Counterterrorism: counter-messaging, counter-narratives, counter-ideology; but not hearing much very positive
So far I am not hearing much evidence that Secretary Johnson’s advocacy of a positive counter-narrative was really heard here in Aspen. I’m glad he confirmed my understanding, otherwise — based on the comments of others — I might decide I had heard what I wanted to hear.
The best opportunity for a reinforcing follow-on has been Friday’s morning session: Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (just finished as I write this). It was a good panel discussion, but they focused on something very different — if complementary — to what the Secretary said on Thursday morning.
Rashad Hussain, Special Envoy and Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at the State Department, outlined his current content-strategy for countering the self-proclaimed Islamic State as:
- The principal victims of ISIL are Muslims
- Providing communications platforms for ISIL defectors to tell their stories
- Demonstrating that the international coalition against ISIL is being increasingly effective (Jane Harmon, also on the panel, offered “to win the war of ideas, it would help to win the war.”)
- Highlighting the tough living conditions of ISIL fighters (Juliette Kayyem, also on the panel, emphasized the need to counter ISIL’s projection of a “terrorist chic” brand.)
- Amplify credible anti-ISIL voices, such as those who have suffered under ISIL’s rule.
To his credit, Mr. Hussain situates these tactics as near-term counter-messaging, something different than a mid-term serious engagement with narratives or addressing long-term ideological challenges.
But most — perhaps all — of these panelists seemed to suggest that it is very difficult, often inappropriate or even illegal for governments to go beyond rather narrow rebuttals of terrorist arguments. In a question for the panel, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States characterized the panel’s approach as very “responsive” and wondered (worried?) if the West had the will to engage more fundamental issues.
At least in regard to the ability of terrorist organizations to “inspire” Americans, I heard the Secretary suggesting a much more proactive and positive approach. I’ll be here another day. Will continue to let you know what I’m hearing.