Countering Terror in 140 Characters or Less

By Dashiell Dronyk, M.A. Candidate in Intelligence & National Security, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

An interesting news item made it through the coverage of Vladimir Putin’s passive-aggressive violation of the most basic rule of the international system last week. Under the snappy moniker “Think Again Turn Away,” the US Department of State (DoS) has taken the war on terror to the Twittersphere. Tweeting directly at the many, many terrorist organizations and supporters on the social networking site, Think Again Turn Away challenges nefarious groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) by calling out their excesses and hypocrisies. In other words the latest weapon in the arsenal of the lone superpower is the time-honoured online tactic of trolling.

As Sun Tzu famously wrote, “If your opponent is of a choleric temper, seek to irritate him.” As another, less well-regarded thinker said,What a time to be alive.”

This initiative is run by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), a quite young branch of the DoS. The CSCC crafts its messaging with the support of the US intelligence community and delivers it through teams writing in Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Punjabi and English.

Overall, what is fascinating about the approach taken by the DoS is how it takes common tropes used by terrorist groups in radicalizing media and, by changing the context in which they presented, depicts them in all their true ugly hollowness. Examples of jabs by Think Again Turn Away (ISIS is a favourite target) include drawing attention to the puritanical brutality of extreme ideologies . . .

. . . shaming the normalization of extremist violence . . .

. . . and grisly images that de-romanticize jihad, which I will not post here.

This initiative is an interesting example of a key concept that has featured prominently in counterterrorism scholarship and policy-planning in recent years: the counter-narrative.

The idea here is that, in promulgating extreme ideology, terrorists and their followers are engaging in a form of storytelling. A constant in these stories (be they inspired by Karl Marx or Sayyid Qutb) has traditionally been a division of the world into diametrically opposing sides, the gestation of conspiracy theories, and the imperative that the current, unjust status quo justifies and demands the use of violence.

While radicalization is a highly idiomatic and, at best, imperfectly-understood phenomenon, most people can agree that what it essentially boils down to is the internalization of the ideology of a terrorist organization by the individual. The even less-understood decision to act on this new worldview to commit or abet violence sometimes follows and sometimes does not.

The thinking behind a counter-narrative goes that if the narratives put forward by terrorist ideologues can be effectively challenged by more moderate voices, angry, idealistic individuals will be turned off the whole radicalization project before it really begins.

This goal has particular salience given the signs of the times. Since the 7/7 attacks, Western governments, Canada included, have determined  that the source of the terrorist threat they face has largely shifted from foreign groups to homegrown terrorists. This reflects the strategic refocus of al Qaeda and its affiliates to inspiring Western citizens and residents, usually through online propaganda, to strike the so-called “far enemy” close to home.

Canada’s own Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC) just called attention to a more contemporary trend in a rare public report: the recent spate of tactically unambitious attacks or plots using weapons ranging from primitive IEDs to knives, which can be exceedingly difficult for law enforcement and intelligence services to detect and prevent. The brutal attack at Kunming railway station in China last week demonstrated the relatively high casualties such plots can produce.

Thus, if homegrown terror with us to stay, and may be becoming harder and harder to detect, efforts to deal with the problem at the source through counter-radicalization seem a sensible course of action.

The question becomes how effective efforts like Think Again Turn Away will be in discouraging would-be violent radicals. Modern terrorist groups are notoriously tech– and media-savvy, and may have a home-field advantage of sorts over governments competing for online influence. At over 1200 followers, Think Again Turn Away has a respectable Twitter presence, but this is by no means head-turning. A more-pressing and much harder problem to quantify than readership is whether the intended audience cares what the CSCC has to say. Indeed, much of the engagement Think Again Turn Away receives from other users reflects the conspiratorial worldview that assigns moral equivalence between the terrorists and the US.  While no one is saying that putting a counter-narrative out on social media will make or break the struggle against radicalization, governments do not have a stellar track record winning young hearts and minds on other issues, and occasionally the results have been downright embarrassing.

Canada is set to announce its first counter-radicalization strategy very shortly, in which youth outreach and engagement will feature prominently. Whether the plan contains anything similar to Think Again Turn Away remains to be seen, although the RCMP and Public Safety Canada are reportedly working on their own counter-narrative. Whatever they ultimately produce will face two challenges: crafting a story compelling enough to compete with the stories offered by the terrorists, and engaging enough that people actually listen.

Photo  by  Scott Beale via Flickr.
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