National Security

Defeating ISIS and Radical Islamic Terrorism: Part 3 – Countering ISIS’ Violent Ideology

Within six months ISIS will hold almost no territory in Iraq or Syria and will be degraded to an “insurgency level” with the capability to “hit and run” but not own ground—a prerequisite for its caliphate goal…

Information campaigns without demonstrable actions are empty. Destroying ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria sends the most powerful message possible to ISIS, its enablers, and its sympathizers. The US government (USG) and a significant coalition of willing nations, synchronizing a “swarm” of counter-ISIS actions, will be required to defeat ISIS and its radical Islamic terrorism (RIT) brand. The defeat of ISIS is a USG vital interest.

ISIS and its RIT ideology are a major problem for the world’s nation-states because of ISIS’ brutal violence against innocent peoples and its significant property damages. Moreover, ISIS’ RIT ideology is polluting a generation of the world’s youth. ISIS must continually recruit followers to enable its expansion and legitimacy to call for an Islamic caliphate (holy war).

ISIS is recruiting followers with a hostile propaganda campaign across the world via social media, traditional media, and one-on-one engagements. This huge radicalization campaign, sown primarily via social media platforms, is a serious threat to the stability of all governments—especially Muslim governments.

ISIS is “hijacking” the Islamic religion with selective creeds to mobilize Muslim support for its radical and violent religious-domination agenda.

This piece is part three of a proposed strategic framework to defeat ISIS and RIT. My proposed strategic framework adds a fourth component that applies pressure on the leadership of the Islamic faith to counteract—and ultimately disown—these radical and violent terrorist organizations from hijacking the Islamic faith. Most Islamic experts acknowledge my fourth component; however, they do not want to formally add it to their public strategy.

The leadership of the Islamic faith, especially the Saudi Arabian government, cannot be given a pass on this critical issue. This is not just the West’s problem. The Islamic nation-states and their leadership (both governments and clerics) must be courageous and vocal in defending and defining peaceful Islam from the brutal RIT ideology and brand. I fully understand the balance that Saudi Arabia must present to accommodate Islamic purists while also countering Iran’s hegemony in the Middle East. ISIS may have started as a proxy tool in Saudi Arabia versus Iran confrontation; however, ISIS’ horrific actions have erupted well beyond the Middle East. The global scourge of ISIS must be defeated.

The USG-led coalition of nations is not conducting a war on Islam or its moderate Muslims (placeholder term for non-violent Muslims). The USG-led coalition is conducting a war on ISIS, the organization that is self-declaring a violent caliphate in the name of the Islamic faith. In the process of defeating ISIS, the USG-led coalition aims to destroy the ISIS/RIT brand.

I will explain my thinking in more detail with my upcoming piece (part four of this series) regarding influencing Islam to definitively renounce RIT’s authority to use the Islamic faith for its extreme violence—especially against other Muslims.

The four components of the proposed strategic framework for defeating ISIS and RIT are listed below:

  1. Attack and defeat ISIS and RIT
  2. Defend and protect the US homeland and interests
  3. Counter the violent ISIS ideology and illegitimacy of RIT
  4. Influence Islam to reform itself from within itself regarding RIT

This piece is the third part of a series of articles addressing a potential strategic framework for defeating ISIS and RIT. For background, please read previous OpsLens pieces: Defeating ISIS and Radical Islamic Terrorism (RIT): Series Overview; Defeating ISIS and Radical Islamic Terrorism: Part I (A) – The Attack Component; and Defeating ISIS and Radical Islamic Terrorism: Part 2 – Defend the Homeland.


The USG-led coalition’s ongoing support for the Iraqi military’s battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS is going well. Two-thirds of Mosul has been reclaimed. ISIS fighters are fighting to the death in the bloody house-to-house battle. ISIS in Mosul will be defeated within weeks.

The USG’s and Turkey’s ongoing operations in northern Syria are gaining observable ground against ISIS’ headquarters in Raqqa. Within six months, multiple military experts are forecasting the complete collapse of ISIS’ combat wing. ISIS will hold almost no territory in Iraq or Syria. ISIS will be degraded to an “insurgency level” with the capability to “hit and run” but not own ground—a prerequisite for its caliphate goal.

Military information support operations have been relatively successful in supporting the combat operations against ISIS.

The USG-led coalition supporting Iraq’s combat actions will deliver a strong setback to ISIS’ and RIT’s credibility, stature, and capability to recruit new foot soldiers. Iraq’s and the USG-led coalition’s combat successes are a severe setback for ISIS psychologically, militarily, and ideologically. ISIS is at its weakest state since 2014.

This creates an immediate opening for resetting and refocusing strategic-operational-level information and influence campaigns against ISIS and RIT at the insurgency level of threat. This reset should now focus on the following priority information programs:

  1. A global counter-ISIS narrative coordinated with Saudi Arabia and its willing Gulf Cooperation Council partners. Qatar may be problematic, but they are not a show-stopper. This global counter-ISIS narrative would include components such as messaging to inoculate at-risk youth and segments against ISIS’ deceitful recruiting propaganda. The global narrative would be an interagency planning, integrating, and execution process led by a significantly refocused Global Engagement Center that already resides within the State Department.
  2. Flowing from this global narrative should be a strongly enhanced program to engage ISIS recruiters on the various social media platforms. A major component will include analyzing and mapping ISIS’ exact presence, sources, surrogates, and accomplices acting on ISIS’ behalf. This would require coordination and integration by a dedicated task force effort within the USG intelligence and cyber operations communities. The West Point Counterterrorism Center, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Wired’s Digital Magazine, and NY Times investigative reporter Rukmini Callimachi (researching the ISIS recruitment process step by step) are valuable sources of expertise that can help the USG. From research provided by these ISIS research organizations, and from debriefing former ISIS insiders, we have learned that ISIS has a 34-page operational security manual. It covers, among many other tips, anti-detection tradecraft, the preferred SM platforms, encryption of communications at the 512-bit level, email security, and VPN (virtual private network) anonymity. They do not prefer using US-based VPN companies. This body of research and former ISIS debriefings claim that ISIS uses Tor browser, the Tails operating system, Cryptocat, Wickr, Telegram encrypted chat tools, Hushmail and ProtonMail for email, and RedPhone and Signal for encrypted phone communications. They only use email under false credentials and when communications are routed through a VPN or Tor. ISIS’ media operation, Al Hayat, alongside a network of affiliates, uses multiple media and platforms to disseminate content. ISIS floods YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Also, ISIS uses local platforms such as Kik, Ask FM, and Soundcloud.
  3. Flowing from the ISIS mapping should be another component at the White House that engages the SM platforms’ executive leadership to more aggressively block/cut off ISIS from spewing its hate speech, radicalizing, and recruiting new ISIS followers. SM companies grow by protecting the privacy of their customers. I understand that. I recognize the balancing act between the USG’s solemn national security responsibility to keep America secure and safe and the SM companies’ need to promote customers’ privacy protection. Let us not be naïve. The SM companies and their advertisers are aggressively employing, right now, the most intrusive “engagement tracking modules” that collect customers’ every computer key stroke and mouse activity. These advertisers and third-party marketing research companies have (and are) collecting intimate personal data on every one of its customers. More personal information than the NSA was ever collecting. All SM companies and their marketing counterparts are making billions of dollars from their customers’ personal data. They sell this data to third-party businesses for micro-targeting of the public to potentially sell products and services to the very customers who are being tracked on the various SM platforms. It is time for the SM executives to give back to America by cooperating in shutting down ISIS. There is a balance that can be achieved.

The fourth program would overhaul the DHS’ Counter Violent Extremism program that conducts American Muslim outreach. The DHS hired the Heritage Foundation to conduct an end-to-end assessment of the DHS. The Heritage task force was led by David Inserra and is entitled “Congress Must Re-Set Department of Homeland Security Priorities: American Lives Depend on It.” The Heritage Foundation is a large, highly regarded conservative “think tank” in Washington, D.C.

The Heritage Foundation’s assessment task force was very critical of the lack of assimilation of Muslims and Hispanic immigrants into the American “melting pot.”

The task force’s recommendations, in other words, make it easier to turn the United States into “more and more a hodgepodge of folks” in President Obama’s own words—one, moreover, where group differences become entrenched and permanent.

President Obama’s approach creates a breeding ground for ISIS radicalization.

Unfortunately, this piece just scratches the surface of countering ISIS’s RIT ideology. It is a start, and the USG has much work to do to defeat ISIS and its dangerous RIT ideology. This will be a multiple-generation effort.

Ex Umbra is a pen name used for the security of an experienced senior counterterrorist operative currently working outside of the US government.

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