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Blog | War of Words: Helping Muslim Leaders Fight Terrorist Propaganda

Every year, thousands of people leave their home countries and travel to Syria or Iraq to join Daesh, also known as ISIS.

Why? What compels these people — most of them young, most of them men — to leave their families and the relative comforts of their homes to fight and die in places where they have no ties? How can we stop others from following in their footsteps?

The Carter Center has launched a project that aims to help reduce the stream of foreign fighters joining Daesh. Dr. Houda Abadi, an associate director in the Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, spoke with us about how Daesh recruits and what we can do about it.

Q: Before we dive into the project, can you explain why you call the group “Daesh”?

The group wants to be called the Islamic State. They are very savvy when it comes to propaganda. Calling them the Islamic State lends legitimacy to the idea that they are a state, and that they are following Islamic principles. Neither is true. “Daesh” is an acronym of the Arabic words “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham.” But “Daesh” in Arabic sounds similar to the Arabic words “Daes,” and “Dahes,” which mean, respectively, trampling or crushing something underfoot and “the sowers of discord.” The group hates to be called Daesh. They are a group that plays with words, and we should not fall into their trap.

Q: OK, now let’s move on to the project.

The project has two components. The first involves trying to understand how Daesh recruits young people. To that end, we’ve analyzed more than 300 Daesh videos and all issues of its online magazine, Dabiq. And will continue to add to that research. The second component involves convening workshops with religious and community leaders to provide them with a more nuanced understanding of Daesh communication strategies, ways to counter Daesh narratives, and strategies to engage alienated youth.

Covers from the Daesh propaganda magazine Dabiq. (Left) Healthcare: Daesh propaganda includes selling the advantages of living in the so-called caliphate. In this ad, it claims to provide quality healthcare to residents. (Middle) Wala and Bara: Daesh created this image to suggest that its members don’t suffer from the effects of racism felt in the United States. (Right) Just Terror: The cover of Daesh’s magazine, Dabiq, after the terror attacks in Paris called the terror “just.”

Q: What did your research find?

Our research has found that their recruitment strategies vary by region, race, gender, and language. We’ve identified several recurring narratives — among them, the need to wage military jihad, the advantages of living in a caliphate, hypocrisy of Muslim religious and political leaders, and the humiliation of the ummah (the Muslim community). They produce videos in French, German, Arabic, Russian, English, Spanish — even local sign language! For Daesh, the media battlefield is as important as the physical one.

Q: Can you describe some of Daesh’s strategies?

Daesh re-appropriates international media to benefit its propaganda. For example, when Michelle Obama showed support for the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram with a #BringBackOurGirls tweet, Daesh manipulated it to say #BringBackOurHumvees, mocking the fact that Daesh has captured U.S. military vehicles in Iraq. They also repurpose speeches by Western leaders to confirm their legitimacy and grandeur.

Q: Why do you think Daesh has been so successful at recruiting?

Some of it can be attributed to religious illiteracy.  The less you know about what Islam really says, the more easily you can be manipulated when you are thrown a Quranic verse out of context or told that doing something will make you a better Muslim.

But we also can’t ignore the root causes and legitimate grievances. Years of military intervention by outside nations have ravaged the region. More recently, the marginalization of Muslims in the West has disenfranchised youth and made it easier for Daesh to seduce recruits.

Q: Does Islamophobia play a role?

Islamophobia and religious violent extremism feed into each other. Islamophobes are doing what Daesh wants them to do, which is using the rhetoric of “us vs. them.” That really benefits their propaganda. They can say, “See how you are treated? If you come here, you will be treated much better.” Daesh’s use of various languages, their stories of converts and foreign Muslim fighters, all work to project an image of acceptance with everyone seemingly united under the banner of Islam with no regard for race, socioeconomic status, physical disabilities, or country of origin. We know the reality is different, but that’s their message.

Q: How will offering training to religious and community leaders help?

Religious leaders have denounced Daesh and made it clear that their actions and beliefs are un-Islamic. However, these leaders have relied on traditional forms of communication, and as such, have not connected with marginalized youth. They often respond with non-engaging sermons in classical Arabic. And their responses often lack emotional appeal, or don’t directly counter Daesh’s messaging.

Some things are simple. For example, in Morocco, where there is high illiteracy rate, you need to communicate in the local language, Darija. That’s what Daesh does. We want to help leaders understand Daesh’s propaganda strategies and learn how to amplify their own voices to immunize their communities against Daesh. We want to help them fill the online space with their own messages.

Q: What are the next steps?

We will be holding workshops with religious leaders from Tunisia, Morocco, France, and Belgium. The first is scheduled for September. The plan is to bring participants back together after they’ve had time to apply what they’ve learned to share challenges and success stories. The most effective solutions come from the grass roots.

Related Resources

Learn more about the Carter Center’s initiative to Counter Daesh (ISIS) recruitment propaganda through mobilization of religious leaders and media >

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