Breaking ISIL’s Brand

The State Department has a new weapon against extremism: marketing


The Honorable Michael D. Lumpkin is no stranger to the battlefield. A former Navy SEAL, he spent more than 20 years in active-duty military service, encompassing the first Gulf War and multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those conflicts, however, are far different from the war he’s currently fighting: Instead of parachuting from helicopters to fight enemies in the desert, Lumpkin is opening an internet browser to fight them on the web as director of the State Department’s new Global Engagement Center (GEC).

Established in January, GEC’s mission is to counter the sophisticated marketing and communication campaigns of violent extremist groups such as ISIL, also known as ISIS or Daesh. By creating and distributing alternative messaging, the State Department hopes the U.S. can curb the spread of violence and terror in the Middle East and around the world.

“Daesh/ISIL/ISIS has leveraged social media … in order to get their message out and to recruit. Basically, they’ve crowdsourced terrorism,” Lumpkin told Jim Sciutto, CNN’s chief national security correspondent, Wednesday during a fireside chat-style interview at GEOINT 2016. “We have changed our strategy to create an agile and innovative organization to combat and to focus on countering their messages and revealing their true nature. Essentially, our focus is looking at how we’re going to break the brand of ISIL.”

Advertising and marketing executives have written volumes on how to build a brand. Breaking one, however, is less charted territory.

“[In the last year, Daesh has recruited] somewhere in the ballpark of about 20,000 folks,” continued Lumpkin. “We have to focus on how we’re going to [reach] those vulnerable people who are susceptible to their message and create alternatives for them.”

Lumpkin described several strategies he believes will help his organization achieve its goals. Perhaps the most promising strategy is to distribute counter-extremism messages through third parties.

“The U.S. may have a great message, but we’re not always the most credible deliverer of that message,” he explained. “So we’re focused on coordinating, synchronizing, and integrating the whole of the U.S. government’s messaging efforts through third parties and partners.”

Nation-state partners are critical—the U.S.’ counter-ISIL coalition has 66 members around the world—but often have competing priorities and questionable credibility amongst their citizenry. GEC’s best partners, therefore, are those at the community level—including non-governmental organizations, as well as former ISIL members who have defected and the friends and relatives of ISIL recruits who have been shamed or otherwise harmed by their loved one’s extremism.

“[Former Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill said, ‘All politics is local.’ All messaging is local, as well,” Lumpkin continued. “Because whether somebody has grievances or a challenge that they’re trying to overcome, it’s based on where they’re located—their physical place.”

Also critical to getting its counter-ISIL message out is GEC’s operating structure. To succeed against a media-savvy organization such as ISIL, Lumpkin insisted, GEC must be as quick and nimble as possible.

“When I got to the [office that preceded] GEC, our analytic shop was a contractor with a three-year-old Mac with two gigabytes of memory,” recalled Lumpkin, who has since reorganized the organization to look and act like a tech startup.

Which leads to GEC’s biggest challenge—and opportunity—in its fight against ISIL.

“We’re using a 19th century bureaucracy and 20th century tools against a 21st century adversary,” Lumpkin concluded. “So while I appreciate bureaucracy … we also have to have the ability to build agility and innovation into it [so we can] change on a dime. Because the only thing constant in this world is change, and we have to embrace it as a government.”

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