Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen was speaking in Kuwait, where representatives of more than a dozen Islamic and Western met to discuss using public communications to combat ISIS (also known as Da’esh – an acronym for the Arabic rendering of the group’s name, ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fil-Iraq wa ash-Sham).
“As we seek to expose Da’esh’s true nature,” Allen told the gathering on Monday, “we must also tell a positive story, one that highlights our respect – our profound respect for Islam’s proud traditions, its rich history, and celebration of scholarship and family and community.”
“We must work with clerics and scholars and teachers and parents to tell the story of how we celebrate Islam, even as we show that Da’esh perverts it.”
The conference in Kuwait City brought together officials from leading Arab states, Turkey, France, Britain and the U.S. to discuss ways their governments are working to counter ISIS’ message.
The jihadist group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq and has declared a “caliphate” in those areas, runs a dynamic propaganda and recruitment operation, including a full-color online magazine, video clips, and an active social media presence.
The Qur’an and other Islamic texts, along with viewpoints of historical and modern-day Muslim scholars, are central to its messaging, and the U.S.-led coalition is prioritizing attempts to counter the purported religious justifications for its actions.
Allen said that ISIS propaganda serves both to attract recruits and “perverts the innocent.”
“It is only when we contest Da’esh’s presence online and deny the legitimacy of its message – the message that it sends to vulnerable young people – and as we expose Da’esh for the un-Islamic, criminal cult of violence that it really is, it is only then that Da’esh will be truly defeated.”
He said every member of the coalition had a role to play in combating the image ISIS portrays of itself.
“Da’esh’s online messengers present themselves as the true and victorious representatives of Islam. They seek to portray themselves as winners, true leaders worthy of financial support that attracts and radicalizes foreign fighters,” he said.
“I believe every coalition partner, every one, has a unique and a vital role to play in striking down this image – this image within the context of our respective cultural, religious, and national norms.”
Allen noted that leading religious figures in the region have spoken out against ISIS on religious grounds.
Last August, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia declared that ISIS’ ideas and violent conduct made it “enemy number one of Islam.” The same month, Egypt’s grand mufti launched an Internet-based campaign to discredit ISIS, and urged media to stop using any name for the group that incorporates the word “Islamic.”
More than 120 Islamic figures last month signed a letter to ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – who calls himself “Caliph Ibrahim” and has called on jihadists everywhere to swear loyalty to him – challenging him on religious grounds.
According to the State Department, coalition members at the conference in Kuwait discussed ways in which governments can “strengthen the resistance of our communities” to ISIS’ message.
“This involves intensifying our engagement to address significant events; enhancing exchanges, training and other cooperative programs for government leaders and spokespersons; actively opposing the recruitment of foreign fighters; and encouraging important religious and social leaders, opinion makers, and the millions of young people who oppose violent extremism to raise their voices through traditional and social media,” it said in a statement.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday underlined the priority being given to the task.
“We will leave no effort untested with respect to our efforts to shut down the ability of these people to propagandize, to lie, to deceive, and to have whatever influence they may be able to have on young minds or other minds anywhere in the world. That’s already going on,” he told reporters in Ottawa.
“We also have a major effort undertaken at this moment to engage religious communities around the world to delegitimize ISIL’s claims with respect to any Islamic foundations that their actions may have.”
The administration last month appointed Allen as special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, an Iraq specialist, serving as his deputy.
Allen served as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2006-2008, and was credited with playing a key role in the “awakening” campaign by Anbar’s Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’ precursor. He was coalition commander in Afghanistan from 2011-2013.