Saturday, 13 June 2015

Washington's Faltering Soft War on ISIL

More Effort to be invested
in US Hashtag war
Richard A. Stengel, the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs has been travelling recently to help establish “a communications coalition, a messaging coalition, to complement what’s going on the ground”.  The idea of this is to affect public opinion on enemies of the USA, such as ISIL. This policy however needs more effort. It seems, as the New York Times says, that ISIL is far more nimble in spreading its message than the United States is in blunting it. Only now, does it seem, is it planned to expand the  State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. This the NYT characterises as "a tiny office created in 2011" and employs linguists to combat terrorist messages ("propaganda and misinformation") on the Internet in real time, "offering a competing narrative that seeks to strike an emotional chord". The aim is to discredit ISIL in the hope of stemming the flow of foreign fighters and funding to the group. The USA it seems are slow to take a lesson out of Russia's book with the systematic web-use to spread competing narratives. Antiquities of course are part of this effort. Mr Stengel came back from his Paris trip with one piece of good news for the State Department
An event at the Louvre intended to focus on the Islamic State’s destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq, Mr. Stengel said, was a success and could be followed up with an entire conference on the issue. The conference, he wrote, could bring together “dealers, auction houses, collectors, scholars” and others to highlight that trafficking in antiquities is a “war crime” and a “tool of terrorism,” and is financing the Islamic State’s “dark game.”
The question is whether the dealers are going to be the conciliatory ones like James Ede, or those hell-bent on confrontation and alienation. I assume the scholars involved will be those from the 'Syrian Heritage Initiative' already on the State Department's payroll.

But one cannot help having at the back of one's mind that the horror stories and alarmist claims of looted antiquities financing ISIL and all the rest are precisely what the 'Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications' needs to help discredit ISIL in the eyes of the part of the word sensitive to issues of heritage and the ideological packet that goes with it.  Is this not an ideal "competing narrative that seeks to strike an emotional chord..."? It is rather frustrating to find that there is in fact very little hard, independently verifiable evidence for any of it (and in addition a rather puzzling caginess of some of those involved in the effort). One has to ask whether the hysteria whipped up over these issues is not to a large part an invention of the grey men and women sitting in the tiny office down one of the peripheral corridors of Foggy Bottom. Suppose it is not true and just American propaganda? Part of another "Dark Game" with our minds?

Mark Mazetti and Michael R. Gordon, 'ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes', New York Times June 12th 2015.


Larry Rothfield said...

There is no doubt that the State Department is interested in discrediting ISIS in the eyes of the part of the world that cares about preserving heritage. There is also no doubt that ISIS is itself offering its own narrative about antiquities that is intended to strike an emotional chord. There is no doubt that there are Syrians and Iraqis who hope to prod the US into greater involvement in the conflict with ISIS by making hyperbolic claims and fabricating evidence. There is no doubt that there are heritage protection advocates who also hope to prod the US into doing more to protect archaeological sites and who are making or passing along hyperbolic claims.

All this is true. And yet, there is also no doubt that there is copious evidence (satellite imagery, licenses, antiquities cache found in the home of one of the ISIS leaders, etc. etc.) that ISIS -- though of course not ISIS alone -- has encouraged and gained from the looting of archaeological sites.

Paul Barford said...

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