How to Talk About ISIS While Running for President

When rhetoric is part of the tactical response.


flag of the Shiite Hezbollah militant group flutters over a mural depicting the emblem of the Islamic State (IS) group in Al-Alam village, northeast of the multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Tikrit, on March 9, 2015, during a military operation by Iraqi government forces and tribal fighters to regain control of the Tikrit region from jihadists.

Photographer: Younis Al-Bayati/AFP/Getty Images

The seemingly straightforward question of what to call ISIS, and the more difficult matter of how to fight it, will be defining issues of the 2016 presidential race. How to identify the group hasfor some time, been a GOP talking point.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal sums up the Republican argument as well as anybody, and more succinctly: “President Obama does not like to use the words ‘radical Islam,’’’ he has often explained. “The President refuses to own up to the challenges we face.”

Mike Huckabee said it this way: “You can’t beat the enemy if you don’t define it.’’

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, “I think Americans more than anything want a commander-in-chief of the future who…calls out radical Islamic terrorism for what it is.’’

Walker may well be correct that that’s what the public wants to hear, just as LBJ was correct when he observed as he was sending soldiers off to fight in Vietnam that Americans will forgive their leaders for anything except weakness. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this month found that GOP primary voters put national security and terrorism at the very top of their list of electoral concerns, while Democrats ranked those issues fourth, after job creation, health care and climate change.

But the rhetoric about ISIS is itself an important part of the tactical response to it. And the consensus among scholars of ISIS is that while Obama and Hillary Clinton are wrong to suggest that there’s nothing truly Islamic about the group, they’re right to be careful to deprive terrorists of any statements that could be construed as pitting the U.S. against Islam–statements that would be used as a recruiting tool.

Like Obama and George W. Bush before him, Hillary Clinton keeps her broad brushes sheathed when discussing the al-Qaeda offshoot: “Whether you call them ISIS or ISIL, I refuse to call them the Islamic State, because they are neither Islamic or a state. Whatever you call them, I think we can agree that the threat is real.” Obama has explained why the terminology is important. By calling itself the “Islamic State,” the president has said, ISIS “propagates the notion that America, and the West generally, is at war with Islam. We must never accept the premise that they put forward because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the legitimacy they seek. They are not religious leaders, they are terrorists. We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies and director of Princeton’s Institute for Transregional Studies, said at the recent Faith Angle Forum on Religion, Politics and Public Life that “Obama has every right to decide it’s not in the interests of the U.S.” to characterize ISIS as radical Islam. “The fear is a legitimate one.”

The argument that ISIS has nothing to do with “real” Islam is equally mistaken, though, he said: “I get lots of pushback against the idea that ISIS has anything to do with Islam. There’s no question this is a movement drawing on a particular trend within Islamic history”–namely, the strict, originalist Salafism within the Sunni tradition. Though most Salafis are not violent, Salafi jihadists target primarily other Muslims, and want civil war because they believe God wants them to destroy those who are diluting and destroying their faith.

“There’s no question this is a religious phenomenon that  sees itself as a religious movement,’’ said Haykel, “and they do have serious learned people in the movement” who scour the Koran for exceptions to, for example, Mohammed’s admonitions against harming non-combatants, or against immolation, which in the majority view is a punishment only God can use. 

Will McCants, director of the Brookings Institution’s Project in U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, said its adherents see extreme violence as a deterrent, the easiest way to quickly subdue a population, and to excite young recruits. Brutality isn't just a biproduct of its drive to restore an Islamic empire, but is part of ISIS’s core message. So unlike other terror groups, it isn't even trying to win the hearts and minds of those it's trying to dominate; instead, it wants to be feared, and believes the end of time is near. 

Theologically, they “have a problem in the many statements of Mohammed not to go after non-combatants, so you find other parts of the tradition that back you up,’’ said McCants, whose book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State is due out in September.

ISIS grew out of the group of extremists al-Qaeda sent into Iraq after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and rebranded as the Islamic State in 2006. By 2008, it had largely been wiped out, then came roaring back to life amid civil war in Syria in late 2012. Yet “without the American invasion and disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq’’ after Saddam Hussein was ousted, Princeton’s Haykel said, “you would not have an Islamic State.’’

Clinton herself has blamed the success of the Islamic State in part on Obama’s decision not to arm Syrian opposition fighters sooner, as she tried to persuade him to do. And she has been blamed by Republicans both for not pushing harder to intervene earlier in Syria, and for intervening at all. “One of the people I blame for a lot of this, frankly, is Hillary Clinton,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told Fox News. Arming insurgents fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad helped bring weapons into “the hands of ISIS," he said. “I think Hillary’s war in Libya and then Hillary’s admonition, the president’s admonition, and frankly some Republicans' admonition to get involved in the Syrian civil war has actually now created a bigger problem, which is ISIS.’’ 

Off the campaign trail, the success of ISIS as a media enterprise has both Democrats and Republicans saying we need to step up our game in terms of counter-messaging ISIS on Twitter and other social media. “We invented the Internet!” Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing last week. “We invented the social network sites. We’ve got Hollywood.” And could “blow these guys out of the water from the standpoint of communications.”  

Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) thought so, too: “Look at their fancy memes compared to what we’re not doing.” Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said we ought to be doing much more to dissuade women who are responding to jihadist messages online.

Only, the counter-messaging program that the U.S. did have–the State Department effort to answer the group’s propaganda–turned out to be so ineffective that it has been folded and relaunched in a different form in recent months: “It’s pretty much been put on the shelf,’’ McCants, also a former State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism, said in an interview.

The program that’s been discontinued—the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications—had the direct personal support of both Obama and Hillary Clinton. But there are several reasons that counter-messaging that isn’t counter-productive is hard to come by. First, any message that’s seen as coming from the United States is automatically discounted in much of the Muslim world, and any messenger who works with Americans is discredited as a puppet. Efforts to point out ISIS violence certainly don’t bother the terrorists, who themselves distribute grisly videos of beheadings. And direct communication from the government that tries to combat their propaganda can unintentionally elevate Joe Q. Jihadi.

A 2014 State Department video called “Welcome to ISIS Land,” that showed the violence of ISIS tactics was considered an embarrassment both because it was so graphic and because some argued that it was having the opposite of the desired effect. “The fundamental problem wasn’t that the program made mistakes,’’ argued McCants, who helped launch the effort. “It’s that it made mistakes in a political and media environment in which mistakes aren’t tolerated, so they couldn’t innovate.” Officially, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism is being “absorbed” into the new Information Coordination Cell, “but effectively, it’s going away,” said McCants.

A State Department official said the program was starting over with new, less snarky tactics under a 36-year-old new director, former White House adviser Rashad Hussain, who started in February, and with a staff that has almost doubled, going from 30 to around 50. His mandate, under the direction of Richard Stengel, former managing editor of Time magazine, is to amplify the voices of those who’ve seen first-hand how ISIS operates. But how to do that without tainting those voices in the process continues to be a challenge, not only for the current government, but for those who promise they can do better.

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