If there is one thing that makes the Islamic State different from other terrorist organizations, it is that they have great publicists. IS has produced high quality (production value not content) magazines and videos, as well as established a social media presence, to recruit fighters from around the globe. To the impressionable young potential jihadi, a life of heroism and devotion to Islam seems enticing, seductive, and cool. However, as our readers well know, it is not. Far from the idyllic fantasy that ISIS’s media team portrays, mass murder, torture, slavery, and rape are part and parcel of life in the Islamic State.
“Black Crows,” a new television series launched across the Arab world by a Saudi-owned television channel, aims to portray the reality of life in the Islamic State. The program follows the widow of an ISIS commander and leader of a women’s morality police force and will show the true horrors of ISIS rule.
The over twenty-part series is filmed in Lebanon and has already sparked controversy among ISIS supporters; actors and staff of the program and station have reported receiving death threats online. If this program makes any headway in combating the (and I hate admitting this) rather slick propaganda of ISIS, it could serve as a real contribution to the battle of ideas currently waging across the globe. That, of course, begs the question:
How do you kill an idea?
This question is one of the core problems of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Ideas do not bleed and die as men do, so how do we neutralize them? One might suggest attrition: if you kill everyone with a certain idea, then the idea dies. If the United States’ forays into counterinsurgency show us anything, it is that the attrition method is neither practical nor attainable. General Stanley McChrystal famously pointed out the mathematical difference between counterinsurgency and conventional warfare.
From a conventional standpoint, the killing of two insurgents in a group of ten leaves eight remaining: 10-2=8. From the insurgent standpoint, those two killed were likely related to many others who will want vengeance… Therefore, the death of two creates more willing recruits: 10 minus 2 equals 20 (or more) rather than 8.
Because ideas never truly die, the best you can do is convince people of a better one. While Saudi Arabia’s attempt to sway the impressionable youth of the Muslim world away from ISIS is admirable, an irony cannot go unnoticed. Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for human rights abuses. Women live under male guardianship, unable to attain a passport or access to higher education without permission of a man. Public flogging and executions are common forms of punishment. In one particular instance Raif Badawi, Saudi blogger and activist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam.”
“Black Crows” looks to be a promising counter to ISIS’s propaganda machine, and if Saudi Arabia calls you out for human rights abuses, you MUST be bad.