Small Wars Journal

Countering the Narrative: Understanding Terrorist’s Influence and Tactics, Analyzing Opportunities for Intervention, and Delegitimizing the Attraction to Extremism

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 4:52pm

Countering the Narrative: Understanding Terrorist’s Influence and Tactics, Analyzing Opportunities for Intervention, and Delegitimizing the Attraction to Extremism

Jordan Isham and Lorand Bodo


It is now widely recognized that violent extremists have made effective use of the Internet and social media, in particular, to advance their aims through engagement, radicalization, recruitment or propaganda. Violent extremists are also transitioning from their websites and forums towards social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, live streaming on YouTube, and live chats on Telegram, to reach a much wider audience. In consequence, governments are interested in understanding what can be done to counter this content. So far, much of the counter efforts have been placed on restrictive measures, such as takedowns of websites and filtering. More recently, there has been growing interest in alternative solutions to the problem, namely providing counter-narratives.  As government and private sector entities attempt to counter the powerful propaganda of terrorist organizations such as ISIS, both time and resources are often spent with little to no return on investment. In order to efficiently and effectively expend resources on CVE campaigns, there is a need for a strategic process of analyzing the appeal to propaganda, tailoring a counter narrative to a regional target audience, and assessing the effectiveness of the counter narrative. To achieve this goal, research is needed to first understand the success of violent radical propaganda and second, to develop appealing counter-narratives. Lastly, it is important to utilize appropriate tools to monitor and evaluate those implemented counter-narratives. When one says the word, “ISIS”, your immediate reaction is the result of your perception of the organization, which is largely founded on the influence of their propaganda. The goal of a counter narrative is to delegitimize their portrayals, and ultimately, to discredit the false perception in which their messages create for vulnerable individuals. If you are interested in creating or consulting a counter narrative program here are some things to consider. 20 things to be exact.

Research First

In order to develop effective counter-narratives, it is first necessary to conduct proper research that will lay the groundwork for any counter-narrative campaign. A recently published study in 2016 by the Quilliam Foundation suggests that counter-extremism approaches have predominantly focused negatively on extremists or positively on those vulnerable to radicalization. However, very little was focused on the different aspects of the radicalization process itself, whether that is the narrative, the grievances or the identity crisis it exploits, or the ideology that underpins it. In other words, counter-narratives have to exploit the vulnerabilities of “fence sitters” by providing credible alternatives. Condemning ISIS or emphasizing liberal values is not effective in terms of countering ISIS’s propaganda. What is more effective is to draw upon “fence sitters’” vulnerabilities by offering them an alternative to ISIS. Heed the warning; you will waste a substantial amount of time and resources if you don’t first conduct proper research. Questions you must ask yourself include, what vulnerabilities are terrorist organizations trying to exploit? Who is the target group and what platform is used to deliver the message? What are the vulnerabilities that the citizens of my country are suffering from? How can I exploit these vulnerabilities and channel it into something positive? What alternative could we offer to those interested in ISIS propaganda?

A Worthwhile Target Audience

The characteristics of those who yield to radicalization are extremely complex. Loneliness. Adventure. Revenge. Depression. Excitement. Purpose. These are all reasons why one sits on the symbolic fence of radicalization. Fence sitters represent a group of individuals who are not enticed by public service announcements, but are looking for the means to ask questions that address their personal needs. Vulnerable individuals require a vehicle to both access information and to suppress their grievances and curiosities, in which they didn’t feel judged, but welcomed. This burning desire, by this unreached target audience, is where CVE efforts must focus.

Vulnerabilities and Narratives

In developing an effective counter narrative, it is first necessary to understand the vulnerabilities of the individuals in your target region and then the narrative that ISIS is sending that region. Let’s say that an individual vulnerability is like a ‘lock’ and the narrative is like a ‘key’ to open that lock. You must analyze which “key” will fit into the target audience “lock”, in order to cause or prevent the transition from potential extremism to realized extremism. The government of the UK describes 22 possible vulnerabilities (locks) ranging from a family member involved in violent extremism to the lack of a father figure. Meanwhile, the 2016 Quilliam Report describes six messages (keys) that ISIS disseminates to unlock those 22 different vulnerability locks, including appeal to utopia, brutality, or brotherhood. You must ask yourself, has ISIS effectively designed a ‘key’ to open the vulnerable ‘locks’ with your target audience? After this question is answered, assess how you can capitalize on those same individual vulnerabilities to create an equally appealing counter narrative, one that provides an alternative to radicalization.

Developing a Tailored Counter-Narrative

Individuals in Germany who become radicalized are perhaps more likely to be enticed by the lure of ‘excitement’ or ‘purpose’, whereas individuals in Syria are perhaps more likely to be attracted to the lure of ‘revenge on the West’. Furthermore, extremists from the West may often experience the absence of a father figure, thus creating a vulnerability for radicalization. Meanwhile, extremists from the Middle East may often experience unhealthy interpretations of Jihad, thus creating an equally destructive vulnerability for radicalization. Point being, you must tailor your counter narrative to the region, the age group, the religious sect, and most importantly, the vulnerability. There isn’t a “one counter narrative fits all” solution, and this is where research comes in. Beyond the type of message, it is also important to consider the form in which the message takes. Is it a video, a picture, a flag, a mockery, a conversation, or a role model? Or all of the above? Understand the grievances of your desired target region and respond accordingly.

Don’t Get Too Wrapped Up in Facts

You won’t convince a fence sitter that “ISIS is bad” by trying to use logic to explain the facts. Its science. When we, as humans, receive information that is contradictory to our belief system, ‘fight or flight’ kicks in. Our blood flows from the neocortex (the part of the brain known for critical thinking) to the limbic system (the part of our brain known for emotion). ISIS’s beheading videos are weirdly fascinating. They stir up anger, excitement, brotherhood, pride, utopia, justice, etc. ISIS even uses high quality production equipment to create Hollywood-like teasers. Point being, don’t try to change a fence sitter’s mind by using facts. The goal of your counter narrative should be to stir up as much emotion as possible. How can you do this? See point 3. Understand vulnerabilities.

Inbound vs Outbound Marketing

Okay, time to talk tactics. Marketing is an important part of any counter narrative because it allows for targeted reach of your intended audience. There’s so many ways to market a product, and specifically, there are two general strategies that a counter narrative program may utilize. Outbound marketing is a tactic in which most of us are familiar, which entails throwing your product out there for everybody to see; a T.V advertisement, a newspaper publication, or a public service announcement.  Outbound marketing attempts to convince consumers that the product should indeed be consumed. Instead of disseminating a product for others to see, inbound marketing attracts an audience who already has an interest in the product, and thus creates clear channels for them to find the product or message. For example, if you’re a potential fence sitter curious about the operations of ISIS, are you going to go to or are you going to go to I would suspect your answer is the latter. Thus, inbound marketing is a more deceptive tactic to attract fence sitters, one that requires the use of search engine optimization, etc. However, once fence sitters have reached your content, then they may be surprised to find an unexpected counter narrative. With that being said, outbound marketing also has a role in counter narratives, but is embedded within a different strategy than inbound marketing.

Dissemination Vehicle for Legitimacy

So you’ve done your research, identified your target audience and their vulnerabilities, created an emotional-based counter narrative, and started to put a product out there for others to see. Right? Wrong. You must also consider who will be the voice of your counter-narrative. The government is usually not a good choice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be the government using a third party for dissemination of your message. In consideration of your target audience, the best voice is usually the one that is most trusted. Ideally, community level actors are most likely to effectively counter extremists’ narrative, but that is not always possible. Another option is to facilitate the platform for a [Muslim] community to engage in organic discussion, where the voice of the counter narrative comes from ordinary citizens. The private sector and/or civil society is another good option, requiring collaboration with nongovernmental organizations. Either way, the question must be asked, if I am trying to best influence my target audience with my counter narrative, which vehicle will be the most credible for dissemination?

Targeting and Timing to Maximize Message

Targeting and timing are incredibly important. For example, the holy month of Ramadan may be a good time to advertise a counter narrative for a Muslim audience. The day of the week and time of day also matter. The holidays occurring in your target region will matter. Recent events matter. On Facebook you can create advertisements that target certain countries, interest groups, or hobbies, and you can choose the time of day in which you exhibit your message. With just $200 on Facebook, it is very easy to reach over 900,000 from regions and audiences of your choosing (I speak from experience). As you develop and implement your counter narrative, be sure to strategically time and target accordingly.

Personalized Engagement for Personal Grievances

As previously discussed, individuals who are prone to radicalization have a wide array of vulnerabilities, curiosities, grievances, and capabilities. In order to identify these personal needs, any counter narrative effort needs to allow room for personalized engagements in the form of conversations. Whether these conversations result from anonymous hotlines, social media groups, chatrooms, or even a ‘comments’ section after a video; the hard truth is that in order to best identify personal grievances, there needs to be people talking to people. Another option is to work with former radicals in your counter narrative dissemination so that when reactions do arise, relatable individuals will be able to engage with the user as a credible voice.

Don’t Pretend, Use Expert Mentorship

Depending on your target audience, you may be unable to act as their religious, political, or cultural advisor. And if that’s the case you also need language experts. Ultimately, in interacting with your target audience, ensure subject matter experts (on Islam, Terrorism, Regional Disputes, etc.) are engaging with your intended target audience.

Fight their Fight, It Works

ISIS propaganda is effective because firstly, their tactics work and secondly, because they fill the online content vacuum with just that, content. ISIS uses hashtags to weave their way into conversations, they trend in localized current events discussions, they run hundreds of thousands of accounts, provide encrypted messages to maximize efficiency, change their message based on their target audience, appeal to emotion over reason, and engage in one on one discussions. Don’t be ashamed to use aspects of “the bad guy’s” strategy as well. Truth be told, it works.

Collaborate with the Private Sector   

When it comes to private sector collaboration, incentivizing participation, sharing open source information, and developing content policies with social media platforms are essential in the fight against extremism. The private sector can do a lot that the government can’t legally do. Additionally, the bureaucracy usually slows down execution. While maintaining necessary privacy rights, collaboration with the private sector is vital to CVE success.

Work with Community Leaders

The best way to counter the ISIS narrative and prevent violent extremism can found in the first line of defense; the community. If I engage with your counter narrative and show signs of radicalization, there should be a network of local community leaders, Imam’s, counselors, lawyers, teachers, and mentors which are at your disposal to help me. Community leaders are eager to fight extremism, often times they are just waiting for you to reach out, whether that be in running seminars of terrorist’ use of social media or working with families and parents to identify signs of radicalization. Establish a network of community leaders in your target region who will act as force multipliers who are able to identify vulnerable individuals before they become violent and, ultimately, encourage healthy alternatives.

Online vs Offline Engagement  

The difference between online engagement and offline engagement is important to consider. In understanding event sequence analytics (emotional triggers) in one’s life, you will be able to choose a point for intervention. Many counter narrative campaigns may choose to focus online in counter messaging, video production, and trolling. However, when talking about working with community leaders, hotlines, Imam’s, and encouraging healthy alternatives, you are largely taking an offline approach. It’s not about choosing “one or the other”, just important to consider the difference and where you plan to allocate your resources based on your target audience.

An Off Ramp with Healthy Alternatives

Encouraging alternatives is one of the most important aspects of any counter narrative. Merely understanding and addressing the grievances of your target audience isn’t enough. Individuals prone to radicalization are looking for an outlet for their grievances. Thus, while creating a counter narrative, you need to replace the outlet of radicalization with a healthy alternative. Whether the alternative be a different religious interpretation, playing a sport, counseling victims of terrorists’ attacks, it doesn’t matter. Again, community leaders and family members are the best ones to provide alternatives.

Become ‘Fluent’ in Social Media

Social media fluency is necessary for any counter narrative development. What resources do you have to infiltrate into conversations? How can you use trending topics, hashtags, and generational language to appeal to your target audience? What content do younger generations crave, what groups are they joining, and how are they talking?

Model Refinement and Evaluation

As you develop and implement your counter narrative, you need to be able to refine your model and then measure success. In order to refine your model, a concept called A/B testing is best. Let’s say you create a counter narrative video and want to target the country Turkey. You can show 50% of Turkey one video, and the other 50% the same video but with a slightly different variation, evaluating which one receives more engagement. Then you do it again with another variation, until you have found the most effective message. When it comes to prevention of radicalization, it is very difficult to determinately declare that your efforts prevented one from being extreme. How do you measure success? This question has been a significant challenge for governments because it is hard to elicit funding for more resources if unable to show that previous experimental tactics have succeeded. There are a few metrics that can be used, beyond merely assessing the number of terrorist attacks in a region or views of your video online. Fortunately, there are already data analytic programs that can be applied to counter narrative evaluation, including Content Scoring, Lattice Engines, and Mix Panel. Content Scoring applies a numerical value to the content of your counter narrative based on how individuals interact with that content by looking backwards at the users’ journey to find your content. Lattice Engines identifies leads to your content and creates advertising models for different geographies, will provide predictive insights into marketing automation platforms, and allows future content to focus on previous leads. Lastly, MixPanel measures actions on your content, retention of users, uses funnels to find out where and why you lose target individualism, discovers who your users are and what they do, uses push notifications to keep costumers engaged, and writes powerful queries to analyze data.

Computer Science is Tomorrow, So Make it Today  

Computer programmers can do a lot in the CVE realm. Examples include social media demographic analytics (where you can determine an online user’s demographic based on what they type) or the use of data analytics such as content scoring to understand the path that your target audience clicks to get to your message, how long they spent on your content, and whether or not they returned. Also, lest we forget the current trend of message encryption and dark web navigation. Again, computer programmers are the answer. There are also ways to use automated responses in conversations and, eventually, artificial intelligence. Programmers can systematically infiltrate into Telegram conversations, for example, so that target users aren’t able to differentiate between real and fake content, thus delegitimizing their propaganda. This is best done with pictures and videos, likely by mocking ISIS symbols and narratives. Again, it’s science.

Acquire a Diversified Team

To do this right, you need to be creative. You need to develop an interdisciplinary strategy. An ideal CVE team would include a terrorist expert for understanding counter narrative tactics, a business person for strategic execution, leadership, and money, a Muslim for knowledge about community concerns, Islam as a religion, and Arabic, a computer programmer for online navigation, systematic infiltration, and analytics, a psychologist or ex-radical for an analysis the fence sitter’s thought process’, a marketer for targeted advertising, an international relations expert for a prediction of 2nd and 3rd order effects, a film director for creativity and improved technical quality, and an artist for aesthetic design and emotional appeal. Point being, an effective counter narrative involves much more than mere terrorism.

Volume, Volume, Volume

Make it happen. But that won’t be enough. Get your friends to make it happen. And their friends. And your boss. And your boss’s friends. There needs to be So. Much. More. Content.


Terrorist groups, such as ISIS, have made effective use of the Internet and social media to radicalize, recruit, and inspire individuals to carry out terrorist attacks. In this regard, it is necessary to effectively counter their violent narratives. The perception of their utopia, their brutality, their capability, and their future does not match that of reality. For this reason, it is necessary to discredit the misperception in which their propaganda portrays. As previous literature suggests, there is a gap in targeting, developing, monitoring, and evaluating effective counter narratives. The above suggestions are provided as a result of previous counter narrative campaigns and are meant to fill that strategic gap. To defeat the appeal of ISIS, propaganda is not the problem. It’s the solution. It’s all they have. People are merely desperate for content, and unless we replace ISIS’s content with our own, they win…Let’s do it!!

These recommendations do not represent the views of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, or the United States of America. These recommendations are the result of a variety of discussions, but largely based on my experience in developing and implementing a counter narrative program at West Point and on Lorand’s Masters Degrees in Political Science and Complexity Science, particularly in relation to his recent Ph.D research on Radicalization. If you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

About the Author(s)

Lorand Bodo has a first class Master’s degree from Aston University in Governance and International Politics. He is currently finishing the second half of the double master’s program at the University of Bamberg, where he is specializing in complexity science with the purpose of combining it with terrorism and security studies. In September 2016, Lorand will begin his 4 year integrated PhD at the University College London Security Science Doctoral Research Training Centre, where he will, in particular, focus on counter-radicalization.

Outside of his University studies, Lorand is the Senior Editor of POLITIKON, which is one of the world-leading academic journals for political science students. Furthermore, he is the Chair of the Conflict and Security Studies Student Research Committee at the International Association for Political Science Students, where he conducts research with his colleagues on security and conflict related issues.

Jordan Isham is a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point, majoring in International Relations with a minor in Grand Strategy. Jordan spent this past summer at the Marshall Center’s Program on Terrorism and Security Studies in Germany, in which he worked with Lorand to identify the strategic gap in previous CVE efforts. Last year, Jordan and a small group of students launched a counter terrorism program under the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in the Peer2Peer: Challenging Extremism competition, which elicited a variety of interest and research partnerships. Jordan and Lorand have since developed the framework for a strategic counter-narrative model that takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand terrorist’s influence and tactics, analyze opportunities for intervention, and ultimately, to delegitimize the attraction to extremism. Jordan plans to continue this work in the next two years in collaboration with a variety of individuals and institutions.


If you want to gain a better understanding of why crafting an effective "counter-narrative" to that of our "resisting transformation" enemies today (not just the Islamist but also the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians, etc., also) is so difficult, then consider the following:

In the Old Cold War of yesterday, when the Afghan/Islamist Freedom Fighters met with President Reagan in the White House, these folks, their cause (resisting the transformation of their states and societies more along the alien and profane political, economic and social lines of communism) and their related actions (terrorism and/or whatever it took) WERE NOT, back then, and re: this effort, considered to be "extreme" or "extremist."…

Rather, these such "resisting transformation" folks, their such "resisting transformation" cause and their such "resisting transformation" actions were, back then, considered to be normal, natural, rational, commendable, honorable, courageous and, most importantly, consistent with the national security strategy, goals and activities of the U.S./the West during the Old Cold War. (Which were, at that time, focused on thwarting/undermining/reversing Soviet/communist efforts to spread the way of life, the way of governance, etc., of communism throughout the Rest of the World.)

It is important for us to, thus, understand that these such "resisting transformation" folks, their such "resisting transformation" cause, and their such "resisting transformation" efforts have only come to be seen as "extreme"/"extremist" in the context of the U.S./the West's CURRENT national security strategy, goals and activities. (Which, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, have come to be focused on achieving the spread, throughout the world, of OUR [equally alien and profane?] way of life, way of governance, etc.)

In the Old Cold War of yesterday, when the U.S./the West held the strategic "high ground" (herein, being both the leader and the champion of the "resisting transformation" nations/civilizations of the world), our ability to craft a highly effective "counter-narrative" -- to that of the "expansionist" nations advancing the alien and profane concepts of communism -- this was relatively easy. This, given the benefit of our "resisting transformation" common cause with the Rest of the World.

In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, however -- and with our version of "universal values," etc., much as that of the Soviet/the communists before us, having been disproved -- now the U.S./the West finds itself -- both strategically and indeed narratively -- "sucking hind tit."

It is this reversed (vis-a-vis the Old Cold War) and, thus, highly unenviable strategic position, I suggest, that we now find ourselves having such difficulty in:

a. Labeling those that we previously found to be natural, normal, rational, commendable, honorable, courageous, etc. (to wit: those we previously found "resisting transformation" common cause with) as "extremists?" And, accordingly, having such difficulty in

b. Crafting an effective countering-narrative to our enemies' (not just the Islamists', but Russia's, China's and Iran's also) -- common -- and thus highly effective, powerful and appealing -- "resisting transformation" (a) cause and (b) related narratives?

Bottom Line:

When our version of "universal values" and "the end of history" (much like that of the Soviets/the communists before us) proved to be erroneous, the U.S./the West had to come to terms with the idea that we would, sadly, need to use "force"/"coercion" -- for example in form of political warfare and unconventional warfare employed in support of same -- to pursue and achieve our goal of transforming the states and societies of the Rest of the World more along modern western political, economic and social lines. (This, in the face of much of the Rest of the World's common resistance to our such initiative.) How and why we craft our current and future narratives -- and counter-narratives, etc. -- and our difficulty in doing this -- this to be understood in context of our such acceptance of, our such understanding of, and our such coming to terms with this unfortunate realization/reality.