26 October 2015

Defeating ISIL in the Information Environment

October 23, 2015 

Defeating ISIL in the Information Environment


After two years, the United States has little evidence that efforts to degrade and subsequently destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is working. Although the Iranian aided Iraqi Army liberated Tikrit, ISIL remains firmly entrenched in Mosul and the entire Iraqi Anbar Providence. ISIL continues to consolidate and further gains in Syria in the midst of a fragmented opposition. Most alarming, however, is ISIL’s demonstrated ability to recruit a seemingly endless flow of new membership and grow its power through federations with other terrorist groups like Boko Haram. The campaign against ISIL will certainly extend over many years; General Martin Dempsey contends that the effort against ISIL may last 10 – 15 more years (Mora, 2015). The process of coalition synchronization and resistance group training will not happen quickly. However, the aforementioned efforts are destined to fail if the United States does not effectively strike at ISIL’s true center of gravity: its ability to conduct sustained and successful operations in the information environment. Ultimately, well-trained resistance forces and international coalitions will win kinetic fights and achieve operations successes, but strategic success will only spawn from our ability to out maneuver ISIL in the information environment, disrupt their information operations, and conduct an effective offensive information campaign. By first providing a model of the information environment and then establishing two lines of effort, this paper will outline specific effects based policy recommendations, outline obstacles to recommendation achievement, and discuss the potential impact of recommendation failure.

The Information Environment

A necessary prerequisite to an information operations policy discussion is an understanding of information environment. The information environment consists of three domains: The Physical Domain, the Information Domain, and the Cognitive Domain (Romanych, 2005). The Physical Domain represents the physical infrastructure that data transmits from source to destination. Components of the Physical Domain include: routers, switches, cables, wireless spectrum, etc. The Information Domain represents a consolidated format of data into a digestible message for human beings. Components of the Information Domain include: Twitter feeds, newspaper articles, television shows, books, etc. The Information Domain is foundational. Although the Physical Domain transmits data, humans begin their decision making cycle in the Information Domain (Romanych, 2005). The Cognitive Domain represents human internalization. The Cognitive Domain is the apex of the information environment. In the Cognitive Domain, humans synthesize information messages and form opinions / beliefs. Components of the Cognitive Domain are opinions, beliefs, and value assessments. As we begin to examine specific policy positions to defeat ISIL in the information environment, we must remember that ISIL owns little of the Physical Domain. Their information campaign largely traverses commercially owned physical infrastructure. Efforts to kinetically destroy physical infrastructure will probably yield little value. As a result, U.S. effects based policy should not overly focus on destroying architecture but emphasize the message in the Information Domain and how the information is synthesized in the Cognitive information.

Line of Effort I: Discredit ISIL’s Message and Create Cognitive Dissonance

ISIL is remarkably adept in propagating a coherent message that attracts new members, focuses their current force, and shapes the cognitive domain in their favor. Unconstrained by the truth, ISIL has a freedom of maneuver in the information environment that the United States does not enjoy. Their ability to imaginatively manipulate print and social media provides them diverse and effective tools to conduct information operations. While unimaginable to many in the West, ISIL is considered a charitable and good will organization to many in the Islamic World. A successful information campaign has allowed them to more effectively shape the cognitive domain than the United States. In June 2014, ISIL began posting a series of videos on You Tube that highlight the organization as a charitable organization, providing care and assistance to the impoverish portions of the Islamic world. ISIS is adept at maintaining a sustained population of devoted twitter followers. In addition to the internet, ISIL uses print media like the Dabiq newspaper to reaches a vast population in Syria (Al Arabiya, 2014). Thus far, the United States has not been able to effectively counter ISIL’s ability to focus information and shape human cognitive beliefs.

The United States must more effectively impede ISIL’s ability to shape the cognitive domain by creating Cognitive Dissonance in the Islamic community. “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involvingconflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes or beliefs” (McLeod, 2014). By developing Cognitive Dissonance in the Islamic world, in reference to ISIL as a charity / good - will organization, the United States will ultimately achieve the desired effect of shaping the cognitive domain.

This effect will not be easy to achieve, however. ISIL’s message is well entrenched and the United States has little creditability within the targeted audience (TA). Additionally, the United States continues to wrestles with finding human information carriers to counter ISIL’s message. Nevertheless, a body of reporting that depicts ISIL’s true nature is emerging. A series of articles titled “Life in the Islamic State,” by Washington Post that was published in the Small Wars Journal, exposes the truth and paints a bleak picture of life under ISIL (SWJ, Oct 2015). The series highlights ISIL’s harsh rule over both Islamic and non-Islamic populations. This is the type of information that has not effectively permeated ISIL’s TA. Using proxy sources that are more credible in the Islamic World than the United States, we must saturate the Information Domain with this type of information and start to create Cognitive Dissonance. Budding new technology camps and an emerging digital communications hub with the UAE may further this process (Romm, 2015). Thus far, a significant portion of the Islamic world only receives ISIL generated information.

Line of Effort II: Information Disruption via Offensive Cyber Operations

A foundational problem in our attempt to conduct operations in the information environment is the difficulty getting approval for military offensive cyber effects. The United States’ offensive cyber approval process is too arduous and too time consuming; the target nomination and approval process has trouble keeping up with ISIL’s nimbleness in the information environment. In 2013, the Joint Staff was poised to approve a new set of cyber rules of engagement that provided for limited delegation of approval to COCOM commanders (Fryer – Biggs, 2013). ISIL is a nimble adversary in the information environment; the time from planning to execution when disrupting their information campaign must be short. As discussed previously, information feeds the cognitive domain. ISIL’s continued ability to use unfiltered and untruthful information has had a dramatic impact in the cognitive domain. By empowering U.S. forces to use offensive cyber effects, we can begin to disrupt ISIL’s information flow and break the chain to from information to beliefs. Opponents of this viewpoint will address the legal concerns of conducting offensive cyber operations and the potential impact of damage to noncombatant computer systems. This is a valid concern. However, through the establishment of strict rules of engagement, emphasis on intelligence based effects, and carefully selected offensive cyber capabilities we can largely mitigate these concerns.


A recognition that ISIL’s center of gravity is their ability to conduct effective operations in the information environment is essential. Although the United States is building a formidable coalition that includes Arab partners and training resistance forces, kinetic action will ultimately have little impact if the United States can’t thwart ISIL’s ability to shape the belief system in the Islamic community. Necessary to this efforts is our ability to both discredit and disrupt their information campaign. 

Reference List

Al Arabiya News. (July 10, 2014). ISIS Issues Print, Electronic Newspaper. Retrieved fromhttp://english.alarabiya.net/en/media/2014/07/10/ISIS-issues-print-electronic-newspaper-.html on 14 October 2015. 

Fryer – Biggs, Zachary. (May 27, 2013). JCS Ready to Approve Cyber Attack Rules for US Military. Defense News. Retrieved from http://www.matthewaid.com/post/51466931970/jcs-ready-to-approve-offensive-cyber-attack-rules on 18 October 2015.

McLeod, Samuel. (2014). Cognitive Dissonance. Simply Psychology. Retired fromhttp://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html on 21 October 2015.

Mora, Edwin (July 23, 2015). Gen. Dempsey, Afghan President Discuss 10-Year Counterterrorism Effort Against ISIS. Breitbart. Retrieved from http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2015/07/23/gen-dempsey-afghan-president-discuss-10-year-counterterrorism-effort-against-isis/ on 17 October 2015.

Romanych, Marc. (Spring 2005). A theory-based view of IO. IOSphere – Joint Information Operations Center. Retrieved fromhttps://ndu.blackboard.com/bbcswebdav/pid-768740-dt-content-rid-1660791_2/courses/IWS16-01/Romanych.%20%282005%29.%20A%20theory-based%20view%20of%20IO.pdf on 21 October 2015.

Romm, Tony. (Febuary, 2015). Messaging. Politico. Retrieved fromhttp://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/white-house-social-media-firms-al-qaeda-isil-115301 on Oct 22, 2015.

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