Brothers, believers and brave mujahideen: how to counter the lure of Islamic State propaganda

Melbourne teenager Jake Bilardi was troubled and thus susceptible to Islamic State propaganda well before he joined them and died as a suicide bomber. AAP/Twitter

In an unassuming house in the suburbs, a teenager sits alone in a dark room, his face lit only by the projection of his computer screen. As he watches, the barrage of images tugs at his emotions: dead Syrian infants with ashen faces; orphans left to perish in the bitter cold of the Syrian winter; grown men with hooded faces, forced to take part in humiliating acts as American soldiers pose smiling.

His search for answers takes him to videos produced by Al Hayat, the media arm of the so-called Islamic State. The slick production accompanied by emotive music immediately grabs his attention. He watches intently as the video describes those who are fighting as true believers, dutifully opposing oppression and injustice for the establishment of a pure Islamic state.

He watches video after video, conveniently dismissing those that aim to present a different argument. Some are in Arabic, some have subtitles, many are in English. But the images speak for themselves: brave soldiers, some not much older than he is, prepared to die for their freedom, feeding the poor, helping the weak and feeble and standing up for the rights of Muslims, just like him, everywhere.

In the teenager’s mind, their violence is no less brutal than the atrocities he believes are carried out against Muslims. In his mind, there are no innocent victims. This is Islamic State on the internet.

On Saturday, Australians once again awoke to the news of pre-dawn raids, this time resulting in the arrest of five young Muslim men suspected of planning an attack on police and the public in Melbourne on Anzac Day. Since those arrests, three of the young men have been released without charge. Two 18-year-olds remain in custody.

Police have alleged that Islamic State “inspired” the planned attack. Like Melbourne teenager Jake Bilardi, who just a month ago was killed in a suicide mission inside Iraq, at least some of the young men arrested in connection with Saturday’s raids will have likely searched, accessed and engaged with IS propaganda online.

A VICE News reporter spent three weeks embedded with the Islamic State for this 2014 report.

What makes young Australians turn to IS?

The raids again raise questions about the lure of IS for young men, many born and raised in Australia. What inspires them to join a bloody war they know little about by travelling abroad or, worse, by perpetrating acts of violence right here in Australia? Again, these questions lead us to the propaganda machine of Islamic State and its ubiquity on the internet.

America’s most senior military official in charge of Special Forces units combating Islamic State, Major General Michael Nagata, last year declared:

We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.

The fact is that we do understand the idea. Much of the research and analysis of terrorists’ use of the internet has focused on IS propaganda and on how to formulate counter narratives that challenge the idea.

A report by the Open Source Centre identified elements of the violent jihadi narrative that collectively define the problem as an ongoing threat to the survival of Islam, self-sacrifice as the route to victory, and the restoration of the Caliphate as the solution to ending injustice and suffering.

Sydney teenager Abdullah Elmir from western Sydney praising Islamic State’s war against the West in a 2014 YouTube video.

What we don’t understand is how the idea appeals to the real lives of young men like Sevdet Besim and the unnamed 18-year-old still held after the latest raids. Both were associates of Numan Haider, who was shot dead in September last year after stabbing police at Endeavour Hills.

Losing the propaganda war

The instinctive response to propaganda is to counter it with more propaganda. Such has been the impetus for campaigns such as Say No to Terror, a multimedia communication campaign comprising videos, posters, a website and social media pages. The Arabic-language campaign is specifically aimed at a Muslim audience, underscored by the campaign’s slogan “Terrorism. I am Muslim: I am against it.”

The campaign videos are also posted on YouTube and repeatedly aired as public service announcements on the Pan-Arab Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) and Al-Arabiya channels. The videos are as slick as those produced by IS – but their influence is nowhere near as dramatic.

Terrorism. I am Muslim: I am against it.

My own analysis of Say No to Terror, published in Perspectives on Terrorism, concluded that its lack of credibility and authenticity undermined its success.

Some evidence of this lies in the fact that Say No to Terror has motivated a popular counter-campaign on YouTube. Inspired by the campaign’s catchphrase, videos entitled or tagged “Jihad. I’m Muslim: I’m with it” and “Occupation. I’m a Muslim; I’m against it” now vastly exceed the number of Say No to Terror videos online.

Say No to Terror is just one example of how attempts to directly counter the ideas and messages carried by IS propaganda have failed to stem the growth of violent extremism. Whatever you want to call this battle – a war of ideas; a war for hearts and minds; a war against terrorism – it is clear that we need to be smarter about what we are doing.

Despite all efforts, we are not getting smarter by design, but by default. Much of what we learn comes from our mistakes, not from our successes.

Tapping into new ideas from peers

One way we need to get smarter about countering violent extremism is to understand that countering IS propaganda is not about directly challenging their messages with numbers, facts and equally slick productions.

To use a sporting analogy, we do not play their game on their field with their ball. Instead, we need to make our own playing field and set our own terms. To do this we need to be as innovative, if not more, than they are.

Proactive responses to the spread of IS-inspired violent extremism are a necessary element of a comprehensive counter-terrorism approach. Ideally, the more proactive we are in preventing young people from becoming attracted to IS, the less reactive we have to be with dawn raids and massive deployments of law enforcement personnel.

Being proactive means that we engage young people before they become attracted to IS propaganda. One of the best ways to do this is to get young people involved in developing solutions.

This year, 10 students from Perth’s Curtin University are participating in a world-first global competition to develop a tool, product or solution to counter violent extremism. US-based EdVenture Partners is running the P2P Challenging Extremism competition with support from the US Department of State.

It involves 20 universities from across the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, all competing to develop the best solution through a semester-long project that involves testing and marketing their idea to a target audience of their peers. As part of that competition, later today (April 20) in Perth, P2P will be launching a new app aimed at young Muslims.

Initiatives like these not only have the potential to generate some innovative ideas, formulated by the very target audience that IS aims to influence, they have the added benefit of involving youth in positive solutions to issues that affect them.

What if Numan Haider, Jake Bilardi and others like them were given the opportunity to create and become part of a global community of educated influencers dedicated to challenging violent extremism?

While we will never know the answer, we do know for sure that several young lives have already been changed for the better by providing young adults with an alternative that diverts them from the lure of Islamic State – both online and offline.

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