Small Wars Journal

Information War with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant: An Indirect Approach

Fri, 10/30/2015 - 1:04am

Information War with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant: An Indirect Approach

Brian Russell

After bombing Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces for more than a year, the United States (US) and its multi-national coalition are locked in an apparent stalemate with this threat to regional and global stability.  Within the limits of policy restrictions to the application of hard power (military) to break this stalemate, the US must smartly employ the softer elements of national power, specifically information, to defeat this enemy.  While ISIL is widely recognized as conducting a masterful campaign in the information environment to achieve its strategic ends (Talbot, 2015), the US should not strive to compete directly with ISIL in an information war.  ISIL defeat requires attacking the root cause of the conflict with all tools of national power and information can best serve as a unifying, and in most cases supporting, element for the other more direct instruments of power in achieving that end.  This paper provides recommendations for US actions to counter the ISIL information war at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, as well as within the cognitive, informational and physical dimensions of the information environment.

At the strategic level, the conflict with ISIL is a war between ideas ultimately waged in the cognitive dimension of the information environment.  Per joint doctrine, the cognitive dimension is the realm of decision-making and rests heavily on factors such as beliefs, norms, motivations and, perhaps most importantly in this case, ideologies.  Unfortunately for the US and its allies, ISIL is waging a jihad, or holy war, based on an ideology that resonates deeply with elements of the regional, and sometimes global, Muslim community.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate upon ISIL’s seizure of Mosul in 2014 was a deliberate message to Muslims who had been “psychologically primed for a long time to the idea of reestablishing the caliphate” (Talbot, 2015).  It is a powerful message to a population long disenfranchised from dictatorial Middle Eastern governments and one that will be difficult to overcome directly.  Government officials may decry the lack of national effort (only 20 personnel assigned to the State Department’s counter propaganda team) to directly counter this ideology (Tucker, 2015), but unless the counter message offers a viable alternative to what many Muslims see as their principal path to personal or religious redemption, larger efforts will only fall on deaf ears.  More personal, peer-to-peer engagement within social media spheres holds promise, but its effects are incredibly difficult to measure (Talbot, 2015) and direct government involvement in the process risks delegitimizing the counter messaging itself.

This latter point makes US government efforts in the war of ideas particularly problematic.  Bruce Reidel, a 29-year Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counter-terrorism analyst, suggests a core portion of broader Muslim dissatisfaction in the Middle East stems from decades of unpopular American policy in the region, particularly US support to oppressive governments (Reidel, 2015).  So, while nation-states like Russia agree that ISIL must be defeated by attacking its core ideology (Goble, 2015), the US is forced to take a less direct approach.  Such an approach would include both diplomatic, economic and, in limited cases, military efforts to support inclusive and moderate governments in the middle east, all couched in a message that the United States is concerned with improving the lives of Muslims in those affected areas.  This requires the appointment and empowerment of a leader and department within the US government to craft an effective strategic communications campaign that synchronizes the intent of these actions and exploits opportunities to broadcast this message.  A good opportunity to demonstrate this resolve is more effective regional and local broadcasting of the recent hostage rescue operation in northeastern Iraq in which a US special operations member gave his life to save the lives of Muslims facing imminent execution by ISIL (Stewart, 2015).  Sadly, to date, there is no mention of this sacrifice in the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Twitter posts about the hostage rescue.  The center's arabic Twitter feed ( has just over 4800 followers anyway compared to an estimated 46,000 ISIL supporting Twitter account holders (Berger & Morgan, 2015).  If the government is going to invest any time in social media, what it does broadcast should be crafted more effectively along the lines of J.M. Berger and Jessica Stern's A 6-point plan to Defeat ISIS in the Propaganda War.  The newly appointed State Department “czar” for coordinating the coalition campaign against ISIL should implement those in-house changes immediately but will also need increased authority across the executive branch to affect the broader interagency cooperation required in the anti-ISIL campaign (De Luce & Hudson, 2015), including strategic communications.  The risk of such an approach at the strategic level is the amount of time it will take to produce tangible results for disaffected communities in the region and the resultant improved security for the United States and its regional allies.

However, the US can achieve more rapid effects against ISIL in the operational level of war while it implements its strategic efforts.  Within the theater of operations, ISIL uses modern information technology for a whole host of functions including recruiting, internal communication, command and control of forces, and financing (Talbot, 2015).  In the last category, ISIL is recognized as one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in existence (Almukhtar, 2015) giving it both operational capacity and legitimacy as a self-professed governing state.  Therefore, the US, in conjunction with multi-national partners, should continue to attack this specific aspect of the informational dimension by restricting or preventing the "content and flow" (JP 3-13) of ISIL financial information.

This approach is already a major line of effort for the anti-ISIL coalition since the formation of the Counter-ISIL Finance Group in early 2015 (Levitt, 2015).  The group focuses its efforts on restricting ISIL access to the international financial system by isolating banks in ISIL-controlled territory, largely through restriction of electronic fund transfers (EFTs) (Levitt, 2015).  These efforts should continue, in addition to implementing measures to identify and restrict other external revenue sources supported by the information environment like crowd funding, electronic currency (Bitcoin), and internet trading.  While ISIL revenue generation from internal sources (oil sales, taxation, ransom) is sufficient to meet current operating costs, the demands to provide population services (infrastructure and social welfare) within their territory will become financially untenable without additional external resourcing (Humud, Pirog & Rosen, 2015).  Making the Islamic State unsustainable in the near term can also produce a supplemental effect to counter ISIL recruiting propaganda that life under the caliphate is better than other alternatives (Sullivan, 2014).  The risk in such a plan of action is concurrent degradation of the financial viability and stability of anti-ISIL populations within or adjacent to enemy territory as well as ISIL using that possibility to bolster their anti-western narrative (Levitt, 2015).  This approach, therefore, requires the support of and detailed implementation with regional nation states.  Those respective leaders and agencies should be listed at the top of the anti-ISIL czar’s key leader engagement program.  Additional risk mitigation is possible, if again, the person responsible for the national strategic communications approach also maintains the levers of implementation for the financial (and other) obstacles levied at ISIL during the course of the campaign.  The ability to match message to action is no less important at the operational level than at the strategic and a more deliberate focus on this coordination can help unify the entire campaign, in addition to using information war to indirectly but specifically target ISIL economic power.

Waging direct information war with ISIL in the tactical realm as a primary coalition objective is also a mistake.  ISIL leadership and personnel have fully embraced the wide range of information technologies and tools that emerged coincident to their rise of power.  "Affordable devices, fast networks, and abundant social-media accounts" (Talbot, 2015) are the instruments that dominate the immense physical dimension of ISIL's information environment.  Those who argue for attacking this aspect of the environment through increased offensive cyber activities (Dinerman, 2015) run the risk of turning the campaign into an electronic version of "Whack-a-mole."  While select cyber (and kinetic) attacks against key leadership and command and control nodes, with appropriate collateral damage mitigation, will always have a time and place to achieve operational effects, the expansive nature of the information infrastructure will make those effects fleeting.  Much like you cannot kill your way out of an insurgent movement, you cannot hack your way out of one either.

Instead, the United States and its allies need to take an asymmetric approach in the tactical sphere and view ISIL's prolific and decentralized use of information technology as a weakness.  While some may admire ISIL's rapid ability to message and communicate through social media tools, it presents a security vulnerability and intelligence treasure trove for exploitation.  Harvesting tactical information from enemy networks and transmissions is a proven United States military capability already being applied against ISIL leadership (Tucker, 2015).  The real game changer will come from further employing our national technological advantages from private industry by harnessing the developments in big data analytics.  The bane of intelligence professionals in the information age has been the enormous amount, and often latent, information to collect and decipher.  But with advanced analysis tools now available to quickly fuse disparate data (often across operational and geo-political boundaries) into actionable intelligence, what practitioners call improving the "signal to noise" ratio (McNulty, 2014), the tactical warfighter can now have a much clearer picture of enemy maneuver in the information environment and apply an appropriate combined arms response.  A coordinated, national-level intelligence effort to exploit enemy big data patterns also reinforces strategic and operational information operations to counter ISIL recruiting and illicit finance activities.  J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan's March 2015 ISIS Twitter Census shows the enormous potential of big data to understand the ideology, demographic, and activities of people sympathetic to the terrorist organization from just a single social media tool.

This approach does not discount the need for fighting information fire with information fire at the tactical level, but one should not envision American and partner nation soldiers engaging in Twitter wars with ISIL foot troops.  Instead, with large swaths of enemy controlled territory devoid of internet access and cellphone service due to ISIL information control and aggressive psychological operations (Sullivan, 2015), our formations on the ground, even in an advise and assist role, need national-level efforts to give them the tools and authorities to possess true "spectral agility" (Chou, Kim, Shin & Shankar, 2004) to counter enemy information operations.  Much like American forces became adept at employing Radio-in-a-box (RIAB) and hand-cranked radio sets through the Iraq and Afghanistan counterinsurgency campaigns, national research and development efforts should be focused on developing the next generation of information dissemination technology, something akin to Internet-in-a-box or distributable hot spots.  And when network capabilities are unavailable, they still need to possess the capability and authorities from host nations to broadcast over more traditional airwaves like current efforts in Al Anbar province (White, 2015).

The challenge to an intelligence-focused approach, though, is striking the right balance between exploiting and destroying ISIL's capability within the information environment.  Independent hacker organizations, like Anonymous and GhostSec, have essentially taken up cyber arms against ISIL by disrupting or destroying supporting websites through Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks (Cottee, 2015).  While these tactical-level actions may be helpful in degrading enemy operations, they may be devastating to coalition plans relying on those sites for indication and warnings or deception efforts.  This kind of cyber fratricide is not a new problem as demonstrated by the Pentagon's 2008 dismantling of a Saudi Arabian government website used by Al Qaeda leaders to plan attacks on American forces in Iraq.  The action degraded enemy coordination capabilities within the theater of operations but it also brought a sudden halt to the CIA's use of that same site to collect vital intelligence on global terrorist networks (Nakashima, 2010).  While the need for intergovernmental coordination remains in the current campaign, the new wrinkle of private-public convergence in the cyber domain will require additional policy or legal frameworks to ensure adequate coordination, if not cooperation, for this conflict and future ones.

Contemporary and future non-state actors like ISIL are often credited with applying asymmetric capabilities to great advantage against the United States and its allies.  It is time to turn the tables and use ISIL’s seemingly dominant information advantage to produce its eventual defeat.  This can be accomplished through the development of a strong national-level strategic communications capability that can make information a unifying element of the anti-ISIL campaign across the broad coalition and the levels of war by fusing intelligence into synchronized actions and messages amongst all elements of national power.  Additionally, instead of going toe-to-toe with ISIL in each dimension of the information environment, the US must attack those enemy capabilities indirectly as in the example of degrading ISIL economic power through the use of information technology.  Ceding ground to your enemy in one specific area to gain ground in another through unexpected means is not weakness.  Rather, it is the new acme of strategic agility in the information age and a better approach to developing smart power (Nye, 2011) against contemporary adversaries.


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About the Author(s)

LtCol Brian Russell is a U.S. Marine Corps Artillery Officer with operational experience in Iraq as a combat advisor and in Afghanistan as a special operations planner.  He has worked extensively with allied, coalition and host nation partners in both environments and recently gave up command of 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO). He has a BS from N.C. State University and a MA from Liberty University.  He is currently a student in the Cyber Strategy masters degree program at National Defense University (Information Resource Management College).