The Obama Administration has been devoting considerable resources in recent weeks to undermining a cutting edge facet of the Islamic State’s operations: the use of social media to spread its message and recruit fighters. At the end of February, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told Congress that U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) had been instructed to target the group’s online presence. The previous month, on a similar mission, the President’s top national security, law enforcement, and intelligence officials flew to California for an unprecedented meeting with Silicon Valley executives.
The fact that this meeting was indeed unprecedented signifies more than might be at first apparent, for it raises an obvious question: Why in January 2016, and not in January 2015 or June 2014? The fact is that, ever since just after 9/11, spanning both the Bush and Obama Administrations, agencies of the U.S. government have not been of a single mind regarding what to do about the burgeoning salafi presence online. To summarize the debate, some have wanted to take the sites down to stifle recruitment, while others have wanted to monitor the sites sub rosa to glean valuable intelligence. At least with regard to Islamic State sites, the Administration seems now, in the wake of the November attacks in Paris, to have settled the argument in favor of the former view.
That is all to the good, but it misses a major element of the problem. While social media draws a great deal of attention, another source of radicalization at least as important has barely figured in U.S. policy discussions: the proliferation of extremist satellite television channels, which spread violence-inducing ideas and propaganda across the Middle East and beyond.
Just ask friends of Tafsheen Malik, the 29-year-old San Bernardino killer. “‘We were like, ‘What happened to Malik?’” said a college classmate in Pakistan, according to the Washington Post. ”’She became so religious, so serious and so focused on Islamic teachings, and she lost her interest in her studies.” While other students were busy socializing, “Malik was watching 24-hour Islamic television channels.”
While some ISIS-inspired terrorists come from Pakistan, the group draws most of its recruits from Arab countries, where battle lines have been drawn along the Sunni-Shi‘a divide. In a region where a substantial portion of the population are illiterate and internet use lags behind much of the world, there are currently more than 120 free-to-air religion-focused channels in Arabic with a collective viewership in the tens of millions. That is a very significant audience in a region of about 350 million people. The spectrum ranges from channels that foster an atmosphere of intolerance and sectarianism to others that directly incite killing to escalate the region’s proxy wars, including in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
The channels’ influence is well understood in the Middle East. To quote Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, “[Extremists] spread their ideological message through a multitude of channels, old and new…. [S]atellite channels unseen by Western audiences and free of either its restrictions or regulation, broadcast, with far greater impact than the Internet, an almost continuous message of intolerance and venom to the ignorant and the susceptible.”
Witness Wesal TV, a 24-hour channel established in 2009 by salafi jihadists. In sermons, talk shows, and spiked Islamist poetry, a parade of clerics refer to Shi‘a Muslims as “devils,” celebrate their killing, and call on viewers to wage total war against them. In addition to being one of the major media drivers of attacks on Shi‘a in Bahrain, the Saudi government fingered Wesal as having incited a 2015 shooting of Shi‘a worshipers at an annual Ashura ceremony (10 Muharram) marking the death of Imam Hussein. The Saudi information ministry ordered Wesal’s Riyadh offices shut down—but within weeks it had relocated elsewhere. It continues broadcasting region-wide via multiple orbital satellites.
Wesal has many Shi‘a equivalents. One is Al-Ahd, now among the most popular broadcasts in Iraq. Its founder and featured preacher, Qais al-Khazali, heads Asa’ib al-Haq, an Iraqi Shi‘a militia backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qassem Soleimani. Asa’ib al-Haq is responsible for more than 6,000 attacks on American and coalition forces in Iraq. Fusing traditional Shi‘i invective against Sunni-revered caliphs with spiked reportage on current affairs, it tells its viewers that all Sunnis are collectively guilty for the martyrdom of Shi‘a patron saint Ali and his sons, Hasan and Hussein. It claims that all Sunnis today are ISIS sympathizers; and, for good measure, that all Western influence is repugnant and should be resisted violently.
These channels have a symbiotic relationship with social media. Their vitriol provides a critical source of social media content, as clips from the shows are ubiquitous on Twitter and Facebook. The television clerics, like celebrities anywhere, parlay their fame to build up a vast fan base online, and they sustain it over time, unlike web-only sensations, who come and go. In personalizing their relationship with followers, they create a conduit for recruitment.
A small number of moderate religious channels provide an alternative to the likes of Wesal and Al-Ahd. Through its Islamic Affairs Ministry, the Kingdom of Morocco has established a television and radio network with a large audience around the country. The content counters extremists’ vision of a transnational caliphate by emphasizing Morocco’s centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance rooted in the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence and Moroccan traditions of Sufism, the mystical strand of Islam. Drawing from an extensive network of moderate clerics trained and employed by Morocco’s reform-oriented Islamic Affairs ministry, the channel calls on viewers to take personal responsibility in the struggle against extremism. But the Moroccan example is all too rare.
Sectarian television constitutes a serious threat to global security. Options to address it include political pressure on countries that host the broadcasts, sanctions and legal action against satellite companies that carry them, and support for alternative programming that challenges purveyors of hate with a message of peace and coexistence. The U.S. government can begin by recognizing the channels’ significance; developing an in-depth understanding of their content, funding, and ownership; and mapping the flow of their ideas across the range of media platforms.
It should also consult closely with Arab allies and indigenous media companies to understand what measures are being taken and how to augment them. In tackling television’s role, the U.S. government can both undermine a key source of radicalization in its own right and dry the well of content that makes terrorists’ overtures on social media so compelling to begin with.