A Fight for Narratives in the Battle Against Extremism
In a world where power is often interpreted as the ability to exert kinetic influence over one’s enemies, it is important not to ignore a very different sort of battle space: the fight over perceptions and the struggle to influence ideas. In this arena, narratives can be every bit as powerful as physical force, but where physical force is often a tangible battle for territorial dominance; narratives are an intangible battle for legitimacy.
When done effectively, narratives can award meaning to physical fights. When done poorly, they can eradicate even the hardest won territorial gains.
Effective narratives can be understood as having two crucial characteristics:
- They craft or support a believable story
- They couple this story with actionable plans for those who encounter it.
In the pages the follow, we will examine each of these categories in turn.
A Believable Story
Narratives are not a series of facts, but rather a story that explains how those facts came to be. Discussions about extremism often focus on certain consistent drivers– including socio economic deprivation, political grievance, cultural context, etc. These components, of course, are important on their own, but are much more so when they are explained in a narrative. It is not only that there is injustice, but the explanation as to why it is able to persist.
What we see when we apply this to messaging in violent extremism is the same approach. In fact, while this article will look at messaging specific to extremists in the greater horn of Africa, it is worth recognizing that virtually every extremist group in the world constructs narratives in this way.
Good narratives can explain a series of events and occurrences. They examine a political or social or economic, or cultural phenomenon- like inequality or injustice and then explain the root of that phenomenon according to their world view. In doing so, they create a story, and a cast of characters which fall on one side of the spectrum or the other. While many extremists cite relative deprivation or “unmet expectations” as their motivation, in reality it is not these elements alone that have influence. A good narrative explains why the expectations were not met. It assigns blame and identifies opportunities for resolution.
Al Qaeda and its various branches offer a clear example of this distinction. Al Qaeda formed in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
During that war, Bin Laden and other Muslim fighters – aided by other countries- had generated a significant influx of support from around the world by creating a narrative that explained the Soviet’s incursion as a war against Islam.
In this story, the good guys were trying to protect Islam and its values from a godless superpower who sought to destroy it. Using this narrative, they convinced some Muslims from around the world that to stand by and do nothing when the Soviets were threatening the proper world order, was akin to embracing the Soviets themselves. They told this story in mosques around the globe, but also to governments both near and far. The narrative gained traction among both state and non-state actors and the value of traveling to Afghanistan to fight for Islam was perpetuated.
When the Soviets withdrew, Bin Laden and several others were presented with an opportunity to think about how to leverage the forces they had amassed during the invasion to best continue their purpose. The narrative had to evolve to keep up with unfolding events.
In this case Bin Laden and the rest had to decide whether they wanted to advance their agenda by moving forward in Afghanistan, and then follow it with a series of other locally generated state take-overs, or whether they should instead take a more global approach by focusing on those Bin Laden referred to as “paper tigers” – the superpowers who allowed the unjust world order to exist.
There were many inside the group pressing to advance the story of the near enemy – in other words, to focus the narrative on the “good”” of establishing of an Islamic state in Afghanistan and then moving outward – regionally – from there. In this narrative, the bad guys were those governments that did not embrace Al Qaeda’s interpretation of Islamic law as the sole foundation for governance.
But there were others who advocated pushing a narrative that instead focused on the far enemy of the superpowers, in order to pursue change at a global level. In this case, the bad guys were those who not only actively prevented Islam’s spread at a state level, but who supported governments who engaged in decidedly unIslamic practices.
When we look at the impact of violent extremism in the greater horn of Africa, we see both of these narratives contending for messaging space. We can see this specifically unfold in the creation and evolution of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well.
AQAP began as two separate affiliates of al Qaeda, one situated primarily in Saudi Arabia, and the other in Yemen. The Saudi and Yemeni governments worked hard to curb the influence and behavior of these groups, but despite their efforts, the organizations successfully launched numerous attacks in the first years of the 21st century. The attacks during this time were largely directed toward Western targets within the Yemeni and Saudi states. There were the 2003 attacks on Western housing complexes in Ridyah, followed by other attacks in Yanbu, AlKohbar and Jeddah and against the USS Cole.
These organizations legitimized their behavior by explaining it in relation to Al Qaeda’s broader narrative about the global war between the faithful (as they defined them) and the infidel powers who persecuted them.
In early 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni organizations merged into what we now call AQAP. In renewed effort to destroy what the United States government identified as the most active (and deadly) branch of Al Qaeda, the United States stepped up its efforts to target specific leaders for drone killings. AQAP was quick and effective in wrapping these targeted killings into their narrative, releasing messages, offering interviews, and leveraging social media to situate their own behavior in this context. AQAP released a statement in which they very clearly laid out this narrative once more saying:
"We tell the American people that since you support the leaders who kill our women and children... we have come to slaughter you [and] will strike you with no previous [warning], our vengeance is near," the group said.
"We call on all Muslims... to throw out all unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula by killing crusaders who work in embassies or elsewhere... [in] a total war on all crusaders in the Peninsula of Muhammad."
A Plan for Action
But, however good a narrative is in identifying the cause of grievance, it is functionally useless if it does not offer its receivers an actionable plan to redress that grievance.
What this means in a practical sense is that no matter how good the story – it is useless as an extremist message if it does not explain very specifically how listeners can insert themselves into the struggle it presents.
For example, even in the early years of Al Qaeda, Bin Laden meticulously coupled his narrative of Islam under attack with a prescriptive call for faithful Muslims to act to stop it.
It is interesting to note that often the primary difference between those extremists who use force and those who do not is a narrative which paints violence not only right, given the context of the story, but an obligation. The Christian organization – the Army of God – famous for their use of violence to end abortion in the United States – distinguishes itself from the Christian Coalition – an organization with identical goals, but wildly different methods – precisely this way. The Army of God does not just exhort those who use violence as heroes, but actively condemns those who do not as apathetic cowards.
Experts on counter-insurgency often classify extremist actors in four categories of message receivers:
- Violent extremists
- Those opposed
- Those who are neutral
- Those who are yet undecided.
It is this reframing of violence from a right to a duty that has dangerous potential to increase the susceptibility of the latter two groups.
This distinction between right and obligation is present in the Islamic violent extremist narrative as well. Muhammed Faraj- an early member of the Egyptian group Al Jihad – famously articulated this distinction in his book called the Neglected Duty. Here Faraj builds on a pyramid of philosophers before him to argue that if in fact Islam is intended to be a comprehensive way of life, then the pursuit of this end using any means necessary is in fact, the obligation of every believer.
Bin Laden was certainly aware of Faraj’s work and the scholarship that inspired it, and we see echoes of this line of thinking in his own efforts to extend that duty to Muslims around the world – whether they were currently victims of unjust and non-Islamic regimes or not.
One way he did this was to emphasize his interpretation of the concept of Hijrah. Traditionally, Hijrah is recognized as Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina. It has come to represent more broadly the act of leaving one’s home where Islam cannot be practiced to a place where it can.
But Bin Laden took it further when he by arguing that “hijrah and jihad in the cause of Allah are mutually linked to each other for establishing the truth and eradicating falsehood.” By doing this, he was telling those who heard his message that a lack of physical proximity to a conflict was no excuse for failing to engage in a quest for its resolution. In fact, he was arguing that the act of travel itself carried moral value.
By doing this, he is laying the practical groundwork for the application of his narrative. He is telling his listeners that to believe his cause is to act for it, and if there is not a local opportunity, then they should avail themselves to a global one.
And this brings up an interesting point – during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, many states supported – and advocated – this idea of citizens leaving to participate in this conflict.
But more recently, many of those states have presented the opposite interpretation for conflicts in which Al Qaeda is deeply embroiled, and this presents a challenge for the legitimacy of the states’ own narrative.
AQAP, for example has effectively highlighted the contradiction between the two positions – arguing that one was evidence of a regime supporting the broader Islamic narrative and the other a regime that has left the right path to instead embrace a game of power politics with the enemy.
But returning to the idea of action embedded in the narrative –we have seen a gap between what the various branches of Al Qaeda see as the best way to practically apply their narrative. Some urge a “Think global, act local” sort of approach, where the plan of the narrative involves the individual engaging where he/she is in order to bring about positive change, while others emphasize more of a “think global, plan for travel” approach that results in influxes of fighters in arenas deemed as important to the global battle identified in this narrative. We saw evidence of this in Chechnya, Bosnia, and Iraq, among several other cases.
Creating an Alternate Narrative
If we accept that violent extremist messaging is effective when it presents a good story and when that story is coupled with a plan for action, it is only logical to conclude that our efforts to counter it must do the same. It is easy for governments to get caught up in the day to day of clear and present threats, so much so that they fail to articulate a narrative of their own.
There are two primary problems with this. The first problem is that without a narrative, states are often inclined to take an ad hoc approach to countering extremism. This is not to say that an operational and tactical plan is lacking, but it is to say that it is easy to forget where these plans ought to fit into a broader state purpose. When states focus exclusively on what they are fighting against, it is easier to justify actions that ultimately only feed into the extremist narrative. To provide an example – the use of drones for targeted killing is a very effective means of stopping individual terrorists, and occasionally of hampering the advance of terrorist organizations. However, as was mentioned earlier, it is also a very effective tool used by the extremist groups themselves to support the narrative that decries the moral depravity of their enemy.
But this can be applied in the reverse as well. When states are making great strides to empower their citizenry and enhance the conditions within their borders, it is crucial to include these actions within a narrative that highlights and explains them.
The second problem is that without a narrative it is hard to identify who the enemy actually is. All too often “good” is defined as who is in power, and “bad” is defined as those who contest it. In fact, a good state narrative will have little to do with who is in power at any given time, and much to do with what principles that state exists to uphold. Those principles can help maintain the boundaries around threats real and threats imagined. When a state sees a threat from anyone who questions its decisions, it will be hard to justify its narrative, much less inspire action on behalf of it.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a review of programs to counter Violent Extremism and the review demonstrated that solutions to violent extremist messaging cannot be the work of government alone, but must be a partnership between states, civil society, and the international community. It is only when state and non-state organizations to make a deliberate effort to explain their actions in light of a strategic narrative that they can make effective strides in countering extremist messaging. Doing anything else leaves a powerful stage open to actors who do not deserve the spotlight.
 Newton, Paula. 2010. “Purported Al Awlaki Message Calls for Jihad Against the US.” CNN (March 18) http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/03/17/al.awlaki.message/, Last Accessed June 4, 2014.
 See for example: Trinquier, Roger. 2006. Modern Warfare: A French View of Counter Insurgency. Praeger.; Galula, David. 2006. Counter Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Praeger.; Nagl, John and Peter Schoomaker. 2005. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counter Insurgency Lessons from Malaysia and Vietnam. University of Chicago Press.
 Jansen, J. J. G. (1986). The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East. New York, MacMillan Publishing Company.
2000, June 22 “Osama speaks on Hijrah and the Islamic State.” Al Jihad Newsletter: Supporters of Shariah, no. 4. Cited in Berner, Brad K. 2009. The World According to Al Qaeda.
 Briggs, Rachel and Sebastien Feve. 2013. “Review of Programs to Counter Narratives of Violent Extremism: What works and what are the implications for governments?” Institute for Strategic Dialogue. http://www.strategicdialogue.org/CounterNarrativesFN2011.pdf (Last accessed June 4, 2014)
About the Author(s)
1) Emotional narratives:
There is another component that should be considered: the "emotional narrative" that motivates those who are exposed to the general narrative. This is not touchy-feely stuff: emotions are what motivate actions, and emotions very often determine behavior.
An emotional narrative starts from a framework of a set of emotions one wishes to induce in the audience. An example for jihadi propaganda might be: "Oppression, Rage, Glory."
Next, those are expanded into a narrative line that is consistent with the general narrative: "First we were oppressed by the Westerners. Now we are enraged at them and we fight them. Next we will gain either the glory of victory or the glory of martyrdom." This line by itself is still a "scratchpad" or "rough draft."
Last, the emotional narrative line is incorporated into the general narrative, by using language that evokes the intended emotions. Examples of the faithful being subjected to shame at the hands of Westerners might evoke both the sense of oppression and the sense of rage. These might start with instances that primarily evoke the sense of oppression, and move to those that primarily evoke rage. Repetition of appropriate slogans can reinforce rage and determination. Finally, examples of successful terrorist acts in the past, interspersed with tributes to martyrs, and last of all, sweeping statements about honor preserved and enemies defeated, evoke the prospect of glory.
For this to work, requires intimate knowledge of the psychology of the target audience, something that indigenous actors have by way of upbringing, and external actors need to gain from in-depth study of the culture. As is done by the advertising industry (which makes extensive use of emotional narrative), the message needs to be tested with individuals who are part of the target audience, such as friendly individuals from the culture in question. "Charismatic" actors do all of this "naturally," but it can be taught, learned, and practiced successfully in a deliberate manner.
2) Legitimate goals:
The most basic goal is always the protection of Americans and allies from enemy attack. But a policy of deterrence through superior force does not work against an enemy that is "irrational," by which I mean "not death-averse," and "other-worldly rather than this-worldly." Deterrence worked against communist regimes, since their atheism made them death-averse and their goals were "this-worldly" in the sense of building their "workers' paradise" in the physical world. It does not work reliably against religious fanatics for whom death in the course of terrorist acts is glorious and leads to a highly desirable hereafter, and whose goals are "other-worldly" in the sense that their alignment with a deity or hereafter is more important than their physical world conditions.
If deterrence in "this world" is not reliably achievable, I would suggest that "deterrence in the next world" might be worth investigating. One example is the use of criminal prosecution of terrorists with the goal of seeking life sentences in prison. The life sentence denies the terrorist his access to paradise, and instead condemns him to an ignominious and impotent death of old age. Another example would be to impose conditions upon enemy actors that, according to their own beliefs, would condemn them to an unfavorable afterlife.
Any larger goal has to stand the test of moral consistency. Here I have to raise a point of criticism of the post by Bill C. dated 04 August. In essence that comment reduces to "the world cannot tolerate cultures whose people refuse to produce for, and consume the products of, the global economy." The problems with that should be obvious. First, no person is entitled to another person's labor against the will of the latter. That is slavery, one of the supreme evils. Second, no person is entitled to another person's spending, against the will of the latter. That is merely a slightly different form of tyranny. The principles of individual liberty, respect for free will, and voluntary contracts between consenting adults, are held across the modern political spectrum from conservative to liberal, libertarian to progressive. In a pragmatic sense, to assert that the world is entitled to the unwilling labor and unwilling consumer dollars of individuals, plays directly into the hands of our enemies. It writes their propaganda for them: all they need do is quote it.
However, Bill C. and I end up at a similar point with regard to the education of women, and the participation of women in the economy, to which we should also include, participation of women in all of the institutions of society including government and the military. The key to culture change, for defeating jihadist ideologies, is the blunt fact that women in these societies are treated essentially as slaves: first the property of their fathers, and then via arranged marriage, property of their husbands, subject to murder ("honor killing") should they dare to exercise free will.
The outrages perpetrated against women and children by ISIL were a key element in turning the world against ISIL and bringing together an otherwise improbable alliance of forces to defeat them. Human rights emergencies on that scale make a compelling case for direct engagement, and provide the basis for forward momentum (both indigenous and exogenous) toward culture change.
In that case the narrative can operate on the basis of inevitability: You already have modern-era weaponry and other technology and consumer goods. Since you have already chosen those things, what comes along with them are modern-era institutions: beginning with the equality of women, and ultimately including free enterprise and democracy. Promoting the assumption that these elements are inseparable, produces the result that one necessarily leads to the other. No society will choose to revert to a medieval level of existence when its people can be shown that they has already begun to choose otherwise.
And what, pray tell, is 'extremism' outside of a connotation of a particular subjectivistic narrative in and of itself? One should be careful not to take in, hook line and sinker, claims of 'extremism' simply because a state level actor propounds something as 'extreme' or based upon one's own biases of perception and sense making. The attempts at removing the religious basis of armed conflict or attempting to shoehorn religion into the gelded variant of Western Secularism, while amusing, produces an epic failure at the strategic level.
Dr. Jefferis' article is relevant, and applicable to our leadership's current doctrine. However, the use of the term "violent extremism" is routinely mis-applied to those groups waging Jihad against the Kuffar. It is used, though, because the current leadership has basically outlawed the more accurate description which I used above.
Up until about the mid-90s, military analysts accurately and correctly used the enemy's terminology to describe the enemy. For example, during WW2, analysts would read Mein Kampf to help understand Nazi Doctrine, and they were praised for doing so, instead of being accused of being Nazi sympathizers. During the Cold War, a Soviet Motorized Rifle Regiment was correctly identified as just that--we did not attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole by re-naming it a "mechanized infantry" unit, as we classified our own units. Today, Muslims waging Jihad against the Kuffar describe themselves as Jihadis, but our leaders forbid use of the "J" word in ANY context because of Political Correctness. PC is just a cover used to fail to address the real truth of things.
Very few if any analysts today have any real grasp of Jihadi doctrine or motivations because they have not studied the Koran or the Hadiths. And in many cases, analysts who quote them are marginalized or even ostracized in today's PC environment. Our leaders don't want to face, or even understand, the truth about the threat of Jihad.
As long as our leaders refuse to properly identify our enemies as such, then there can never be an applicable doctrine to defeat them. We all took oaths to "protect and defend the Constitution against all ENEMIES." In a time of war, the commander-in-chief is authorized, and indeed is required, to identify who the enemy is. This identification becomes the foundation for developing our doctrine to defeat said enemy. Refusing to properly and legally identify an entity as an "enemy" nullifies the Constitutional authority and responsibility to properly engage and defeat them as such. As long as our leaders continue to substitute words like "extremists", "militants", or any other word other than ENEMY, our forces are not Constitutionally authorized or protected to engage them.
So what should this new narrative be and how should it be implemented?
As I was reading your response, it sounded a lot like Fareed Zakaria's position, which proffers that global norms and global interconnectedness should trump national self interests (read Mr. Putin).
It's a great idea, but it also sounds a little pretentious to me. I'm always struck by the notion; what if these other countries don't want to be apart of the global norm or inter connectedness, if for no other reason than "just because?"
It's like that old adage, if they need an excuse, any one will do -- and it often does.
I follow your ideas, but I guess I am more cautious to the statement regarding modern states not long abiding in their denial to these resources or economies.
States and societies -- that do not adopt modern western ways -- these states and societies tend to stand in the way of global commercial activity. The importance of global commercial activity is that it appears to be the "glue," if you will, that holds our present international system together.
For example: States and societies that (1) do not allow their women-folk to become educated and (2) do not allow these women to engage freely in commercial, business and property enterprises; these such states and societies deny -- to the global economy -- as much as 50% of the human capital (buyers, sellers, producers, investors, etc.) available therein.
The denial -- to the global economy -- of up to 50% of the human resources and commercial potential of a country; this is not something that the more-modern states and societies (who are dependent upon the global economy for both their peacefulness and their prosperity) will long abide.
Thus, the need for a narrative that -- in one way or another -- provides that the cultural-difference situation I have outlined above (which is representative, I believe, of the overall problem with different values, attitudes, beliefs, ways of life, etc.) is overcome.
A "transformative" narrative might do this. But it, as we have so painfully learned, draws terrorists and insurgents in its wake. And, as I have discussed above, it "feeds" and gives credence and credibility to AQ et al's narratives.
A "self-determination" narrative has its own problems; much as we are witnessing with President Obama today. Herein, for our "self-determination" narrative to be believed, then we must not intervene.
Bill C. - you've obviously given this topic a lot of thought?
Why would we try to create a narrative that transforms these other countries (and I'm mainly pointing to the Middle Eastern countries)? If they want to live in a 12th Century Caliphate with all its associated backwardism, I say let them. Who are we to tell them how to live?
As long as they don't kill Americans, what do we care.
I think the US narrative should be, if you like what we're doing great. If you don't, no problem - just don't kill Americans if you don't like our new narrative.
I guess I don't understand the difference between today's narrative that falsely thinks it can transform these other nations (if this is the believable story today), and creating a new narrative that tries to do the same thing, but without suggesting this is still what we are determined to do?
Aren't both these approaches equally specious (whether overt or covert) if they're trying to get to the same point?
Again, I may be misinterpreting something from your statement. I realize it's difficult to relay one's position in a three to four paragraph offering, but I do enjoy the discussion.
I believe that we must focus on our own narrative -- and the dynamics of this narrative -- in order to understand and counter the enemy's narrative.
So let us look at the West's post-Cold War narrative and see how it played into the hands of the enemy:
First: The West's Believable Story:
Many/most of the world's current problems -- and many/most of the problems of the world which are now foreseen -- are believe to be related to and/or caused by states and societies that are not currently organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western political, economic and social lines.
What makes this story believable is that states and societies that ARE currently organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western political, economic and social lines do not have the problems of the non-western states and their societies (examples: poverty, disease, terrorism, insurgency, genocide, ethnic violence, inability to deal with natural disasters).
Next: The West's Plan of Action:
Thus, the plan of action for the West is to transform these outlying states and societies -- more along modern western political, economic and social lines -- sooner rather than later. And, in this manner, eliminate (or at least significantly reduce) the problems identified in the paragraph above. Why such action and urgency? Because, while the problems identified above do not emanate from the more-modern/more-western world, these problems do tend to dangerously and adversely effect this world.
Lastly: Creating an Alternative Western Narrative:
By simply pointing or referring to the West's well-known narrative (identified above) -- and its equally well-known plan-of-action -- the "bad guys" have no problem (a) proving their cause and case (to protect and preserve their very different way of life -- and the very different values, attitudes and beliefs upon which this very different way of life is based) and (b) validating their plan-of-action designed to achieve this objective. Thus, the new western narrative -- that is now so desperately needed and required -- must do two very difficult things. It must (1) credibly disown itself from our current narrative and plan of action and (2) credibly present a new narrative and plan; ones that:
a. While allowing us to get the required state and societal transformation jobs done.
b. Do not suggest (or reveal) that this (outlying state and societal transformation -- along modern western lines) is still what we are determined to do.
Thus in our new narrative (self-determination?), we cannot let the populations know that our objective (and our determination) -- to transform their states and societies more along modern western lines -- has not changed.
(Herein, I am reminded of Morganthau in his "To Intervene or Not to Intervene:" "This ambivalence of the weak nations imposes new techniques upon the intervening ones. Intervention must either be brutally direct in order to overcome resistance or it must be surreptitious in order to be acceptable, or the two extremes may be combined.")
Dr. Jefferis offers a very good essay on the narrative to fight extremism, the well spring which must arise from the "good" Muslim's who must define this alternative narrative.
The US is in a paradoxical position trying to influence this alternative narrative because it can't be seen as too obvious otherwise it just feeds into the extremist's narrative that the great Satan nation is trying to usurp their narrative; which is "our vision of Islam is good, everyone else is bad."
For the US, formulating a plan to assist these Arab nations is as fraught as the wife who finds herself at the mercy of an alcoholic and abusive husband. If she tries to appease her husband by conforming to his idea of good behavior, this will not stop the abuse since the husband controls what he deems as appropriate behavior. Likewise, al-Qaeda controls the narrative and can move the goal post of what it deems as acceptable. Bin Laden moved the goal post continuously, so as to be able to always cast the US as the evil Satan against Islam. That goal post will always be a moving target.
It is not an easy solution, but these nation's must counter this narrative less the US is continuously faced with how to deal with extremism it can neither defeat outright, nor allow to kill future Americans.