Alternative Narratives and Countering Violent Extremism

Jasmine El-Gamal is a Truman National Security Fellow and a civil servant at the Department of Defense, where she focuses on countering violent extremism. From 2011-2013 she was the Country Director for Syria and Lebanon at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy. From 2013-2015, she served as a Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Views represented in this article are her own. 6

Alex was lonely and confused. As a 23-year-old college dropout in a Midwestern town, Alex’s friends had long since moved on without her. So when the news broke of journalist James Foley’s death at the hands of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), she turned to the internet to understand why. She found her answers – and a new circle of friends – on Twitter. Her new companions sent her daily encouragement, gifts of chocolate and books, and provided her with a sense of belonging she had not felt in years. There was only one problem: her new friends were members of ISIS. Little by little – first through social media, then later through Skype and texting – Alex’s contacts persuaded her to convert to Islam and enter into a marriage with a 45-year-old jihadi as an ‘ISIS bride.’ Fortunately, Alex’s family stopped her before she could depart for the Middle East. Yet Alex’s story remains a cautionary tale of the persuasive pull of effective storytelling.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) experts and governments alike agree that the problem of extremism does not have a military-only solution. Rather, they find that working with communities to address their vulnerabilities is critical for sustainable peace, and that local contexts must be woven into response strategies—both of which rely on the power of storytelling.

In today’s advanced communication age, stories are shared instantly by millions of people across cultures and borders. Although the act of storytelling often has positive associations, it is also a powerful tool used to lure individuals and communities toward dangerous or extremist behaviors. This deadly potential – exemplified daily as extremist groups flourish across the globe – underscores the urgent need for individuals, NGOs, and governments to work across sectors, reinforcing one another’s efforts to create alternative, anti-extremist messaging strategies.

Unlike counter-messaging – when an individual or organization responds to a particular message – an alternative message is distinct, proactive, and ongoing. Both types of response are necessary components of an effective CVE strategy. An alternative message, however, allows the protagonist to set the tone and therefore control the narrative, whereas counter-messaging, or counter-narratives, run the risk of empowering the antagonist (in this case, the extremist) by directly responding to – and inadvertently magnifying – their words or actions.

…an alternative message is distinct, proactive, and ongoing.

Regardless of ideology or religious identity, extremist narratives often employ the same formula: grounded in both psychology and marketing, the narratives draw on the intrinsic human desire to belong and feel heard. The formula involves: 1. Identifying a grievance through an empathetic protagonist; 2. Blaming an antagonist, someone who wants to stop the protagonist from reaching their goal; 3. Mobilizing would-be followers to “correct” the grievance; 4. Advancing a vision of a new order or society – a resolution – that would require a transformation and provide the recruit a sense of belonging.

Much like ISIS used this formula with Alex, where her problems would hypothetically be solved by moving to ISIS-controlled Syrian territory, terror groups and charismatic individuals alike use these steps to influence their potential recruits. Even prior to his drafting of Mein Kampf in prison, Hitler’s rhetoric was able to sway the German people by taking aim at the suffering German state. By arguing that the “November Criminals,”—the politicians who signed the Treaty of Versailles—essentially stabbed the country in the back when it was poised to win WWI, Hitler identified the perfect antagonist for the German people suffering under economic and political hardship. The acceptance of Nazism was, of course, his solution to these wrongs.

While the Nazi party and ISIS both fall on the far-right side of the ideological spectrum, this formula should not be mistaken for a tool of only one side. Left-wing groups such as the FARC  in Colombia and the Red Brigades in Italy are just as likely to utilize it as the Klu Klux Klan or Al-Qaeda.

In determining the most effective alternative narrative, CVE practitioners and policymakers should look to the example of the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. A master storyteller and believer in the concept of the alternative narrative, Roosevelt knew that Americans needed to believe in something noble, to feel they were a part of something bigger than themselves, if they were to make the necessary sacrifices to get America through the war. He worked across sectors in the United States and with allies abroad to create a powerful coalition against Hitler’s narrative.

Instead of simply repeating why the enemy was evil, Roosevelt told America’s story—what the country was fighting for, and what he believed they could achieve if they worked together. Through his fireside chats Roosevelt made Americans feel significant, connected, and validated. The chats felt honest and intimate, and they provided Americans a story in which they could see themselves as integral characters.

Today individuals, organizations and governments can work together to create a powerful storytelling ecosystem where each actor reinforces the efforts of the other based on their own comparative advantage. Doing this successfully will provide individuals with positive stories. These stories offer an alternative  that helps deny extremist organizations the ability to captivate the imagination of people like Alex and other vulnerable populations worldwide.


(Featured photo credit: Unsplash: Gilles Lambert (CC0 1.0) )

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