01 June 2010

The Start of a Counter Narrative Strategy

*A successful Counter Narrative Strategy begins with a philosophical foundation for building and employing tactical and operational methods of engagement. My perspective is one of many, as I intend to push the envelope here in order to generate dialogue so that we may arrive at an optimal solution.

I encourage you to read John Brennan's full remarks (26 May, 2010) at CSIS, entitled "Securing the Homeland by Renewing American Strength, Resilience and Values."

In the first half of his speech, he pinpointed an aspect of an effective Counter Narrative Strategy (CNS) that I have spoken of in the past: Al-Qaeda, and for that matter, all affiliates, are not Islamic. I mean this literally.

The US and its allies can not benefit (socially or economically) from considering AQ's and AQAM's thought and action as Muslim in nature. Indeed, AQ's stance rests on a dis-illusionary system of motivation and justification that is insane and self-centered. If the AQ definition and practice of Islam is now and/or were to continue to be acceptable, their philosophy would remain on the spectrum as a religious choice. A CNS must (re)affirm that violence and oppression are not adequate and/or viable avenues of fulfillment, freedom, and happiness; that AQ is not a choice.

We commonly hear (correct) arguments that Islam is a religion of peace. AQ is the direct negation of this statement: AQ is a perverted pseudo-movement that seeks to advance a selfish agenda based on an apocalyptic illusion through violent means and propagandized messages. Forming an effective CNS requires the recognition of a two-pronged approach, which Brennan elaborated on in the spirit of President Obama's vision:
1. Fight al-Qaeda and AMs, particularly in targeting safe havens, to disrupt and dismantle operations;
2. Support Muslim communities, both home and abroad (but mainly home) to promote cultural and economic prosperity.

**Andrew Lebovich of the New America Foundation summarizes the main points well in his weekly Foreign Policy Legal War on Terror (LWOT) brief, as well as how it fits into the National Security Strategy (NSS).

The plan (as it remains a plan until strategically engaging in action) requires a wedding of military "hard" power and diplomatic "soft" power. (Here is a sound perspective on the uses of both powers by Angelo Codevilla at FPRI). Above all, such a strategy begs leaders to take an assertive, secure - not sensitive - stance on US values and traditions in order to facilitate the use of inter-disciplinary skills and employ multicultural tactics.

Instead of walking on egg shells, I propose speakingly directly about religion - a tactic that is not typically favorable, perhaps not to offend any one community or party. I believe AQ has already sparked a renaissance of collective thought; we simply have not utilized our joint strengths to synergize our action into a collective authority.

To aid senior-level decision makers, a CNS ought to follow these guidelines:
1. Identify the enemy.
Yes, Islamic extremism exists, but this is simply how we have come to describe it in relation to the phenomenon of religious-centered activity. By default, we use "Islamic" because that is what AQ seems to be. AQ leaders and followers are not Muslim simply because they invoke Allah and Muhammad.

In other words, I think we describe AQ, not define them. Often, the definitions we intermix represent Islam and Muslims, and do not adequately (and rightly) describe the ideology and operations of AQ and AMs. In this sense, a good offense is a good defense: The CNS will actively characterize AQ's worldview as insane and dis-illusionary.

An effective CNS re-formulates the understanding of AQ's goal in light of their worldview, not our understanding of AQ in relation to Islam. This means employing an accurate and dynamic understanding of Islam in order to juxtapose AQ's use of Islamic terms. In fact, their co-optation of terms to promote their cause and identify their enemy is precisely why they continue to be successful: From their inception, AQ has stood for something; all-the-while a "robust" and "diverse" debate has ensued both within Islam and in the West.

***The debate is in no way a negative thing. Indeed, we need intellectual debate. My concern, and frustration, lies with our inability to arrive at a conclusion in order to take action. We cannot debate and then not agree due to the nature of the issue at stake.

An effective CNS gets to the bottom line: It identifies the enemy in black and white terms. We have a choice to join together our authority, and it begins with the "Yes" or "No" answer in response to the question; "Is AQ Muslim?" Can we not agree to define AQ as not Muslim? The violent movement does not represent, foster, and/or promote any ounce of Islam.

****I have two more guidelines senior decision makers can consider, but will share them in a future thread. It is important to know that this conversation is already under way, as Malcolm Nance of SWJ and Abu Nasr of Challenge COIN have pressed for AQ to be defined as a cult movement. The points posited above can be strengthened by enlisting comparisons of other quasi-religious, pseudo-communities.


  1. This is fascinating. When I have more time, I'll need to dive into this.

    I'm kind of curious to look at this from an iconographic/Symbolic/literary POV.

  2. DP, several thoughts, but first I wanted to know who you define as "we."

    I do agree that taking a counter position across the board would be a position of strength, but I think you'll need to be more specific in defining your actors. We the military, we the foreign policy hawks, we the entirety of the Western world, we the United States--there's a lot of different levels here.

    I think we agree that breaking AQ off from its Islamic genesis is necessary to proceed further with a CNS, and I think I'd go further than cult and say something like cult-militia.

  3. "We commonly hear (correct) arguments that Islam is a religion of peace."

    That is patently false. That's like saying Christianity, pre Enlightenment, was a religion of peace. It's so absurd I don't even know why you would bother stating it unless you were mendacious or disillusioned.

    Read the Quran and Hadith and tell me it's a religion of peace. Neither the text of Islam nor the actions of Muslims have ever indicated the religion to be peaceful. Your statement is blasphemously stupid when one considers just how violent Islam's borders are. This oft repeated lie that “Islam is a religion of peace” has not an iota of evidence to support it. Show me a conflict Muslims are involved in that isn’t religiously tied and I’ll show you five that are. I would actually go so far as to say that the Muslims who wage jihad are being perfectly logical given the "Holy commands" found within their respective religious texts. Al Qaeda, as much as I want them dead, has found a myriad of passages within the Quran and Hadith that directly support their actions.

    Is a Christian wrong to hate gay people, or to even want them dead? In my opinion, yes, because I think religion is absurd and false. But if one took the small amount of time necessary to understand what is written within the Bible, it is clear that gays are strongly vilified and a Christian, regardless of how objectively wrong it is to dislike gay people, would be justified in his beliefs.

    That aside, I believe it's a fantastic idea to provide a counter narrative to Al Qaeda, and to spread the meme that Al Qaeda is not Islamic. The sooner Muslims experience their Enlightenment and move out of barbaric, stone-age ideals (not relevant to all Muslims, of course, just many living outside Western nations), the sooner the world will have to stop dealing with deaths waged in the name of Islam.

    -Deus Ex