United States’ Response to Al-Qaeda and ISIS Threat
The Bush administration applied a deterrence strategy to curb the threat of Al-Qaeda within and outside the United States. The first phase of the deterrence campaign involved warfare against the Taliban government. Two decades ago, U.S. Marines and native Afghan rebel groups removed the Taliban from power after the organization failed to cut ties with Al-Qaeda (Jenkins & Godges, 2011, p. 42). The second phase of the campaign involved instating a regime to help the U.S. and its allies suppress the Al-Qaeda threat. The strategy involved creating a favorable economic environment for the government to improve the citizens’ livelihood and welfare. According to Jenkins and Godges (2011), the U.S. and its allies focused on building a strong Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army to protect the country from terrorist threats. However, this militarization and policing strategy failed to achieve its intended goals, forcing the U.S. Department of Defense to train the two security organs from the Department of State and the German Army.
The United States Army developed partnerships with local Afghan tribes, clans and local administrations to help them fight the Taliban and their allies (Van Evera, 2006). The U.S. leveraged the locals’ resentment against the central government’s overreach on localized matters to gain their support. In particular, the U.S. created a formidable alliance with the Pashtuns in Afghanistan’s Eastern and Southern parts. Jenkins and Godges (2011) state that the initiatives put in place to ensure the alliance’s success included the establishment of a community watch program grounded on the “Shura Principle” while legitimizing the authority of local leaders to solve disputes among community members. The U.S. Army instituted quick response teams in allied regions to ensure prompt response to local attacks by the Taliban. However, the deterrence policy failed to achieve its intended goals, evidenced by the chaotic withdrawal of the U.S. Army from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power.
The U.S. employed a partnership-based policy involving collaborating with new and current allies and parties with a common interest to fight ISIS (Blanchard & Humud, 2017). The subsequent U.S. administrations since the Obama era have continued to execute the strategy, leading to the neutralization of several terrorist threats. The U.S. and its partners formed a global coalition to defeat the Islamic State using different tactics such as military assaults, intelligence support to its allies, cutting off Islamic States’ income-generating sources, and preventing the flow of foreign fighters in warzones. The policy has helped the U.S. and coalition forces from Syria and Iraq minimize the spread of ISIS, including destroying the caliphate and capturing or eliminating ISIS’s leaders. However, the strategy has not ensured lasting peace in the former ISIS-controlled regions because of Islamic States’ sleeper cells.
Besides, the global coalition against Islamic State has failed to capture all the group’s leaders who are free to organize violent attacks against civilians and military personnel. The U.S. intelligence agencies warn of the re-emergence of ISIS in the future despite the group’s loss of control of their former territories (Mattis, 2018). The reconstruction process has been hampered by several factors like conflicts between rebel groups, terrorist attacks by ISIS loyalists and corruption in government. Observers and policymakers have raised concerns about the potential re-emergence of ISIS in recaptured territories because of the above challenges, arguing that the U.S. government and its partners should implement policies to consolidate power and military strength in the recaptured areas. In addition, they warn that the Islamic State is sponsoring insurgent attacks in Syria and Iraq, and thus much should be done to prevent full-blown warfare.
Propaganda and Recruitment Strategies of Al-Qaeda and ISIS
Al-Qaeda uses the ‘single narrative’ approach to brainwash its followers by whipping their emotions about specific issues through strict Islamic teachings to convince them to fight for a particular cause. Documentaries about the Al-Qaeda recruitment program indicate the type of propaganda propagated by the group to indoctrinate members. Raymond Ibrahim’s analysis of prominent Al-Qaeda leaders, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, reveals the propaganda level in Al-Qaeda texts (Lyons, 2013). Raymond noted the speeches and writings associated with the group fit into the genres of ‘propagandist speeches’ and ‘religious exegesis.’ According to Lyons (2013), Al-Qaeda-sponsored propagandist speeches are meant to incite Muslims to action and dispirit Western nations while practicing religious exegesis to inspire and train followers.
Both genres agree that Western countries are evil because they have caused much harm to Muslims through conquests, colonialism, economic sabotage and sponsored wars. Al-Qaeda uses communication channels like the dark web and social media to spread. Al-Qaeda recruits followers through different ways, including through deliberate choice, as witnessed in the case of Adam Gadahn’s case that left the U.S.A. to join Al-Qaeda (Mohamedou, 2011). Besides, the terrorist organization has a network of sympathizers and fans who implement the group’s policies independently or after receiving instructions from the group’s leadership. For instance, the 2005 Bali bombings were conducted by Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist organizations in the city. However, Al Qaeda’s deliberate regionalization and subsidiarity have shortcomings, including the inability to consolidate leadership.
ISIS applies a bellicose information strategy to spread propaganda about military and administrative establishments and recruit new members (Winter, 2017). The strategy’s objective is to convey misinformation to the public as much as possible to reach a large audience. Islamic State uses a ‘digital jihad’ strategy to recruit members (Lakomy, 2021). Digital jihad encompassed using digital communication channels like social media to spread propaganda. In particular, Islamic State used online magazines Rumiyah and Dabiq to propagate messages about the group’s mission and vision to Western audiences. The online magazines enabled ISIS to attract several followers from Europe and other parts of the world. ISIS mainly wrote the magazines in English to attract readership from English-speaking nations, especially from the United Kingdom. Islamic State’s online propaganda approach was effective at the beginning of the caliphate but proved ineffective after censorship from communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
In addition, ISIS posts online videos on social networking sites as part of their digital jihad campaign (Fernandez, 2015). ISIS propaganda videos show ISIS fighters facilitating the delivery of amenities like water to the community members and visiting injured militants. ISIS spread propaganda videos on the fall of Mosul, including a video showing the ISIS leader declaring a caliphate inside a mosque in Mosul. Islamic State members use different social media accounts to recruit new members, spread propaganda, and easily apply their beliefs to a large audience. In particular, they spread their messages via Twitter by promoting hashtags and posting links to their propaganda (Lieberman, 2017). Besides, ISIS uses computer-controlled social media accounts that send the same content simultaneously.
Terror Tactics Used By Al-Qaeda and ISIS
Al-Qaeda has affiliate groups comprising trained militants who operate temporary sleeper cells in over seventy countries (Post, 2002). In addition, Al-Qaeda uses the cells to store arms and other resources and act as reinforcement bases. Also, the group is allied to various Islamic militant and political groups based in different countries. Al-Qaeda uses the cells to conduct armed attacks and spread propaganda against their enemies, including Western nationals and collaborators. Al-Qaeda sleeper cells operate independently and only obey the organization’s chain of command (Post, 2002, p. 17). Al-Qaeda’s partnering strategy with other terror groups has enabled it to expand its operations globally. Al-Qaeda has ties to Islamic political organizations like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LITE) and Hezbollah and terrorist groups like Harakat ul-Ansar and Egyptian Islamic Jihad based in Pakistan and Egypt, respectively.
Moreover, Al-Qaeda uses some organizations to coordinate propaganda and armed attacks in foreign countries. A-Qaeda has or used to have military bases and training camps inside countries like Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They use the training camps and military bases to train combat skills, bomb-making techniques and propaganda dissemination skills. Al-Qaeda training is divided into three courses: basic training, advanced training, and specialized training (Post, 2002). Basic training imparts military skills necessary to execute guerilla, while advanced training imparts knowledge in bomb-making, assassination and development of heavy weaponry. Specialized training encompasses training in methods of surveillance and counter-surveillance, faking and acclimating official papers and conducting marine or car-based suicide attacks.
According to Almohammad (2019), Islamic State applies the ‘caliphate’ approach founded on the “enduring and expansion” concept to achieve their goals. ISIS employs the strategies of polarization and restructuring to maintain endurance. The endurance strategies involve staging guerilla attacks on enemies within and outside occupied territories. In particular, ISIS uses propaganda to spread hate against their perceived enemies and polarize targeted populaces. Besides, some affiliates of ISIS conduct violent attacks on Western civilians to create fear and promote the group’s ideologies. ISIS uses sleeper cells to facilitate its operations within and outside Syria and Iraq. Islamic State applies the ‘securing bay’at’ strategy to expand its influence in the Middle East and other jurisdictions. The approach involves coercing, coopting or motivating other jihadi movements to join ISIS and help them defeat their enemies (Almohammad, 2019).
The strategy has failed to facilitate Islamic State’s expansion into new territories because of poor coordination and disagreements. As a result, this has forced ISIS to wage armed attacks against Jihadi movements opposing their agenda. Therefore, this shows that the strategy was ineffective in maintaining order among the local militant groups (Almohammad, 2019, p. 28). To expand to new areas, ISIS conducted extended military attacks against their enemies located far from captured territories. Almohammad (2019) argues that the strategy failed because ISIS has lost most of its captured parts, and it is now trying to regain them by activating sleeper cells. Securing the bay’at strategy was unsuccessful because it requires a lot of resources to implement, including financial support and military hardware. Besides, it was difficult for ISIS to manage the activities of the enemies within and outside the captured territories.
Technology Use by Al-Qaeda and ISIS
Al-Qaeda has leveraged new information and communication technologies to facilitate interaction with its network of members worldwide (Brachman, 2006). The organization has integrated the technologies into its communication system to convey information to a large audience. As a result, persons using computers and other digital communication gadgets can easily access information transmitted by Al-Qaeda. The organization uses an internet-based activism approach to reach its target audience regardless of geographical boundaries. Internet-based activism involves using social networking sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to spread information about an organization. Al-Qaeda uses the internet and other technologies to indoctrinate youths and others into the organization, including creating social media pages for posting content for radicalizing the population. Besides, Al-Qaeda uses websites to spread hateful propaganda against the West and recruit new members.
Al-Qaeda’s jihadi web has the same features as other normal organization websites but is unreliable (Brachman, 2006, p. 151). Al-Qaeda manages several web forum sites like the “Al-Hesbah Discussion Forum” to spread information, communicate with its members, and recruit new followers. The organization uses the websites to inform the audience about the organization’s activities and achievements and post links to attack videos from active jihad campaigns. Besides, the audience can learn more about Islamic teachings and the organization’s mission through the jihad websites. In general, Al-Qaeda uses the internet to plan and execute violent attacks against civilians, government officials and military personnel and discuss topics related to the movement. Besides, internet-based activism helps the organization disseminate propaganda, informative and training materials. Lastly, they use the websites to gather information about their opponents and use it to their advantage.
Islamic State uses internet-based technologies like social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members (Tønnessen, 2017). The organization uses encrypted apps and social networking sites like WhatsApp and Telegram to conduct misinformation and recruitment campaigns. The platforms enable the organization to send and receive end-to-end encrypted messages without hacking, exposing the content to third parties. Apart from that, secure communication via such apps has encouraged ISIS members and sympathizers to communicate and recruit new members online. Islamic State uses cybernetic financiers and computer-generated plots to groom and micromanage possible aggressors through different social networking sites. ISIS relies on its network of online sympathizers who create social media accounts and use them to post-instruction manuals and guidelines to internet users.
For instance, the organization created a telegram channel six years ago for training and study. ISIS mainly used the medium to recruit skilled personnel to help them maintain, repair and make weapons for the fighters (Tønnessen, 2017, p. 105). The educational videos posted in the channel and other platforms enabled ISIS to design and produce drones. During the war, ISIS used commercial drones modified for military use to perform surveillance and gather intelligence on their enemies’ activities. The organization established several drone production facilities in areas like Mosul and Ramadi, where they manufactured surveillance and attack drones.
From the paper, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda apples apply internet-based activism to communicate with its members, spread propaganda and recruit new followers. Both organizations use social media platforms like Telegram to spread misinformation and incite members against their perceived enemies. Also, the organizations use guerilla warfare and suicide attacks to neutralize their enemies. The U.S. government has employed military intervention through global coalitions to fight the terrorist groups and their allies. Still, U.S. intelligence agencies warn of the return of Al-Qaeda now that the Taliban are back in power. Although the U.S. strategy has been largely successful, more work needs to be done to eliminate Al-Qaeda threat permanently.
Almohammad, A. (2019). Seven Years of Terror: Jihadi Organisations’ Strategies and Future Directions. International Center for Counter-Terrorism.
Blanchard, C. M., & Humud, C. E. (2017). The Islamic State and U.S. Policy. Congressional Research Service Washington United States.
Brachman, J. M. (2006). High-tech terror: Al-Qaeda’s use of new technology. Fletcher F. World Aff., 30, 149.
Fernandez, A. M. (2015). Here to Stay and Growing: Combating ISIS Propaganda Networks: The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. Center for Middle East Policy. Retrieved February, 18, 2018.
Jenkins, B. M., & Godges, J. (2011). The long shadow of 9/11: America’s response to terrorism. Rand Corporation.
Lakomy, M. (2021). Recruitment and incitement to violence in the Islamic State’s online propaganda: Comparative analysis of Dabiq and Rumiyah. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 44(7), 565-580.
Lieberman, A. V. (2017). Terrorism, the internet, and propaganda: A deadly combination. J. Nat’l Sec. L. & Pol’y, 9, 95.
Lyons, D. K. (2013). Analyzing the effectiveness of Al Qaeda’s online influence operations by means of propaganda theory. The University of Texas at El Paso.
Mattis, J. (2018). Summary of the 2018 national defense strategy of the United States of America. Department of Defense Washington United States.
Mohamedou, M. M. O. (2011). The rise and fall of Al Qaeda. Lessons in Post-September, 11(3), 4-38.
Post, J. M. (2002). Killing in the Name of God: Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. USAF Counterproliferation Center Maxwell A.F.B. al.
Tønnessen, T. H. (2017). Islamic state and technology–a literature review. Perspectives on terrorism, 11(6), 101-111.
Van Evera, S. (2006). On every front: A strategy for the war on terror. How to make America safer: New policies for national security, 47-59.
Winter, C. (2017). Media Jihad: Islamic State’s Doctrine for Information Warfare. London, UK: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.