Narrative: The Critical Component of Counter-Terrorism Strategy

 Tunisian Foreign Fighters

The shock and awe campaign being waged by ISIS is one we did not predict when we orchestrated our own variety of shock and awe over Bagdad. And while debate about the effectiveness of airstrikes against ISIS continues, those of us focused on the narrative battle are pretty much in agreement about one thing: we are losing. We are losing badly.

BY Ajit Maan, Ph.D., Vice-President for Research and Analysis,
ENODO Global, is author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies.

President Obama’s recent remark, on June 8th, that we “do not have a complete strategy” to defeat ISIS, is an acknowledgment that military strikes and humanitarian aid are not enough to curtail ISIS’s momentum and its recruitment capabilities. What we are missing is an effective narrative strategy. And without a narrative strategy, a military victory will be short lived.

Strategic narrative is not some sort of pretty accessory to add on to a military campaign to soften the effect. It is a core component of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS. The ISIS narrative with the title “The Crusader/Zionist Alliance is Waging War Against Islam” is able to draw recruits from around the world faster than we are neutralizing key targets. And it will be our narrative strategy, or lack thereof, that will determine whether we win the war or just cut off a few snake heads.

ISIS has been winning the narrative battle because they put the narrative first and then design operations on the ground to deliver the message. That is an effective strategy. Meanwhile we have ineffectively been using communications after the fact to explain counter-ISIS coalition operations. We are all listening to their story. And the misguided among us are heeding the call to action.

The real power of narrative goes untapped if we think of narrative as mere messaging or communication. “Islam is under attack” is deceivingly simple. That’s because it is not their narrative. “Islam is under attack” is the title of their narrative. The narrative itself is comprised of the myriad of messages and activities that support the title. The narrative is complex and messy and full of contradictions and mis-steps and irony.

War remains a human endeavor despite advanced technologies like cyber capabilities, and narratives are the way people understand any endeavor. A well-crafted narrative strategy should have two components:

1) A Military and Development Narrative explains the necessity for military activities and development strategy for our domestic audience, although it will be heard world-wide.

2) A Counter-Terrorism Narrative provides a protective function against the story expressed by our adversary by complicating their narrative and discouraging the enemy’s potential recruits.

These two components must be interactive and mutually supportive to be effective. Additionally, they must support military and development efforts: analysis of the narrative landscape (of the stories being told on the ground) will be used as a predictive analysis tool that will support military and development activities. And the stories collected will add complexity to the conflict narrative and will foster the crafting of collaborative narratives with our allies and civilians on the ground.

Both types of strategic narratives should:

  1. Focus on the suffering of civilians caused by ISIS and extremist groups like it.
  2. Explicitly state that our military, development, and aid efforts will support civilians regardless of ethnicity or religious orientation.
  3. Emphasize the inter-national collaborative nature of our efforts.

Both types of strategic narratives should not:

1.  Bring our values (including democracy and human rights) to the areas in which we fight.

2.  Contain any religious overtones.

3.  Try to camouflage our own self-interests. Rather, our general strategy should be transparent.

Military and Development Narrative

Our own narrative ought to describe what is happening, what we are trying to do, and justify our strategy with moral and emotional triggers. It should describe why the need for military intervention has arisen. For example:

The brutality of ISIS and their violence against civilians demonstrate the moral depravity of their leaders who recruit and exploit vulnerable people to use as pawns. We recognize that we played a part in Iraq that allowed ISIS to develop. It is therefor the moral responsibility of the United States and an international coalition to intervene and stop the spread of ISIS militarily and to offer humanitarian and development assistance to those effected. There is a better alternative to the miserable future ISIS envisions for the territories it seeks to dominate. The people of this region, regardless of religion or ethnicity, deserve stability and security.”       

The audience will pull together elements of a story they hear that are consistent with the story they are a part of – the parts that cohere with their experience. So the experience of suffering should be a part of our narrative, not our values, human suffering.

This military/development narrative strategy being proposed proceeds from an understanding of communications as multi-dimensional and global in scope. That means messages are not hermetically sealed and sent from messenger to receiver in-tact. Rather, narratives are strategically crafted for influence and sent through channels that will necessarily distort the message, changing the meaning as it goes. And that process doesn’t stop when the message reaches the intended audience. We cannot target a particular audience in the current communications environment. Our audience is our own domestic audience, coalition partners, those impacted on the ground including our own fighters, our adversaries, the potential recruits of our adversaries, as well as a world-wide viewing audience.

Counter-Terrorism Narrative

One of the reasons we have been ineffective in countering the ISIS narrative is because we are not the right messengers. Our counter-terrorism narrative strategy ought to proceed by identifying those stakeholders within the effected population who are hostile, or at least unsympathetic, to ISIS’s message and then amplify their voices. The resulting counter-narrative will not come from us, but from inside communities effected by violent extremists. We will simply encourage them to tell their stories and ensure that they are heard.


In terms of Information Operations, it is strategically imperative that we stop running around trying to plug the holes ISIS blows in our narrative, and get out in front of their messaging. We need to undermine the appeal of the ISIS narrative in order to stem the flow of recruits and thereby not only weaken their military capacity at present, but also, address the threat that will continue to creep back up if we don’t address it at a foundational level now. We can kill bad guys with drones but bad ideas don’t die that way. The narrative strategy proposed here will accomplish what drones cannot.

This article, by Ajit Maan, Ph.D., Vice-President for Research and Analysis, ENODO Global, is author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies,
was originally published at

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