March 22, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Narratives: Stories that Animate Violent Extremism

  • The general population ? as well as many counterterrorism officials ? dismiss violent extremism as an irrational act by irrational individuals. Apart from the occasional outlier with authentic psychological disorders, most terrorist campaigns reflect a rational calculus designed to achieve very specific outcomes.


  • The overarching question is why an individual would opt for the path of violent extremism. While individual motivations are manifold, the stories ? or narratives ? that motivate large movements are far easier to differentiate and understand. And although the global, local, and national narratives focus the energy of followers on decidedly different vectors, they share the power of a compelling story to spur individuals toward very radical actions.



As of mid-March 2012, it remains far too easy ? and ultimately of limited value ? to describe terrorists and violent extremists as irrational actors. To do so reflects a lack of understanding of the challenge, a systemic unfamiliarity with the adversary that has created an Achilles' heel in many counterterrorism/counter-radicalization programs. Certainly, there are the occasional outliers, which arguably may include such individuals as Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing extremist who wrote a 1500-page manifesto detailing his exclusionary beliefs before murdering 77 innocents in 2011. His rationality was clearly called into question when court-appointed psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia.

From a macro view, however, those responsible for crafting effective counterterrorist strategies or managing de-radicalization programs might be better served by keeping in mind the reality that, as eloquently stated by terrorism expert, Louise Richardson, "[Extremists and terrorists] rationally and carefully calibrate their tactics to exploit their enemy's weaknesses and ensure maximum effect."

Reframing terrorism as a rational act does not require that we acknowledge it as an legitimate behavioral choice; rather, in doing so, we create the much-needed cognitive space to meaningfully explore a decidedly complex phenomenon.


The Power of "Why"

The U.S. Marine Corps has one. So does the Toyota Motor Company. Then again, so do al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the Irish Republican Army. Each of these long-standing organizations operate from a cultural base founded upon a story that lucidly sets forth a reason for being that is, in itself, so compelling that people will take extraordinary actions. The problematic element of this is that these extraordinary actions can, in the case of terrorist groups, lead to extraordinarily destructive results. In the vernacular of countering violent extremism, this story is referred to as the narrative.

Behavioral scientists and national security specialists have been working feverishly to better understand the curious process of radicalization, but accounting for the myriad factors that contribute to an individual's choice to pursue one path as opposed to another is only a first step. In the end, the radicalization process is not simple addition; rather, it is more like differential calculus, as the multiple, interactive influences change over time and context. Given this reality, it is not surprising that perhaps the only definitive finding thus far emerging from studies of radicalization is that it is exceedingly difficult to identify the precise profile of individuals who are most vulnerable.

Fortunately, an evolving understanding of the narrative ? especially the content and the manner in which it is presented ? provides a useful window into this shadowy world. And that understanding provides a very meaningful narrative taxonomy.


Categories of Narratives

Generally speaking, narratives can be divided into three primary categories. One of the most commonly cited since 9/11 is the global narrative, which conjures up the image of a worldwide community of like-minded individuals bound together by a shared struggle and a common vision. The fatwas promulgated by Usama bin Laden in the late 1990s are excellent examples of this narrative form. In 1998, bin Laden captured the essence of the global narrative when he famously claimed that Muslims everywhere had the responsibility to act in defense of oppressed Muslims anywhere. That exhortation still resonates in many parts of the globe.

In contrast to the global narrative, the local narrative offers a more narrow, albeit just as emphatic perspective. Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asia-based militant Islamic group with overt ties to al Qaeda, is driven as much (or more) by the local narrative ? replacing the secular government in Indonesia ? than by the global narrative espoused by bin Laden. One aspect that separates the global and the local narratives is that the former can be viewed by some as more theoretical or even utopian, while the latter has a far more tangible feel to it, with a vision that can appear within the reach, and influence, of the individual.

Finally, there is the national (or nationalistic) narrative. As the term would imply, this narrative seeks to leverage the spirit of patriotism and/or connection to a homeland. Surprisingly, the national narrative can be just as powerful within immigrant populations (and even second- and third-generations within that populations) as it is for those still living in the homeland. The role of the national narrative stands out in the case of the Irish Republican Army as it fought, often viscously, for independence from British rule.

Under other conditions, the influence of the national narrative may not be so obvious at first blush. A classic example is the case of the young Somali-American men who left their homes in Minnesota to fight alongside al-Shabaab against foreign forces that had entered Somalia. Despite having grown up in the U.S., these young men felt a strong connection to Somalia by virtue of family heritage. While they were Muslims, they were not particularly drawn to either the global religious narrative or the jihadist aims of al-Shabaab. Instead, it was the endless reports of rapes and murders in their "home country" that compelled them to act. For some, that action consequently cost them their lives.

In the end, perhaps the most compelling of all narratives ? one that is intimately personal yet effectively global ? is the same one that draws quite rational individuals to pursue very noble pathways: the opportunity to be part of something much larger than themselves. Divining an effective counter-narrative for this may be the greatest challenge of all.



Near-term Forecast:

  • As the next chapter of Arab Spring unfolds, there will be something of a competition between the local and global narratives as factions fight over the type of government that should replace the toppled autocratic regimes. Those motivated by the local narrative are likely to push for democracies founded on a Sharia-based legal system; in contrast, those driven by the global narrative will invariably reject the notion of popularly elected governments as "un-Islamic."


Long-term forecast:

  • The technology driving the forms of social media that helped orchestrate revolutions across the Middle East continues to evolve and will become more difficult for governments to suppress. Next generation social media will be instrumental to future uprisings from the Middle East to the Far East and put unprecedented capabilities in the hands of protesters, capabilities that will substantially balance the power matrix between the people and the government.



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