Volume III, Issue 2
Perspectives on Terrorism –
Winning the Battle but Losing the War? Narrative and Counter-Narratives Strategy
by Christian Leuprecht, Todd Hataley, Sophia Moskalenko and Clark McCauley
Since 9/11, intelligence and security services have become particularly concerned about radical ideologies and have looked for ways on how to counter them. One of the strategies has been to develop a counter-narrative. Some authors, including those of this article, are concerned that, in the marketplace of ideas, the West is losing market-share. Communication failures with the Muslim world were cited in a report by a U.S. Department of Defence Advisory Committee as early as 2004. The puzzle this article explores is why, having recognized the problem early on, the data suggest that further ground has since been lost. We posit the problem as having to shift the discourse from one focusing on a single counter-narrative to one of tailoring communications to target specific audiences. The article traces methodological and empirical shortcomings that are at the root of the problem and builds on these findings to develop a model to strategize about counter-narratives.
In the United States, the ‘battle of ideas’ opened on several fronts after 9/11. President Bush framed the enemy as those who “hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other”. Advertising executive Charlotte Beers created the “Shared Values Initiative” campaign for the U.S. State Department. Five television commercials depicted Muslims Americans living happily in the United States. Primarily aimed at women, the TV spots ran in countries with large Muslim populations. Print advertisements were produced as well. The effect was not what had been hoped for and the “Happy Muslim” ads were withdrawn under fire and Ms. Beers resigned.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this advertising failure was the failure of strategy. Crucial questions were neither posed nor answered – questions such as:
What were the values the ads were designed to change?
What are the values that currently support jihadist violence?
What audience currently accepts these values?
The link between values and behaviour has been much studied, and found to be generally weak. In this article we focus, not on political values, but on political narratives. We briefly identify the narrative associated with jihadist violence, examine the success of this narrative in Muslim opinion polls, estimate the importance of this narrative in radicalizing individuals and groups to acts of violence, and conclude with some suggestions about how best to counter the jihadist narrative.
What is the Jihadist Narrative?
Narratives are essentially “compelling storylines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn”: Critical theorists like Richard Jackson contend that in the case of the “war on terror”, the US narrative is a deliberately constructed discourse that has had the ultimate effect of normalizing counter-terrorism policy, empower political elites, marginalize public dissent and enforce national unity. Indeed, the current American discourse on the ‘war on terror’ has been so successful, he claims, that it has become embedded in the institutions of law enforcement, national security, the legal system and the legislative and executive processes. 
In a similar vein, Michael Vlahos surmises:
“In war, narrative is much more than just a story. ‘Narrative’ may sound like a fancy literary word, but it is actually the foundation of all strategy, upon which all else – policy, rhetoric and action – is built. War narratives need to be identified and critically examined on their own terms, for they can illuminate the inner nature of the war itself. War narrative does three essential things. First, it is the organizing framework for policy. Policy cannot exist without an interlocking foundation of ‘truths’ that people easily accept because they appear to be self-evidence and undeniable. Second, this ‘story’ works as a framework precisely because it represents just such an existential vision. The ‘truths’ that it asserts are culturally impossible to disassemble or even criticize. Third, having presented a war logic that is beyond dispute, the narrative then serves practically as the anointed rhetorical handbook for how the war is to be argued and described.” 
Insightful as this statement is, Vlahos commits a pivotal error: it is culturally possible to disassemble or criticize truths. Otherwise, constructing counter-narratives would be a futile exercise. The issue is not whether they can be disassembled or criticized but, rather, how it is being done, the response which the current approach to a counter-narrative is eliciting, and what follows from the analysis for the purpose of counter-narrative strategy.
The greater the traction of the jihadist narrative, the more democracies will have to rely on government intervention in the form of security and intelligence activities that are bound to curtail the freedom of all. To safeguard the freedom of their societies and citizens, the democratic narrative of freedom, equality, and justice must succeed at the same time that the jihadist narrative fails. Anti- and counter-democratic narratives threaten the values and way of life that democracies prize.
What exactly is the narrative that we are looking to counter? The many propositions about radicalization notwithstanding, the eschatological narrative remains the same: “The West is engaged in a millennial battle against Islam and Muslims must defend themselves – Islam is under attack and Muslims have an obligation to rise to its defence.” David Betts offers a more meticulous deconstruction of the narrative:
(1) Islam is under general unjust attack by Western crusaders led by the United States;
(2) Jihadis, whom the West refers to as “terrorists,” are defending against this attack;
(3) the actions they take in defence of Islam are proportionally just and religiously sanctified; and, therefore
(4) it is the duty of good Muslims to support these actions.
This narrative advocates a “global Jihad” and its potency “is rooted in the fundamental precept that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power.” The narrative is strategic insofar as (i) it does not arise spontaneously but is deliberately constructed or reinforced out of the ideas and thoughts that are already current, thereby expressing a sense of identity and belonging and communicating a sense of cause, purpose and mission; and (ii) it depends on selective appeal to evidence or experience, and may rely on appeals to emotion, or on suspect metaphors and dubious historical analogies.
Which Parts of the Jihadist Narrative Do Most Muslims Accept?
After 9/11 there was, in the Arab and Muslim world, a considerable amount of not only understanding but even sympathy for al-Qaeda’s attacks against the United States. As Michael Howard observed: “The sympathy is not so much for their objectives as for the struggle itself, the jihad, and for the resentment that it motivates.” In other words, Muslims may sympathize with the view that Islam is under unjust attack by Westerners (1), and sympathize with the terrorists’ desire to defend against this attack (2), but still not agree with the third and fourth parts of the narrative. That is, they may not believe that terrorist actions are just and religiously sanctified (3), and may not believe that it is the duty of Muslims to support terrorist actions (4).
How do the parts of the narrative ‘sell’ to Muslims? There is ample survey evidence to show that many Muslims in the U.S. and the U.K. as well as in Muslim countries, see the Global War on Terror as a war on Islam. When asked “In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, do you feel the U.S. is fighting a war on terrorism or a war against Islam?”, the percentage of American Muslims who affirmed “Islam” has kept on rising steadily from 18% in 2001, 31% in 2002, 38% in 2004, to 55% in 2007. Comparable results come also from the United Kingdom. In a 2009 START poll of Muslim countries, the proportion of respondents who thought that the US has goals that are hostile to Islam ranged from 62% in Indonesia to 87% in Egypt. Such findings confirm that the West is losing the narrative in the misnamed “War on Terror”. Even more critically, however, some opinion polls indicate that, the current strategy to develop a Western counter-narrative has not just failed but may actually be counter-productive.
Consistent with widespread Muslim perceptions that the war on terrorism is a war on Islam are Muslim opinions about the presence of U.S. troops in Muslim countries. A 2009 START poll asked “Overall, do you think the US having naval forces based in the Persian Gulf is a good idea or a bad idea,” those who answered “bad idea” ranged from 76% in Jordan to 91% in Egypt. A similar consensus emerges when respondents are asked whether they endorse the goal of al Qaeda to “push the US to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries: 87% of Egyptians, 64% of Indonesians, and 60% Pakistanis concur with this goal. If these are the popular attitudes among America’s apparent “allies” in the “Global War on Terror,” then the findings confirm that the current counter-narrative enjoys little legitimacy across the Muslims world.
In short, polling results show that the perception of a “war on Islam” is well entrenched among substantive sections of Muslim populations in both the West and other parts of the world. Yet, those who see Islam under attack do not necessarily endorse terrorism as a legitimate response that warrants support. Indeed there is considerable evidence from public opinion surveys that most Muslims do not agree with terrorist tactics. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11, two-thirds of respondents in Muslims countries rejected the attack on civilians in the World Trade Center as forbidden by the Qu’ran. Large proportions of the population of predominantly Muslim countries do not agree with attacking civilians. In the START survey “Bombings and assassinations that are carried out to achieve political or religious goals”, large majorities ranging from 67 to 89 percent are rejecting these as ‘not justified at all’. These results are consistent with earlier polls conducted by Zogby, Pew, and ICM among US and UK Muslims.
Similarly, in a July 2005 ICM telephone poll of UK Muslims, only 5 percent of respondents, when asked “Do you think any further attacks by British suicide bombers in the UK are justified or unjustified?” answered with “justified.” However, that proportion might be an under-estimate. Given the proportion of respondents (14 percent) who answered to this question, with “do not know/refuse to answer,” we can infer that at least some of them were inclined to answer “justified” but opted not to identify themselves as such in a public poll. Assuming that there are about one million adult Muslims in the UK, 5 percent works out to 50,000 Muslims.
Of course, not all those justifiers would commit violence. In the next section we try to give some indications of how few Muslims in Europe are actually participating in jihad.
Who are the Jihadists in Europe and North America?
Security forces everywhere are looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. From a recent investigation into the Istanbul bombings, we know that there was a circle of about 400 people who were aware of what was going to happen but did nothing to stop it. In such a case, inaction is a form of action, a crime of omission or permissive violence. Since the Istanbul bombings involved multiple bombers, we can estimate that, for each bomber, there were perhaps 200 passive supporters of a terrorist action who do not commit the actual violence themselves.
Similarly, in the UK upwards of 200 Muslims have been implicated in terrorist action and more than one thousand are currently under observation. As already noted, approximately 50,000 adult Muslims in the U.K. are willing to justify jihadist violence in the UK. The challenge for security is to profile and find the 1 in 50 militant who is ready to act out his extreme beliefs.
The numbers matter. They are to some extent corroborated by EUROPOL’s 2009 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report from which the Tables 1 and 2 (below) are drawn.
Table 1: Number of Arrested Suspects in 2008 by Member State and Affiliation (click HERE to view or Table 1)
Table 2: Number of Verdicts for Terrorism Charges in 2008 by Member State and Affiliation (Click HERE to view Table 2)
Table 2 seems to suggest that authorities are doing a formidable job at finding and convicting alleged Islamist terrorists. After all, half of all verdicts concern Islamist terrorists. Only 34 percent of proceedings related to Islamist terrorism ended with acquittals. That is not to say that those acquitted were necessarily innocent; the burden of proof in terrorism trials can be considerable and many suspects are tried for crimes they allegedly intended to commit rather than crimes committed, an anomaly in the criminal justice system which is generally used to trying people who have already committed crimes. Security services and courts are concentrating on Islamist threats, and with considerable success.
The overall picture that emerges is one of a small percentage yet a sizeable number of Muslims in Western countries who approve of jihadist violence, with only a tiny fraction of those who approve actually involved in violent acts. The disjunction between opinion and action implies that an effective counter-narrative must reach radical terrorist perpetrators, justifying supporters and sympathizers – as depicted in Graph 1.
Higher levels of the pyramid represent more extreme opinions, with violent radicals at the apex. In the aforementioned 2004 Guardian/ICM poll of UK Muslims, 7 out of 10 respondents equated the “Global War on Terror” with a “War on Islam” (while 3 out of 10 were neutral on that point); about 5% justified suicide terrorism, and perhaps one tenth of one percent (1.000/1.000000) know something about or are involved in jihadist activity in the U.K.
The characterization “Activists” in the pyramid model might be accompanied by a question mark on the left side of the pyramid, opposite the right-side levels that range from Neutral to Radical. The question mark and separate location would represent an important uncertainty about political activism, which we understand as legal and non-violent political protest or political action. It is beyond the scope of the present article to explore whether or how often activism leads to radicalization, that is, how often legal and non-violent political action leads on to illegal and violent political action. We expect that the answer will differ for different groups, different decades, and different cultures.
Note also that the pyramid does not imply a stage theory, which would require that every trajectory to terrorism must start at the base of the pyramid and rise through each intervening level in order to reach terrorism at the apex. Note that, in the pyramid model, the volcanic “magma pipe” of radicals/terrorists reaches down even into the neutral population. This representation recognizes that even apolitical individuals at the base of the pyramid can sometimes shift more or less rapidly to political violence and terrorism.
Indeed analyses have suggested that the pathways to terrorism are varied and complex. Recent work suggests that there are plural pathways with no profile trajectory. The next section discusses some of the sources of these pathways.
Mechanisms of Radicalization and the Importance of the Narrative
Insofar as jihadi radicalization is concerned, four types of popular explanations can be found:
1. Socio-economic marginalization: This is the prevailing neo-Marxist explanation that assumes economic factors underlying all conflicts everywhere at all times. People are frustrated because they are poor or otherwise victimized by the economic and social system.
2. Social-identity marginalization: This explanation holds that people have trouble integrating culturally into the mainstream of society or encounter difficulties in having their own identify recognized and validated by the mainstream.
3. Religious fanaticism: This explanation is favoured by those who see Wahhabism and Salafism as the crux of the problem. In this account, extremist religion is the ‘center of gravity.’
4. Political grievance: From this perspective, the major source of the problem are people who are unhappy with certain political decisions or policies which they seek to change.
It is worth noting that the four explanations are all sub-species of grievance; each specifies something wrong with the world that needs to be changed. From a comparative perspective, the important fact to note is that the vast majority of people that might fall into any of those four categories are not violent, indeed do not advocate, support, or even sympathize with violence. For this reason and for our purposes, then, all four are of limited utility.
A more differentiated system of explanation has recently been offered by McCauley and Moskalenko (2008). They distinguish among individual, group, and mass-public mechanisms of radicalization. Their focus is specifically on radicalization that leads to the extreme of political violence.
1. Personal grievance. Harm to self of loved ones produces anger toward the perpetrators. This explanation includes individual experience of socio-economic or identity frustration, but includes also any perceived personal injustice at the hands of the powers that be. Chechen Black Widows are one example.
2. Group grievance. Again, anger is predicted in response to harm, but the harm is to a group too large to be known personally. The individual identifies with a group perceived as suffering victimization or injustice. When radicalization by group grievance occurs without any personal grievance or involvement in a radical group, the result may be described as “sudden jihad syndrome” and includes such examples as Mohammed Rea Taheri-azar, and Momin Khawaja. “Lone wolf” terrorism is often said to be associated with Internet exposure to radical narratives.
3. Self-persuasion in action – the slippery slope. This is based on a psychology of self-justification in which each act of increasing extremity produces desensitization and rationalization which, in turn, encourage more extreme acts. As in Stanley Milgram’s experiment requiring subjects to give increasing shock levels to “another subject,” the crucial element is that the trajectory toward extreme behaviour is divided into very small steps.
4. Joining a radical group – the power of love. Individuals can be radicalized through their attachment to friends and family. Their request “join me” can be a good enough reason to join a radical group. The attachment may be long-term and pre-existing or it may be deliberately cultivated. Note that even previously apolitical individuals can be pulled into radical groups by the power of love.
5. Fear – escape to group security. Sometimes an individual is safer in a violent group than alone on the streets of a failed state. An example is the formation of sectarian groups in Iraq.
6. Thrill, Status, Money. These are instrumentalist explanations that play on individual preferences, usually those of young males. Examples include setting Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq or Afghanistan but the same kind of motivation is often present in members of street gangs.
In addition to these six mechanisms of individual radicalization, three mechanisms of group dynamics can be identified.
7. Group polarization. Research by social psychologists indicates that groups made up of like-minded individuals are likely to become more extreme in their shared preferences. Group dynamics lend more weight to arguments and to individuals leaning in the group-favoured direction.
8. Extreme cohesion under isolation and threat. These circumstances often affect underground groups, cults, and combat squadrons; the high cohesion multiplies every kind of group dynamics, including inter-group polarization.
9. Inter-group and intra-group competition. Three kinds of competition are relevant. A non-state group may compete against state power, against another non-state group (often in the form of “outbidding” the other group), or may experience competition among factions of their own group (such as the split within the IRA and the formation of two IRA splinter groups).
Finally, three mechanisms are identified that can move mass publics to support political violence.
10. External threat. Perception of common threat reliably leads to increased group identification, magnified ethnic entrepreneurship and the power of leaders, sanctions against in-group deviants, and the idealization of in-group values. These changes prepare a group to confront the threat, including preparation for the use of violence.
11. Hate. As political homogeneity of the in-group increases, there is a strong tendency to adopt a view of the threatening group as likewise a homogenous group. The enemy is likely to be de-individualized and essentialized in ways that make it easier to kill by category.
12. Martyrdom. A martyr is the ultimate witness because the sunk costs are all-encompassing. The classic example of mobilization by way of martyrs is the story of the 1981 hunger strike from which ten IRA prisoners perished as recounted in Ten Men Dead.
The existence of multiple mechanisms at multiple levels has two important implications for understanding how political radicalization occurs. First, there cannot be any one profile of radicalization, no one single pathway to terrorism. Rather there are many pathways, potentially as many as the possible combinations of the twelve mechanisms identified. Similarly, in a recent article, Andrew Silke reviews the literature on radicalization and lists what he views as the most important emerging variables: age and gender, education, career and marital status, social identity, marginalization, discrimination, catalyst events/perceived injustice, status and personal reward, and opportunity and recruitment. One important caveat that Silke highlights is that radicalization is the result of the compound effect of a number of these variables. He notes that “these factors will vary depending on the culture, the social context, the terrorist group and the individual involved.”
The second important implication of multiple mechanisms of radicalization is that there is no single mechanism that, if controlled or eliminated, will control or eliminate radicalization. This is of key importance for thinking about narratives.
As already noted, the jihadist narrative can be broken down into several parts. We have shown that some of these parts are accepted by most Muslims (War on terror as a War on Islam) and some parts are rejected by most Muslims (attacking civilians). Yet even the accepted part, that there is supposedly a war on Islam going on, represents only a single mechanism of radicalization – group grievance. A completely effective attack on this grievance would yet leave eleven other mechanisms of radicalization in play. We conclude tentatively that even eliminating the perception of a War on Islam may not have, at least in the short term, a large effect on the rate of radicalization.
Another kind of limitation is that group grievance appears seldom to produce political violence without a group or organization to frame and focus the grievance into violent action. As noted already, a special case of group grievance is lone-wolf terrorism, in which an individual is moved to violence by perceiving harm to a group the individual identifies with. But lone-wolf terrorism is rare, at least relative to group-organized terrorism. Again tentatively, we conclude that group grievance alone is not a powerful source of radicalization. Indeed we suspect that perception of group grievance may often be the result of radicalization via other mechanisms rather than an independent cause of radicalization. That is, a radical group framing of group grievance may often be adopted or learned by members of a radical group who themselves joined for other reasons – including personal grievance, fear, or merely thrill-seeking.
With these limitations in mind, we turn to some practical questions about developing counter-narratives to the jihadist narrative.
Given that we must distinguish among sympathizers, supporters, and activists as well as legal, illegal, and violent forms of political action, there is no single counter-narrative that can neutralize the jihadist narrative. The core narrative has to be analyzed in its parts – which are accepted by different audiences to different extents. To attack the jihadist narrative therefore implies preparing different narratives for these different audiences. At a minimum, four counter-narratives are required.
1.One narrative must counter the perception that the West is engaged in a War on Islam. This perception is accepted by a very broad cross-section of Muslims, perhaps still more than half of Muslims worldwide even after the inauguration of President Obama. So long as Western troops are deployed in Muslim countries, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, a counter-narrative for the War on Islam will likely remain difficult to formulate.
2.A second narrative must counter the perception that Muslim terrorists are defending Islam. While the aforementioned polls in Muslim countries suggest a reservoir of personal admiration for Osama bin Laden, most respondents do not endorse terrorism as a legitimate means.
3.A third narrative must counter the perception that the actions of Muslim terrorists, especially attacks on Western civilians and collateral damage to Muslim civilians, are legitimate acts of war. Polls indicate that only a small percentage of Muslims believe this, although amounting to large numbers of potential extremists in absolute terms. Research will be needed to identify the characteristics of this small but very important minority.
4. Finally, a fourth narrative must counter the perception that good Muslims have a duty to support the terrorists. As far as we are aware, there are no polls that have assessed how many or what kind of Muslims agree with this view. We expect that the percentage is very small but one representing a very high level of radicalization. Targeting this tiny minority with any kind of mass media intervention may be difficult indeed.
Without detracting from Olson’s claim that (1) “we have not adapted our war-fighting structures to the new information-dominated operational environment” and from the claim that (2) “we do not focus enough effort on winning and maintaining the hearts and minds of the most critical and accessible population: our own,” and that (3) “we struggle to be persuasive in the virtual dimension because the message that we wish to convey lacks narrative coherent,” it is not a matter, as David Betts has eloquently argued, of developing a coherent and strategic narrative. Nor is it a matter, as posited by Frank Douglas, of making the idea of violent jihad widely unpopular. It is already widely unpopular, even among its supposed target audience! Rather, it is a matter of developing multiple counter-narratives that are tailored to specific audiences. This finding echoes General Sir Rupert Smith’s observation that “we are living in a world of confrontations and conflict rather than one of war and peace.”
This article has been motivated by a concern that the West is targeting the wrong people and for the wrong reasons. Radical ideas are not the problem per se. After all, many of democracies’ greatest advances have been the result of “radicals” propagating “radical ideas.” Democratic governments are not (or, at least, ought not be) in the business of policing what people think or believe. Thoughts and beliefs are (or ought to be) of concern only insofar as they are linked to behaviour that is illegal. Even then, however, it is important to distinguish between non-violent and violent illegal conduct. Only the latter is (or ought to be) of genuine concern to security and intelligence forces. Therefore, the counter-narrative task is a narrow one: to counter those narratives with the clearest link to violence.
Christian Leuprecht is Visiting Bicentennial Associate Professor at Yale University and Associate Professor Political Science and Public Policy at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University; Todd Hataley is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’ University; Sophia Moskalenko, a social psychologist, holds a postdoctoral Fellowship from the Department of Homeland Security; Clark McCauley is Rachel C. Hale Professor of Mathematics and the Sciences at Bryn Mawr College and Editor of the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict.
This sentiment is shared by, inter alia, Walid Phares. Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, and his more recent book The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; J. Michael Waller. Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War. Washington, D.C., The Institute of World Politics Press, 2007; David Kilcullen. “Countering Global Insurgency,” Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 28, No. 4, 2005, pp. 597-617; Michael Vlahos. “Losing Mythic Authority,” The National Interest May/June, 2007.
Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition. Technology and Logistics. Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication. Washington, D.C., DOD, September 2004.
George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States, addressing a joint session of Congress on 20 September 2001.
Lawrence Pintak. Dangerous Delusions: Advertising Nonsense about Advertising America. http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/32.htm (Aug. 29, 2004)/The Daily Star (Beirut).
John Sabini. Social Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Norton, 1995.
Lawrence Freedman. The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, Adelphi Paper No. 379. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies. March 2006. p.22.
Richard Jackson. Writing the War on Terror: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Michael Vlahos. “The Long War: A Self-defeating Prophecy,” Asia Times, 9 September 2006.
Note: Perspectives on Terrorism invites a diversity of opinions to be presented in articles. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Perspectives on Terrorism or the Terrorism Research Initiative.