Small Wars Journal

Narrative: The Critical Component of Counter-Terrorism Strategy

Tue, 07/14/2015 - 3:16pm

Narrative: The Critical Component of Counter-Terrorism Strategy

Ajit Maan

The shock and awe campaign being waged by ISIS is one we did not predict when we orchestrated our own variety of shock and awe over Bagdad. And while debate about the effectiveness of airstrikes against ISIS continues, those of us focused on the narrative battle are pretty much in agreement about one thing: we are losing. We are losing badly.

President Obama’s recent remark, on June 8th, that we “do not have a complete strategy” to defeat ISIS, is an acknowledgment that military strikes and humanitarian aid are not enough to curtail ISIS’s momentum and its recruitment capabilities. What we are missing is an effective narrative strategy. And without a narrative strategy, a military victory will be short lived.

Strategic narrative is not some sort of pretty accessory to add on to a military campaign to soften the effect. It is a core component of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS. The ISIS narrative with the title “The Crusader/Zionist Alliance is Waging War Against Islam” is able to draw recruits from around the world faster than we are neutralizing key targets. And it will be our narrative strategy, or lack thereof, that will determine whether we win the war or just cut off a few snake heads.

ISIS has been winning the narrative battle because they put the narrative first and then design operations on the ground to deliver the message. That is an effective strategy. Meanwhile we have ineffectively been using communications after the fact to explain counter-ISIS coalition operations. We are all listening to their story. And the misguided among us are heeding the call to action.

The real power of narrative goes untapped if we think of narrative as mere messaging or communication. “Islam is under attack” is deceivingly simple. That’s because it is not their narrative. “Islam is under attack” is the title of their narrative. The narrative itself is comprised of the myriad of messages and activities that support the title. The narrative is complex and messy and full of contradictions and mis-steps and irony.

War remains a human endeavor despite advanced technologies like cyber capabilities, and narratives are the way people understand any endeavor. A well-crafted narrative strategy should have two components: 1) A Military and Development Narrative explains the necessity for military activities and development strategy for our domestic audience, although it will be heard world-wide. 2) A Counter-Terrorism Narrative provides a protective function against the story expressed by our adversary by complicating their narrative and discouraging the enemy’s potential recruits.

These two components must be interactive and mutually supportive to be effective. Additionally, they must support military and development efforts: analysis of the narrative landscape (of the stories being told on the ground) will be used as a predictive analysis tool that will support military and development activities. And the stories collected will add complexity to the conflict narrative and will foster the crafting of collaborative narratives with our allies and civilians on the ground.

Both types of strategic narratives should:

  1. Focus on the suffering of civilians caused by ISIS and extremist groups like it.
  2. Explicitly state that our military, development, and aid efforts will support civilians regardless of ethnicity or religious orientation.
  3. Emphasize the inter-national collaborative nature of our efforts.

Both types of strategic narratives should not:

  1. Bring our values (including democracy and human rights) to the

      areas in which we fight.

      2.  Contain any religious overtones.

      3.  Try to camouflage our own self-interests. Rather, our general strategy should be transparent.

Military and Development Narrative

     Our own narrative ought to describe what is happening, what we are trying to do, and justify our strategy with moral and emotional triggers. It should describe why the need for military intervention has arisen. For example:

The brutality of ISIS and their violence against civilians demonstrate the moral depravity of their leaders who recruit and exploit vulnerable people to use as pawns. We recognize that we played a part in Iraq that allowed ISIS to develop. It is therefor the moral responsibility of the United States and an international coalition to intervene and stop the spread of ISIS militarily and to offer humanitarian and development assistance to those effected. There is a better alternative to the miserable future ISIS envisions for the territories it seeks to dominate. The people of this region, regardless of religion or ethnicity, deserve stability and security.”             

The audience will pull together elements of a story they hear that are consistent with the story they are a part of – the parts that cohere with their experience. So the experience of suffering should be a part of our narrative, not our values, human suffering.

This military/development narrative strategy being proposed proceeds from an understanding of communications as multi-dimensional and global in scope. That means messages are not hermetically sealed and sent from messenger to receiver in-tact. Rather, narratives are strategically crafted for influence and sent through channels that will necessarily distort the message, changing the meaning as it goes. And that process doesn’t stop when the message reaches the intended audience. We cannot target a particular audience in the current communications environment. Our audience is our own domestic audience, coalition partners, those impacted on the ground including our own fighters, our adversaries, the potential recruits of our adversaries, as well as a world-wide viewing audience.

Counter-Terrorism Narrative

One of the reasons we have been ineffective in countering the ISIS narrative is because we are not the right messengers. Our counter-terrorism narrative strategy ought to proceed by identifying those stakeholders within the effected population who are hostile, or at least unsympathetic, to ISIS’s message and then amplify their voices. The resulting counter-narrative will not come from us, but from inside communities effected by violent extremists. We will simply encourage them to tell their stories and ensure that they are heard.


In terms of Information Operations, it is strategically imperative that we stop running around trying to plug the holes ISIS blows in our narrative, and get out in front of their messaging. We need to undermine the appeal of the ISIS narrative in order to stem the flow of recruits and thereby not only weaken their military capacity at present, but also, address the threat that will continue to creep back up if we don’t address it at a foundational level now. We can kill bad guys with drones but bad ideas don’t die that way. The narrative strategy proposed here will accomplish what drones cannot.

About the Author(s)

Ajit Maan, Ph.D., Vice-President for Research and Analysis, ENODO Global, is author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies.



Mon, 08/03/2015 - 10:13am

I completely agree with the article. I see an issue with the narritive statement standing alone. Although it contains all of the key principles, and would be ideal when delivered from the podium, it is too complex to gain and hold the attention of the average citizen.
When you state, that the ISIL narrative is “Islam is under attack”, demonstrates my point. It is clear, short and represents a call to action that can not easily be swept aside by the faithful.
The fundamental key principles, and their strategies to defend against the "Attack" are delivered when the individual opens a dialog with the entity presenting the narrative. The larger more detailed narritive as you suggest, is always there for consumption. Borrowing from the advertising business, a highly distilled narrative "Slogan", could additionally, be a key part of the narrative delivery in the fight against ISIL.

"Help Protect Humanity" perhaps...


Rather than a "narrative," per se, should we, instead, be focusing on a "cause;" one that we can use to inspire populations, throughout the world, to fight for?

In this regard, consider this from Bill M. a while back.

"You hit upon a point I have been harping on for years, which is one of the key reasons I think the CIA is largely incompetent in this regard. They're not savvy, instead they find a proxy and throw millions of dollars at him like they did with Karzai. The Soviets (the communists, not the current breed of Russian operators) were much better of subverting and giving people a cause they wanted to fight for. Communism was a lie, but nonetheless it was a secular religion that inspired people to fight corrupt governments. The new Russian approach is as amateur as ours, they focus on buying corrupt officials and leverage organized criminal organizations to pursue their ends. Our civil affairs, pysop, intelligence efforts to facilitate garnering support are very superficial when you take a hard look at them. We have a message, we have a system, and we have ideas that many people will fight for, but instead we fall back on trying to buy love instead of romancing. There is a big difference between a prostitute (proxy) and a lover (a real partner)."

Thus, and as per Bill M.'s logic above, to transition from:

a. Becoming expert at hiring prostitutes (using money, roads, bridges, etc., as a means to gain support) to:

b. Becoming expert at wooing lovers; this, by using -- as Bill M. suggests above -- the allure of our values, our way of life, our way of governance, etc., as the cause that others may be willing to fight for.

In this light, to suggest that the task for the narrative (romantic song/poem?) writers today -- who must be focused, like truly amorous fellows, on wooing and winning "lovers" -- is to make the allure, the appeal, of our values, our way of life, etc., "irresistible" to the various and sundry, shall we say "fair" (and not so fair) "foreign ladies" that we desire.

Given the number of native/foreign "conquests" that have, via this method, been made in the past, then should we say that this more-enthusiastic (rather than our current "lazy") approach should not be seen as being an impossible task?

To achieve success, however (and as in real wooing), to understand that this will require persistence, enthusiasm, adaptation and innovation -- and also very good "romantic" song/poem (narrative) writers -- guys and gals focused more on the "wooing" job at hand?

(Again, the inspiration for this line of thought comes from Bill M.'s ideas and opinion expressed above.)

Narrative and Counter-Narrative is a critical component of an overall strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State Terrorist Organization (ISTO), and also Al Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL) endorsed anti-American mass casualty terrorism. However, I would like to offer the following observations.
1. We are not losing badly. Al Qaeda's brand was so badly damaged that Bin Laden explicitly lamented the choice of names for his organization and considered name changes that more fully identified his Islamic and Umma-based credentials.
2. You are absolutely correct that "The Crusader/Zionist Alliance is Waging a War Against Islam" is the chief narrative, but this is AQSL's narrative, NOT the ISTO's. Bin Laden's decision to "attack the head of the snake" as part of a broadly anti-imperialist Azzamist vision of reclaiming Muslim lands in a 'defensive jihad' is NOT what the ISTO is saying. Their strategic propaganda is based on state-building and takfir of the 'Near Enemy' and involves the present focus on "remaining, and expanding". It is critical to understand that these are two distinct variants of 'global jihadist' organization.
3. I believe the distinction between Military/Development and Counter-Terrorist Narrative is somewhat if not wholly incoherent. I would advocate eliminating that dichotomy in favor of simply outlining a coherent counter-propaganda campaign focused on delegitimizing and undermining the propaganda/media warfare of each organization.
4. Your discussion of what strategic narratives should and should not do is problematic. If you are correct that combating AQSL requires defeating their allegation that their is a 'Crusader/Zionist War Against Islam' then the task is to do so. How? First, understand that if we are the alleged Crusader, then THEY allege they are the 'Defenders' of Islam/Umma. Instead of disproving the negative--proving we are not, what we are not, i.e. we are NOT crusaders--a very difficult task, focus on proving that AQSL is NOT a defender, as they profess. I have argued that evidence for this exists in jurisprudence (violation of existing laws on the military jihad, i.e. violation of the shari'a), prudence (undermining of Muslim interests), and ethics (the use of force, coercion, and fear to impose their will on all who disagree with their vision of how the Umma is to be organized). In other words, to defeat AQSL it is imperative to delegitimize them as an Islamic organization. However, your explicit advice is to avoid any religious discussion at all as if engaging the Sunni world in religious terms to delegitimize AQSL, let alone ISTO, is something that can be left out altogether.
4. It is not just "the messenger" but the message, messenger, media, and target audiences, that must be addressed. Your statement that the message consists in the following--suffering of civilians, we support civilians regardless of religion/ethnicity, are inter-national, we don't talk about human rights/democracy, we don't talk about Islam, and we talk openly about our self-interests--does NOT effectively address the mainstream Sunni Islamist revolutionary vision that promises all of these things once Western imperialism is removed from these lands. By the way, what are our "self interests"? These are usually described as "vital interests" and "core values"? How is it possible to not disguise these and at the same time we should not bring these into the areas in which we fight?
5. AQSL and ISTO did not fashion a military campaign around a media warfare strategy, they created an interdependent asymmetric warfare strategy that ensured that terrorist operations are systematically related to media warfare/information ops as terrorist ops always do. The minimal required for terrorist ops is dynamite and a camera rolling. It is in this way that terrorists have always created mountains of perceptive fear out of molehills of actual capacity.
6. A final word. A "dicey film". Diplomatic, Informational, Cyber, Financial, Intelligence, Legal, Military. Do not overrate the power of counter-narrative to defeat AQSL and ISTO. Yes, it is very important to undermine the will to fight--to attack the legitimacy and validity of the cause, and encourage behavioral disengagement from terrorist organizations and activities. But, many instruments of national power exist to degrade and ultimately defeat these insurgent terrorist armies/organizations. For example, national reconciliation in Iraq, one that fully enfranchises Sunnis, will go a long way to expunging the parasites that feed on this unhealthy host. This essential political truth of the Iraqi insurgency and chaos is something SECDEF Carter and JCS Dempsey both mentioned in their recent testimony to Congress. You have not addressed the political truth of insurgency, and counter-insurgency, as a key to permanent defeat of marginal terrorist organizations who parasitize chaos.