NARRATIVES: SHARING ON-THE-GROUND PERSPECTIVES ON TERRORISM AND EXTREMISM

November 16, 2015

 

I would like to thank Dr. Maan for the opportunity to participate in her Narrative Strategies blog, which is especially relevant in the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris last Friday. To get a deeper ‘dive’ or feel for unfolding events there, I opened Twitter’s ‘Periscope’ app on my iPhone, which allowed me to receive live streaming video from local iPhone ‘broadcasters,’ on-the-ground, in Paris. Local citizens gave live commentary while reading and responding to dozens of tweets flashing for 3-4 seconds, accompanied by alternately ‘bubbles’ or ‘hearts’ rising to the ‘surface’ - from me and other denizens around the world. Just when I thought I was beginning to understand the narrative process, it rotated one more revolution. At the same time, these events confirmed my long-held belief that the field(s) of narrative context, formation and delivery – particularly as they apply to this ‘latest wave of urban warfare’  - are not the sole realm of USG/HMG and a supporting cast of Strat Comm contracted ‘advisors’ (myself included), public diplomacy officials and civil affairs and military information support operators (MISOs).
                                                                                                                                   
This article reflects my perspective(s), gleaned from tours in hotspots around the world, from 2004-2012, for a variety of International Organization, NGO, UK and USG and commercial clients. Hopefully it will live up to my former mentor at RAND’s credo: ‘Analysis is meant to provoke.’ Relatedly, the very fact that the reader has chosen to become involved in the terrorism and extremism field(s) signifies that he/she’s analysis is no longer completely objective. (So much for RAND’s objective analysis credo.)
 
The events in Paris are sure to cause reassessments of strategies addressing terrorism and extremism in the U.S. and Europe, as well as how to deal with ISIS in the Middle East. This reassessment will have huge implications for those in the narrative formation, and application business. Even before these tragic events and regardless of varied outcome(s), the dynamics of consecutive Lebanese, Iranian and Arab Spring street protests and movements had already inalterably flipped the narrative and engagement equation or context.
 
My view of the narrative field - in the context of addressing terrorism and extremism - encompasses a very broad spectrum: from short tweets to tactical information campaigns to strategic/national/regional approaches and concepts. Within this context - given the massive flow of refugees through Turkey and Lebanon and then on to Europe – I believe that prevention narratives will increase in importance vis-à-vis disengagement narratives. Prevention narrative(s) must address the much broader scope of ‘extremism,’ which includes defectors, the disenchanted, an attendant league of face-to-face and online brokers and recruiters - and now refugees.[1]
 
I would like to offer the following observations/suggestions upfront, on the narrative process - from traditional (print/radio/TV) to ‘new media,’ which may have implications for ongoing, near-term and future efforts addressing extremism and terrorism:
 

  • Narratives should focus on bridging, binding, and bonding (3B’s) positive actors and groups first, and ‘undercutting obstructions’ second

  • Narratives should not only bring people like each other together but more importantly people unlike each other (bonding)

  • Narratives should focus less on people ‘believing in their government’ and more aboutbelieving in each other

  • Narratives should focus more on informing and less on influencing

  • Narratives must help connect segments of civil society that we have unintentionally silo’d in the development arena (NGOs and otherwise well-intentioned government agencies alike)

  • Narratives should focus on (positive) interconnectedness rather than ‘conflict’ themes

  • Narrative formation should draw from broader information environment presearch versus narrower social media research

  • Narratives should be wary of groupthink: we need to have a balanced, multidisciplinary approach derived from varied and even seemingly incompatible fields of inquiry

  • Narratives should increasingly support outreach and engagement - where the rubber meets the road - with reinforcing ‘buzz’ and ‘precision pulsing’

  • Narratives should leverage/build upon local concepts and traditions - like ashar in Afghanistan - that can be expanded, promoted and amplified in different ways[2]

  • Narratives should avoid (counter) tit-for-tat exchanges with potential adversaries as this can have second and third-order effects of adding to their mystique and allure, and hence their recruitment efforts[3]

  • Narratives should increasingly focus on prevention versus disengagement - as recent CVE summits, from Washington to London to Bahrain have only recently focused on

  • Narrative ‘outside (advisory) assistance’ should focus on making locals ‘better citizens’ versus focusing on religion, which is normally confined by Islamic extremists to key ‘gates:’ when they suck locals into the pipeline and just before they spit them out to destruction and death at the other end

  • Narrative presearchers can’t let talk of religious ‘doctrine' and ‘ideology’ distract them: for many extremists the attraction is deeply psychological

  • Narrative strategies must be sufficiently nuanced: for e.g. one strategy that holds traditional actors like elders and clerics accountable and emphasizes their transparency to locals, and a different one that connects civil society groups, et al

  • Narrative content and delivery should focus on re-directing youth to positive lifestyles, and enjoying life[4]

  • Narratives should not waste time trying to give locals a message when locals are already ‘on message;’ the advent of new delivery platforms like Periscope allow locals to exchange messages - laterally

  • Narrative delivery should umbrella the broadest banners possible to induce inspiration, energy and momentum:  “Somali women are on the move again today . . .” versus programming which attributes beneficence to and/or highlights Western agencies’ contribution to key programs or events

  • Narrative presearch should reflect regional, up-to-date dynamics and demographics:regardless of the outcome(s) we shouldn’t overlook the key propellants (civil society) behind Arab Spring’s ‘social expansion’ and similar but smaller ‘social bursts’  

  • Narrative presearchers and those involved in applying nuanced information campaigns should keep in mind that information consumption is functionally different than information exchange[5]

  • Narrative formation and application are no longer the sole realm of specialists/advisors,portals like Twitter’s Periscope decentralize and [thankfully] democratize the narrative process better than any state-run content and delivery platform could

  • Narrative presearch should not only focus on returnees - some of whom co-mingled with a flood of refugees to carry out the Paris attacks - but more importantly the stories of defectors, and the disenchanted

  • Narrative content should amplify the downsides of going on jihad against host or foreign populations; for example young recruits are rarely warned of the hardships of incarceration by an older generation of ‘facilitators’ who simply drum up bodies under the guise of Islam. “They never told me” narratives featuring associated pictures could prove particularly effective here.[6]

  • Narrative content should avoid Cold War triumphalism and self-centeredness: i.e. the President’s recent statements that ISIS was “al-Qaeda’s JV;” TV commentators “They hate us . . . because we love freedom” diatribe; and related absurd net assessments I saw by respected senior military strategists in Iraq i.e. “We are heroes / They are cowards.” We need to get over ourselves and realize that many locals in Europe and troubled spots around the world have been on the frontlines fighting extremism – in their own way - some for a very long time.

Regardless of ISIS-related groups active in Beirut and the downing of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai, a collective consensus and supra-narrative was building that our counter-terrorism efforts were gaining momentum: stemming from recent gains in Syria and Iraq. Hence, we were somewhat caught off-guard. Wanting to believe that the earlier Charlie Hebdo attacks were a stand-alone anomaly, we overlooked the fact that terrorist events in New York and Kenya taught us they sometimes return in different guise to ‘finish the job.’
 
In my view, ISIS is not an ‘ideology’ as some media CT commentators have posited, but a movementwhich has important implications for narrative context, i.e. it won’t be defeated by kinetic means alone, which implies that narrative formation and application will be hugely important in efforts moving forward after Paris.
 
My sense is that in the wake of recent events, hollow concepts borrowed from previous symmetric, traditional confrontations like the Cold War, and Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and will have deceasing resonance - for the West and the Middle East alike. Concepts like ‘clear, hold and build’ in OIF established an amorphous narrative context that was hard to work within, and only created cognitive dissonance among the Iraqi population.
 
Policy-making should make use of narrative support as early in the strategy process as possible; the two are clearly iterative. The recent recycling of strategic concepts like ‘decapitate’ or ‘contain’ [ISIS] amount to nothing less than intellectual laziness. Narrative formation and delivery will ultimately be expected to support efforts to address terrorism and extremism - right down at the grass roots or tactical level. Indeed, ISIS’s appeal is that it gives young people a sense of power and engagement and belonging that their states are completely incapable of providing. Hence, instead of the lead role in narrative formation over the last decade played by a league of anthropologists, and sociologists, psychologists will increasingly be called on in a narrative advisory capacity. 
 
Contrarily, in line with first principles laid out above, the photo below shows an Iraqi youth trapped in a ‘they never told me’ scenario.’ This is a time-lapse photo taken by an EOD Team robot in Iraq, just before the young man at the wheel was blown up via controlled detonation: when it was decided he couldn’t be extricated without the bomb under the hood going off. His right leg is caught under the steering wheel and front chassis and he is seen here pounding on the dashboard in frustration. One can easily imagine him questioning himself "I have failed . . . I'm going to die now  . . . with no glory like they told me . . . how did I let myself get into this mess?”

 

My hope is that if we let the events in Paris lead us back to combative counter/anti-ISIS narratives versus creating opportunities for European, Middle Eastern and North African women, youth, media producers, small business owners, and cultural artists - our natural allies - we will have failed. ISIS’s doctrine or ideology is for the most part deflective BS. Again, our narratives should focus on self-reliant initiatives that involve the introduction to, and development of, the human skills that are the platform on which these groups can build constructive, rather than destructive, responses to the conditions they encounter in their countries, where social contracts have broken down and left them desperate.[7]

 

 

[1]A New Information Operations Strategy: Prevention and Disengagement,’ Edward O’Connell and Cheryl Benard. Strategic Insights Journal, Volume 5, Issue 5 (2006), Center for Contemporary Conflict, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA http://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP1223.html Generational Differences in Waging Jihad: Minds Unalike, Sharon Curcio, RAND Consultant. Working paper (2005). As a soldier at GTMO, many young detainees from around the world she interacted with mentioned being recruited via the Hajj experience: a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, featuring religious activities that last a week. Hence, they were introduced to the idea of leaving for jihad in the context of ‘a pilgrimage.’ Curcio reports the Hajj was “used by more than one clever AQ recruiter to connect a young man to his ‘next’ pilgrimage - jihad.”

[2] Ashar, in the Afghan context, refers to sharing in collective, community projects or work.

[3] An Alternative to Former Secretary of State Clinton’s Proposed Use of Social Media to Counter Extremism. Ed O’Connell, March 31, 2013, blog.wesolve.com/blog/secstate_clinton_a/
In her January 2013 testimony regarding the Obama administration’s policy on the use of social media to counter radical extremism, then-US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated: “If they [al Qaeda] put up a video which talks about terrible Americans are, we put up a video which talks about, you know, how terrible they are.”

[4] A Future for the Young: Options for Helping Middle East Youth Escape the Trap of Radicalization, Cheryl Benard and Ed O’Connell moderators. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. This workshop, held in Washington, DC, from September 22-23, 2005 brought together leading European experts with backgrounds in addressing various permutations of extremism in Europe, to that date, along with a few RAND analysts studying this field, to discuss ‘positive options to deter youth radicalism.’  http://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR354.html

[5] My post-analysis posited the tipping point for the Arab Spring in Cairo was when the Mubarak regime shut down the Internet and began to more heavily censor radio and TV: this is when generally older information consumers linked up with generally younger information exchangers face-to-face, in the streets.

[6] After interviewing several male and female detainees in Iraq in 2007, I started to see that when I scratched the surface of what was supposed to be a prevailing ‘religious motivation’ what I saw was quite different – something more akin to criminal opportunism. Hence using select narratives from the Quran in an effort to ‘rehabilitate’ them was almost nonsensical. This pointed out the lesson that sometimes in the narrative and CVE field(s) we provide treatment before diagnosis. The Iraqi insurgent of 2007, is akin to the ISIS operative in Lebanon in 2015, who (outwardly) espouses tenets of sharia, with regard to drinking and smoking, in order to help drive customers to smuggling and off/black markets they control and profit from. Many Iraqi insurgents told each other in roil-up lines to “say you are al-Qaeda, you will have status and better treatment.” They were driven by opportunism, and material goods, as many of the soldiers intuited but some of the generals and newly-converted advisors failed to admit. [What’s the old adage? The newly converted are often the most zealous?] Instead they applied a Saudi and Chechen-style religious-based rehab programs to make their Iraq and other international jihadist charges ‘better’ Muslims. Western visitors to the program in Saudi Arabia were treated to storefront tours, lavish dinners and even given commemorative photo albums. Hence, key staff took their lead from some seniors and (wrongly) concluded the only people that could be effective in rehabilitating those detained in Iraq were those who were only slightly less radical than the detainees. Instead of demystifying al-Qaeda in their midst they empowered them - with special attention. Not to mention, they overlooked the fact that the Saudi rehab program was built to address criminality and other forms of extremism within the confines of Saudi Arabia, not its export abroad, which 9-11 tragically revealed.

[7] These ideas emanated from a Linkedin message chat I had with Paul Bell, Director, Albany Associates, July 31, 2015, via Linkedin.com, London – LA. Paul has served as an informal Strat Comms mentor to me over the last ten years, as my focus has primarily been on outreach and engagement. We have developed a running brainstorming dialog over Linkedin on the issues herein. Experts that we are, at the end of our Linkedin chat on September 26, 2015, we concluded what former UN Secretary General and Envoy Kofi Annan found out when he visited Syria in 2012: “Peace is hard shit [man].”

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