By now Secretary Kerry should have presented Congress with the State Department’s latest official annual review of the state of global terrorism. It will make hard reading and itemize a litany of failures in the seemingly unending war on terror.
In the last 12 months an Islamic State has been established, exacerbating the Middle East sectarian divide; localized conflicts in East and West Africa have spread, and Afghanistan/Pakistan stability shows no sign of improving. Undoubtedly, this year’s report will say the global situation is worsening, as it has concluded for a couple of years now.
How we talk about terrorism matters. Presidents and political leaders all around the world who are fighting terrorists struggle to counter their influence – while all too often inadvertently strengthening the terrorists’ influence. Moreover, we fail to provide a killer blow by strategically selling our values and vision. Today, many of the Presidents in the world who are fighting terrorism with US government funding are trailing behind the terrorists – both in terms of political offering and in neutralizing the propaganda of their deeds.
Joseph Nye said that, alongside a strategy of hard, military containment, it was soft power than undermined the Soviet Union from within. And arguably, it was a smart blend of hard military and soft political power that converted Irish republican terrorism into today’s mostly peaceful politics. Today’s threat from what is mistakenly called “Islamic extremism” is turning out to be just as difficult of a battle of ideas as either of those protracted conflicts, but without us deploying a strong dose of blended smart power to counter and defeat it.
Developing Joseph Nye’s concept of smart power and applying my experience of working for governments and militaries struggling with terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya, Washington DC and London, I will start by identifying how we are going wrong, then use the next post to suggest improvements to positively influence populations.
- … be blind to other people’s reality and deaf to their politics
Violent extremism, as a method of rebellion, is growing in many developing countries in the world. In my experience, too often do we fail to appreciate events from the point of view of the other, and listen to why there is the clamor of conflict. After US troops were withdrawn from Iraq and the conflict faded from our consciousness, there continued to be a recorded doubling of civilian casualties year-on-year. Similarly, we may have heard and “got over” events, such as what happened at Abu Ghraib, but today they continue to symbolize all that is offensive and wrong about Western-funded interventions in the Muslim world – and still provide a powerful lever for recruiters to pull.
In Afghanistan, too many Afghans are living a different daily experience from the good v. evil that we talk of. After taking off the blinkers, and seeing the realities experienced by people and politics in far-flung corners of the globe, we need to better reflect on and respond to other people’s experience of reality.
- … confuse public diplomacy with Western domestic politics
For years, the US government spent more effort in proving the necessity and righteousness of the war in Afghanistan, rather than demonstrating effective good intention locally. Meanwhile, the insurgents outmaneuvered us by anchoring their communications in local realities.
When President Obama announced his new $5 billion Global Counterterrorism Partnership Fund last year, he used the word “partner” eighteen times to describe the creation of a set of unequal relationships based on “specific challenges” to US “interest.” By fighting terrorism in this way, the US often presses the proxy governments to serve the US’ agenda, rather than address their domestic legitimacy. Partners who are well-funded have an interest in building perceptions of a global specter of terrorism and obtaining funding – and being an important part of the global war on terror.
- … embolden the terrorists
When I was in Libya last year what I did not see was the Islamist versus secular narrative that is still perpetuated. Instead there was and still is a complex melée of militias fighting over assets and seeking dominance.
Even Generals among US allies have reinforced grossly misleading rhetoric linking localized conflicts across sub-Saharan Africa as the next “front” in the war against terrorism, giving the terrorists’ the very brand position they desire. There are no battle lines with armies facing each other and no single war that crosses continents – until we build that perception.
The groups are more rag-tag than corporate but we allow them to be perceived as having a strength that just does not exist. Everything we do should be about dividing and conquering them, rather than uniting and strengthening.
In that sense, this particular “war” is certainly too important to be left to the Generals, yet in countries all over the world the dominant response is the hard power of uniforms and guns – further violence and conflict. We give the very response the terrorists want.
How we do and talk about security is through politics, not the military – and must be visibly led by politicians, not Generals.
- … focus on the evil
Fact: Terrorists terrorize. Their power is in the influence generated by their evil actions. We need to respond by offering a better story.
Too often we get caught up in dancing to their tactical tune; talking about the horror of an event, reducing it to a battle of good v. evil, and helping to amplify their terrorizing message. Leaders need to change the political conversation and build an alternative vision, a subject I talk about in my second blog.
If, as the conservative magazine, The Economist, says, Boko Haram is “first and foremost, a product of Nigeria’s broken and kleptocratic politics” then we need to address the local political grievances that are at the heart of the conflicts that we simplistically and erroneously place under the brand of international terrorism.
Radicalization, terrorism and instability are worst in the least-developed parts of the developing world. In East Africa’s slums, Afghanistan/Pakistan’s border areas, Nigeria’s north, Somalia’s broken state and – yes – alienated communities in the west. This cannot be a coincidence.
This is not about the absence of institutions and “ungoverned areas;” sometimes there is too much government, of the uniformed kind. Rather, this is about forgotten people and our communications must reflect this.
- … simplify
When you look into examples of radicalization and the interaction of faith and terrorism, it looks as though the tag used by governments around the world –“Islamic extremist” or similar – serves to obscure and distract, endowing the extremists with legitimacy they seek rather than undermining their cause. Recently, President Obama has wisely and conspicuously avoided the terrorists’ preferred tagline – using the far more descriptive and less emotive “violent extremism.” However, most of his partners are not following suit. Why don’t governments lead more voices to use the term “unIslamic extremists?”
Tag lines aside, the way the US talks about international terrorism helps governments to avoid debate and solutions about long-standing political grievances. Partner Governments need to be pressed to engage everyone in complexity about the causes of terrorism, and expose the real fault lines which cause social fragmentation and prompt people to turn on each other.
If we want to undermine the terrorists we need to enable frank discussion of what the enemy stands for and expose the real political, social and cultural lines of contention at stake. When we censor debate, we cede the heart of the battle to the terrorists. And when we talk about such issues simply in terms of militarized security, we play to the terrorists’ main message of fear.
- … alienate our friends
Critically, communications of US foreign policy served to bolster the flimsy partnership between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, rather than distinguish and divide them, even when intelligence assessments told the United States they were separate. The vast majority of the Taliban was never the real threat and, brought into the political process, could have stabilized the country against far worse threats.
Time and time again when governments talk about terrorism they draw a line in the hot sand of domestic conflicts, be it in Afghanistan or Iraq, Mali or Libya, Nigeria or Somalia– who is ok and who is beyond the pail–and they get it wrong.
Governments need to listen properly to what minority communities have to say and build genuine relationships on their terms. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, for many years we failed to act on the local opinion we heard about night raids and a whole range of issues, which alienated a whole population of initially undecided Pashtuns and bolstered the Taliban.
At the same time, our talk of freedom and democracy failed to resonate because it was inconsistent with our military and political actions locally, as the propaganda of our deeds undermined our political offering.
- … globalize the struggle
Many of the terrorist groups we find ourselves fighting are themselves riven with disunity, at both the global and local level, ripe for political leverage that turns a fissure into a chasm.
Although President Obama himself identified the local source of many terrorist problems, too often we herd the groups into a global network of “franchises” and “affiliates,” elevating their influence to that of a global super league. This bolsters their perceived strength, assisting them in their morale, recruitment and funding operations.
The US government’s own authoritative research shows that the process of radicalization is personal and localized. Why don’t we distinguish Somalia’s al-Shabaab from al-Qaeda and talk down the influence of the Islamic State, rather than simply repeating their messages which unifies, strengthens and builds their brands?
And at the same time, I have seen governments prefer to amplify the role of foreign agency in terrorist attacks, distracting attention from local grievances and avoiding questions of local legitimacy.
The propaganda of our deed
I have seen how heavy-handed, oppressive and divisive government reaction turns fringe terrorist organizations into chronic problems. Too often a thin democratic legitimacy is used to aggressively promote statehood and bolster a predatory or semi-legitimate government at the cost of stable intra-community politics, and human lives.
Whichever list of brand attributes you look at, it is clear that today’s persistent terrorist organizations are manipulating marketing ideas like consistency, uniqueness and credibility far more effectively than we are undermining them. Often, we help them; inadvertently and without realizing how they are succeeding.
Brand strength is not just important to modern day terrorists and rebels; it is entirely pivotal to their current success, but it can also be used to bring about their downfall. To be more effective, we need to have a coherent approach to destroy their brand and influence, and generate our own new, better political vision – a subject I will talk about in my second of these two blogs.