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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)