Uninspiring Terrorism

Groups like ISIS have gotten dangerously good at encouraging their followers to carry out attacks. There are things we can do to stop them.

People hug each other after being evacuated from a shopping mall in Manchester, England, on Tuesday, a day after the terror attack at Manchester Arena.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the horrific bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, on Monday night that has killed at least 22 people. Although we don’t yet know much about the perpetrator, the bombing fits the tactics recommended in ISIS’s propaganda campaign to encourage Muslims in the West to attack their home countries. This emphasis on striking at home, as opposed to going to Iraq and Syria to live and fight with the group, had grown as the group has lost much of its territory and otherwise suffered significant setbacks in Iraq and Syria since 2015. Before the United States successfully targeted him, the group’s spokesman and external operations chief, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, told international followers, “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us.”

Westerners have heeded Adnani’s call. In the United States, the attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, fit this pattern of so-called lone wolf attacks, with the individuals acting in the name of the Islamic State but having no apparent operational relationship with the group. Europe too has seen lone wolf attacks but also strikes that involve operatives with at least some virtual connection to the Islamic State. Indeed, New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi has found that many attacks in Europe at first labeled lone wolf strikes involved individuals with at least some contact with ISIS operators, who often virtually directed or at least egged on the attacker.

Although its ideology is often incoherent or shallow from a theological point of view, and its volunteers are often remarkably ignorant of their faith, the group maintains a powerful brand and is skilled at disseminating its ideas widely. ISIS does not have one message, but many. Its propaganda highlights the group’s military successes; the supposed good life in its self-proclaimed caliphate; and the need to defend fellow Sunni Muslims from Iran, Western bombing, and other enemies. These messages attract restless and bored young Muslims, some of whom are misguided idealists but many of whom are criminals or malcontents.

ISIS has built a massive propaganda machine to attract recruits and inspire them to act. Much of its efforts involve social media, where content ranges from their guidance on how a Muslim should comport himself to practical information such as how to go to Iraq and Syria and which targets are best to attack. In 2015, at the height of ISIS’s power, a RAND study found that the group ran its own accounts, controlled those of many members, employed bots, and drew on a range of informal supporters—perhaps 80,000 accounts in all. Since then, social media companies such as Twitter have, a bit belatedly, become more aggressive in shutting down jihadi accounts, hindering the group’s communications. Social media isn’t everything, of course—human contact is often still a vital part of recruitment. But the virtual and personal build on each other, and the more social media companies can devote resources to identifying and disrupting terrorist accounts and propaganda and otherwise take their responsibility to hinder violent groups seriously, the better.

Social media and other communication, however, are a vulnerability for ISIS as well as an opportunity. Law enforcement and intelligence personnel, after all, can read social media too. Doing so often gives them an opportunity to identify an otherwise unknown radical or quickly uncover a radical network, using friends and followers to do so. ISIS recently banned some of its members from using social media, fearing exactly this security risk. Law enforcement agencies should continue to scrutinize suspect social media accounts and ensure they are monitoring new technology platforms as they develop and become popular.

The United States and its allies should also covertly plant disinformation into ISIS’s propaganda. At times this can be used to ridicule the group. British intelligence, for example, changed the instructions put out by al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen on how to build a bomb in your mother’s kitchen into a cupcake recipe. Even better, disinformation can worsen internal tensions in a group. Already ISIS rejects or even executes Westerners as suspected spies, and Western intelligence should exploit this paranoia, highlighting the presence of moles, how defections are likely, and so on.

One common recommendation, counter-messaging, is exceptionally difficult in practice. We all want to delegitimize ISIS’s message and discredit the group. Governments, however, are often bad at this: Their propaganda is often wooden (did you “just say no” to drugs?), and attempts to fund outsiders often backfire, discrediting them more than it discredits ISIS. Similarly, many policymakers are attracted to the idea of fighting root causes, such as poverty or a lack of political freedom, often contrasted with military efforts to fight ISIS. However, we still lack a strong understanding of why individuals join terrorist groups: Often there are too many reasons, or the supposed reasons (e.g. claims that terrorists suffer from “alienation” or “blocked mobility”) apply to millions of people, the vast majority of whom never consider terrorism. Too broad a brush that targets communities as a whole can easily make things worse.

Although it is often politically popular in the aftermath of a jihadi attack to increase security measures directed at the Muslim community and to step up anti-Muslim rhetoric, such measures can make things worse. Right now, the British Muslim community’s sympathy is probably almost entirely with the victims, but demonization and hostile security make the radicals’ argument more compelling, “proving” that Muslims are not welcome in the West.

As the Manchester attack shows, terrorism in the West is likely to continue. Effective security measures can decrease the number of attacks, but domestic resilience remains vital. Too often demagogues exploit the fear terrorism generates to poison politics and incite communities against each other, increasing the overall level of fear, poisoning community relations, and making it easier for terrorists and radicals of all stripes to recruit.

This essay draws on work the author did as part of the RAND study Rolling Back the Islamic State.