Small Wars Journal

Countering ISIL’s Digital Caliphate: An Alternative Model

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 10:00am

Countering ISIL’s Digital Caliphate: An Alternative Model

Bradford Burris


The U.S. government has incorrectly characterized the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) strategy as having the endstate of creating an Islamic state according to the Westphalian definition of “state” built on the shared experiences achieved through geographic proximity and territorial integrity.  While this goal is certainly an aspect of ISIL’s strategy and one that the U.S. may be thwarting, ISIL’s overarching strategic objective is one that U.S. national security professionals do not adequately appreciate or address: ISIL is leveraging basic psychological manipulation principles in order to build an online community predicated on the notion of a digital caliphate which is more important to ISIL’s long-term success than a geographically bounded caliphate.  While true that U.S. military forces are defeating ISIL fighters and liberating key terrain from ISIL control, it is a mistake in perspective to see these defeats and ISIL’s associated transition from the land domain to the cyber domain as large blow to ISIL’s organizational efficacy. 

This paper argues that ISIL’s notion of a Caliphate is aligned with the concept of a community rather than that of a state and that ISIL’s strategic focus is on psychological control rather than territorial control.   After exploring ISIL’s success in building a digital caliphate based on the sociological concept of community, this paper presents recommendations for developing and promulgating alternative methods of community that will usurp the appeal of ISIL’s burgeoning digital caliphate.  Finally, this paper concludes by discussing the implications of this research on a U.S. counter-ISIL digital messaging strategy.  

The argument advanced by this research adheres to the following structure.  The paper begins by articulating the differences between the concepts of community and state from a sociological perspective.  It then makes the case that psychological control is more important to ISIL than territorial gains by assessing ISIL’s ideological impact on their three major target audiences before disaggregating the digital caliphate into its four basic components.  After showing how these four components support ISIL’s concept of community, the paper offers a new paradigm for developing alternative models of community that offer credible alternatives to ISIL’s digital caliphate and how the U.S. government bureaucracy and organizational structure should be leveraged in order to effectively address the digital caliphate. 

Community vs. State

As noted earlier, ISIL’s vision of a global caliphate has less to do with their desire to create a Westphalian style socio-political organization and more to do with creating a community of like-minded individuals.  To ensure consistency and understanding, two terms must be defined: state and community.  This paper uses Weber’s definition of a state as “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”.[i]  It is important to note that, while Weber’s definition includes the word “community”, he appears to use the word to mean a collection of humans in a shared geographical space.   It is the unifying concept of “within a given territory” that Weber uses to signify his definition.  Alternatively, McMillan and Chavis provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the definition of community.  In contrast to Weber’s focus on territorial boundaries as the defining principle of a state, McMillan and Chavis define community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together”.[ii]  Going further, they argue that a sense of community is predicated on four elements: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.[iii]  These elements are relevant to an explanation of the virtual caliphate’s appeal and a key to success for any alternative models to ISIL’s online community.

The assumption that ISIL’s notion of a caliphate that transcends the requirement for territorial control is based on the Sunni Islamic eschatological belief that the Mahdi has been predestined to come to earth and lead faithful adherents of Islam into a paradise that transcends geographical borders.[iv]  Said another way, the catalytic event behind ISIL’s drive toward a caliphate is fomenting the Mahdi’s return rather than establishing control of any specific terrain.  This distinction allows ISIL to focus on creating support for the idea of a caliphate rather than the concrete establishment of it. 

Psychological Manipulation

The assertion that ISIL’s major focus is ideological lends credibility to the claim that psychological control is more important that physical defeat or territorial gains.  That said, the relationship between victory in the psychological and virtual domains is not zero sum.  While it is absolutely true that quantifiable defeats and territorial gains accomplished in the land domain strengthen the appeal of ISIL’s ideology, the real attractiveness of ISIL’s Salafi Jihadist ideology is as a lifestyle that encompasses all aspects of an individual’s life and a community’s organizing principles and code of conduct.

It is here that an important distinction must be made: there is a significant distinction between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Salafi Jihadism.  In fact, the distinction is less about Islam vs. Jihadism and much more about the difference between religion and ideology. 

Generally speaking, religion is a branch of epistemology that individuals use to help themselves understand existence and their connection to it usually in relation to a supreme being.[v]  Ideology is broad term for a set of social ordering principles that manifest themselves in political ideals about how societies are best governed.[vi]   The adherents of the Salafi Jihadist ideology promulgated by ISIL are motivated by a belief system that governs their thoughts, feelings, behavior, and ultimately their worldview. 

The paradox of this belief system is that it drives ISIL to defeat its opponents but if ISIL loses, their ideology is strengthened because the Mahdi has been predestined to return to earth to vindicate those that suffered at the hands of apostates. Because of their psychological dedication to Salafi Jihadism, ISIL’s ideologically motivated supporters will be well postured to reap the benefits of the caliphate upon the Mahdi’s return.  This psychological aspect of ISIL’s ideology is more than enough to keep ISIL’s ethno-sectarian ideological supporters firmly behind the group regardless of ISIL’s progress on the land domain.  Harvard educated journalist Grame Wood captures the essence of ISIL’s ideologically motivated supporters and the psychological fervor of their support; he writes:

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers . . .  In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.[vii]

There is a second group of people that support ISIL but for wholly different reasons than their ideologically motivated counterparts.  This group of people supports ISIL because they assess nominal backing as a better option that the alternative that is almost always an extended period of torture that concludes with a horrendous death.  ISIL’s “survivalist” supporters have become such in response to the fear of being branded “takfiri”,[viii] the Arabic word for infidel.  Because ISIL leaders and ideologically inspired adherents have misappropriated the concept behind the term, they use it to give themselves the right to kill anyone that fails to accept the ISIL worldview and also extend that right to others that proclaim the Muslim faith.[ix]  A Romanian military officer familiar with ISIL’s operational techniques provides the following real life example.  “On 11.06.2014, in Tikrit, ISIL fighters killed nearly 100 local security forces members because they refused to join ISIL; this mass killing had a high media profile and it was used as an example of what would happen to Iraqi soldiers if they stand against ISIL”.[x]  Given the current socio-political climate in places like Syria and West Africa, the population has no real choice for survival other than to support the local ISIL affiliate.  The subjugation of ISIL’s survivalist supporters is predicated on the basic psychological variable of fear.  

Finally, there is a third group of people that ISIL targets with psychological manipulation: the foreign fighter.  Although they certainly are not ideologically or practically homogenous as are the two preceding groups, foreign fighters are extremely vulnerable to ISIL’s psychological manipulation.  As the naming convention implies, foreign fighters are motivated to join ISIL’s jihad from locations that are not in the proximity of a wilayah or other ISIL controlled area. Numbering approximately 22,500,[xi] foreign fighters join the ISIL movement for various reasons and leave researchers who look for a common thread between the diverse range of reasons confounded.  Many of these researchers may have overlooked the eighth level that Abraham Maslow’s added to his hierarchy of needs twenty-five years after first publishing “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  The concept and desire to achieve transcendence may explain the phenomenon of ISIL’s ability to attract foreign fighters.  Maslow discussed his concept of transcendence needs in a way that elucidates the common thread running through the various motivations of ISIL foreign fighters as discussed in what can only be called exit interviews of ex-foreign fighters who became disillusioned with ISIL and severed their allegiance with the group.[xii]  Maslow writes the following:

For the transcenders, peak experiences and plateau experiences become the most important things in their lives, the high spots, the validators of life, the most precious aspect of life . . . It follows from theory that transcenders should be more "reconciled with evil" in the sense of understanding its occasional inevitability and necessity in the larger holistic sense, i.e., "from above," in a godlike or Olympian sense. Since this implies a better understanding of it, it should generate both a greater compassion with it and a less ambivalent and a more unyielding light against it. This sounds like a paradox, but with a little thought can be seen as not at all self-contradictory. To understand more deeply means, at this level, to have a stronger arm (not a weaker one), to be more decisive, to have less conflict, ambivalence, regret, and thus to act more swiftly, surely and effectively. One can compassionately strike down the evil man if this is necessary.[xiii]

In addition to the fact that transcendence-seeking individuals are becoming foreign fighters, the sense of community[xiv] addressed in the second section of this paper has a strong pull on potential foreign fighters living outside the Middle East -- especially those in the Muslim Diasporas of Western Europe.  In fact, ISIL maintains a psychological stronghold on all three of its major target audiences - ideologues, survivalists, and potential foreign fighters - through word-of-mouth exchanges, recruiting drives, instructional materials, and multimedia “infotainment” products.

The Digital Caliphate

The simplest definition of a caliphate is “an area containing an Islamic steward known as a caliph—a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, and a leader of the entire Muslim community”.[xv]  Whether on the ground or online, the idea of community is a foundational idea in ISIL’s organizational and operational constructs.  With territorial claims that transcend national boundaries, adherents on all six permanently inhabited continents and acts of violence being planned in areas yet to be made known to us, is there any wonder that ISIL has turned to the digital environment to manage its various interests?  Palestinian author Abdel Bari Atwan moves this question from the theoretical to the practical by stating:

Conformity of message and a shared religious zeal are essential ingredients for expanding a caliphate, or indeed any state institution predicated on ideology. The Internet allows millions of Muslims to say on message, hear the same sermons, view the same video messages, and witness the same punishments simultaneously.[xvi]

As we turn our attention to ISIL’s use of digital platforms to spread their ideology and expand their community, a review of McMillan and Chavis’ definition of a community is appropriate.  They describe community as a feeling of belonging predicated on the four ideas of membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. 

First, membership in the digital caliphate is easy to attain and is immediately achievable for the ideologue, survivalist, or foreign fighter regardless of ideological, practical, or transcendence-seeking reasons because it is predicated on a relationship between the group and a sympathizer.  While arguably undervalued in American society, relationships have been the dominant social currency in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East for millennia.  In the digital caliphate, ISIL’s “personnel managers” make sure that each member’s experience is predicated on a relationship that is individualized in the early stages of the relationship and closely managed through a socialization process that results in a fully inculcated member of the caliphate.  Brooking and Singer illuminate this social phenomenon with an excellent discussion of ISIL’s ability to build relationships and membership in the digital caliphate by leveraging popular culture and existing social media platforms.

The Islamic State also understands the importance of intimacy and authenticity to social-media outreach. ...Contact with sympathizers has often been made in an open forum, and then moved to private message exchanges.  Plenty of radicalized Westerners, pulled back from the brink of recruitment, have described online relationships that unspooled over weeks or months.  In time, the jihadists living on the other side of the world (or in some cases, pretending to) ceased to be seen as recruiters.  They became friends--or at least the social-media version of friends.[xvii]

Once fully inculcated, the ISIL adherent’s newfound sense of belonging builds on this friendship to develop his own intensely personal relationship with ISIL based on a strong sense of belonging.  This self-reinforcing relationship between membership and belonging provides the digital caliphate with a strong foundation: people join ISIL’s digital community because they want to join.  They want to join because they believe the digital caliphate provides them access to a community of like-minded individuals, and they stay because of the impact of influence. 

Second, McMillan and Chavis believe that influence is the primary factor that a group uses to ensure its viability.21  ISIL leadership welds the concept of influence in a way that is drawn directly from the discipline of clinical psychology.  Specifically, a process known as consensual validation is exploited to ensure that the digital caliphate exists as a community resistant to countervailing organizing ideologies for perpetuity.  Consensual validation is defined as the mutual affirmation of conscious views of reality.22  McMillan and Chavis set the stage for an understanding of how ISIL utilizes consensual validation by writing:

The consensual validation construct assumes that people possess an inherent need to know that the things they see, feel, and understand are experienced in the same way by others, and studies have shown that people will perform a variety of psychological gymnastics to obtain feedback and reassurances that they are not crazy—that what they see is real and that it is seen in the same way by others.23

ISIL capitalizes on feedback and reassurances as tools of influence to ensure that their members develop and maintain a perspective that is devoid of cognitive dissonance but, more importantly, ensures consistency with the principles of Salafi Jihadism that drive ISIL’s organizing construct.  The digital aspect of the digital caliphate gives ISIL the ability to take advantage of free and autonomous communication platforms through which members can take part in the bidirectional concept of influence to manage the sense of community.24   Those who ruminate on the reasons behind the strength of the digital caliphate should consider the impact of influence as discussed thus far while reading the following excerpts.

…every Jihadist is his or her own media outlet, reporting live from the frontline in tweets, offering enticing visions of domestic bliss via short films and images posted to and Instagram, entering into friendly conversations via Skype, messaging on anonymous Android platforms, and posting links to the group’s propaganda material and its infamous catalogue of videos.  All of this output is systematically re-tweeted and, by clever use of hashtags, generates a huge audience.25

The ISIS [ISIL] propaganda machine is equal parts frightening and surreal: Prisoners who are about to be beheaded are fitted with lavalier microphones; synchronized murders are set to booming chorales; brutal clips of death and martyrdom are stitched together with Final Cut Pro. …The Islamic State’s careful audiovisual engineering hints at a future of war propaganda that will lean almost entirely on evocative and shareable images—everything from doctored photographs to video screenshots to infographics.  ISIS [ISIL] militants have discovered, as marketing experts have long known, that compelling imagery matters far more than any accompanying text in determining whether or not something goes viral.26

“Consistency of message” is the most salient point behind ISIL’s use of influence and helps the group achieve two specific objectives.  First, it provides geographically dispersed adherents with a unifying principle around which to coalesce thus strengthening the concept of community which is necessary for long-term viability until the Mahdi returns to establish the caliphate ISIL desires.  Second, messaging consistency provides ISIL adherents and potential members with daily, if not hourly, feedback that affirms their attraction to and association with the digital caliphate.

The third aspect of a strong community drawn from McMillan and Chavis’ framework is integration and fulfillment of needs.  To better understand how it applies to the digital caliphate, one should understand fulfillment of needs as an affirmative answer to the following question: Does participation in the global caliphate provide a return on investment great enough to elicit enduring support?  As I have just alluded to, many people are answering this question with a resounding “yes”.  So, why do followers invest in ISIL’s digital caliphate in the first place?  Although there is no single answer to this question, I believe that all of the various answers are driven by the “frustration-aggression” proposition.  Political scientist Ted Robert Gurr defines the proposition this way:

The basic frustration-aggression proposition is that the greater the frustration, the greater the quantity of aggression against the source of frustration . . . Intense frustration can motivate men either to intense, short-term attacks or to more prolonged, less severe attacks on their frustrators.  Which tactic is chosen is probably a function of anticipated gain, opportunity, and fear of retribution, which in political violence are situationally determined.27

Building on Gurr’s assertion and returning to this paper’s earlier discussion of psychological manipulation, it is important to recognize that ISIL fulfills the common need shared by its ideological adherents, survivalists, and foreign fighters -- hope.  Whether it is the ideologue’s hope for the Madhi’s return, the survivalist’s hope to escape torture or death, or the foreign fighter’s hope for transcendence, ISIL clearly transmits evidence of how they are fulfilling the needs of their followers to the furthest reaches of the digital caliphate.   One needs to look no further than the content presented in ISIL’s online magazine Dabiq for evidence. 

At the time of this writing, Dabiq had released fifteen issues that contained articles addressing the hopes of all three of the target audience groups presented in this paper.  Drawing on summary analysis provided by the Clarion Project,28 an organization that analyzes Dabiq’s content as it is published, examples of how ISIL provides evidence of its ability to fulfill the needs of its constituents is provided in the three following excerpts: 

Issue number nine speaks to ISIL’s ideological adherents and is characterized this way:

The ninth issue of the Islamic State's Dabiq magazine is called They Plot and Allah Plots, referring to the central feature of the magazine that argues that Islamic State supporters should not fear any plans to defeat them since Allah controls the world. The issue focuses on legitimacy - both attacking that of its enemies in Syria and the surrounding Arab nations, and in building up its own, with pieces on the importance of jihad.29

Issue number two speaks to the survivalists and is characterized this way:

The second issue of Dabiq, The Flood, uses the metaphor of the story of Noah to put across a stark message: you are either with the Islamic State, or against them and doomed to be destroyed. It calls on all Muslims around the world to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State and to move there immediately.30

Issue number twelve speaks to foreign fighters and is characterized this way:

The twelfth issue of the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine is entitled Just Terror. It boasts about the terrorist attacks in Paris, the double-bombing in Beirut, and the downing of a Russian plane in Sinai among other attacks. It spins terrorism in the language of a fairy story, referring to terrorists as “knights,” acting to defend Muslim honor.31

The final aspect of a strong community drawn from McMillan and Chavis’ framework that helps understand the efficacy of ISIL’s digital caliphate is the concept of shared emotional connection.  Cutting to the crux of the matter, a cursory review of psychological and sociological literature points to agreement that the bonds formed between individuals and groups provide a strong impetus for them to organize into or remain part of a community.  Additionally, research shows this is especially true when the bond is formed in the face of shared hardship.32  The assertion made earlier in the paper highlights the way in which ISIL leaders incorporate the concept of shared emotional connection into the digital caliphate’s sense of community.  They do so by leveraging the Salafi Jihadist worldview as the connective tissue that bonds members of the caliphate together especially when they face trials like a tactical defeat in Syria or the loss of an Internet dissemination platform.

To understand how successful this psychological manipulation is achieved, the ISIL communication strategy must also be briefly examined.  The communication strategy upon which ISIL’s digital caliphate depends is comprised of four aspects: a clearly delineated set of audiences, succinct messaging themes, distinctly articulated management principles, and a sophisticated understanding of resonance multipliers.  As discussed in the preceding paragraphs, these aspects are summarized below:


  • Ideological Adherents
  • Survivalists
  • Foreign Fighters


  • An idea of community that transcends national boundaries
  • A strong sense of belonging to a community of like-minded individuals
  • A shared emotional connection

Management Principles

  • Closely managed individualized relationship socialized into inculcated member
  • Consistent and immediate feedback that provides evidence of needs fulfillment
  • A feedback loop wherein audience conformity to messaging themes reinforces message consistency

Resonance Multipliers

  • The ability to leverage existing social media platforms that are free and autonomous
  • The ability to leverage popular culture to increase messaging receptivity

Given the major aspects identified behind the appeal of ISIL’s digital caliphate, it is important to point out that ISIL does not hold a monopoly on them.  The U.S. government can incorporate these aspects and the theory behind them in order to develop and promulgate alternative models of community that will usurp the appeal of ISIL’s burgeoning digital caliphate.

Alternative Models

Executive Order (EO) 13721, dated March 14, 2016 established the Global Engagement Center (GEC) to “lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”.33  The executive order assigned six responsibilities to the GEC, three of which are germane to the establishment of a credible alternative to the digital caliphate.

1-Coordinating, integrating, and synchronizing all public communications of the United States Government directed toward foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations and other violent extremists abroad.

2-Identifying, engaging, employing, or acquiring the best available talent across the U.S. and from global private sectors, academia, and elsewhere to support the Center’s mission.

3-Identifying shortfalls in any U.S. capabilities in any areas relevant to the Center’s mission and implementing or recommending, as appropriate, necessary enhancements or changes.34

There is no doubt that the GEC has the necessary authority to create a community to compete with the digital caliphate.  However, to do so, the GEC should begin with one counterintuitive decision: they should ignore the existence of the digital caliphate. 

Rational Choice Theory essentially states that individuals maintain ordered preference lists that they seek to maximize in light of the existing context.  Therefore, for a successful alternative to the caliphate to exist, it needs to offer reasons for membership to individuals who will choose to associate with it of their own free will.  The GEC must understand this principle and build a digital community around the common preferences of the three audience groups most susceptible to ISIL’s conceptual brand.  Once these common preferences are determined, messaging themes that validate and encourage discussion of the preferences should be developed and routinely interjected into online dialogue.  At this point, conceptual lines blur and the structure of an alternative model can no longer be prescribed.  While rote step-action drills work well for a machine bureaucracy like the U.S. government, options for the establishment of a “counter-caliphate” must move from rigid and specific to flexible and inexact.  It is worth noting that flexible and inexact options typically confound the “lowest common denominator” planning on which the U.S. government’s decision-making process is predicated. 

A year into its existence, the GEC is asking how to counter the digital caliphate without realizing the question is predicated on a faulty assumption.  The question of “how” presupposes that the GEC is correctly structured and empowered to begin addressing methods to create a “counter-caliphate”.  The following section of this paper argues that the GEC’s organizational design and authorities make it impossible to create, implement, and manage an alternative model to ISIL’s digital caliphate.  Simply stated, the GEC and entire executive branch of the U.S. Government (USG) have been spinning their wheels regarding credible alternative models because of a failure to acknowledge significant structural incongruities. 

Implications & Recommendations

The current structure of the GEC, for all of the USG’s rhetoric to the contrary, highlights the lack of investment in countering the digital caliphate’s messaging effectiveness.  Placing the entity responsible for counter-ISIL (C-ISIL) messaging one rung below the undersecretary level inside a single department without directive authority over other departments with C-ISIL messaging directives and capabilities underlines the GEC’s inability to coordinate and leverage all available C-ISIL messaging capacity.  The good news is that things do not have to stay this way.  Two structural changes implementable by executive action are all that is needed to correctly frame a senior-executive level organization appropriately resourced to develop and manage a credible alternative to ISIL’s digital caliphate.

Initially, the executive order establishing the GEC should be rescinded and replaced with an order giving primacy of effort for C-ISIL messaging coordination, integration, and synchronization to the National Security Council (NSC) with the expectation of accomplishing two objectives.  First, the NSC should be required to provide the POTUS with an analysis of the digital information environment and options for hedging against the digital caliphate during all NSC Principals Committee (NSC/PC) meetings.  Second, an NSC Deputy’s Committee (NSC/DC) meeting should approve thematic messaging strategies before a U.S. government organization conducts an information campaign designed to contest or counter the digital caliphate.  In order to most appropriately execute the approval process, the current attendees of the NSC/DC should be updated to include the Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication.  Elevating the planning for and discussion of messaging related to the digital caliphate to the highest levels of government in a formalized rather than ad hoc manner will allow the POTUS to ensure that his national security perspective and associated messaging themes frame the day-to-day work of the NSC as well as everyone involved with C-ISIL messaging.  Critics will understandably say that the bureaucratic machinations of the government will render the applicability of this structural change useless because of the time required to gain senior leader approval.35  This is a valid critique that sets the stage for the second structural change.

In addition to the revised EO naming the NSC as the C-ISIL messaging synchronization lead, POTUS should issue a Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) establishing an Interagency messaging framework and expedited approval process that provides explicit thematic guidance and aligns messaging themes, management principles, and resonance multipliers with the dynamic nature of digital communications.  The reason for a PDD separate and distinct from the EO establishing the NSC as the C-ISIL messaging synchronizer is that PDDs are much easier to be labeled with a security classification than Eos.36  Any discussion of C-ISIL messaging operations should be classified in order to protect the sources and methods behind the creation of an online community that can compete with the digital caliphate.


The United States government can create an alternative model of community with the psychological appeal to serve as a credible alternative to ISIL’s digital caliphate.  Although no template for an alternative exists, the components for such a community exist and have been identified in this paper. Initially, messaging designed to counter the digital caliphate should focus on creating a sense of unity among the same three target audience groups that comprise ISIL’s caliphate: Ideological Adherents, Survivalists, and Foreign Fighters.  While resistant to models of community predicated on the USG standard “ISIL bad; Islam good” mantra, these audience groups are susceptible to the idea of a transnational community based on shared emotional connections with like-minded individuals. 

Utilizing the management principles and resource multipliers extrapolated from ISIL’s successful digital messaging campaign to address audiences vulnerable to ISIL propaganda, it is possible for the U.S. to create an alternative model of community that effectively counters the digital caliphate.  However, before operational planning for alternative models begins, U.S. national security professionals should demand that C-ISIL digital messaging efforts be framed at the NSC/PC level and synchronized at the NSC/DC level.  Without the attention and oversight inherent to exposure and discussion at the most senior levels, counter-ISIL messaging and the creation of a credible alternative to the digital caliphate will remain the most feckless aspect of the U.S. government’s counter-ISIL strategy.

End Notes

[i] Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 78.

[ii] David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, "Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory," Journal of Community Psychology 14 (January 1986): 6-23.

[iii] McMillan and Chavis provide the following explanation of the four elements.  Our proposed definition has four elements. The first element is membership. Membership is the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness. The second element is influence, a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. The third element is reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs. This is the feeling that members' needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. The last element is shared emotional connection, the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history, common places, time together, and similar experiences. This is the feeling one sees in farmers' faces as they talk about their home place, their land, and their families; it is the sense of family that Jews feel when they read The Source by James Michener (1965).

[iv] For more information on Sunni Islamic eschatology, see Marilyn Robinson Waldman, "Eschatology: Islamic Eschatology," Encyclopedia of Religion, 2005, accessed February 15, 2017,

[v] For more on the contextual definitions of religion, see Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Waukegan, Illinois: Fontana Press, 1993), 87-125; and Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); and Andrew M. McKinnon, “Sociological Definitions, Language Games and the ‘Essence’ of Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 14, no. 1 (2002); 61-83, accessed February 20, 2017, /McKinnon_Definition_of_Religion_author_version_no_format.pdf;sequence=1

[vi] For more on the contextual definitions ideology, see Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 2006); and Lewis S. Feuer, Ideology and Ideologists (Somerset, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2010); and Willard A. Mullins,

"On the Concept of Ideology in Political Science," The American Political Science Review, 66 (1972): 478-510.

[vii] Graeme Wood, "What ISIS Really Wants," The Atlantic, March 2015, accessed February 10, 2017, /384980/.

[viii] For more on the concept of takfir, please refer to Bader Al-Ibrahim, “ISIS, Wahhabism and Takfir,” Contemporary Arab Affairs 8, no 3 (June 2015): 408-415, accessed on February 02, 2017,; and Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (London: Harper Collins, 2015).

[ix] Robert H. Scales and Douglas Ollivant, "Terrorist Armies Fight Smarter and Deadlier Than Ever," The Washington Post, August 1, 2014, accessed February 21, 2017, https://www _story.html ?utm_term=.0fdb255f3603.

[x] Colonel Liviul Ionita and Lieutenant Colonel BEng Iulian Aanitei, "Elements of Hybrid Warfare in the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant Operations,” Romanian Military Thinking 2 (April 2015): 36, accessed February 21, 2017, _2.pdf.

[xi] Although foreign fighter numbers vary, most estimates put the figure between 20,000 and 25,000.  For information on foreign fighters, start with these suggested resources: Jason Burke, "Islamist fighters drawn from half the world's countries, says UN," Guardian may 26, 2015, accessed February 18, 2017, /islamist-fighters-drawn-from-half-the-worlds-countries-says-un; and Aaron Y. Zelin and Richard Borow Fellow, “Foreign Fighter Motivations” (statement submitted for Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference "Taking the Fight to ISIL: Operationalizing CT Lines of Effort Against the Islamic State Group," Washington D.C., February 2, 2015), accessed February 19, 2017, 20150202.pdf; and Chelsea Daymon, “From the Guy Next Door to the Fighter Overseas: A Look at Four Foreign Fighters Who Joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” Small Wars Journal (August 2014), accessed February 18, 2017,

[xii] Daniel Koehler, “Family Counselling as Prevention and Intervention Tool Against ‘Foreign Fighters’. The German ‘Hayat’ Program,” Journal EXIT-Deutschland (JEX) 3 (2013): 182-204, accessed on February 15, 2017, Prevention_and_Intervention_Tool_Against_Foreign_Fighters_._The_German_Hayat_Program; and Evan Kohlmann and Laith Alkhouri, “Pro les of Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” CTC Sentinel 7, no. 9 (September 2014): 1-5, accessed on February 13, 2017, https://www.ctc.usma .edu /posts/profiles-of-foreign-fighters-in-syria-and-iraq; and Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt, “The Motivations of Syrian Islamist Fighters,” CTC Sentinel 7, no. 10 (October 2014): 15-17, accessed on February 13, 2017,; and Vera Mironova and Sam Whitt, “A Glimpse into the Minds of Four Foreign Fighters in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 7, no. 6 (June 2014): 5-7, accessed on February 13, 2017,

[xiii] Abraham H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking Press, 1971).

[xiv] The sense of community idea is central to ISIL’s appeal to the three target audiences mentioned in this paper and, as such, it is important to draw your attention to the following characterization of the ISIL caliphate made in the "Taking the Fight to ISIL: Operationalizing CT Lines of Effort Against the Islamic State Group” conference hosted by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  Aaron Y. Zellin summed things up this way: Since the Islamic State announced itself as a Caliphate in June 2014, it has been able to recruit a wider diversity of individuals. Part of this is because it is now interested in a state-building project, which needs more than just fighters. As a result, in its messaging it has called for administrators, doctors, engineers, computer science, and graphic design, among others to help build up its proto-state. As a result, this has widened the potential pool of recruits since those that might have been apprehensive about being fighters and were fine with being online grassroots activists and cheerleaders now felt that they had a role. Moreover, because this was about creating a state and putting down roots it also encouraged families and individuals that had girlfriends or wives to join up and as a result altered what it necessarily meant to be a foreign fighter since not all of these individuals were fighting at all, but rather taking part in the daily maintenance and life of society within the Islamic State’s territory.

[xv] Wadad Kadi and Aram A. Shahin, "Caliph, Caliphate". The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2013): 81–86.

[xvi] Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

20 Emerson T. Brooking and P.W. Singer, "War Goes Viral: How Social Media is being Weaponized,” Atlantic 318, no. 4 (November 2016): 70-83.

21 David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, "Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory," Journal of Community Psychology 14 (January 1986): 6-23.

22 Richard J. Gerrig and Philip G. Zimbardo, Psychology and Life, 16th ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2002).

23 David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, "Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory," Journal of Community Psychology 14 (January 1986): 6-23.

24 For more on the idea of influence as a bidirectional concept between a community and its members, see J.A. Peterson and R. Martens, “Success and Residential Affiliation as Determinants of Team Cohesiveness,” Research Quarterly, 43 (1972): 63-76; and L. Solomon, “The Influence of Some Types of Power Relationships and Game Strategies Upon the Development of Interpersonal Trust,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 61 (1960): 223-230; and H. H. Kelley and E. H. Volkart, “The Resistance to Change of Group-Anchored Attitudes,” American Sociological Review, 17 (1952): 453-465; and H. H. Kelley and C. L. Woodruff, “Members’ Reactions to Apparent Group Approval of Counternorm Communication,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52 (1956): 67-74.

25 Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate  (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015).

26 Emerson T. Brooking and P.W. Singer, "War Goes Viral: How Social Media is being Weaponized,” Atlantic 318, no. 4 (November 2016): 70-83.

27 Ted R. Gurr, Why Men Rebel (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970)

28 The Clarion Project website,, describes itself this way: “Founded in 2006, Clarion Project (formerly Clarion Fund Inc.) is an independently funded, non-profit organization dedicated to exposing the dangers of Islamist extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.”

29 David Harris, "The Islamic State's (ISIS, ISIL) Magazine," Clarion Project, September 09, 2014, accessed March 05, 2017,

30 Ibid

31 Ibid

32 For more on this concept see David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, "Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory," Journal of Community Psychology 14 (January 1986): 6-23; and David M. Chavis, James H. Hogge, David W. McMillan, and Abraham Wandersman, “Sense of Community Through Brunswick's Lens: A First Look,” Journal of Community Psychology 14, no. 1 (1986): 24-40, and Seymour B. Sarason, The Psychological Sense of Community: Prospects for a Community Psychology (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974).

33 Barack Obama, Executive Order 13721, “Developing an Integrated Global Engagement Center to Support Government-wide Counterterrorism Communication Activities Directed Abroad and Revoking Executive Order 13584”, Federal Register 81, no. 52 (March 14, 2016): 14685.

34 Ibid.

35 These recommendations, counterarguments, and resolution framework were developed by the author and initially written in an unpublished manuscript submitted in response to a directed deliverable for the National War College’s core course 6300 and they remain the intellectual property of this author.

36 For more detail on the differences between the types of Presidential Directives, please see Harold Relyea, Presidential Directives: Background and Overview, (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2008).


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Brad Burris is a PSYOP officer, a former commander of 8th Military Information Support Battalion (Airborne), a graduate of the National War College and he currently serves on the Joint Staff.