Terrorism strikes us unawares and sends shockwaves of panic and confusion in society. The medium of violence itself becomes the message and causes cognitive and moral dissonance in impressionable minds. Therefore, the threat of terrorism lives on in the ideological realm long after its militant formations have been defeated on the battlefield.
However, it is ironic that most counter-terrorism measures of the day focus largely on military operations or on detection, surveillance, deterrence and disengagement measures. An equal amount of attention has still not been paid on defeating the enemy on the ideological front. In fact, most government and security agencies struggle to explain the appeal of radical propaganda and the ways to counter it through the effective use of counter-narratives. It is surprising that in the age of information and communications technology, counter-narratives remain a rather modest weapon in the counter-radicalisation armoury.
When Marshall McLuhan introduced the now famous phrase in public relations ‘The Medium is the Message’, he meant that the meaning of a message transmitted through a medium often gets entangled in the medium chosen for expression. Thus, the signified is often transformed by the signifier and conveys more than the original content itself.
Therefore, it is important to bear in mind the suitability of the medium used for communicating a message (in our case a counter-narrative), at the stage of its conceptualisation and construction itself.
Understanding the Push and Pull Factors
Before starting a counter-narrative campaign, it is important to assess the various external factors or what is known as push factors (social, economic, political and security related issues), as well as internal factors that are called pull factors (psychological/emotional, ideological, financial, etc.) that draw people toward radicalisation in the region where a counter-narrative campaign is needed.
A proper evaluation and assessment of these factors could help determine the kind of message to be delivered for greater resonance of the counter-narrative.
Thus the push factors could include issues related to weak governance, poor economy manifesting itself in hyperinflation and unemployment, large presence of security forces in the region that inhibits freedom of movement and enterprise, aggressive action of security forces and profiling of sections of a population, the undermining of ethnic, religious or cultural identities, political or social discrimination among communities by government agencies, forceful evictions or pillage of natural resources by government- backed companies, general breakdown of order and lawlessness, criminal activities and narcotics trade, as well as presence of radical preachers, financiers and/or leaders in the region.
On the other hand, psychological factors or the so-called pull factors would include exacting revenge for real or perceived wrongs, bringing about socio-political change, the lure of guns, drugs and easy money, the feeling to connect with a surrogate family and brotherhood, the assertion of repressed personal or group identity, the prospect of respect and status within a terror group, the belief in reward and bliss in the after-life, the perverse delight in inhuman actions as well as the lure for infamy, as well as the draw of leading an adventurous, exciting, albeit dangerous life.
Identifying the Target Audience
It is very important to define the target audience of a counter-narrative campaign in order to develop and deliver a message to the intended section of the population. A clear description of the specific target audience should include age, gender, education level, localisation, priority interests and online activities.
Manifestations of violent extremism and their narratives incorporate elements of different ethnicities, tribes, religions and social backgrounds. Therefore, narratives should employ the most relevant vernaculars, dialects, even idiomatic expression of the target audience. Thus, a counter-narrative campaign designer should also consider the resonant language of the target audience they are trying to reach. The literary style and diction of the message should also be determined by the kind of culture and level of education of the target audience.
When it comes to radicalisation, the most impressionable and vulnerable sections seem to be the youth. However, even when targeting the youth for a counter-narrative campaign, it becomes important to determine whether the youth are in the formal education system, school dropouts, urban versus rural youth, youth in criminal gangs or those released from prison, youth struggling against poverty and unemployment, etc.
Sometimes the target audience can also be categorised under the following heads: general audience, key influencers and ideologues, supporters/defenders/justifiers of violent extremist groups, or even terrorists themselves.
Identifying the Explicit or Implicit Violent Extremist Narrative
The counter-narrative campaign then needs to identify the kind of extremist narrative being disseminated by radical groups in the region. The radical narrative could be either explicitly or directly disseminated, or implicitly conveyed.
The narratives could also be on a variety of themes: political and military narratives, social and cultural narratives, ethnic and caste-based narratives, religious and ideological narratives, economic narratives or historical narratives.
Thus, a political narrative could try to communicate that a terrorist organisation has better capabilities to administer or govern over a region. It could even send the ironical message that it is better at providing security to the indigenous population than the government. They may even provide healthcare and education at a rudimentary level and position themselves as more sympathetic to the indigenous cause than the government.
If the government has deployed military force or has enforced a security clampdown, the terrorist organisation may stoke up discontent by portraying the government as a repressive force.
Extremist organisations could complain of political as well as social discrimination against the community they represent or speak about the undermining of their social and cultural mores. They could harp upon historical wrongs against their communities, and glorify political and cultural heroes who fought for the community’s cause.
Violent extremist groups, particularly the so-called jihadists, rake up fears of threat to religious identity, or speak of insult to and violation of religious sentiment. They aim at turning religion into a political and militant ideology and direct it against the ruling dispensation. Like ISIS, they may even ask locals to migrate to a distant land to live in the idyllic state. The religious narrative could speak of the overthrow of secular rule in favour of a theocratic, fascist or ultra-left communist dispensation.
Therefore, the important thing is to first identity the narrative or set of narratives being disseminated by a group in the given region for the counter-narrative campaign.
Also read: Why fewer Indians have joined ISIS
Determining the Effective Messenger
Having established the goals and objectives of a counter-narrative, it is important to determine the messenger or messengers that will be most suitable and effective for delivering the message. To address this issue of who is the most suitable messenger, the following questions should be clearly addressed.
- What is the credibility of that messenger with the target audience?
- What is the potential for that messenger to change attitudes?
- What is the potential for that messenger to change behaviours?
- What are the potential negative effects or risks associated with
choosing that particular messenger?
In the case of counter-narratives against jihadist ideology, the following most effective messengers and disseminators would be respected:
- Victims and survivors of terrorist attacks,
- Religious scholars and heads of seminaries, mosques, etc.,
- Defectors and reclaimed members of terrorist groups,
- Respected community elders and actors,
- Political leaders,
- Anti-radical propaganda experts at schools, seminaries, jails,
- public institutions, etc., and
- Strategic experts on the subject working in national and
The audio medium would be devoid of pictures and would have to focus on the sound and language to make it more resonant, while a public speech would generally have to be more emotive than intellectually profound to be more appealing. The choice of language, colours, lighting, sounds, accent, personality, etc. should be in sync with both the medium and the people who receive the message through it for enhanced acceptability of the message, which should be decided upon at the time of the framing of the message.
There could be various counter-narratives for immediate (to bring down public anger and hostility in wake of sudden flare-ups), short term (addressing a major contemporary divisive social or political issue), medium term counter-narratives (announcing plans and incentives to bring communities closer over months and years), long-term counter-narratives (messages that are fundamental to national harmony and should be repeated over the years greater social and national cohesion.
Excerpted from Adil Rasheed, Countering the Radical Narrative, KW Publishers and MP-IDSA, New Delhi 2020