Countering the spread of ISIS’s narrative outside of Greater Syria and the Middle East should be focused on this juxtaposition of nationalism versus Islamism. Thus far, responding to the threat of ISIS in an Islamic context has challenged America’s sense of political correctness which so desperately seeks to avoid the perception of a religious war. Countering violent extremism through narratives emphasizing how ISIS is inconsistent with Quranic teachings has been ineffective and has alienated the Muslim community at home and abroad. Instead, counter-narratives should highlight that supporting ISIS is more likely to contribute to the establishment of a new Arab state in Syria rather than a Muslim caliphate, ideally creating skepticism amongst potential ISIS followers outside of the Middle East.Emphasis added.
Dr. Dan Byman recommends focusing on ISIS’s affiliates who have answered the call for global jihad and continually undermine regional security outside of the Middle East. Byman suggests weakening the affiliates “by portraying the core group as out of touch with local grievances.”[iv] One way to do so is to expose how ISIS spends its money. Although precise numbers are elusive, ISIS spends considerable amounts supporting the millions of people living within their territory.[v] Governing, no matter how brutally, is expensive. Contradictory to their global message, the majority of the money is staying in the Middle East. The money flowing to fledgling ISIS affiliates in Nigeria, Somalia, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere is only directly funding violence. The West ought to recognize and exploit that seam.
That said, characterizing ISIS as a nationalist movement does not make it any less dangerous.
So we're not getting anywhere by saying that ISIS is not Islamic. That is failing to persuade Muslims, and in fact saying it alienates Muslims from us (perhaps because it is usually alienating when someone tells obvious lies and then insists that you agree with them).
The alternative proposed is to divide and conquer: instead of saying that they are not Muslims, we should say that they are Arabs. We can presumably follow that line down: once they are disaggregated from Muslims elsewhere, we can say that the leaders are not Arabs, but members of some faction or tribe that will further divide their support.
It's a strategy that has worked in the past, but it is counterbalanced by another seam of great importance that is in play right now. They are not only Muslims, but specifically Sunni Muslims and not Shi'a Muslims. That provides a centripetal force to counterbalance the forces that can pull them apart. You have also to provide an answer to that problem: if ISIS is not to defend the Sunnis against oppression, whom should Sunnis trust instead? A plausible alternative must exist if disaggregation is to work most effectively.