Swords are mightier than words in the war on ISIS

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem

Hisham Melhem


By : Hisham Melhem


In wars, generals deploy their phalanxes to defeat their enemies and control physical space, while political leaders invoke ideas, ideals, and excuses to legitimize and explain a state’s use of force.

Battles are won, and wars are decided by the clanging of the swords, not the exchange of words. Proponents of “wars of ideas” claim that the West won the Cold War by the sheer power of its values and liberal ideology. They tend to forget that during the Cold War, bloody wars were fought between the U.S. and Soviet Union through their proxies, and that the Soviet Empire collapsed because of its military overreach, and relative primitiveness of its economy.

Of course wars of ideas and ideological and cultural competitions are an integral part of the history of warfare, but given the revolutionary changes brought about by social media, the internet and an increasingly networked and globalized world, some are tempted to make the false claim that the war of ideas is as – or even more – important as the war of arms.

Marketing a brand

For more than a year now an intense debate has ensued among scholars, historians and politicians concerning the role and efficacy of ideas in the current wars of arms against ISIS, particularly the limited campaign that the United States and its allies have been waging against the fake caliphate.

It is very doubtful that the U.S. and its allies can mount an effective strategy to undermine ISIS’s narrative and reputation, without a simultaneous limited land campaign.

Hisham Melhem

Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. has invested large sums of money, exerted huge efforts and established special bodies to wage a war of ideas against al-Qaeda and its branches and tentacles, to discredit the group’s ideological appeal, to ‘sell’ the U.S. and its liberal democracy as an antidote to al-Qaeda, and to cut it down to size and humiliate it, as a first step to denying it volunteers and funds. It was awkward, not to say painful in those days to watch otherwise intelligent U.S. officials bandying and marketing the United States to the Muslim world as a ‘brand’, with the support of slick Madison Avenue experts. Needless to say, the ‘brand’ remained on the shelves, and did not sell well.

Marketing a utopia

In the war of ideas with ISIS, the United States has established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications to engage the sophisticated ‘electronic brigades’ that ISIS employs. Battles are raging in the virtual world between ISIS and its thousands of online volunteers on one side, and the United States, Google and Twitter on the other, for the hearts and minds of the Jihadi ‘fence-sitters’.

The results so far have been limited at best. In their book ‘ISIS, the State of Terror’, Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger give a gripping account of a movement that is “rewriting the playbook of extremism” through “a daring experiment in the power of horror, but also in the marketing of utopia”.

Stern and Berger have written the definitive analysis of ISIS’ creative cutting-edge propaganda, and unprecedented manipulation of social media. They devoted almost a third of their book to the epic struggle between ISIS and the U.S. and its allies for primacy in the virtual world. Every time an ISIS Twitter account is suspended others spring up; the authors estimated that “at least 45,000 pro-ISIS accounts were online between September and November 2014, along with thousands more pro-ISIS bot and spam accounts”.

There are limits to what the United States Government can do to “un-sell” ISIS to those young impressionistic would-be Muslim volunteers in the West who are convinced by the slick propaganda of ISIS, and the idea that waging Jihad is an act of cleansing one’s sins, or an act of rebellion – against one’s status quo, family and society – and to seek a ‘winning’ identity. Conversely, the hardened Islamists in ISIS who come from Western countries – some of them misfits, petty criminals and former prisoners – are immune to U.S. entreaties. If an effective counter narrative is to be developed against ISIS, it should be Arab or Muslim.

It is very doubtful that the U.S. and its allies can mount an effective strategy to undermine ISIS’s narrative and reputation, without a simultaneous limited land campaign. Muslim history is replete with pretend Caliphs, fake Mahdis and false Prophets; some of them were dismissed out of hand, but others acted on their dangerous visions. Their actions and narratives were not challenged by counter narratives, but by crushing military force. ISIS is bound to face a similar fate.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhe


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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