Countering ISIL’s Messaging

By Jordan Dannenberg

Delegitimizing ISIL’s ideology and messaging is a key pillar of the president’s five-part strategy for “degrading and defeating” it. Last week, PBS’s Judy Woodruff asked General John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, why it has been so hard to counter ISIL’s propaganda. In response, General Allen suggested that ISIL had an easier time disseminating its “one message” than the coalition with its diverse members. To overcome this gap, General Allen said that “credible faces” and “credible voices” from Muslim and Arab communities are critical.

But some of America’s key allies in the struggle against ISIL have little credibility. They promote the very sectarianism that drives ISIL’s violent extremism.

U.S. allies make pro forma statements denouncing sectarianism. At the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan expressed grave concern about all forms of sectarianism in the Middle East. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called sectarianism one of the foremost threats and one the nation was eager to confront. And Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahman al-Khalifa asserted that “sectarianism is the biggest enemy to Bahrain.”

But these statements don’t line up with policy. Seeking to limit majority Shi’ite Iran’s regional influence, Saudi Arabia launched a brutal war in Yemen to try to push back the Iran-supported Houthis. The UAE contributed thirty jets to the Saudi war effort. Meanwhile, Bahrain and its supporters have stoked sectarian division in order to discredit the political opposition, thereby turning a political dispute over the powers of the monarchy into a Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian conflict. When U.S. allies in the Gulf use sectarianism as a political tactic, they validate ISIL’s extreme anti-Shi’ite message.

The inconsistency between their statements and their actions precludes an effective response to ISIL propaganda. The challenge for the United States is to persuade key regional allies to stop promoting the anti-Shi’ite sectarianism that makes them anything but “credible voices” in the propaganda war.


Published on June 22, 2015


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