'Psyops' operatives and former special forces personnel deployed to tell Muslims: don't join Isis

Sven Hughes has led a new advertising campaign aimed at stemming the flow of British recruits to Islamic State

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The Independent Online

Advertising is the new battleground for “psyops” operatives and former Special Forces personnel who are working on sensitive media campaigns, including one aimed at combating the “weaponised words” of terrorist propaganda.

Sven Hughes, who served as a reservist in Afghanistan with the British military’s 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group, has led a new advertising campaign aimed at stemming the flow of British recruits to Islamic State (Isis).

The YouTube-based #notanotherbrother campaign opens with a powerful film of a young British “foreign fighter” reading a letter from his elder brother, who apologises for unwittingly encouraging him to join the terror group. The film was commissioned by the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank that counters extremism, and was made by Verbalisation, an ad agency founded by Hughes.

“We have got some very nasty people doing some very effective messaging to very vulnerable communities and it’s about time some people stood up with the skills to counter-narrative them,” he said.

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The film was commissioned by the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank that counters extremism, and was made by Verbalisation, an ad agency founded by Hughes.

“It’s a little bit of a fight back in terms of more effective communications techniques to give the other side of the story, a responsible informed alternative narrative, which hopefully [prospective jihadists] will consider as they’re going through the consideration phase of recruitment.”

Verbalisation, which is based in Whitehall but not aligned with government, also recently worked on countering the propaganda of Nigeria-based terror group Boko Haram. It uses the expertise of psychological operations and military experts as well as marketers, linguists and anthropologists to take a science-based approach to advertising messages.

Several members of the company’s staff have served in theatres of war. Hughes, 41, also worked as a professional consultant in Kandahar, Afghanistan for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, helping to build positive relationships with Afghan communities and reduce levels of armed conflict.

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The #notanotherbrother film, which was made with a budget raised by crowd-funding, is the first in a series.

Verbalisation, whose other clients have included the European Parliament and the Financial Times, runs “The Centre for Applied Intelligence”, a think tank which has developed a programme called Rapid Audience Insight Diagnostic (RAID), which claims to “drive effective behaviour change through language”.

Hughes, who formerly worked as a senior marketer in Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP empire, describes the “weaponised words” of modern communications as ranging from relatively innocuous ads for soft drinks to targeted messaging in areas of conflict that can have critical consequences.

He denied that there was anything sinister in Verbalisation’s military connections. “It’s all too easy to paint us as some of shadowy organisation - we are not. We have a transparent website and our client list is open for everyone to see,” he said. “We are not about dark arts, what we do is provide narratives and counter narratives using the best available science and methodology to put our clients’ point of view across.”

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Haras Rafiq, the Quilliam Foundation’s managing director, said Verbalisation’s expertise dovetailed with his own organisation’s specialist knowledge in working with reformed extremists. He said the choice of wording in the #notanotherbrother script had been partly informed by former jihadis. He said the film was designed to show would-be fighters “what it’s really like” and counter the “grievance culture” perpetuated by ISIS.

Among the phrases seen as crucial to the impact of the ad’s script were “hero”, reflecting the aspirations of many jihadis, and “come back”, to emphasise the sense of loss of their families, Rafiq said. “Brother” or “bruv” were used to convey not just the fraternal relationship in the story but to achieve street slang credibility and mirror ISIS’s propaganda of being an alternative family. The film’s speaker also makes modern cultural references, such as to the restaurant chain Nando’s. The #notanotherbrother film, which was made with a budget raised by crowd-funding, is the first in a series.

15 (UK) Psychological Operations was set up by the British after the first Gulf War, inspired by the success of US psyops units. In Afghanistan its work has included establishing radio stations offering music and drama for the local population and schemes aimed at protecting children from spent ordnance. The unit has now been subsumed into the Army’s 77th Brigade.

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