Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Call of Duty / Call of Da'esh

Call of Duty / Call of Da'esh: The Press, the Mideast, and the Global Information War

Excerpts from draft speech by Christopher Dickey at Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul, 28 April 2015

For the foreseeable future one of the central preoccupations of the global press, and certainly of the American press, is going to be the communications challenge presented by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, or ISIL, or Da'esh, the acronyms we use when we don't want to dignify this group with a name that makes it sound like a national entity.

And let’s make no mistake, the danger it poses is, first and foremost, one of communications. Its military victories have mostly been against hollow armies rife with corruption or weakened by other insurgencies. Its impact on global opinion, however, is based on its creative exploitation of media and myths, some old and some new, all wrapped up in an iconography that is deeply seductive for many young people in many different parts of the world. 

I think all of us here can agree that we do not agree with almost anything that Da'esh represents, but we would be making a major mistake, as people who work in the media, if we did not admit the agility and creativity of its messaging, which is much more supple and much more focused than most of the media when we are trying to tell something like the truth about the events that surround us. 

If you want to understand one key aspect of the way Da'esh gets its message across, you would do well to spend a little time playing "Call of Duty," which has gamers enraptured all over the world.

Start at 00:33

If you then look at any of the highly produced films by Da'esh showing the actual murder of Western hostages, Syrian soldiers, Egyptian and other Christians, crucifixions, stonings, people thrown from towers and, most notably, the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot — then you, as a player of "Call of Duty," will find yourself in very familiar territory. 

In Call of Da'esh real people really are dying these gruesome deaths, but the video presentation has moved all that into a more accessible and, for a certain mindset, more acceptable dimension.


While Facebook, Twitter and YouTube certainly have been revolutionary communications tools, relatively few people in the press have understood how to exploit them effectively.

Journalists are probably the least imaginative users of social media. We employ them to gather information partly to compensate for the fact we no longer have the budgets to go ourselves to the places where the story is happening. Thus when the earthquake hit Nepal on Saturday, I saw three of my few thousand Facebook “friends” were there and notifying the world that they survived. I asked them to write about it and one of their excellent pieces is on The Daily Beast today.

Blurring intentionally and cruelly the lines between the Xbox and the execution grounds of Raqqa.

But the most imaginative and effective users of social media as a tool to try to change the world are not doing what journalists do—grabbing bits of fact here and there to try to discover a truth—they are creating narratives to engage a following. And the most successful of all are those who create a narrative for a targeted audience that can be moved to action that then reinforces the narrative.

Barack Obama won the presidency this way in 2008. His campaign’s use of social media first engaged people who might only be vaguely interested in supporting him. Then it asked them to carry out specific acts, ringing specific doorbells to talk to people face to face to raise money and encourage voting. Then it  asked people to record the results so it could gauge where their performance might be improved. And the narrative? The election of the first black president of the United States, a young man who said, “Yes, we can.” (Ironically, since he has been in office, he has found it difficult to construct such effective narratives around his key programs.)

I actually wrote in 2008 that these same kinds of tactics could be employed by terrorists. It's a question of tools, after all, not of ideology. At the time I was thinking of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who had first used CD-Roms and DVDs to spread their narrative, then satellite television, and who had just begun to experiment with YouTube.

From 2009 to 2011, we saw the power of narrative combined with social media and satellite to create diplomatic uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and much of the rest of the deeply frustrated Arab world. But their narrative was a short one—to gather, to protest, to try to bring down the government—with no real strategy for what might come after. I remember when I was in Tahrir Square in Egypt people talking about “crowd sourcing” the leadership of the revolution. Well, we know that doesn’t work. Militant groups with long histories of discipline and organization move into the vacuum and, more often than not, frustrate entirely the hopes of the free-thinking crowd on Facebook and Twitter.

Also see: In an Age of Information Insurgency, Notes on My History in the Mainstream Media

In fact, coming full circle, we have to understand that the people who truly mastered the new media are those associated with the Al Qaeda spin-off that we’ve been calling Da’esh, because it understood its audiences—there are several; it knew how to develop narratives that they would feel compelling; and it has the leadership to continue an organized drive to create a new state in the Middle East that has goals far outside the region.

I want to focus here on the Da’esh narrative that has proved so seductive to young people in the West, because that is the one that Western governments have found so surprising.

In fact, today’s terrorists have certain common characteristics. I think of them as testosterone, narrative, and theater, or, if you will, TNT.

Testosterone because they are predominantly young men, often frustrated in their work lives and sex lives, who want an outlet for their energies. (This is true of many recruits in conventional armies. But one of the things Da’esh adds to the mix is the promise of wives and even slave girls.)

Narrative, which we keep coming back to, is absolutely central. Almost all terrorist recruits over the years, whether in the IRA, the Sendero Luminoso or Black September, have been convinced they were fighting to defend an oppressed people. They were not necessarily oppressed themselves, but they identified with those who were, and they see themselves in noble, even chivalric terms, like knights in shining armor coming to the rescue, which gives them the ability to justify, as knights often did, absolutely horrific acts. It is no accident that Al Qaeda’s core book of ideology by Ayman al Zawahiri bears the title Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner. Young men and women are inspired to answer their call of duty.

Theater? This is another area where social media have become so important. The recruits of modern terrorist organizations want to project themselves and their actions on the world stage, even if they are not going to be around on this earth to see the result. Social media have made this effect incalculably easier to achieve.

Fifteen years ago, Bin Laden and his men spent a lot of time watching disaster movies like “Independence Day,” and they plotted their attacks to imitate that sort of iconography. Without huge spectaculars, they knew they could never command the kind of global attention that they and their suicide troops wanted.

Ten years ago, when Abu Musab al Zarqawi was decapitating his enemies in Iraq, he had to depend on satellite news networks to show clips of the grotesque videotapes that preached about his sense of justice and were intended to horrify his enemies.

Terrorists of those earlier generations had to depend on others, even on the "mainstream media," to get their message out. But no longer.

Today, Da’esh has so many more tools at its disposal to sicken its enemies and glorify its knights in blood-spattered balaclavas, and not only the soft social media like Facebook and Twitter, but the hard core violent excitement of shared video games.

It isn’t so much that Da’esh produces its own version of “Grand Theft Auto,” although it has done that, it is the way it uses the imagery and iconography of video games to put its message across, blurring intentionally and cruelly the lines between the Xbox and the execution grounds of Raqqa.

Screen shot from Da'esh video that climaxes with burning of Jordanian pilot.

Screen shot from Da'esh video that climaxes with burning of Jordanian pilot.

Screen shot from Da'esh video that climaxes with burning of Jordanian pilot.

Screen shot from Da'esh video that climaxes with burning of Jordanian pilot.

Screen shot from trailer of Call of Duty: Black Ops II

You may have noticed I have barely mentioned religion.

When we talk about Al Qaeda and Da’esh, there is often a lot of discussion about what the Qur’an says or does not say. And there is a lot of tweeting from this Surah or that one. But, of course, the Qur’an can say or not say just about anything these organizations want.

Do the Qur’an and the hadith warn against the worship of idols? Yes. So let’s destroy Nimrud and Hatra. But have those same lines been interpreted by scholars for many centuries to warn against the portrayal of the human form? Absolutely. You can see the result in mosques all over this city and the world. And earlier radical movements, like the Saudi Ikhwan, not only fought and died to keep television out of the kingdom in the 1960s for that reason, earlier on they smashed every mirror they could find in Hijaz. But Da’esh has no problem with the human form because it is so vital to its new media narrative—it won’t motivate many young men or women with calligraphy and arabesques—and Da’esh is a very practical organization.

So, here’s my question for you—and it is not a rhetorical one:

Is there a narrative that we liberal-thinkers can use to counter the TNT that Da’esh offers its recruits? Maybe that is not exactly our duty, but it is something we have to think about in the name of humanity and, yes, even in the name of journalism.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Escaping Plato's Cave while having lunch on a boat in the Seine ...

I had lunch with one of the great foreign correspondents of our generation, Mort Rosenblum, and the legendary CNN anchor Jim Clancy on Mort's boat in the Seine smack in the heart of Paris yesterday. We talked about old times and about Mort's 2007 book, Escaping Plato's Cave, which Jim had been reading. Which reminded me—back then in 2007 I made a little movie about Mort and the book and the boat with a camera I carried in the pocket of my jeans. It holds up rather well—as does Mort's boat, Mort's argument, and, yeah, Mort, too.

Monday, April 20, 2015

My Essay on Slavery and The Civil War

My essay "The Civil War's Dirty Secret: It Was Always About Slavery," ran on April 10, and has been stirring controversy ever since, with more than 100,000 readers and nearly 200 comments. One would not think its central thesis debatable, but apparently it still is.

Much of the research that went into the article was done for my book, due out in July, Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South. 

This photograph is of a slave known as Gordon who escaped from a Louisiana plantation in 1863, made it to the Union lines near Baton Rouge, and joined the Union Army. His story—with an engraving made from this photograph—was published in Harper's Weekly on July 4, 1863.

That Book on Islamophobia-phobia by the Late Editor of "Charlie Hebdo"

French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo's publisher, known only as Charb, clenches his fist as he presents to journalists, on September 19, 2012 in Paris, at the headquarters, the last issue which features on the front cover a satirical drawing titled "Intouchables 2". Inside pages contain several cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed. The magazine's decision to publish the cartoons came against a background of unrest across the Islamic world over a crude US-made film that mocks Mohammed and portrays Muslims as gratuitously violent. The title refers to "Intouchables", a 2012 French movie, the most seen French movie abroad, which is selected to represent France for the Oscars nominees, according to one of his directors, Eric Toledano. AFP PHOTO FRED DUFOUR        (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/GettyImages)

Death Couldn’t Stop Charlie Hebdo Editor

Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier blasts “Islamophobia” in a new book he was writing days before he was... MORE

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Gruesome Photo of the Christians Massacred by Al Shabab at Garissa, Kenya, That is Going Viral on WhatsApp

We do not know who took this. The Kenyan government reportedly is trying to suppress it. But it gives a better sense than anything else you will see of the horror inflicted by the murderers from Al Shabab.
For the article about the massacre by Margot Kiser for The Daily Beast, click here.