REPORT: The Islamic State and Information Warfare: Defeating ISIS and the Broader Global Jihadist Movement


The Threat Knowledge Group, wrote a report for the US military called, The Islamic State and Information Warfare: Defeating ISIS and the Broader Global Jihadist Movement. The Army has posted the report and now we are making the report available for download for you to read.


Executive Summary

The Islamic State and Information Warfare: Defeating ISIS and the Broader Global Jihadist MovementISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) as it now calls itself, is a far deadlier enemy than Al Qaeda, especially in its understanding and use Information Warfare and Psychological Operations (PSYOP).

A fully fledged insurgency which has recruited tens of thousands of fighters and controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, IS is especially skilled in the exploitation of global social media networks to radicalize, indoctrinate and recruit.

While the use of force-such as airstrikes-against IS targets may have a positive effect in the short term, victory in the long term will only come when the “lifestyle of the jihadi” is effectively delegitimized. This will require America to draft and execute a national-level Information Operations campaign against the Islamic State. Currently the true center of gravity of this group lies in its Threat Doctrine of Global Jihadism. That ideology cannot be destroyed kinetically.


In order to defeat the Islamic State and eventually the broader Global Jihadist Movement, the US government must recognize the five following truths of Information Warfare:

  1. The purpose of Information Warfare or PSYOP is to use information as a weapon to influence thought processes, beliefs, emotions, and ultimately behavior.
  2. Information Warfare and PSYOP should be the military tools of first resort, not an afterthought or appendix to military action, since their effective employment can obviate the need to use force at all.
  3. You cannot engage in a war of ideas without understanding the enemy’s ideas. You cannot permanently defeat the enemy unless you are intimately familiar with the ideology he uses to mobilize his side and the Enemy Threat Doctrine that drives his violence.
  4. All wars-kinetic or psychological-have as their practical objective causing the enemy to give up the ideas that animate their struggle. This was true for the Nazi Third Reich and the Soviet Union just as much as it is true for Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. This victory can only be achieved by making the enemy accept the illegitimacy of their ideology or crushing those who hold it, or as is most often the case, through a combination of both.
  5. In order to win a morally based war of ideas you need organizational and financial means that span generations.


One can only win a war if one has clearly defined the political end-states of that conflict. This is not clear with regard to the threat of both IS or the broader Global Jihadist Movement. Once the US has defined the political end-state of this war and declared it publicly, Information Operations and PSYOP must be positioned at the head of the fight, not treated simply as a “supporting” function of the kinetic war. PSYOP should be built into the US national strategy to defeat the Islamic State at the highest level. (Note a precedence already exists for exactly this with the Psychological Strategy Board created by President Truman at the opening of the Cold War).

In order to make tangible progress against IS and other Islamist threat groups the US policy of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) should be jettisoned as it prevents us from tackling the threat from extremists who aren’t currently violent but who do share the ideology of jihad and who may turn violent in the future. As a result we should replace CVE with CGJ: Countering Global Jihadism. Additionally DoD should build education on the Enemy Threat Doctrine of the Global Jihadist Movement into all combat arms, not just ARSOF or Civil Affairs and PSYOP units, so that we can understand and undermine the mobilizational force of such groups effectively.


  • The US should invest in a highly publicized campaign which has as its goal the normalization of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish relations within the borders of Iraq.
  • The US should deploy forward advisors right down to the brigade level, and even lower, thus allowing an Iraqi unity government to reconstitute and effectively employ the 700,000+ soldiers and security forces nominally on its books.
  • America must draft and implement a regional strategic communications campaign targeting allies and other key players. The Islamic State will continue to grow in strength and capture new territories unless Washington does a credible job of convincing Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudia Arabia and UAE that Iraq will once again be an independent state which gives Sunnis full rights and a share in its national oil wealth and that it will not become a proxy for Iran or the Assad regime.
  • Within Iraq and Syria US IO and PSYOP must target the real center of gravity of the Islamic State: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s claim that he and his followers are the only authentic Muslims. The information campaign must have a simple objective: delegitimize Abu Bakr and his so-called Islamic State. The message, driven by the US and local partners, must simply be: Islamic State = Un-Islamic Corruption. All narratives must lead to the same place: ISIS/IS is only interested in itself and not the local populations. (In the same way that Zarqawi, AQI’s former leader, was eventually seen as “just a thug.”)
  • Elements of the IO/PSYOP campaign must leverage these events and themes:
    • The numbers of Sunni killed or punished by IS for not being “islamic enough.” We must focus greater attention on the Sunni victims of the jihadists, not just the Kurd, Yazidi or Shiite casualties so as to counter the conspiracy theory which depicts the US as in league with Iran and Assad.
    • The increasing numbers of distressed Iraqi parents coming out publicly to decry their children’s recruitment as jihadi fighters.
    • The way that IS targeting of Iraq’s minority populations has worsened the lives of all ordinary Iraqis as well as the longterm viability of local communities. (For example, the Christian families ISIS is killing or expelling provided a disproportionate number of the doctors and healthcare workers in Iraq).
  • The theater IO campaign must openly address and aggressively attack every leading conspiracy theory that empowers the jihadi narrative which represents the West as at “war with Islam” or America as secretly supporting Shia hegemony in the region.

In the end, the Islamic State can only be defeated by America and her allies if we understand and then undermine Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s claims to moral legitimacy. The members of the Global Jihadist Movement represent themselves as on the side of all that is holy and just, and they recruit on the basis of their moral rectitude. That is why tens of thousands of young men have enlisted in the jihad. The Islamic State will only cease to be a threat if we can show it and its leaders for what they truly are and depict them as amoral and unworthy of support. America must work with its allies to completely discredit the modern jihadi enterprise.


Superlative summation of our Threat Knowledge Group report on ISIS from none other than Lt General HR McMaster:

The Army Operating Concept observes that future armed conflict will be complex, in part, because threats, enemies, and adversaries employ traditional, unconventional, and hybrid strategies to threaten U.S. security and vital interests. War remains fundamentally a contest of wills and enemies will continue to develop and employ sophisticated strategies to operate beyond physical battlegrounds and advance their efforts on the battlegrounds of information, perception, and political subversion. To seize, retain and exploit the initiative as well as consolidate military gains, Army forces must understand how threats, enemies, and adversaries fight on the battleground of perception and use that understanding to clarify our intentions, counter enemy disinformation, discredit the enemy (often by exposing enemy brutality and criminality), and bolster the legitimacy of our partners.

As stated in the AoC, “Conventional and special operations forces work together to understand, influence, or compel human behaviors and perceptions. Army commanders understand cognitive, informational, social, cultural, political, and physical influences affecting human behavior and the mission. Leaders exert influence on key individuals, organizations, and institutions through cooperative and persuasive means.” These efforts must be “a fundamental part of campaign design.”

This week’s professional reading emphasizes military information support operations as part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat the Islamic State. In “The Islamic State and Information Warfare: Defeating ISIS and the Broader Global Jihadist Movement”, Editor Dr. Sebastian Gorka pulled together four important essays that:

  1. Describe how the Islamic State uses information warfare and psychological operations to achieve political objectives.
  2. Recommend how to defeat the Islamic State on the battleground of perception.

Gorka and the contributors make clear that defeating ISIS on the physical battlefield is necessary but insufficient to win. Winning requires a strategy that combines physical and psychological activities to deny the enemy the ability to influence the perceptions and behaviors of relevant populations and governments.

In his summary, Dr. Gorka identifies five fundamentals essential to defeating the Islamic State:

  1. Use Information Warfare or Psychological Operations as a weapon to influence thought processes, beliefs, emotions, and behavior.
  2. Do not consider Information Warfare and Psychological operations as an afterthought to military action.
  3. Understand first the enemy’s ideas. Become intimately familiar with the ideology the enemy uses to mobilize popular support and the doctrine that drives violence.
  4. Focus efforts on the objective of causing the enemy to give up the ideas that animate their struggle. Win by making the enemy accept the illegitimacy of their ideology or crushing those who hold it, or, as is most often the case, through a combination of both.
  5. To win in morally based wars of ideas, develop organizational and financial means to sustain efforts across multiple generations.

These fundamentals are useful for developing required capabilities in the current and future force. As part of Force 2025 Maneuvers, TRADOC recently completed a Unified Quest seminar entitled “Fighting on the Battleground of Perception.” The seminar identified problems in our ability to understand and integrate information operations. Seminar participants developed the following near-term recommendations:

  • develop information operations doctrine that integrates all information related capabilities
  • ensure professional military education includes the integration of information related capabilities
  • revise policy on information related capabilities to compete more effectively on the battleground of perception

To present enemies and adversaries with multiple dilemmas across all domains, battlegrounds and contested spaces, the Army Operating Concept introduced the idea of Joint Combined Arms Operations: an expansion of the traditional concept of combined arms to include the integration of not only joint capabilities, but also the broad range of inter-organizational and multinational efforts necessary to accomplish the mission. Joint combined arms operations allows joint force commanders to operate consistent with the tenet of initiative, dictating the terms of operations and rendering the enemy incapable of responding effectively. Additionally, consistent with the tenet of simultaneity, Army forces present the enemy with multiple dilemmas to overwhelm them psychologically as well as physically.

Read the Report: The Islamic State and Information Warfare: Defeating ISIS and the Broader Global Jihadist Movement (pdf)