks about ISIS. Google trends reveal that ISIS has been much more written about and searched for than Al-Qaeda was since 2004. 1 The break between ISIS and other similar groups is even greater when factoring in Boko Haram from Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Kenya. 2 Limited to only the United States, one can easily see just how much attention ISIS is getting over all other organizations or extra-state actors similar to ISIS. 3 In George Orwell’s 1949 novel, 1984, one of the several ministries of Oceania is the Ministry of Peace, which concerns itself with war. This ministry concerns itself not with winning the never-ending war with Eurasia or Eastasia, but with the maintenance of a wartime culture. In evoking this allegory, I do not intend to say that the United States government nor any other foreign government wishes to stay in war forever. I want to point out that wielding a foreign enemy for political reasons is not at all a new phenomenon.

Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, has successfully convinced President Obama and the United States military to slow the United State’s troop withdrawal. Reports indicate that by the end of this year the United States military will have nearly double the planned number of troops in Afghanistan. 2017 is still considered to be the final year for troop drawdown, and both Afghan and American parties have agreed a US force will no longer occupy Afghan territories by the time Obama leaves office.

In an interview with NBC News, Ghani told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that ISIS intends to invade Afghanistan for their own strategic interests. While Ghani was thankful for US involvement in past years, and explicitly thanked injured and killed US soldiers, a change in security statements from targeting a severely crippled (but growing) Taliban to ISIS sets a worrying precedent for two countries whose militaries have been involved on Afghan soil for nearly 15 years. Ghani, in his interview with NBC News, has equated ISIS strategy (and the existence of ISIS) as a direct threat to his own country, insuring that donors and security policymakers alike continue to pay attention to Afghanistan. This comes as Afghanistan’s security and state problem is waning from broad media coverage worldwide. The Taliban is no longer a primary focus, and Ghani has an interest in keeping Afghan security concerns on the global agenda.

American and global media outlets center their ISIS coverage on ISIS atrocities, the hatred some of their leaders espouse, and a radical ideology unique to their members. The reality is that articles about and images of an obviously evil foreign enemy sell extraordinarily well. TIME Magazine’s cover in early March featured three cover articles, and each one was about ISIS (…All written by white men, too.  But the men-talk-war fest over ISIS merits another article entirely).

ISIS, and the evil and violence of ISIS especially, has become part of global vernacular, finding home in figurative language or horribly thought out comparisons. This includes several awful, problematic statements like Yoni Leviatan’s blog post for Times of Israel wherein he compared his hate for J Street supporters to the hate ISIS members felt towards Muath al-Kasasbeh, the Muslim Jordanian pilot they captured earlier this year (he was locked in a cage, lit on fire, and buried alive). Also of note is Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers’ equation of ISIS and police brutality towards black men in America (police brutality against non-white men is a critical issue in America, but no police regime in the States could measure up to the media’s household image of ISIS ).

Even The Davidson International (TDI) cannot avoid talking about ISIS. Last week I participated in TDI’s first debate, which discussed immigration to the European Union and the plethora of issues surrounding it. Many of the examples used by the team in favor of greater restriction included ISIS or ISIS operatives. Consequently, responses from the team against the institution of more restrictions necessitated deferring or invalidating these ISIS examples. ISIS even made it into the text of one of the questions. This is valid, though, as stories of ISIS fighters traveling back and forth from Sweden have made headlines alongside attacks claimed by ISIS leadership. The point I’m making is that ISIS coverage is so broad that it has become an unavoidable part of debate in a wide range of contemporary policy issues.

Following the attack on Bardo Museum in Tunisia two weeks ago, a number of news outlets have picked up a story about ISIS militants taking over Tatooine, the Star Wars home of Luke Skywalker (the site of the set is located in Tunisia and has been a popular tourist attraction). The language in each article is appropriately vague, discussing how ISIS militants use an area “near” the site for crossing the Tunisian border (still a relatively low volume crossing at this juncture). This is in direct contrast to the language of each headline, which declare that ISIS is invading even our most valuable cultural sites—the former set of a Star Wars film. Never mind Nineveh, Nimrud, Hatra, and others—many of which have been occupied solely by ISIS militants for months and whose destruction by bulldozer should have been expected given the desecration of the Tomb of Jonah.

Politicians, too, have been wielding fear of ISIS as a weapon to constantly beat their constituencies into supporting the work they are doing or championing. This includes the massive criticism of Obama by the Republicans over his 2014 comments that ISIS is Al-Qaeda’s JV team. More extremist right-wing parties in Europe like UKIP can argue for support, saying that ISIS and attacks on European soil are due to relaxed response to terrorist threats. In America, we have even seen an astonishingly high volume of cries that ISIS is an “existential threat” to the United States and its allies. Tthe same has been said of Iran and US-Iran nuclear talks, so perhaps “existential threat” is just the new normal for “appears to have power to inflict some damage.”—This is not to belittle damage to civilians, but, as Orwell would like it, policing language usage that is out of bounds or conciliatory is important to maintaining a level, appropriate discourse on policy and politics.

Advances by ISIS have led to some strange political happenings and interesting alliances, too. Germany completed the largest arms deal it has ever agreed to, wherein German financiers provided weapons to groups fighting ISIS. American militias have begun arming themselves against ISIS (alright, maybe this isn’t that strange—just a new target), and a renewed interest in groups like the Yazidi and the Kurds in Iraq. The German arms deal earned very little American coverage, and media is far less interested in groups at risk of genocide elsewhere in the world than in those ISIS threatens. America and Iran have become much more closely aligned in fights against ISIS, and announced joint air strike/military movement operations this week. Suddenly, the US military has put emphasis on the potential for success of groups like Shia militias in southern Iraq (an effective but brutal military force).

Following 9/11, many argued that the new culture of fear, alarmism, and Islamophobia in the United States was a much bigger indicator that Osama’s forces prevailed against the United States, even if the former was finally assassinated in 2010. Talk of ISIS has become so pervasive at all levels of policy and society despite a number of key ISIS military losses (Ayn al-Arab, struggles over Mosul dam, battle for Tikrit). What can Americans expect the legacy of this new foe to be upon American society and cultural thinking?

Featured image via Mandel Ngan/AFP – Getty Images

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