14 January 2010

Counter Narrative Information Operations

It is nearly impossible not to notice the media coverage surrounding the Obama Administration's phrasing when discussing terrorism. Many are upset at the administration’s decision to stop using the term "Global War on Terror", or Janet Napolitano's use of "man-caused disasters" to describe acts of terrorism. The President followed up this change in mindset with his June 4thCairo speech emphatically stating, "America is not --and never will be--at war with Islam." This change of mindset is regularly viewed either as a soft approach to counter terrorism, or a shocking failure to grasp the situation at hand. I have not found conclusive evidence that would point to the Administration's phrasing as part of a new strategic information operation, which was what I initially thought. The Rand Corporation recently stated that a third of the homegrown terror plots since 9/11 occurred in 2009. I think many people will attempt to draw conclusions connecting the Administration's phrasing and the massive increase of homegrown terror plots. All is not lost for President Obama. In fact, Rahm Emanuel's phrase, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste", fits perfectly here.

FM 3-24, the Counterinsurgency Field Manuel, discusses the importance of the narrative in developing legitimate ideologies. Paragraph 1-76 states, "The central mechanism through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed is the narrative. A narrative is an organizational scheme expressed in story form." Al Qaeda uses a narrative that portrays Osama bin Laden as heroically fighting the encroachment of Western Imperialism. Since Al Qaeda is successful at using their narrative to recruit fighters based on their Islamic Ideology, countering their narrative becomes a vital front in our global contingency operation.

Our Nation needs to counter Al Qaeda's narrative at home and abroad. I am skeptical at how effective the United States will be at countering the radical Islamic narratives abroad. Ask any soldier conducting COIN how effective our information operations are in Islamic countries. It is impossible to convince the World's Islamic population that America is not at war with Islam when we announce a 30,000 soldier troop increase in Afghanistan, continue to use Predator drones to strike in Pakistan, and top it off with the December strikes in Yemen. There is something we can do with the current Administration's non-offensive phasing. I think we can engage the American Islamic population with some degree of success.

The President needs to task his Terrorism Czar, John Brennan, with conducting a Counter Narrative Information Operation. Like him or not, John Brennan is a fluent Arabic speaker and spent a year in Cairo conducting intensive Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. I think he needs to devote resources, countering the conditions necessary for radical Islam to flourish. The LWJ has a great, one page article with links to the news stories covering homegrown terror plots. Homegrown terrorism is clearly a rising trend that needs the attention of our national government. I think Mr. Brennan possesses a unique ability, because of his studies and current position, to find moderate Islamic voices in the "at risk" communities, such as the Somali refugee population in Minnesota. The appearance of the changed Islamic relations is not enough to stop the homegrown radicalization. We need to couple the political PR initiatives with proactive engagements from influential, moderate Muslim-Americans, from the at risk areas. The FBI is doing a great job tracking and prosecuting those who take part in homegrown terror plots. Now it’s the Administrations turn to help counter the radicalization of Muslim Americans.

I think the current Administration could take a page or two from FM 3-24 and establish State level engagement teams. The teams would act much like our civil affairs and psyops teams currently utilized overseas. The goal here is to accurately vet 3rd and 4th generation Muslim Americans who are willing lead a State level engagement team. The teams would organize and run outreach programs into our "At Risk" Islamic communities. The idea behind this is, we find moderate Muslim Americans, who have had positive experiences living in America, to create a localized counter narrative. The team would be responsible for conducting outreach as well as identifying projects needed at the community level that will help provide legitimacy to the Muslim-American Narrative. The teams could use the grant writing process for Federal money to improve education programs and provide scholarship money for college. Although, as my colleague Josh pointed out earlier, in some cases this could be counter productive. I even think we could identify some measures of effectiveness by tracking how many individuals per capita become radicalized in those Islamic communities. If the outreach programs are successful, we will slowly build a pool of applicants that maybe willing to work in a counter terrorism (CT) role for any one of the government agencies involved in CT operations

It is widely known that the military cannot conduct successful COIN and CT operations alone. I think we need to apply that logic to thwarting homegrown terror plots. It is dangerous to rely solely on our law enforcement folks to counter every home grown plot. We need to have a whole government approach focused on addressing the conditions that are necessary for the radicalization of our young Muslim men and women. This post begins to scratch the surface of the state engagement team's implementation. We would need to further analyze the size and scope of this program, its funding, duties and responsibilities, and possible best practices in implementation, but that's why John Brennan gets paid the big bucks.


  1. Well said, so why are we don't doing these things?
    For a long time we have been on the wrong or catch up side of the PR game...I know we are better than that.

  2. I would like to add some comments from a Washington Post Correspondent who recently covered the topic of Muslim engagement. Anne Applebaum's argues in her concluding paragraph, that we need a more comprehensive CT approach. There is a massive amount of Jihadi Ideology on the internet and in radical mosques around the world. Anne asks, "Are they hearing enough counter arguments?" Bill Bennett asked Anne on his radio show, "Who should lead the counter Jihad argument?" Anne believes non radical Mullahs would be the best conduit to lead this counter argument abroad. Her statements are right on, religious leaders are the only individuals that have the proper clout in countering radical ideology. I think a combination between American religious leaders and citizens with that the makings of a successful narrative could potentially counter homeland radicalization.


  3. DP sent me the Obama Administration's Counter Terrorism Policy at Year One. If I didn't post my article one day after Daniel Benjamin's keynote address, I would have thought he plagiarized al Sahwa's analysis. I cut and pasted the 4th from last paragraph below.

    "Even with their efforts, peace in the Middle East will take plenty of time, and as we know, it will not eliminate all of the threats. But while the big policy challenges matter in radicalization, local drivers are also critical in making individuals vulnerable to the appeal of al-Qa’ida’s ideology and its narrative. We are developing tailored-approaches to alter them – to deal with issues of education, health care, social welfare and economic opportunity that create the conditions of marginalization and alienation, and perceived–-or real–deprivation. In recognition of this, my first step has been to build a unit within my office focusing on what we in the government call “Countering Violent Extremism” in my office to focus on local communities most prone to radicalization. There is a broad understanding across the government that we have not done nearly enough to address underlying conditions for at-risk populations—and we have also not done enough to improve the ability of moderates to voice their views and strengthen opposition to violence."


  4. Amm Sam over at ICSR has a few posts on this. Here is the latest, key line:

    "Thus, when shaping policy on counter-radicalization, it would be wise to avoid designing and funding programs that encourage and foster an ummah-oriented Muslim activist identity among Muslim-American youth. This mistake has been made in a big way by our British friends and it is one of the cardinal sins of Prevent."