Is there any doubt that The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), is a rapidly spreading virus that is threatening the civilized world?

As Graeme Wood, writing in the current edition of The Atlantic, said so descriptively, “...ISIS is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

While the U.S. and governments from the Arab states, Europe and throughout the world grapple with what to do militarily, I believe an equally important challenge is countering the ISIS propaganda machine.

While Islamic State militants have seized control of a major swath of Iraq and Syria, political leaders here and globally are becoming increasingly alarmed at how attractive this brutal ideology has proven for young individuals in the Middle East and throughout the world.

ISIS aggression, which has led to horrendous acts of violence, must be halted before it is too late. In simple terms, it’s a military and communications battle for the hearts and minds of people who believe in individual human rights and retain a modicum of sanity. The alternative presented by ISIS, or groups connected with them, is grim for our world.

In previous generations, twisted groups like ISIS relied on relatively mundane (and now somewhat arcane) means of communications...meetings in villages, rallies, leaflets, newspapers, radio, television, etc. Today, the Internet has become an instantaneous global propaganda platform for ISIS to disseminate messages of hate and murder.

According to a recent report in The New York Times, ISIS and its supporters are producing about 90,000 tweets and other social media responses daily. Hardly a day goes by when ISIS is not the lead story on our evening news. Their message bombardment, which appears to be working, is shaping the perception that the Islamic State is far greater than reality. This is part of their communications strategy, to “internetwash” our brains to believe their propaganda.

America and the global community must adapt stronger anti-terrorism operations to counter this digital propaganda onslaught.

In two years, ISIS has established a caliphate, recruited tens of thousands of ideological/religious zealots, perpetrated unspeakable acts of murder, and created a mechanism to fund its actions. In response, the U.S. had been “vague at best” in terms of aggressively communicating our fundamental beliefs and freedoms.

However, there are signs of hope.

Three-Day Washington Summit

President Obama gets his share of criticism for not admitting that ISIS is the radical side of the Islamic religion, but he deserves praise for organizing a recent three-day summit in Washington. Obama, an orator at heart, called on 60 nations to join the fight against violent extremism, in particular sophisticated appeals to young people.

“We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace, tolerance and inclusion, and we especially need to do it online. We are not at war with Islam, but with people who have perverted Islam.”

Another response from Washington is the expansion of a small State Department agency, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Its mission is to harness our efforts at counterterrorism messaging by much larger federal departments such as the Pentagon, Homeland Security and various intelligence agencies.

News reports indicate the Center would also coordinate and strengthen similar messaging by foreign allies and non-governmental agencies, as well as by prominent Muslim academics, community leaders, and religious scholars who oppose ISIS.

The belief is these “thought leaders” have more credibility with the ISIS target audience of young men and women. However, I have concerns with this communications strategy. Young people that are being exposed to ISIS propaganda are vulnerable to messages from their peers, not elders. Therefore, a strategy that embraces both approaches must be utilized to the fullest.

In my view, the government is beginning to understand that the Islamic State is winning the propaganda war on sheer volume of Internet messaging.

Richard A. Stengel, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, recently told The New York Times the new campaign against ISIS “would carry out strategies now routinely employed by many businesses and individuals to elevate their digital footprints, including sharing news items or opinion articles on Twitter, forwarding hypertext links and other steps to optimize content online.”

This multi-faceted strategic communications effort should be fully funded and applauded by our political leaders and every American who values freedom. It must also be embraced by our allies.

The ISIS Message Must Be Challenged

Undoubtedly, the U.S. will need more advisers on the ground in Iraq and Syria to achieve some type of military victory. So far, the President has made clear that America will not put “boots on the ground” in the battle ahead. That means the fighting will have to be done by fighters from Jordan, Iraq, Syria and other Arab nations. One example is what happened in mid-February when Egypt launched aggressive airstrikes aimed at ISIS-affiliated jihadists in Libya who are believed to have beheaded more than 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians.

In the case of ISIS, however, it seems clear that strategic communications will play an increasingly important role. Unless civilized nations can muster a strong, cohesive and meaningful counterterrorism message offensive, ISIS will continue its successful and massive propaganda machine to recruit new members.

The fight against ISIS is a global wake-up call for generations. Already, people are talking about ISIS in the same breath as the Nazis and Hitler. While, at this point, murder and torture at the hands of ISIS remains pale compared to millions of people killed by Hitler, the Islamic State is gaining momentum on the ground and terrorizing people with their violence and propaganda.

Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress recently the intelligence community now estimates that 3,400 citizens from Western nations have traveled to Syria and Iraq. That's 700 more than November's estimate of 2,700.

The U.S. intelligence community has also upped its estimate of the number of foreign fighters from all over the world, not just the West. Clapper said that ISIS now has 20,000 foreign fighters (up from 16,000 last fall) out of a total fighting force of as many as 31,000.

In news closer to home, just recently two young men living in Brooklyn were arrested and charged with plotting to travel thousands of miles to fight under the banner of the Islamic State. A third Brooklyn man was charged with helping organize and fund their activities.

As The Atlantic magazine pointed out, centuries have passed since the Crusades ceased in Europe, and since then people stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane ideological/religious disputes.

Maybe this is why Westerners have greeted the vulgarity of ISIS with some sense of incredulity and even denial. Can ISIS really be this bad? Who would want to join a group that kills those who do not share its theological, ideological and apocalyptic view of the world? Can it get more powerful? Can it march to Rome? Can it really destroy the civilized world as we know it?

At all costs, we must prevent the ISIS cancer from spreading. For the sake of freedom and future generations, it must be eradicated. Building a U.S.-led propaganda machine against ISIS is but one piece in a complicated and complex response to this threat.

Let’s not forget that Hitler almost conquered the world with “the big lie.” As Americans, and all those who treasure personal freedom, we cannot allow this scourge on humanity to successfully tell their version of “the big lie.”

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Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.