Why Counterterrorism Efforts Against Salafi-Jihadists Should Emphasize Information Warfare

The Islamic State extensively employs social media to spread its message. Photo Credit: The Week

By: Kevin Truitte, Columnist

The United States and its Western allies have been fighting the Salafi-jihadist movement for more than a quarter of a century. This war has largely been fought on physical battlefields – from the mountains of Afghanistan to the urban neighborhoods of European cities. Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued al-Qaeda, and later the Islamic State, through a variety of means: drone strikes have knocked of leadership and aggressive sanctions have shut down funding sources. However, counterterrorism is at its core as an informational problem. The goal of the jihadist groups is to send political messages to supporters, potential supporters, and adversaries alike. Attacks aim to create and enhance perceptions of these organizations’ operational and moral strength against a more powerful opponent. As such, the U.S. and its allies should reframe how they conduct counterterrorism, focusing more on combating the informational operations of jihadist groups.

An information-centric counterterrorism strategy should focus on communications, command, and control within jihadist networks. Today’s jihadist movement has long capitalized on both traditional and modern communications technology for command and control. From al-Qaeda’s early use of email to coordinate operations to the Islamic State’s use of the Telegram messaging application to distribute propaganda, jihadist groups rely on communications like any other organization.[i] While jihadists have in the past shifted away from a distinctive hierarchical structure to networked cells when key leadership is eliminated, both types of organizational setups require communication between nodes.[ii] Disrupting communications, command, and control is critical to inhibiting terrorist groups, limiting their ability to plan and coordinate large-scale attacks. Kinetic operations, such as targeted attacks or detentions of leaders or linked cells, can disrupt information flows within these groups. In addition, non-kinetic options, such as cyberwarfare, can disable terrorist organizations’ online communications infrastructure, further reducing their ability to coordinate attacks.[iii]

The second overarching objective of this strategy should be to degrade jihadist outreach and propaganda. Al-Qaeda has always sought to spread its message and use its attacks to advertise the group’s existence and mission. The Islamic State sought to promote its violent activities and the political and religious legitimacy of its caliphate to build an international support base. ISIS employed an advanced media apparatus to disseminate its messages – producing highly polished, Hollywood-esque videos glorifying military operations and medieval punishment for “un-Islamic” behavior.[iv] Degrading these groups’ information operations through both destruction (as the U.S. and allied coalition did by wiping out cells across Syria and Iraq[v]) and deletion (as social media companies did by taking down hundreds of thousands of accounts spewing jihadist propaganda[vi]) reduces their ability to reach a larger audience and recruit new members.[vii]

The third, and most difficult, part of an information-centric counterterrorism strategy is the delegitimization of jihadist narratives. Salafi-jihadism is built on an ideological narrative that Muslims have abandoned “true Islam,” an anti-Muslim alliance has sought to oppress the Muslim world, and victory can be achieved through fighting on behalf of “true Islam.”[viii] Al-Qaeda has been particular sensitive to criticism and negative perceptions of its activities among its target audience — the global Muslim population — in pursuit of its core narratives, namely that its fighters are defenders of Islam. In the mid-2000s, this led al-Qaeda to rebuke al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for his murder of Muslims, due to the potential negative public relations impact these actions would have on the group.[ix] While ISIS was acquiring territory in Syria and Iraq, it emphasized additional narratives of conquest as justification that their conquest was righteous. ISIS propaganda claimed that their caliphate represented a place where Muslims could follow “true Islam.”[x] The U.S. and its allies should exploit the often hypocritical nature of these groups’ actions and claims to undermine Salafi-jihadist narratives. Covertly, alternative and critical religious opinions can be echoed in information environments that are vulnerable to the messages of these groups. More overtly, the death and destruction al-Qaeda and ISIS have inflicted on Muslims can be leveraged to undermine Salafi-jihadist claims to fight for “true Islam.” Lastly, the ISIS’s earlier boasts about its territorial conquests can be used against it, now that the group’s caliphate has crumbled. By juxtaposing the group’s current deteriorated strategic position against previous, confident claims of victory, counter-messaging can erode the group’s appeal to potential supporters. Ultimately, the narratives these groups use to legitimize their actions often have significant vulnerabilities that strong counternarratives can exploit.

Ultimately, Salafi-jihadism cannot be defeated through force alone; the movement’s ideological nature requires an expanded focus on its informational dimension. By emphasizing the centrality of information in the war against jihadists, the West can more effectively undermine terrorist groups’ abilities to communicate internally, conduct operations, spread their ideologies, and legitimize their actions.


[[i]]”The Terrorist’s Tricks and Countermeasures,” PBS Frontline, January 25, 2005, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/front/special/techsidebar.html ; Rebecca Tan, “Terrorists’ love for Telegram, explained,” Vox, June 30, 2017, https://www.vox.com/world/2017/6/30/15886506/terrorism-isis-telegram-social-media-russia-pavel-durov-twitter.

[[ii]] “Chapter 3 Terrorist Organizational Models,” TRDOC G2 Terrorism Handbook No. 1, v 5.0, August 15, 2007, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army/guidterr/ch03.pdf.

[[iii]] Sean Lyngaas, “Carter: U.S. disrupting Islamic State computer networks,” FCW, February 29, 2016, https://fcw.com/articles/2016/02/29/carter-isis-networks.aspx.

[[iv]] Alberto Fernandez, “Why ISIS propaganda has been so successful and how to counter it,” The Brookings Institution, May 27, 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2015/05/27/why-isis-propaganda-has-been-so-successful-and-how-to-counter-it.

[[v]] Diana Stancy Correll, “US-led coalition: Recent strikes destroyed nearly half of ISIS ‘propaganda’ cells,” The Washington Examiner, January 6, 2019, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/us-led-coalition-recent-strikes-destroyed-nearly-half-of-isis-propaganda-cells.

[[vi]] Jack Encarnacao, “Tech Companies Are Lending a Hand in Fight Against ISIS,” Boston Herald, September 29, 2016, https://www.govtech.com/social/Tech-Companies-Lending-a-Hand-in-Fight-Against-ISIS.html.

[[vii]] Rikar Hussein, “Law Enforcement Hits IS Propaganda Outlets,” Voice of America, April 28, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/a/joint-law-enforcement-effort-hits-islamic-state-propaganda-outlets/4369462.html.

[viii] Assaf Moghadam, “The Salafi-Jihad as a Religious Ideology,” CTC Sentinel, February 2008, Vol. 1, Issue 3, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-salafi-jihad-as-a-religious-ideology/.

[ix] “Zawahiri’s Letter to Zarqawi,” 2007, https://ctc.usma.edu/harmony-program/zawahiris-letter-to-zarqawi-original-language-2/.

[x] “The Islamic State (Full Length),” Vice News, December 26, 2014, https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/3kwgqj/the-islamic-state-full-length.

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