The Real Center Of Gravity Against Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Hizballah, and Their Allies


“… [B]y any chosen metric, Al-Qaida is today much more powerful than it was in 2001, despite the massive amount of resources the United States and its coalition partners have devoted to Al-Qaida’s destruction over the past 18 years,” stated counterterrorism expert Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of Valens Global at a 2019 Special Operations Command conference.  

Independently, George Mason University doctoral student Christian Taylor and American Enterprise Institute scholar Katie Zimmerman reached similar conclusions. While not stating this determination explicitly, it is easily inferred from the information presented in the January 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment.

That same report flagged that ISIS remains an unbeaten threat.  In a recent interview in the Atlantic, Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani stated that ISIS still has 20,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria and is conducting 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone.  The DOD Inspector General reinforced that the late ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death has not affected ISIS’s command system or operations.  Meanwhile, thousands of foreign fighters who fled the destruction of the geographic Caliphate have spread across the globe and remain operationally connected by what former CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel labeled the “Virtual Caliphate.”

For decades, U.S. national security experts have viewed Lebanese Hizballah and its global network as a threat to U.S. interests.  According to the State Department, the global Hizballah network, supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, has tens of thousands of followers around the world.  Its influence and operational capability stretch from the Middle East into Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, if not also North America.  In the Middle East, Hizballah fighters prop up the power of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad while threatening Israel and supporting Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest of Muslim mass movements and one of the two source codes (the other is Saudi Wahhabism) for more recent variants (Al-Qaida, ISIS, et. al.), is active all over the world.  An apparent Brotherhood adherent leads NATO ally Turkey, and other members of the movement are actively involved in an insurgency against the government of decades-long U.S. ally Egypt, the Brotherhood’s birthplace.

As AEI’s Katie Zimmerman has described in her groundbreaking reports on Salafi-Jihadi movements, of which Al-Qaida and ISIS are the two leading variants, they are gaining acceptance and/or tolerance among Sunni populations around the world.  They are achieving success despite a relentless, decades-long, American-led, military, law enforcement, and diplomatic effort to destroy them.  “Through a phased and adaptive strategy,” Al-Qaida, ISIS and similar Sunni groups “… are insinuating themselves into the fabric of Sunni societies rather than seeking to rule directly.”  Their tools have been decentralized leadership, asymmetric tactics designed to evade U.S. and Western strategies and tactics, and returning to their Muslim Brotherhood roots, offering security and other basic goods and services to communities disconnected from collapsing nation-state government services.

The successful employment of these techniques provides inputs for the stories and narratives that both Sunni and Shi’a movements tell about themselves and about their adversaries in ways that are resonating with their audiences, while our competing stories about them and ourselves are not.  Simply put, among the populations in which they are growing, these groups are more persuasive than we are.  They are winning the competition of ideas, which is the new center of gravity in our longstanding conflict with these groups.  

Professor Ajit Maan, author of the book, “Narrative Warfare,” and President of Narrative Strategies told a 2018 SOCOM conference that successful narratives must contain information or disinformation that is meaningful, culturally relevant, and formatted in a way that is familiar to the audience.  Information or disinformation that is narrated, storified, or mythologized in this way allows audiences to understand their experiences in a way that is largely impervious to truth.  

“Narrative Warfare” is not a new idea.  During the Cold War, the United States and its allies implemented a highly successful information campaign against the Soviet Union based on two complementary themes.  Our story about ourselves was:  Democracy equals good governance and Capitalism plus free markets yields prosperity.  Our story about our Soviet competitors was that Communism equals dictatorship, oppression, and poverty.

Through a variety of media prepared and delivered by a small, professional, elite government agency called the United States Information Agency, we bombarded Eastern Europe with information that constantly conveyed these key narratives in formats that were recognizable and culturally relevant to the people of Eastern Europe.  As the differences in standards of living widened over time between West and East and western democracies did not collapse as predicted by the Communists, the population of Eastern Europe recognized the authenticity of our messages, ultimately deciding to throw off the yoke of their dictators for a better future as democracies within the European Union.

Today, there is no United States Information Agency, and for many people in the Middle East and bordering regions, if not around the world, our narratives that democracy produces good governance and capitalism and free markets yield prosperity, are ringing hollower every day.  

For their part, our Muslim Mass Movement competitors are weaving well-known verses, stories, and sayings from the Qu’ran, Sunna, and Hadith, along with traditional stories and myths into the stories that Muslim mass movements tell about themselves and their adversaries.  In their stories about us, Muslim mass movements can easily use our own words against us.  For instance, one of the words that the Prophet Muhammad used to describe his opponents in Mecca was “Munafiqeen,” or hypocrites.  How often in our political debates do we hear these words:  Hypocrite, hypocrisy, liar, lie, falsehood, mendacious, mendacity, etc., used to describe political opponents?   

Because Sunni and Shi’a movements are telling stories about themselves and about us that are meaningful, culturally relevant, and formatted in a way that is familiar to their audiences, they are growing.  Meanwhile, our narratives about them and about us are failing, because they are fractured, incoherent, and culturally disconnected.  To reverse this trend, the United States and its allies must first accept that the center of gravity in the competition with Muslim movements like Al-Qaida, ISIS, Hizballah, and others has shifted from kinetic action to the competition of ideas.  Having disinvested from the civilian architecture necessary to prevail in a competition of ideas, the United States must rapidly redevelop the civilian capacity, both in the United States and in its diplomatic service, to craft competitive narratives and adapt them to the audiences they are intended to influence.