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How to Win a War of Ideas

Photo: Pavel L Photo and Video /

We often look at the War on Terror—spearheaded by the U.S. government after the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 killed nearly 3,000 people—as a military endeavor. We analyze control of territory, strength of arms, resources, and strategies to gauge success.

So it might feel strange, then, to look at the military accomplishments of the last 16 years, particularly the killing of former al-Qaeda terrorist group leader Osama bin Laden, and feel as if no progress has been made. It seems as if we’ve seen the decline of al-Qaeda only then to see the rise of ISIS—and the resurgence of al-Qaeda.

Yet the issue is that the War on Terror isn’t a war that can be won militarily, as Nadia Oweidat, a New America Middle East fellow, noted at a New America event on Monday. It’s a war of ideas, which, in the long run, proves far more difficult to win.

We live in a world in which disseminating information has never been easier. A quick glance at your smartphone allows you to learn about the day’s news, check the weather forecast, and connect with friends on countless social media platforms.

But at the same time, that ease of dissemination has also made it easier for extremist groups to recruit. Of 129 individuals tracked by New America, 101 showed a pattern of often downloading and sharing jihadist propaganda online. Social media gives extremists the opportunity to recruit virtually, simplifying the process and allowing recruits to approach them. Militants in the United States today tend to become radicalized after reading and interacting with propaganda online, and they generally have little or no physical interaction with other extremists.  

“There doesn’t seem to be a discernment of just how important the virtual space is,” Oweidat said. “It is real. It is as important as the physical space now. If we have thousands of jihadi mouthpieces, that is as troubling as having them physically.”

Social media is used for more than recruitment, though. Operatives are able to interact with jihadist leaders via encrypted communications that allow them to act on their extremist ideologies. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spoke of the virtual planner model that allows jihadists to guide lone attackers.

“Virtual planners have been able to fill in and do all the things that physical terrorist networks once did,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “Scouting for operatives, encouraging them to take action, helping them conceptualize the timing of the attack, and the target, providing them technical assistance—it’s much more effective than the old terrorist manuals.”

Gartenstein-Ross also acknowledged that virtual planners can be with the operatives right until the moment they execute the attack, which was the case in Ansbach, Germany, last year. Mohammad Daleel, a jihadist operative, had worked with a virtual planner to organize an attack at a German music festival. Daleel was able to chat with his instructor as he searched for a place to leave his bomb. In a chat transcript released by the German government, Daleel appeared to doubt himself as he struggled to place the bomb. His virtual planner, however, talked him through his hesitations, encouraging him to follow through.

Minutes later, Daleel detonated his bomb at a nearby restaurant.

It’s that growth of the virtual space that leaves us feeling as though we’ve moved backward in the War on Terror, as Joshua Geltzer, a fellow with New America’s International Security Program, noted.

“Even as territory gets taken back from groups like ISIS and figures get eliminated, that virtual component persists,” Geltzer said.

So how do we win the ideological war?

For one, there ought to be an effort to fuel, on a more fundamental level, respect for secular and liberal beliefs in the Middle East, which are often viewed as offensive to the Taliban. Oweidat explained how those who post about secular or liberal views online are often silenced, either by the authoritarian states themselves or by the platform they posted on because their post technically violated its terms on posting offensive content. Suppressing freedom of thought allows extremist ideologies to further take root throughout areas of the Middle East.

Additionally, the panelists all acknowledged the crucial role that tech companies will likely play in winning the war of ideas. In December, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube announced that they would share the MD5 hashes, or the digital signatures, of particular pieces of content deemed violations of a company’s terms. So, if Facebook found a post violating its terms, it would share the digital signature of that post with Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube in case it also violated their terms. Moreover, it was recently announced that those companies will now share with each other the tools used to find those questionable posts.

Oweidat and Gartenstein-Ross both discussed their work on a Google project to combat ISIS content. When someone searched for pro-ISIS material on YouTube, the video’s ad space would be used to show an ISIS-style video that would lead them to an anti-ISIS video playlist. Gartenstein-Ross emphasized that creative approaches like this are important to fighting extremist propaganda. This creativity in approach will become increasingly important as tech companies—and governments—work to counter extremist ideologies.

There are also foreign governments working with tech companies to reduce the amount of extremist content online. The United Kingdom, for instance, created the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, which has full-time government employees identifying extremist content and sharing it with the appropriate company as a warning that it may be in violation of that company’s terms of service. It’s then up to that company to determine what, if any, measures will be taken against that step. The European Union also has created an Internet Referral Unit, and other European countries are following suit.

In short, it seems that entrepreneurial spirit will be key. Because as Peter Bergen, director of New America’s International Security Program, noted, it’s far easier to kill a man than an idea.


Catherine Wilson is an events associate at New America, where she supports the production of more than 200 events each year. She interned in the editorial and communications departments at New America before joining as an events associate.