Winter 2016
Number 30

Countering the Islamic State's Message

Alberto M. Fernandez

The Salafi jihadist attack on the village named Teneib was quick and brutal. The raiders killed nearly all of the inhabitants, all of whom were Arab Muslims. They then moved on to their next target; a small party split off to sack the farm of a Christian Arab a few miles away. Commenting on the attack, one observer noted that “there is no one who is quite as intolerant of other people’s views and more certain of his own than the militant puritan, nor anyone as willing to employ ruthless slaughter and brutality in his efforts to teach the pure religion and inspire the love of God.”

Despite the similarities, this is not an account of one of the numerous assaults carried out in Iraq or Syria by the Islamic State (ISIS). Rather, it is a description of a 1925 Wahhabi raid in what was then called the Emirate of Transjordan. But the retelling, taken from the 1945 biography of Peake Pasha, the first commander of what became Jordan’s Arab Legion, underscores some key points that are essential in understanding today’s struggle against ISIS—both the physical “Islamic State” and the state of mind that it nurtures and engenders.

What can we learn from the attack on Teneib? Or from the earlier, horrendous sacking of the Shi’a city of Karbala in 1802 by Wahhabi raiders of the so-called first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriya—a campaign in which thousands of Shi’a Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered by people describing themselves simply as “the Muslims”? And how does it equate to what the ISIS caliphate is actually doing today, both in terms of use of violence and of governance, and in what they are saying they intend to do?

A different breed

The siren call of ISIS, promoted through its now-infamous use of social media, is, like that of Wahhabism before it, a worldview that has motivated tens of thousands toward extreme action, caused extreme suffering and dislocation, is extraordinarily ambitious and aggressive. Nonetheless, it remains to this day a minority view within the diverse religious and ethnic community that is Islam.(1) That said, the Islamic State—like its progenitor, al-Qaeda—sees itself as a revolutionary vanguard seeking to awaken and motivate the masses of the Muslim ummah to follow its particular path. Despite the fireworks, media glitz and soaring rhetoric, this has mostly not happened. At least not yet.

The horrific violence and charged rhetoric we are seeing today are not entirely new. ISIS certainly has some unique features, but it is very much a takfiri Salafi jihadist organization, like its former masters at al-Qaeda. The practice of deciding who is really a Muslim and who will be labeled an infidel—the process called takfir—is an essential if controversial element in the ISIS psyche. These are very precise terms within Islam, and while al-Qaeda seeks to reject the term takfiri it does openly describe itself as a Salafi jihadist group as a way of differentiating itself from those nonviolent Salafis who either believe in a political reform process (the Salafi Islahi) or completely eschew political life for one of the spirit. ISIS, of course, is not at all shy about aggressively practicing and embracing the concept of takfir. Indeed, in one 2014 speech, its spokesman, Muhammad al-Adnani, went so far as to say that not everyone who can recite the shihada and prays toward the two holy places (qiblatain) is safe.(2) Al-Adnani was making it clear that ISIS will be the arbiter of whether Muslims are “Muslim enough” to meet its demanding, narrow standards. Moreover, the group clearly has already ruled out a large number of Muslims—Shi’as, of course, but also Sunnis who oppose them and work for anti-ISIS nation-states or rival rebel groups.(3)

It is important to clarify this point because some of the unhelpful and superficial rhetoric that exists today, including from high-level political figures—both in the east and in the west—often predictably runs in one of two directions. On the one hand, many propound that ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam,” something which is patently false. On the otherhand, others articulate the equally ridiculous opposite position: that somehow ISIS represents the true face of Islam. It would be more honest to acknowledge that ISIS arises out of a certain historic reality within Islamic history and certain factors on the ground that facilitated its development and still contribute to its existence.

Any reader of crime fiction will soon learn about the elements that make up a crime, especially something like murder. They are usually described as “motive, means and opportunity.” If we look at ISIS through this optic, “motive” would be that takfiri Salafi jihadist worldview which has existed and still exists, and which for the past few decades has been promoted at times by states and by powerful propagandistic enterprises. “Means” could be interpreted as things like access to weapons and money, the ability to carry out the crime, and is closely tied to the third element, “opportunity.”

It is the collapse of authority, the dysfunction in Iraq under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the mass slaughter and anarchy in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria which gave ISIS the opportunity to flourish. Indeed, the original Islamic State (of Iraq) was almost destroyed by 2009, culminating in the death of its first “Commander of the Faithful,” Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and of the power behind the throne, War Minister Abu Ayyub al-Masri (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), in April 2010. Without the subsequent joint debacle of Iraq and Syria, this apocalyptic ideology could have remained a pipe dream attractive only to a small, if energetic, minority. But events on the ground and the changing political-military reality in the region gave flesh to the fevered dream—much in the same way that the weak, new state in Transjordan back in 1925, or the poorly defended borders in Ottoman-controlled Iraq, gave those Salafi raiders a chance to kill and rob.

In the struggle against groups like ISIS, a response is needed on all three fronts: motive, means and opportunity. And while our action is lacking in all three, it is especially deficient in the first one—specifically, in combating an ideology or worldview that can motivate people over time.

Knowing the enemy

In order to combat an idea we have to first understand it. What, then, are the main elements that make up the current “ISIS package”?

The first is that ISIS and its appeal are part of a Salafi worldview, and, in the West, a Salafi subculture with its own internal language—what I term jihadspeak—and logic. There is a pool of people who are active and aggressive as apologists of this worldview. They are not actually terrorists themselves, but are only slightly removed from it. This is, in a way, the permeable membrane for radicalization. Many of the online adherents of ISIS don’t even speak Arabic and are vulnerable on that point alone. But they are zealous, committed, closed-minded and prolific.

Thus, in challenging the violent Salafi mind-set, greater efforts must be made to confront and redefine commonly used terms of incitement and their impact: terms such as Kufr (unbelief), Shirk (polytheism), Al-Wala wal-Bara (loyalty and disavowal), Taghut (tyrant), Murtad (apostate), Rafidah (rejectionists), Nifaq (hypocrisy), and Jihad fiSabeelAllah (Holy War in the Path of God). These are used like toxic labels or trigger words in a hermetic sub-world fiercely skeptical of outsiders. Redeeming the language of extremist Islam is a worthy task that someone should take on, even if Western governments are not the ones best equipped to do so.

The second element of the ISIS package is what famed psychologist Dr. Willard Gaylin, in his important 2004 work Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence, has called grievance collecting. Dr. Gaylin was referring to how troubled individuals such as those who commit mass murder in criminal acts (like mass shootings on a university campus) in their minds collect a series of items, slights, injustices (real or imagined) as their justification for violence. As Gaylin puts it:

A grievance collector will move from the passive assumption of deprivation and low expectancy common to most paranoid personalities to a more aggressive mode. He will not endure passively his deprived state; he will occupy himself with accumulating evidence of his misfortunes and locating the sources.(4)

Of course the political language of Islam itself can be very much about “grievance collecting” as well, along the lines of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called in colonial situations “Islam as the language of refusal.”(5) In the 21st century West, with its Internet subcultures and political and social fragmentation, there are many languages of refusal—not at all toxic or violent—that can range from religious traditionalism to anarchism to pacifism. But there are also less benign subcultures flourishing along the margins of society and in the dark corners of social media, promoting a spectrum of political, religious or ethnic extremism and violence not so different from that of violent Salafism.

The third element of the ISIS ideological package is utopianism. This revolutionary addition has set ISIS apart among Sunni jihadist groups, but it fits in very well with a Salafi jihadist worldview and with a mind-set founded on a long list of real or perceived grievances. Since its founding, ISIS has gone from being mostly Iraq focused (2006-2012), to Syria focused (2013-2014) to—since the fall of Mosul and the declaration of the al-Baghdadi caliphate—having an expansive and ambitious worldwide focus. Like other revolutionaries before them, the radicals of ISIS seek to destroy the old world in order to recreate it in their own image, as a fairer, purer, more Islamic, more “authentic” entity.

In this particular sense, ISIS seems more like Robespierre and Marx and Lenin than medieval Muslim theologian and reformer Ibn Taymiyya. Indeed, it was one of the tribunes of the French Revolution who proclaimed that “a nation regenerates itself only upon heaps of corpses.”(6) Utopianism excuses any crime, any imperfection, any excess in the building of that which is to come, which itself will be perfect. The utopianism of ISIS has a strong apocalyptic element that fits in perfectly with a whole range of prophetic hadith and language in the period of formative Islam involving Syria and Iraq.

Building a counter-narrative

How can we combat the witches’ brew that makes up ISIS’ ideological appeal? Certainly, working to make the physical reality in the Middle East a different one by militarily defeating ISIS and destroying its rule is essential. But that is not enough. On a strategic level, governments must identify ways to combat the basic pillars of jihadist Salafi ideology that is the breeding ground from which ISIS pathology emerges.

Here, it is important to point out that this worldview does not emerge fully formed out of nothing. Rather, it has been promoted for decades by countries like Saudi Arabia, whether officially or unofficially. Simply put, Salafism has for many years had the cash, the patronage, the protection and the push that other trends and worldviews within Islam lacked. Not all Salafis are violent, to be sure. Some advocate for political reform while others seek to withdraw from society. But the specific problem of jihadist Salafism that today manifests itself in the image of ISIS and its fellow travelers can be tackled in a variety of ways, including:

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS. In the highly charged, narrow ideological space we are discussing, the good guys are heavily outnumbered. ISIS and its supporters are trolling and messaging around the clock, and doing so in large numbers. It is necessary to answer volume with volume. That, however, requires increasing both the number of anti-ISIS messengers and making it more difficult for extremists to communicate freely. This is possible to accomplish. An August 2015 MEMRI report minutely documented how an ISIS hashtag campaign was “hijacked” by Twitter trolls.(7) In that instance, the hashtag #WeAllGiveBayahToKhalifah was massively interrupted with over 50 percent anti-ISIS material, including a lot of explicit sexual content, over the course of 24 hours. This hijacking limited the reach of the ISIS media campaign, and represents a new tactic—one that was not being utilized a year ago at the height of the ISIS media offensive following the declaration of the caliphate.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTENT. ISIS messaging is mostly about a utopian, grievance-laden version of jihadist Salafism. But it is presented in a wide range of tailored ways, many of which are not particularly violence filled. All of these various narratives need to be addressed. Here, we have made some progress—but not enough. The work of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has been joined in 2015 by a French effort, a UAE effort—Sawab Center—and, most recently, a UK government effort. In late 2015, the United States trumpeted still another effort in coordination with Nigeria to counter the propaganda of Boko Haram, the West Africa Province of ISIS.(8) But many of these initiatives are relatively small and slow in tempo; after almost four months of existence, for example, the Sawab Center has generated fewer than 1,400 tweets in Arabic and English.

Still other approaches are slowly emerging. A sarcastic approach on Twitter, such as “ISIS Karaoke,” is an interesting small-scale effort in this vein. Likewise noteworthy is the autonomous, heroic work being carried out by independent Syrian and Iraqi activists on the ground, even from inside ISIS territory. These individuals, and others like them, should be identified and supported.

AMPLIFYING DISAFFECTED VOICES. Maximizing the narratives of recanters and defectors from the Islamic State is yet another approach that needs to be pursued. Much work can also be done in highlighting the voices and stories of Sunni Arab Muslim victims of ISIS violence. The stories of the Syrian Shaitat tribe(9) or of the hundreds of Iraqi Anbar province Sunni tribesmen or clerics killed by ISIS have yet to be told in the words of those who knew them. The fact that ISIS has killed many rival jihadists, such as veteran al-Qaeda leader Abu Khalid al-Suri or the leadership of the Ahrar al-Sham Syrian Islamist rebel group, is less well known than it should be.

CITIZEN EMPOWERMENT. Deepening understanding among at risk populations about the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen in the West is another needed element. Salafi jihadist trolls often seize upon the concept of Al-Wala wal-Bara (loyalty and disavowal) to separate their prey from the countries and societies where they find themselves. This brings the discussion into areas which some governments and societies find uncomfortable, into sometimes subverted issues such as patriotism and nationalism, or the use of symbols and structures of national identity, pride and unity. It is already clear that recent converts and second generation migrants struggling with issues of identity are particularly vulnerable to potential radicalization.(10)

PERSONAL OUTREACH. In addition to increasing our volume, decreasing theirs, and adding more and different types of content, another tactical approach to countering an ideological approach is to promote one-to-one interactions. The radicalization of individuals is a messy, complicated process, but one thing we do know is that there is often an individualized, tailored and intimate approach involved, either online or in the real world. We need to be able to replicate such contact, and harness it in the service of counter-radicalization.

Fortunately, this is not something we must invent out of whole cloth. Examples of individuals and small groups already engaging in this effort abound. Individuals like Mubin Sheikh in Canada and Humera Khan in the United States, and projects like the One to One Initiative of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the those of the new Moonshot CVE organization, are doing pioneering work in this key field of direct personal engagement. Yet these efforts are still far too few and scattered.

Engaging the fight

Those who now talk of generational struggle against ISIS are somewhat mistaken. Certainly, much of the worldview we are fighting has been around for centuries and is extremely resilient. It will not be easy to eradicate an approach which, crudely put, is about a Kalashnikov in one hand and a Quran in the other. But the astonishing rise of ISIS occurs mostly in the ungoverned spaces created on the ground by fateful political decisions and in the virtual ungoverned spaces we have created online and allowed in political-religious discourse.

All too often, ISIS has found our doors unlocked and our voices silenced. It is our lack of care and attention that gave its toxic message the opportunity to flourish. Even a qualitative improvement in what we are already trying to do could yield very positive results in a relatively short period of time.

Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez is the Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute. He previously served as the State Department’s Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication.

1.    Ed Husain, “Most Muslims Don’t Care About the ISIS Caliphate,” Telegraph (London), July 3, 2014,

2.    “داعش تفتي: كل المسلمين كفرة باخت,” Youtube, December 23, 2013,

3.    Peter Van Ostaeyen, “New Audio Message by ISIS Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani as-Shami – Apologies, Amir al-Qa’idah,” May 12, 2014,

4.    Willard Gaylin, Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), 116.

5.    Fouad Ajami, The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 68.

6.    Eugene N. Curtis, Saint-Just: Colleague of Robespierre (New York: Octagon Books, 1973), 236.

7.    “ISIS Hashtag Campaign Hijacked by Twitter Trolls: A Case Study,” MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, August 26, 2015,

8.    Vincent Ikuomola, “Boko Haram: US Trains Government Spokespersons,” November 9, 2015, Nation (Lagos),

9.    Alberto M. Fernandez, “Massacre and Media: ISIS and the Case of the Sunni Arab Shaitat Tribe,” MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report no. 1170, June 23, 2015,

10.  Dina al-Raffie, “The Identity-Extremism Nexus: Countering Islamist Extremism in the West,” George Washington University Homeland Security Institute Occasional Paper, October 2015,