The missing elements in the war against ISIS — Taking down their websites and engaging in robust public diplomacy

UPDATE June 23, 2015

Europe is setting up a special police unit to monitor jihadist sites and content, andd to remove it.

See

Richard Spencer, “Europe-wide police unit to monitor Islamic State social media; Europol to set up specialist unit in response to concerns not enough is being done to prevent Isil propaganda,” The Telegraph, June 22, 2015 (12:15 p.m. BST).

This is the kind of action that is needed, on a very large scale, not only in Europe but in many other countries.

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See Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon, “ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes,” New York Times, June 12, 2015.

In a converstaion recently, a friend asked what The Observer would do to counter ISIS (or the self-denominated “Islamic State”).

From that conversation emerged crystalized thoughts from months of reflection.  In brief, I would suggest, at least for purposes of debate, that we consider the following:

The Enormity of the Threat

First of all, we must recognize the enormity of the threat to civilized nations represented by ISIS, and the huge progress they have made in waging a war for young Muslim minds. The existence and growth of a barbarian political and military power, in the heart of the Middle East, constitutes an existential threat to societies from the Middle East to Europe, the United States, and beyond.

The most daunting aspect of the threat is the rejection by ISIS and other jihadists of the fundamental moral and legal values undegirding European civilization for the last 400 years. These values have developed since the Peace of Westphalia and the birth of the modern nation state system and international law, following the ThIrty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution (including the revolutions in America and France).

These values spread through the rest of the world following World War II, with decolonization, the founding of the United Nations in 1945, and the universal recognition of governments’ legal obligations to protect fundmental human rights. They are now under attack.

International law obligations to protect fundamental human rights, refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, and to comply with international treaties, customary international law, and the United Nations Charter itself, are all challenged by the growth of ISIS and other jihadists. The latter reject the values upon which the former are founded, retreating to the use of barbarism in fighting all who do not submit to their twisted and extreme vision of Islamic rule.

To date, the West and other civilized countries have not recognized the larger threat posed by ISIS and other jihadists, or at least not reacted in a manner commensurate with the nature and dimensions of the threat.

Responses have been limited in the main to defending against potential terrorist threats to the homeland, and to killing as many jihadists as possible in order to limit their territorial gains.

This approach, however necessary, has essentially failed to stem the growth of ISIS and others. It fails to adequately address the essential nature of the problem, which is that it involves a war for young Muslim minds, not only in Syria, Iraq, northern Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Europe, America and in many other countries throughout the world.

What more can be done?

Proposition for Debate #1: Taking Down Their Websites

First, we should consider whether to attack the capabilities of ISIS and other jihadists to spread their views and to use slick propaganda to gather new recruits.

We could take down their websites as fast as they pop up, and ensure that videos of beheadings and other acts of barbarism cannot be viewed, or viewed for long, on the Internet or social media. We could, perhaps in concert with other countries, prohibit their reproduction on television, in newspapers, or on social media. Italy successfully followed a similar policy in dealing with terrorists in the 1970’s.

We could use all of our military and intelligence capabilities to take down these sites. Freedom of speech is critically important, but it does not include the right to shout fire in a theater, or to incite others to join groups which commit horrendous acts of violence.

To be sure, there will be a need for judicial supervision and review, in some form, of such activities.

One suspects that the intelligence agencies, which probably glean important information about visitors to such websites, will strongly oppose taking them down. Yet a larger view is needed to inform decisions.

Does the intelligence gathered outweigh the benefit of crippling the recruitment and propaganda activities of the jihadists? Who will decide?

We should consider and debate these questions.

Proposition for Debate #2: Creating a much more robust public diplomacy

Second, we could mount a much larger and more effective public diplomacy structure and campaign, something on the scale of the U.S. Information Agency in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Obviously, a large effort would need to be made on the Internet and social media.

But we could also rebuild and build out our shortwave and medium wave broadcast capabilities, fund them, and greatly expand the schedule of broadcasts on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, for example.

Before this idea is dismissed as obsolete, we should bear in mind that Internet sites can be blocked by those with territorial power such as the “Islamic State” or governments. Users and listeners can be tracked, as they were in Iran in 2009. One of the great advantages of older technologies like radio is that listeners cannot be tracked, and jamming is not always effective. Television can also be beamed by satellites or high-altitude balloons. In an authoritarian country in Africa or the Middle East, radio and broadcast television may still work as ways of getting through. One need only to have listened to a VOA broadcast in a country with no freedom of expression to appreciate this point.

What is clear is that the USIA, since it has been dismantled as an independent agency and wrapped into the Department od State, has lost much of its effectiveness. About all that remains are the VOA and RFE/RL broadcasts, on reduced schedules and to a much more limited number of countries.

Other partners in the battle against ISIS and other jihadists could be encouraged to bolster their own activities. Some form of coordination might be undertaken.

The separation between independent news, on the one hand, and opinion representing the views of the U.S. government, on the other, which flourished when the Agency was led by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s, should be strengthened.

Similarly, the laws prohibiting the U.S. government from directing its information activities at domestic audiences should be upheld.

There could be an issue here to the extent such a limitation limits the ways in which public diplomacy efforts can be directed at young Muslims in the United States. Other means of rebutting the jihadists will probably need to be found.

What is critical is that the intelligence agencies, or public diplomacy efforts, not be used to sell government policies to citizens in the U.S. This line has been crossed repeatedly since 9/11, but its strict observance going forward is absolutely critical.

Other Steps

Many defeats in the war for young Muslim minds may be attributed to the loss of respect the U.S. has suffered as a result of its use of torture at Abu Gharib and elsewhere, the conditions in which prisoners were held for years without trial or even military commission review at Guantanamo, the 2003 invasion of Iraq in clear violation of the U.N. Charter’s prohibition of the use of force, the use of drones outside war theaters in apparent violation of international law, and in general actions that do not sit well with America’s preferred view of itself as a city on a hill, where dedication to the pursuit of freedom and the rule of law, both at home and abroad, are the hallmarks of a democratic society and its government.

Improvement in these areas would in the long term help in the struggle for young Muslim minds, and also help reformers within Muslim societies win their struggle for the rule of law in their own countries.

But for now, two issues which urgently merit full discussion are those outlined above.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.