The Battle of Narratives: Contending against ISIS’ Propaganda Machine in the Destruction of the Al-Nuri Mosque
On Wednesday June 21, the great 12th Century al-Nuri mosque in Mosul was destroyed. It was in this religious space that Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance as caliph during the Friday prayers on July 4, 2014, one month after ISIS’ occupation of Mosul, and a few days following the announcement of the Caliphate by Abū Muhammad al-Adnānī. The question that is now on many people’s minds is: who really destroyed the al-Nuri mosque?
There are currently two narratives circulating: one states that the mosque was destroyed by the U.S. during a coalition airstrike; another that ISIS blew up the mosque. So, which one of these two narratives is true?
As Canadians, the natural tendency is to assume that ISIS probably destroyed the mosque as a tactical maneuver, preventing the Iraqi army the satisfaction of parading their victory with pictures in the mosque. Al-Nuri has symbolic value for both parties and is key in the war of ideas. Truth, however, depends on evidence and the credibility of one’s information. The coalition is fighting an asymmetric war with ISIS, and although the kinetic aspect of this war has been quite successful in the past months, the coalition has not experienced success on all fronts. Concerning the battle of ideas, the coalition is doing poorly in comparison to ISIS. This is an aspect of the struggle which has been relatively ignored by the coalition and its impact reverberates not only in Canada—as we see some individuals being radicalized here at home—but also in other places around the world.
Counter-narratives are often praised by governments, CSOs/NGOs and think tanks as a way of preventing violent extremism, but the destruction of the al-Nuri mosque is an example of how counter-narratives are not always effective. Following the event, ISIS’ propaganda machine immediately announced the following through its Amaq news agency:
American warplane destroys the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and al-Hadba' Minaret in #Mosul.
In response to this allegation, U.S. Central Command released this opposing statement on June 21:
Historic Mosque destroyed by ISIS MOSUL, Iraq — The government of Iraq announced the destruction of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in western Mosul, by ISIS terrorists, June 21. ‘As our Iraqi Security Force partners closed in on the al-Nuri mosque, ISIS destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq's great treasures.’
The same U.S. Central Command statement was shared by the global coalition the following day, and since then, no evidence has been provided by anyone in support of this claim.
But this has not the been the case with ISIS. The group simply kept reinforcing their story with a PDF report and a radio communiqué on al-Bayan on June 22. The same day, they also released through the Amaq news agency an infographic, as well as a 5-minute video of the destruction of the mosque, with the “evidence" of "bomb” fragments found on site. Supporters and other sources within various echo chambers and chat rooms also shared further evidence reinforcing the narrative put forth by ISIS, such as this commentary by one individual:
Those in whose hearts there is disease they will believe a lie quickly when it is exactly how they wish the truth were. You see people believing kuffar (unbelievers), who rape and bomb Muslims (Sunnis) every day, but when Muslims (Mujahideen = those engaged in jihad) refute the claims made by kuffar you see these people turn away like donkeys sticking to the kuffar media. As IS have said, Al-Nuri mosque was not destroyed by them but by US-led coalition. The video of IS detonating it (as claimed by kuffar) is from past and not a mosque. May Allah deprive the mothers of these munafiqeen (hypocrites) from them for slandering the Muwahideen (monotheists) day and night! Ameen.
What does this demonstrate? First of all, ISIS, and those who oppose them, each live in their own virtual bubble: they strictly believe their trusted sources of information. Outsider media is looked upon suspiciously and is labeled as “fake” or “inaccurate.” For example, if outsider information is leaked into one of ISIS’ echo chambers, the group’s sympathizers will re-interpret the content in order to reinforce ISIS’ own narratives.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Those who oppose ISIS turn to social media (and their own echo chambers), trying to present facts and evidence that incriminate ISIS, making the group responsible for the destruction of the al-Nuri mosque. But the U.S. and the coalition have not yet released any video or photo evidence proving their point. It might be true that the focus should be on the ground conflict, but ignoring the war of ideas will provide ISIS all the necessary leeway to shift from a physical state caliphate to a fragmented set of cells around the globe, sustained by a virtual community which will essentially constitute its new digital caliphate. As long as its ideology survives, ISIS will continue motivate and inspire individuals in Canada and across the world to carry out attacks in its name.
Those who seek to create counter-narratives have not been able to keep up with ISIS’ efficient media production and the quality of its propaganda. A further difficulty faced in preventing violent extremism is that counter-narrative efforts do not penetrate the echo chambers of those they seek to combat. When a breach is made, jihadist sympathizers distort any counter-narrative effort and use it against their enemies. Each side does not mutually recognize the others’
“authority” as having the facts. If Canada and the rest of the coalition wish to defeat ISIS, the war of ideas must be taken seriously. Conquering back the territory, killing al-Baghdadi or degrading ISIS is insufficient; this will not ultimately defeat the group. The consequence will rather force the group to adapt and move to other theatres. This is exactly what is happening with the growing presence of ISIS in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and in West Africa. The group will also continue to call upon sympathizers in the West to bring about more attacks in their homelands.
Defeating ISIS must be more holistic in nature, combining both hard power and soft power approaches. When the little town of Dabiq was recaptured from the hands of ISIS in October 2016, those who oppose the group missed their chance to strike at the ideological core of the movement, by providing strong and constant counter arguments to their apocalyptic interpretation of ancient prophecies. And now, once again, there was a failure to respond to the allegations made by ISIS of the destruction of al-Nuri by the U.S. This unfortunately feeds perfectly into their idea that the West is at war with Islam. Such missed opportunities cannot continue if we wish to defeat this terror group on all fronts.