Communication and Media Strategy in the Jihadi War of Ideas

by Steven R. Corman & Jill S. Schiefelbein

Recent controversies surrounding U.S. efforts to influence media in Iraq and the Middle East signal increasing interest in a war of ideas that is part of the conflict between the West and the worldwide jihadi movement. Clear thinking about this issue requires an understanding of how the jihadis struggle for hearts and minds. Yet many people are under-informed about the nature and extent of jihadi strategy regarding communication and the media. The purpose of this paper is to piece-together this strategy from texts captured during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, translated statements from jihadi leaders, as well as other open-source documents, such as speeches and website material.

These texts reveal three strategic goals for communication and media in jihadi operations. First they must legitimate their movement by establishing its social and religious viability while engaging in violent acts that on their face seem to violate the norms of civilized society and the tenets of Islam. This is perhaps the biggest ongoing communication challenge they face. Second they aim to propagate their movement by spreading messages to sympathetic audiences in areas where they want to expand. This prepares the way for political efforts that precede establishing actual operations. Third they seek to intimidate their opponents. This applies not only to existing enemies but to sympathizers in the Muslim world who might think of turning against them.

Jihadis pursue these strategies using sophisticated, modern methods of communication and public relations. They segment audiences and adapt their message to the audience, apply some of the same PR techniques used by large corporations, conduct disinformation campaigns, and coordinate communication with operations. They do this using a variety of sophisticated means, including traditional mass media and new media channels. This paper places particular emphasis on new media channels, especially the Internet, to understand the implications of a “virtual jihad.”

Six recommendations are generated from our analysis: (1) adopt a long term strategy of improving our credibility with Muslim audiences, (2) degrade jihadis’ ability to execute their communication and media strategy, (3) identify and draw attention to jihadi actions and outcomes that contradict Islam, (4) deconstruct jihadi concepts of history and audience, (5) redouble efforts to engage jihadi new media campaigns, and, (6) make better use of sympathetic members of the American Muslim community.

  View Full White Paper (PDF)