This article examines the nature of extremist narratives in the context of the information environment. The focus of the discussion is intentionally directed towards Islamic extremism. This is not to suggest that members of the Muslim community are particularly pre-disposed towards extremism and terrorism. However, the presence of radicalisation and extremism, as well as terrorist violence, in Muslim communities around the globe remains a persistent and immediate threat. Australia is not excluded from the challenges posed by extremist Islamic narratives disseminated by local and foreign extremist ideologues.1
Narratives are a cornerstone of radicalisation that can lead to ‘home-grown’ terrorism as experienced in a number of diverse countries, including Australia. In considering these topics within the information environment, the article will stress the importance of counter-narrative messaging and highlight the challenges associated with shifting perceptions of events that impact Muslims locally and globally.
Radicalisation is considered a relatively new term in the discourse of terrorism. It really came into widespread use following the suicide attacks of the London transit system on 7 July 2005 (7/7). The perpetrators did not enter the United Kingdom (UK) from abroad to conduct the attacks. Instead, they originated from within the Muslim community in the UK, and comprised second-generation citizens and other British residents.
As a consequence, radicalisation became the vehicle for security authorities to try and gain an understanding of how a typically unremarkable individual could be influenced by ideological messaging which drove them towards extremism and terrorism. It is thought that an understanding of radicalisation will assist in the prevention of home-grown terrorism, which is another legacy of the 7/7 attacks.
The 7/7 attacks, and others such as the 2003 terrorist plot by Pakistani-Australian Faheem Khalid Lodhi, merely re-established an existing connection between radicalisation and terrorism. According to Anthony Glees of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, not every radical is an extremist and not every extremist is a terrorist. However, every terrorist is an extremist and a radical. Furthermore, every terrorist is an individual who has a pre-radicalisation identity which is generally unremarkable.
Much like terrorism, there is no universally-agreed definition of radicalisation. For current purposes, Jenkins (cited in Kennett, 2006, pp. 49–50) defines terrorism as “violence or the threat of violence calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm – [that is,] to terrorise – and thereby bring about social or political change”. Furthermore, this article will rely upon the Commission for European Communities, which defines “violent” radicalisation “[as] the the phenomenon of people embracing opinions, views and ideas which could lead to acts of terrorism”. This definition maintains the connection between radicalisation and terrorism while not impinging on the rights of individuals to hold radical, but non-violent, views regarding all manner of religious, social or political topics. This is an important distinction for the purposes of effective counter-narrative messaging which, in simple terms, should focus on understanding “what goes on before the bomb goes off” (Sedgwick, 2010, p. 479).
The dissemination of radical ideas, including narratives, pre-dates modern Information and Communications Technology (ICT). In fact, non-ICT dissemination of messages persists in less-developed regions and relies upon more traditional mediums such as sermons in mosques and other public gatherings, as well as pamphlets and other similar media.
Notwithstanding the level of sophistication involved, there is a symbiotic relationship between the message and its means of communication with the latter determining who, and how far, it reaches. Modern ICT simply compresses the spatial and temporal dimension of messaging which occurs across three interlinked domains – physical, information and cognitive.
The physical domain is the realm in which Muslims are affected in real and tangible ways. These effects pre-date ICT and reach back to foundation Islam in the early seventh century, and the first contact between this newly-established religion and what has generally become known as the Western world.
The entire fourteen-hundred year history of this relationship cannot be dealt with here and, therefore, such consideration will start with the mid-twentieth century. Since that time, the Muslim world has oscillated between humiliation and pride. The former includes the significant defeats of Arab armies by non-Muslim military forces as occurred during the 1967 Six Day War against Israel as well as the 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq by American-led coalitions. The treatment of Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya by largely Christian forces has added to this resentment as has the perceived indifference and inaction over the Israeli occupation of territory claimed by Palestinians.
On the opposite front, Muslim honour and pride was revived by the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. This was reinforced a decade later when indigenous resistance forces and foreign fighters from across the Muslim world helped end the occupation of Afghanistan by the (former) Soviet Union. As an unintended consequence of geo-strategic politicking, this gave rise to the establishment of al-Qaeda which, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden (1957–2011), evolved into a transnational terrorist organisation and the foundation of modern extremist narrative.
The al-Qaeda attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001 were a seminal event for both the West and the Muslim worlds. Many Muslims derived a level of satisfaction from these attacks which were seen as retribution for the actual and perceived harm and injustice of US foreign policy, particularly towards the Middle East.
The subsequent invasions and occupation of Afghanistan, which provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda, and Iraq were viewed by many Muslims as a war against Islam. In turn, these military adventures became the single-most significant drivers of Islamic radicalisation and home-grown terrorism.
These global conditions are exacerbated by the disenchantment and alienation among young Muslims who were born in the West. These second-generation Muslims are frequently torn between the often alien culture of their parents and the demands of a modern secular society that emphasises and promotes individualism and liberal attitudes, particularly in respect of gender relations. Adoption of Western values only brings partial acceptance by the mainstream community which sometimes cannot fully disregard cultural markers and thereby leads to intended and unintended discrimination. Overall, this results in disappointment and, in some cases, hostility towards the mainstream community.
The information domain links the physical experiences of Muslims to the individual. Barriers, intentional or otherwise, may have at times slowed the flow of information between groups of people but they never completely stopped it. Internet Communications Technology (ICT) has simply optimised the passage of information.
After losing its ability to conduct operations in the physical world, al-Qaeda enhanced its presence and effectiveness in the information domain that included an expanded use of ICT, as well as broadcast media and messaging through mosques, religious schools and other venues. As a result, the (then) deputy-leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahari (in CFR, 2006), claimed that “more than half of [the] battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of Muslims.”
The inability of terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda and its various off-shoots and franchises, to match the capabilities of modern Western militaries in a conventional physical contest resulted in the adoption of asymmetric tactics. Consequently, terrorist organisations seek those areas in which there are mismatches in their favour. Therefore, acts of terrorism are not designed to meet strategic objectives in the physical domain. Instead, terrorist attacks, on any scale, are purely tactical and designed to achieve strategic objectives in the information domain.
The November 2008 attack by members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist organisaiton on various facilities in Mumbai lasted around four days and left about 160 people dead. Notwithstanding its relative scale, it was still a tactical operation aimed at achieving strategic information objectives. A remote LeT operative reportedly instructed the final surviving terrorist to “inflict maximum damage. Keep fighting. Don’t be taken alive. Everything is being recorded by the media [emphasis added].” At the other end of the scale, the May 2013 killing of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in public on a London street was carried out by more rudimentary, but the nonetheless gruesome, means. After murdering Rigby, his killers not only provided one bystander with a letter of explanation but also called upon others to record their message on mobile phones.
The cognitive domain is the terminus of the information environment and is the actual centre-of-gravity in countering the radicalisation that can lead to terrorism. Terrorist organisations, and their potential recruits moving through the radicalisation process, have typically lacked critical vulnerabilities that could be destroyed by kinetic means. Even the capture or killing of leaders and foot soldiers has limited effect. It remains to be seen what the longer-term prospects will be for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has campaigned in a manner that resembles conventional warfare and includes capturing and holding territory, as well as exercising control over finance-generating infrastructure such as oil production and distribution. Contemporary terrorist organisations have repeatedly demonstrated their resilience and ability to adapt to countermeasures.
Therefore, the key terrain for counter-radicalisation is the minds of those individuals who may respond to the narratives of extremist ideologues. The cognitive domain is where individuals maintain their awareness, understanding, beliefs, opinions and values. This enables individuals to make sense of the real world – or physical domain – as well as decisions based on their understanding of a particular situation.
In his portrayal of the fictional corrupt spy Walter Bourke, Al Pacino stressed that “what you see, what you hear – nothing is … what it seems”. This is an accurate depiction of the relationship between reality and an individual’s perception of it. According to Richards Heuer, a former US Central Intelligence Agency analysis expert:
People construct their own version of ‘reality’ on the basis of information provided by the senses, but this sensory input is mediated by complex mental processes that determine which information is attended to, how it is organised, and the meaning attributed to it. What people perceive, how readily they perceive it, and how they process this information after receiving it, are all strongly influenced by past experience, education, cultural value, role requirements, and organisation norms, as well as the specifics of the information received.
Additional factors that will affect perception include the individual’s ethnicity, religion, age, gender, and socio-economic status, as well as level of education and knowledge.
Perceptions are not fixed and can change as new information, regardless of its accuracy, is presented to the target audience. The additional information is fused with the individual’s existing perception which is, in turn, shaped by any changes in sense-making. Consequently, a perception can never be complete but is instead developed and adjusted to suit a desired outcome. Such manipulation of people’s perceptions is not new. However, advances in ICT allow such manipulation to affect larger numbers of recipients far more rapidly than ever before. This vulnerability is further exacerbated by the internet which provides any group or individual with ready and unfettered access to the information domain in which to manipulate reality.
The primary mechanism by which beliefs may be shifted is through a persistent narrative. According to Kundnani:
Narratives have plots, within which events are given significance and explained in terms of particular causes. They also have protagonists who are given particular identities. Events and protagonists are relational, in that they only make sense in relation to other actual and potential protagonists and other actual and potential events. And narratives are necessarily selective, reflecting choices about what is relevant and irrelevant, and foregrounding particular events and protagonists as opposed to others. Usually, narrative plots involve their protagonists being confronted with a disturbance or conflict which needs to be resolved through some course of action.
Little has changed at the fundamental level since bin Laden outlined his narrative to Muslims around the world during the mid-1990s. He successfully tapped into the frustrations, anger and disappointment felt by Muslims towards the impact of the physical domain – both global and local – on them. Many Muslims are confronted by circumstances that have a direct and indirect impact on them, but over which they have limited influence and understanding of. While they seek explanations of these circumstances, they do not believe their own leaders and dismiss comments from the West as anti-Islamic conspiracies and propaganda. Consequently, according to Allain, they turn to traditional sources such as religion which at least offers some certainty in an otherwise unstable and confusing global and local environment.
The desire for certainty and explanation enabled bin Laden, along with his successors and protégés, to promote a religiously-inspired ideology that disdains the secular, plural and liberal West, and its political, economic and social institutions, as well as progress and modernity. Instead, this ideology offers the Muslim community a simplistic solution that is generally associated with traditional societies. The hallmark of such societies is reliance upon an externally-imposed model that does not encompass progress and development. Instead, it relies upon myths, revelations, and a “golden age” that is claimed to have existed in the distant past. Emulation of this model is promoted as a means of overcoming the challenges of competing in a modern and globalised world.
This broad narrative shifts the blame for the plight of Muslims to other entities. The blame is directed at the US-Israeli alliance which uses its influence to discriminate against and repress Muslims, either directly as in the case of Palestine, or through proxies. These proxies include the leaders of Muslim-majority countries, as well as those Muslims in the West who actively or passively support the perceived anti-Islam strategies. The solution, according to the narrative, is the establishment of a caliphate governed by Islamic legal principles and organised in accordance with Muslim cultural belief and practices. However, this can only be achieved through violent jihad which will remove the presence and influence of the West from Muslim territories. Finally, it is a duty of every Muslim to strive towards this objective, irrespective of where they are located.
As Muslim youths redefine their identities, issues are increasingly viewed through the contrasting values of the West and Islam. This is combined with the global injustices suffered by Muslims, which are internalised by the individuals who may not seek wider context or explanation. Instead, the context will be provided by jihadist and Islamist interpretation of religion, history and international politics. Additionally, these events will be narrated in a way that connects the experience of the individual at the local level with global events affecting Muslims. The source of this narrative makes little difference.
Challenges of a Counter-Narrative
Development of a counter-narrative presents significant challenges, regardless of the means by which the message is disseminated. There may be points of disagreement between various jihadists and extremist ideologues; however, all are generally aligned on strategic objectives. In this case, a message is broadcast or made available to the wider audience. The message only needs to resonate with a small number of individuals who will act upon it, regardless of its original source. In contrast, authorities are required to influence a far greater and diverse population that requires tailored and synchronised messaging directed at domestic and international audiences. Any action, successful or otherwise, will provide a terrorist movement with disproportionate strategic information advantage. Furthermore, terrorist movements and extremists leverage further information advantage from any messaging – regardless of content – by authorities. This situation is neither new nor unique. It may be traced as far back as 1984 when Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists attempted to assassinate the (then) British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In acknowledging the failure, a spokesperson for the IRA highlighted that it needed to be successful only once. Meanwhile, security authorities had to succeed every time in preventing terrorism. This position has become a maxim of sorts for security professional across a number of sensitive sectors and not necessarily confined to the terrorism threat.
The narrative put forward by extremist ideologues can be compelling. This is particularly true when it coincides with media coverage of events impacting Muslims overseas or more directly in their host communities. Governments are limited in the extent to which long-standing and deep-seated socio-economic conditions can be improved within a suitable timeframe. Additionally, unlike extremists, governments are responsive to a much more diverse range of constituents. Consequently, messaging requires greater customising, precision and co-ordination. This places the government at a disadvantage in respect of its responsiveness to events. Its actual capacity and influence, as well as ever-present realpolitik, determine what actions a government can and will take in respect of particular international events. Regardless of reasons provided, action and inaction that adversely affects Muslims will only underscore the standing narrative of hostile or uncaring attitudes by the West towards Islam and Muslims, and continue to fuel the radicalisation process. Although physical acts of violence will remain as a tactic, the primary battleground of terrorists and extremist ideologues is the cognitive domain and the ability to influence perceptions. Currently this is being achieved through the dissemination of an extremist narrative that is proving difficult to counter by security authorities.
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