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War of Words: Is Obama Losing the ISIS Propaganda Battle?

Image: ISIS fighters raise their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the group's flag

ISIS fighters raise their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the group's flag in an image taken from a propaganda video released on March 17, 2014 by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)'s al-Furqan Media. Al-Furqan Media via AFP - Getty Images

For several days this week, a United States-led coalition has hammered targets inside Syria, filling the sky with bombers and a barrage of cruise missiles. U.S. officials say the assaults have weakened ISIS, also known as ISIL, a Sunni militant group that controls vast stretches of eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

But while the Pentagon clearly speaks “the language of force,” as President Obama called it in a United Nations speech Wednesday, it has yet to master the subtler language of propaganda, public affairs and counter terrorism experts say. In fact, as the conflict settles into a longer war, some say the Obama administration is losing the parallel battle of words, images and digital media.

“ISIS is ahead of us,” said William McCants, a former State Department senior adviser. In 2011 he helped launch the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, the department's office in charge of anti-ISIS messaging online. “These guys have been perfecting their propaganda on the Internet for a long, long time.”

Both the United States and ISIS root their messages in real-world violence and warfare. ISIS rose on a tide of suicide bombings, mass executions, body dumps, crucifixions and beheadings. Recently, the Pentagon countered with Predator drones, B-1 bombers, F-22 Raptors, F-18 Hornets and Tomahawk missiles.

But while the ISIS brand is spread by an endless crackle of tweets and posts, the Obama administration still relies primarily on podiums, speeches, and old fashioned sound-bites.

Obama: Coalition Airstrikes a Sign World Is Against ISIS 1:31

“It’s fascinating to watch,” said Sree Sreenivasan, the former chief digital officer for Columbia University. He now holds that position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hosted Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday as airstrikes began. “Everything I’ve seen from ISIS is almost textbook, professional marketing and messaging,” he added. “Beheading videos are not unprecedented, but ISIS has been able to use social media to spread their evil on a whole new level.”

The ISIS campaign has been waged by its propaganda arm, Al Hayat Media, and a smaller media office known as al-Furqan. Their physical locations are unknown. So are the identities of the operatives who actually bang the organization’s many keyboards. But their influence is unmistakable, analysts say, helping ISIS recruit Western fighters and ignite local fanatics.

The group adheres to a fierce, uncompromising form of Islamism, which scholars trace to the 18th century Arabian Peninsula. But again and again, their fighters have demonstrated a mastery of 21st century communication tools. Forget the long, unsmiling monologues, grainy videos, and Bin Laden hiking scenes that once passed as propaganda for al Qaeda, said Katherine Zimmerman, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Unlike even the best efforts of al Qaeda, she said, ISIS propaganda is reminiscent of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. It's based around a series of high-definition multilingual documentaries and sizzle reels. “It’s extremely well produced,” said Zimmerman. “The English is colloquial, the sound is sharp, the images are crisp. These are not shot by guys just off the street.”

“Flames of War,” for example, was a 52-second blockbuster-style trailer. Released hours after President Obama’s mid-September pledge to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the video played like a counter declaration of war with slo-mo explosions and dark, flame-licked images of the White House. The scenes played over an ominous soundtrack, ending with the words: “Coming Soon.”

"ISIS has been able to use social media to spread their evil on a whole new level."

But ISIS media is not just bombs and beheadings. Some videos use straight-to-camera testimonials with Western-born jihadists. Others use sentimental, soft-focus b-roll of fighters visiting a hospital. Still others feature thumping, euphoric images of ISIS fighters marching in black jumpsuits beside seized armored vehicles. ISIS then tweaks and blends these messages from market to market, and from the global to local level, analysts said.

They also compile their exploits into more contemplative forms of digital media. In two annual reports, for example, ISIS designers have made sleek charts and graphs of fine-grain data like "knife murders" and "apostates repented." They've also published Dabiq, a kind of Life Magazine of the apocalypse. It's named for an end-times story in the Koran and stuffed with images of destruction.

The cumulative result is an image juggernaut that may outstrip even the military one. ISIS projects as an authentic, unflinching, fast-moving, wealthy and successful organization — whether reality supports that or not, said Bob Dilenschneider, the former president of Hill & Knowlton, one of the world’s largest public affairs companies.

“It’s terrible news,” he added, disturbed to see his trade-craft used for such evil ends.

But he couldn’t help but be impressed, too, comparing ISIS to Apple and the Chinese online retailer, Alibaba: two other organizations whose image of implacable power may outperform reality itself.

Richard Engel on the ISIS Threat: Beheading 'Message to the World' 1:56

ISIS primarily spreads its message on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Here, American law enforcement is forced to play an exhausting game of whack-a-mole. It alerts those companies to videos that violate terms of use. But a post deleted one second just pops up the next.

That’s why McCants, the former State Department adviser, believes America needs to fight tweets with tweets, and posts with posts. His former home, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, targets online “fence sitters,” he said, hoping to pull them into a U.S.-friendly state of mind.

At first the focus was on forums, shadowy no-name sites where the curious meet to talk jihad. But in December 2013, CSCC set up a Twitter feed, and since then it’s been sending an average of six or seven tweets a day. Most simply tout American power. But some respond directly to influential jihadists, pushing out customized propaganda clearly stamped with the State Department brand.

Earlier this month, for example, CSCC responded to @de_BlackRose, a Twitter user who seems sympathetic to ISIS. “This is what children see under #ISIS rule, this brand of honor and respect,” the CSCC replied. The tweet included a picture of children standing around a crucified soldier.

CSCC is also behind “Think Again, Turn Away,” the State Department’s effort to replace ISIS imagery with an American view of reality. One recent CSCC-promoted video, for example, showed a 60-second series of death and destruction inside ISIS controlled territory. It opened with a jaunty, Technicolor typeface and, in an attempt at sarcasm, the words: “Run Do Not Walk to ISIS Land.”

Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi extremists’ behavior online, thinks the State Department's efforts veer toward the wrong-headed and ridiculous.

“Videos like this clearly illustrate that the U.S. government lacks the basic understanding of recruitment of young Westerners,” she wrote recently. “These ghastly scenes of executions and destruction are exactly what groups like IS have been using as recruitment propaganda.”

She thinks the Obama administration should stick to publicizing America's best projects, not arguing with ISIS' worst. McCant disagrees, for now, but he expects adjustments to come as the State Department feels its way in a new medium.

“Not everything will work,” he said. “This is an art, not a science.”