The Obama administration has launched the first cyberwar against the Islamic State, a war that, coupled with real, not virtual, fighting, is producing one of the most encouraging on-the-ground successes in the conflict — sharply cutting into the number of foreign fighters sneaking into Syria to join the group’s terrorist army and its so-called Islamic caliphate.
The Pentagon says an Islamic State recruitment drive that attracted 2,000 a month last year to join the fight in Syria and Iraq has slowed to fewer than 500. The squeeze means the army of about 35,000 has shrunk to some 20,000, leaving fewer fighters to conduct two big battles ahead: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa, the caliphate’s “capital,” in Syria.
Officials say the human pipeline is tightening partly because of an aggressive online countermessaging campaign directed by the State Department, a battle of ideas that tells Muslims that Raqqa is a dead end, literally.
“There is a global coalition that’s conducting campaigns of messaging to convince people not to get up and leave their countries and travel to Iraq and Syria to try to join the caliphate,” said Army Col. Christopher Garver, a former top military spokesman in Baghdad. “We want to convince people that the caliphate is not a real thing. We’re in the process of breaking it up. It’s not worth leaving your home and coming to Iraq and Syria to join the caliphate.”
Alberto Fernandez, who once led the State Department’s strategic communications, is skeptical that the countermessaging has had much of an effect. The single biggest factor, he said, is simply that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is steadily losing territory to U.S.-backed Iraqi troops and Syrian rebels.
“The most effective messaging that is happening against ISIS today is military defeat,” he said. “It’s harder and harder for them to put the best face on what is a long series of defeats on the ground. The biggest countermessaging success is that they are slowly losing ground, and that makes them look bad.”