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Fighting ISIS Online: An Introduction to Breaking the ISIS Brand

ICSVE Panel Discussion featuring

Anne Speckhard, Director ICSVE

Zack Baddorf, ICSVE Director of Visual Media

Molly Ellenberg, ICSVE Research Fellow

ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project was started in 2015 with the idea of using former terrorists speaking about their negative experiences inside terrorist groups to be disseminated online to disrupt ISIS’s online and face-to-face recruitment. While no one expected at the time that it would be possible to get actual ISIS terrorists to agree to interviews, ICSVE’s Director Anne Speckhard has over the past five years managed to obtain 243 research interviews to date with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, many happy to denounce the group as unIslamic, corrupt, and overly brutal as well as advise others to steer clear of it. As a result, the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project was born.

To date, ICSVE has produced nearly 200 counter narrative videos created from the video recorded in-depth psychological interviews of 243 ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres, as well as 16 al Shabaab, which have been tested in face-to-face focus groups as well as in online campaigns. With the support of Facebook, ICSVE has run the counter narrative videos in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns all over the world, in numerous languages. While other counter narratives have fallen flat or been dismissed as government propaganda, ICSVE’s videos have gleaned millions of views and elicited strong emotional reactions from viewers. What makes these counter narratives successful, and how is such success defined? How can counter narratives be used by different entities to prevent and counter radicalization?

At ICSVE’s sixth Zoom panel, director Dr. Anne Speckhard was joined by video director Zack Baddorf and research fellow Molly Ellenberg to discuss the use of stories of individuals speaking in simple language about their attraction to a terrorist group and their experiences inside it, how the videos can be useful for prevention and intervention in future terrorist recruitment, how they may be useful to practitioners in terms of prevention and interventions and how success can be assessed for such projects as the ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand counter narrative videos. 

Dr. Anne Speckhard is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and has also taught the Psychology of Terrorism for the Security Studies Department in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University where she is also affiliated. Dr. Speckhard is the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism where she, among many other activities, directs the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counternarratives Project. Dr. Speckhard has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI.  She is a sought-after speaker, media expert and consultant on the subject of terrorism frequently appearing on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She frequently lectures on subjects related to her books and research studies.

Zack Baddorf is Director of Visual Media at ICSVE. He is a journalist and filmmaker with more than 15 years of experience producing award-winning stories in more than 30 countries, including Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West Bank, Kashmir, and Iraq, as well as rebel-held territory in Sri Lanka and Burma. His work has been published by the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, Reuters, AP, The Guardian, CBS, ABC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, VICE, RYOT, Al Jazeera English, and other publications in video, radio, photo, and print formats. His videos on social media alone have more than 30 million views. While based in the Central African Republic, Zack broke the news of the American military ending its mission against the Lord’s Resistance Army. His in-depth reporting on the Syrian town of Moadamiyah contributed to humanitarian access being granted to besieged people there. Weeks before Russian troops invaded Crimea, my reporting from the peninsula highlighted its political importance in the conflict. For a year in Afghanistan, Zack worked on rural, remote bases for the U.S. Special Operations Command as a civilian videographer, alongside Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Afghan security forces. Zack has also worked as an adjunct professor at New York University and New York Film Academy, teaching public relations and broadcast journalism. He holds a master of fine arts degree in documentary studies, a master of arts degree in international relations, another master’s in public relations and a bachelor’s in journalism.

Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at ICSVE.  Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook and Instagram campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. She is also studying responses to the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos on Twitter and YouTube. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, the Journal of Strategic Security, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

This is the sixth discussion in this series of panels discussing ISIS Foreign Fighters and terrorist rehabilitation. The first panel, “Issues of ISIS Prisoners & Repatriations in a Time of COVID,” can be reviewed here. The second panel, “Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?” featuring Redouan Safdi and Moussa Al-Hassan Diaw, can be reviewed here and the report that was inspired by this panel can be found here. The third panel, “Can We Repatriate the ISIS Children?” can be reviewed here and the report that was inspired by this panel can be found here. The fourth panel, “Terrorist Rehabilitation in the Dutch Prison System,” can be reviewed here. The fifth panel, “Into and Back Out of ISIS: An ISIS Defector Speaks Out,” can be reviewed here.

Chat Log:

10:59:21 From Mohammed Abbasi : Great to see everyone

11:00:55 From Thomas Beauchene : Cheers from England!

11:01:16 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is the link to the ICSVE events page, where you can view all of our previous events:

11:01:32 From harjit.sandhu : This is Harjit Sandhu. Greetings from Rome. Nice to you Anne, Molly and many known faces.

Anne Speckhard after the event: Greetings to all 175+ that registered and to those who watch afterwards on our website, we are always honored to have you involved in our zoom conferences.

11:05:10 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is the link to ICSVE’s YouTube channel:

11:05:17 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is the link to ICSVE’s website:

11:06:20 From Dr. V. Markovic : What languages are needed still?

Anne Speckhard after the event: 

These are the ones we still don’t have anyone for:







And we could use people as backups for:






















11:06:26 From Molly Ellenberg : Here are some of our recent reports on our Facebook campaigns:

ISIS and the Militant Jihad on Instagram:

Anti-ISIS and Anti-Western: An Examination of Comments on ISIS Counter Narrative Facebook Videos (fifth article):

Other articles are under review or in press and will be sent out upon publication!

Anne Speckhard after the event: For those of you asking for data on our campaigns these articles above as well as others give a good idea on views, retention, etc. and qualitative analysis of the comments.

11:06:54 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is our new report, “Spontaneous Radicalization and the Path to Repatriate Some ISIS Members”:

11:06:56 From Thomas Beauchene : Great report.

11:07:11 From Mohammed Abbasi : Brilliant

11:08:05 From Noor, Counter Terrorism Unit, Bangladesh Police : I went through the report. it was insightful.

Anne Speckhard after the event: Thank you all.  I think this one introduces a new concept, that ISIS and other terrorists are capable of spontaneously deradicalizing to an extent.

11:08:42 From Thomas Beauchene : Watched this amazing VOA documentary today – A new documentary from VOA News explores a town torn between victims of Islamic State and families of IS members, and coming to terms with the past –

Anne Speckhard after the event: As Iraq grapples with taking their 30-48,000 ISIS women and children home from al Hol this will become even more of a pressing issue.

11:09:25 From Besir Wrayet : Greetings Harjit. Anne. Molly and Everyone from Istanbul. It is such wonderful sessions thankful for the abundant learning. Very grateful for community rules.

11:09:44 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is the link to Dr. Speckhard’s report on the lethal cocktail of terrorism:

Anne Speckhard after the event: This is the article in which you will see 50 vulnerabilities and motivations listed.

11:20:06 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is our recent report on child repatriations:

11:20:24 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is our article on the first 220 interviews:

Here are a few shorter reports on the interviews:

How Assad’s Atrocities Became a Powerful Motivator for Terrorist Recruitment:

Is Internet Recruitment Enough to Seduce a Vulnerable Individual Into Terrorism?:

Anne Speckhard after the event: This one above amazingly shows that 20 percent roughly decided to travel to ISIS based on Internet exposure alone.

11:22:43 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is the article on confronting the ISIS emir:

11:24:05 From deborah : To what extent is counter-discourses created by organisations that are indirectly funded by the government effective?

Anne Speckhard after the event: That is a very important question and one of the reasons that we do not attribute any government funding on our videos.  Our view is that it likely decreases their effectiveness, although in truth so much is funded by governments that without highlighting it, it may not decrease effectiveness.

11:24:08 From Molly Ellenberg : The Real Jihad Website:

11:25:01 From Molly Ellenberg : Here is a link to the English language playlist on YouTube, but you can navigate from there to playlists of counter narrative videos subtitled in many other languages as well:

11:30:14 From Emmanuel DIDIER : I work with Yazidi survivors in Canada ( I would be grateful if you have any info from the ISIS participants concerning their treatment of Yazidis, FROM THEIR PERSPECTIVE. 

Anne Speckhard after the event: Some of the ISIS interviews did speak about Yazidis in detail.  The most heartbreaking and horrific story is contained in this video 

11:31:49 From Rob Gould : Very powerful!

11:32:57 From harjit.sandhu : Anne, thank you for showing this video. It has a very powerful message. keep up the good work. My best wishes are with you.

Anne Speckhard after the event: thank you!

11:34:02 From Thomas Beauchene : I was less than a block away during the al-Shabaab 2010 suicide attack in Kampala during the world cup. Scary times.

11:43:26 From ICSVE : glad you made it Thomas and weren’t harmed!

11:38:38 From Dr. Lisa McConnell : How do you effectively combat AS when they provide services the state fails to? 

11:42:36 From ICSVE : good question Lisa. While they may be providing services, if you can show how they harm people it can dissuade new joiners

11:42:48 From Thomas Beauchene : Let’s hope the African Union and other blocs – maybe ECOWAS, can come together and disrupt the group.

11:45:54 From Besir Wrayet : 3-4 weeks before the Nightclub attack in Istanbul the Pub I frequent came under surveillance by a suspicious type. Called the Police they came in had nothing on him. This was at a time when Turkey was conducting Aerial Bombings against ISIS. The guy was on student visa, can be easily self radicalized. Did mention to the Police officer if one person pops out there may be others. Come new year Terrorist Attack by Lone-Wolf.Future has a way of showing itself one just has to see it.

11:50:20 From Mohammed Abbasi : Looking forward to joining more ICSVE zoom meetings, very in depth. Thanks to Anne and her great team.

Anne Speckhard after the event:  Most welcome Mohammed!  Mohammed by the way took me on interviews in Birmingham a zillion years ago :)

11:50:21 From harjit.sandhu : ECOWAS was created to: “promote economic integration in all fields of economic activity, particularly industry, transport, telecommunications,  energy, agriculture, natural resources, commerce, monetary and financial  questions, social and cultural matters etc…”. I wonder if they are equipped to do anything to combat terrorism.

11:50:59 From Jocelyn Belanger : Is there data from ICSVE showing that these videos produce the intended psychological effect? 

Our recent research on counter-narratives against ISIS shows that this strategy actually backfires – It makes people even more supportive of ISIS.  Open access here:

Anne Speckhard after the event: Thank you Jocelyn, we have consistently been able to collect evidence in face to face focus groups and in online work that we can reach our target audience, they believe the speakers for the most part, they watch and emotionally engage with the content.  There is one study showing online behavioral change that is still undergoing permissions for publication.  So we are confident that insider stories that have strong emotional valence do not fail. Here is one of our articles on a focus group with Somali Americans. We have another one in press.

11:51:20 From Emmanuel DIDIER : Read “The management of Savagery”, by Abu Bakr Naji, a strategist for al Qaeda

11:51:59 From ICSVE : yes Jocelyn Molly will address that, we do show positive results

11:52:22 From ICSVE : you can’t lump all counter narratives together, as some reach their audience and others don’t

11:52:26 From Besir Wrayet : Great point Harjit. What if we ask the question in Reverse amd what if they did from 10-20 years ago?

11:54:40 From Jean Pierre Chabot : Is there data on views: A) total views per video, B) where (i.e. countries) people are viewing from, C) how long they view particular videos for and when they stop viewing if they do not view the entire video. Is such data available on the back end of your platform and is it now producing any insights?

Anne Speckhard after the event:  Yes please see our very detailed articles here and here. We also have more in press that will be sent out when they are published.

11:55:42 From harjit.sandhu : Very well done, Zack. Impressive presentation.

11:56:32 From ICSVE : Zack is the bomb!

11:56:37 From alina.neitzert : How do you establish a connection with the interviewees in the interview situation? Do you work with translators?

11:57:33 From alina.neitzert : I mean interpreters in the interview situation?

11:58:04 From ICSVE : Alina thanks for your question, I’m pretty good at getting rapport.  They are usually amazed that I’ve talked to so many other ISIS cadres, and that I’m interested in them as a person versus in their crimes.

11:58:18 From Paul Sutliff : Indeed the videos are well done and tasteful in that they do avoid the violence. 

11:59:04 From ICSVE : Given ISIS is a UN of sorts of course we need translators, there is an art working with translators as they have to have the same heart I do, and I have to take care that they don’t get traumatized with the content. I work hard to take care of my translators psychologically and make sure they see the ISIS guys humanity so they are not angry or tough with them in translations.

12:00:41 From Jocelyn Belanger : There is the possibility of doing random assignment to different videos and then measure attitudes. Without attitude measurement, hard to tell if the videos are working :S

12:00:53 From Emmanuel DIDIER : About translators and interpreters: see my PowerPoint conference

Management of interpreters for professionals / Gestion de l’interprète par le professionnel – 201401, on

12:02:23 From ICSVE : Jocelyn I looked briefly at your article, sounds like it was nonemotional statements, versus highly emotional video content which is a huge difference. We do A/B testing but we don’t collect attitudes online, we do questionnaires in focus groups.  These studies are linked above.

12:03:24 From ICSVE : Remember attitudes don’t always predict behaviors :)

12:03:41 From ICSVE : We have seen a change in online behavior in one test but it’s not published yet.

12:04:30 From Jocelyn Belanger : true, our counternarratives were not as emotional as yours. But the attitude-behavior correlation is .69 according to meta-analysis ;)

12:04:57 From ICSVE : how do you measure behaviors that support radicalization, will people admit to it?

12:04:59 From harjit.sandhu : Using translators/interpreters in terrorism and war crime interviews requires a bit of training and a lot of experience and understanding. In the Tribunals I worked with, we organised an extensive training for our investigators on the use of interpreters. Many times interpreters either get too emotional or start relying on their own prejudices and change the tone of questioning. We have to have a very good rapport with the interpreter before we start using one.

12:06:02 From Jocelyn Belanger : with an anonymous survey, people are likely to do so (not so much on facebook)

12:06:18 From ICSVE : thank you Harjit, I agree totally on translators, we had one translator we still all refer to as the bad translator :)

12:06:24 From Noor, Counter Terrorism Unit, Bangladesh Police : Also the attitude of those who are already radicalised or in the path of radicalization towards these videos should be considered. I guess different result will be found than that from the general audience. I will try that with the arrests we make and can give you feedback. 

Anne Speckhard after the event: Absolutely, in fact general audience wants our videos to be tamer.  ISIS guys relate to the pictures and footage.  The ISIS emir and another FSA leader both pointed to the pictures and said I know this guy, or that place multiple times. 

12:16:22 From Jocelyn Belanger : thank you, that’d be great – looking forward to it

12:17:18 From Molly Ellenberg : I’m happy to send out our more comprehensive data!

12:17:48 From Nikita Kohli : Completely agree with you Anne. It’s about the messenger as much as the message. Having conversed with some people who have left/ distantly associated with terrorist organizations, it is about emotional attachment to someone who has gone through something similar.

Anne Speckhard after the event: Thank you Nikita, yes I cannot emphasize enough that the rapport starts between the would be ISIS joiner and the former with discussing the grievances they both share and their search for an answer to those grievances.

12:18:17 From deborah : Amazing work, I am just wondering, (excuse me if I missed the info) Do you have communication professionals, advertisers etc working with you on the creation of the campaign?

12:18:42 From Molly Ellenberg : Yes, we work with a marketing professional contracted by Facebook

12:20:10 From deborah : I see, thank you

Anne Speckhard after the event: Although we’d love to have more marketing and advertising expertise onboard!

12:21:55 From Saad Shaheed : Thank you Zack & Molly! Your work (along with the whole ICSVE team) on the videos is cool, but really stressful as well for the video making process.

Does it also get monotonous for you? Can you also just answer once again, on how you personally cope with stress caused by working on such violent material?

I would also like to get an answer on this from Dr Speckhard.

Sorry, i missed the part because of internet disruption at my end, when Zack was talking about this.

Anne Speckhard after the event: Zack has the toughest job dealing with the ISIS video material and I only see some of the violence.  It always freaks me out to see beheadings…  I don’t have trouble with the interviews as I am so used to their stories now and they don’t scare me when incarcerated for the most part.  I always feel pity for them, that they sacrificed their whole lives for this false ISIS dream.  And some disgust for the crimes they committed.  The kids get to me the most.

12:22:11 From Paul Sutliff : TY for this opportunity to join and listen. I sadly have another pressing appt. and must go. Until next time.

Anne Speckhard after the event: Glad you could join Paul.

12:23:03 From Adlyss Adnan : Thank you, Anne, Zack and Molly for your presentations. We met a few years ago, Anne, in Malaysia, and ICSVE’s work was a source of inspiration for the interviews that we (Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism) carried out with current and ex-detainees, who had been convicted of terrorism-related activities. 

Anne Speckhard after the event: That’s so cool.  Glad to hear that!

One of the challenges that we ran into, particularly, with the male detainees, were that most were not forthcoming with their opinions, ideological beliefs, which I assumed, was due to their fears of self-incrimination. Do you have any advice on how we could mitigate this issue? Not only that, we also had the issue of detainees unwilling to speak to us (being a government agency) for fear of being shunned by the other fellow detainees. Is there anything that you found throughout your interviews that could act as an incentive for detainees to speak out?

Anne Speckhard after the event: We learned in Bucca and in al Hol that you will do best by separating them from those who will punish them later for having spoken out.  Many also fear for when they are released, particularly I would imagine if they are cooperating with government.  One of our treasured sheiks who worked with us in Camp Bucca was later assassinated by al Qaeda in Iraq for working with us.  Security concerns are real and should be respected.  They may not be able to speak out safely.

12:23:21 From Adlyss Adnan : Also, what are your thoughts on alternative narratives, as opposed to counter-narratives? One of the things that we are discussing now is whether to move away from countering terrorist narratives into more positive messaging, i.e. providing alternative pathways/focusing on education/etc. 

Anne Speckhard after the event: If the alternative messaging and positive messaging is received well by the target audience by all means use it, but if it falls flat and false it won’t work.

12:27:57 From Thomas Beauchene : They throw rocks at everyone – aid workers, etc.

12:31:49 From Adlyss Adnan : Thank you so much for your feedback, Anne. Hope to see the ICSVE team in Malaysia, hopefully, once/if Covid-19 is under control. 

Anne Speckhard after the event: I love Malaysia!  Will come back in a heartbeat!

12:31:49 From Jocelyn Belanger : Thank you Anne, Zack, Molly

12:31:50 From Raghavendran Radhakrishnan (Raghav) : Thank you Zack, Anne and Molly. 

12:31:52 From harjit.sandhu : Thanks a lot to Anne, Zack and Molly for organising it.

Anne Speckhard after the event: Thanks to Zack for his amazing skill in making most of our videos and Sheik Ali for his sensitive touch in making the others and Molly for coding all our interviews and her amazing data analysis skills on all our FB and Instagram campaigns.  I wish they had been able to speak longer but our papers and videos are out there for you to view more.  Thanks for attending and let us know if we can be of assistance to you in fighting terrorism!

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