ISIS and violent extremism: Is the West’s counter-narrative making the problem worse?

Does the West have the right comms strategy in the Middle East?
Does the West have the right comms strategy in the Middle East?

Paul Bell, a Director at Albany Associates, discusses the problem the West has its communications strategy all wrong when countering extremist ideology.

It has been nearly a year since the ISIS invasion of Iraq and accompanying surge of recruitment of young men and women to its ranks – migrating largely from Europe, but also North America and Australia – which intensified efforts by these governments to project a ‘counter-narrative’ that can counteract the appeal of ISIS’s religion-infused, millenarian ideology, and stem the flow of recruits to ISIS’s ranks.

That effort has focused on debunking ISIS’s legitimacy and credibility, highlighting its inherently ‘un-Islamic’ nature and methods, the hypocrisy of its mass murder of Muslims and Christian minorities, its appalling desecration of our Mediterranean-Babylonian history, the difference between its portrayal of life in the Islamic State and the reality, and the ‘attack on our Western values’.

The twin plinths on which the effort rests are Islam and the ISIS ideology. And to that effort has been drafted a raft of Muslim clerics to issue right-minded Islamic guidance – another of the new cottage industries that has sprung up around this brand of violent extremism. Governments are also attempting to dragoon immigrant Muslim populations into condemnations of ISIS and Islamist-infused violent extremism.

Pernicious as ISIS’s propaganda is, the problem is being misdiagnosed, the remedies delivered mostly do more harm than good, and the net effect has been to steadily further polarize opinion and relations between Muslim immigrant minorities and non-Muslim majorities. It is time for new thinking.

The phenomenon of Islamist-inspired radicalization is not rooted in the religion itself, whatever ‘Caliph’ al-Baghdadi may say about Islam being ‘a religion of war’ (or the attendant neo-conservative chorus of ‘we told you so’). Nor is there is a problem within Islam that can be ‘reformed’ in and of itself. Islam (especially Sunni Islam) cannot be re-engineered into a single interpretation that will somehow enable societies troubled by radical Islamism to box it off and secure themselves from violent extremism.

Islam has always been an instrument of politics, subject to the organization of state power, and as a means either of mediating or enforcing relations between the state and society – or of rejecting the established order. By the end of the 7th century, Islam had become fused with the culture, politics and warfare of the Middle East, and has remained in political service to Caliphs, dictators, ayatollahs, colonial powers and fanatics – either licensed and controlled by the State, even as Turkey and Saudi Arabia do today – or hijacked by extremist revolutionaries.

Even in Iran, it is not religion that has defined the place of politics in its society but politics that has defined the place of religion, thereby helping to bring society under greater state control. And Egypt has just embarked on a major re-licensing of its clergy in order better to control the version of Islam that is taught and preached, and further loosen the grip of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Islam’s place in society is forever conforming, adjusting or asserting itself according to the licence afforded by its surrounding national and regional political context.

Here in Europe radical Islam is essentially cultural and political in nature. Islam has become disconnected from its cultural roots and Islamism has arisen as a response among some Muslims to Europe’s secular political culture and liberalizing social norms, and to challenges of identity, failures of integration, and exclusion.

Nor is this phenomenon intrinsically about the ideologies of Al Qaeda or – now – ISIS, whose battlefield victories over the past 18 months have enabled it so dramatically to supersede Al Qaeda and make it so attractive to Europeans attracted by the lure of violent extremism.  The Islamist ideology is weak, the concept of an ummah is notional to all but a few, and the ideology is rejected and ignored by all but a tiny fraction of extremists throughout the (very diverse) Muslim world. Where we do see a degree of what our politicians and media construe as mainstream support for ISIS or al Qaeda, is rooted in opposition to Western Middle East policy in respect of, say, the invasion of Iraq, the protection of Israel and the plight of Palestinians, inaction in Syria, or support for corrupt ruling oligarchies.

However, European national leaderships in the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Sweden continue to focus heavily on Islam and the ideologies of violent extremist movements to sustain a counter-argument that cannot win on rational grounds – because it mistakes appearance for reality, content for substance, emotion for reason.

When the counter-narrative fails to get results it becomes shriller and makes the problem worse.  And problem is compounded by an insistence that European Muslims condemn terrorism – which serves only to entrench the Islamization of the problem.

As a consequence, here in Europe, our politics are becoming inflamed, our counter-narrative is handing ammunition to the Far Right, Islamophobia is on the increase, and tension is rising in communities. Our police and our publics are beguiled by the nature, volume and dexterity of the ISIS propaganda machine and there is insufficient understanding of the nature of the battle we are fighting.

We are not thinking about the realities of brands, of ideologies and of mindsets – about what actually motivates terrorists.

In and of itself, an ideology has no power. It needs a psychological shell to host it and make it operational – because it is minds that grip ideologies, not ideologies that grip minds. This is a matter of mindset. Extremist ideology makes itself at home in the vulnerability and susceptibility of young people yet has no significant base in higher age groups. Consider who, here in Europe, are its recruits: they are young people, most of them no older than 24, and not even, any longer, exclusively ‘Muslim’ in origin. That so many so-called ‘jihadis’ are so young is actually more significant than the fact that they claim to be Muslim.

To its adherents, the detail of the ideology is unimportant: they don’t have to know much about it and they don’t even have to believe it. But it is a tool for action – a feeling rather than a series of coherent thoughts, a license to operate.

So when our counter-narrative talks up the ideology and demonizes it, the ideology is also glamorized and made more attractive, and it is empowered, in the minds of these vulnerable young people. It draws attention to, and amplifies, the extremist ideology. It turns anti-recruitment and prevention back into the argument that we can’t win. Because this is not an ideological war – both the United States and Europe know what those look like – it is a psychological war.

However, the ideological approach, which is fuelling a right-wing backlash and increasing tensions in our communities, is in danger of encouraging the development of a new breed of Islamist terrorist.

For this new breed, jihad is not longer about Islam or the Caliphate – that is only skin-deep, although its adherents (with exceptions among converts) have a distinct ethnic identity. These are young men and women, most of whom display increasingly distinct symptoms of family-based, social and psychological distress and are driven by hurts, perceived and actual, at the hands of the mainstream societies into which they have entered but not been absorbed, and they are seeking revenge.

They don’t need to travel to Syria for jihad. In fact they have been enjoined to ‘do it at home, do what you can on your own’. This year’s attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Texas are cases in point.

These young terrorists see themselves as aggressive defenders of their communities and they follow in a long tradition – the Black Panthers, the IRA, the UVF, the PLO, and even, indeed, Shia militias. “Defenders of our community” – that is the strongest ideology of all.

We need a new approach that is psychological rather than ideological or religious. In terms of specific, security-related micro-targets, there have been communications programmes in the Middle East that put that approach into play but lack of budget and strategic commitment saw those programs ended before their impact could be fully developed. In Europe we are now seeing small pilot human engagement programmes that show there is at least progress in experimentation.

But the greater, more general communications challenge is at the level of national leadership and public discourse.  This needs to change and until it does we will continue to experience tactical failure in our efforts to combat violent extremism.

We need to take the heat out of the situation. We need to recondition the way our national and civic leaders and the media think and about and describe this phenomenon. We need to de-emphasize our ‘Islamization’ of the problem and take the pressure off Muslim communities. We need to focus on what we know about the mindset of young people and why they can be vulnerable to radicalization, and be aware that extremist messaging is demonstrating its increasingly sophisticated understanding of that mindset and how to exploit it.

Lastly we need to shape our alternative narrative, and our social policies, around two new plinths – freedom on one hand, inclusion on the other. The concept of freedom is being hijacked by the European right in the shape of a polemic about free speech and the preservation of European culture. Our leaderships need to redefine, indeed reaffirm, and win back, the meaning of freedom – which is fundamentally about tolerance and inclusion.

This can lay the ground for a powerful equation of give and take, of give-up and gain, in which indigenous majority, and immigrant minority, communities can make a trade. For majority, so-called indigenous European communities, the price of that freedom needs to be greater inclusion of our immigrant Muslim minorities. And for those minority communities, the price of inclusion is freedom – a freedom rooted in acceptance of Europe’s secular political and social culture.

Paul Bell leads Albany’s CVE efforts including training for the Office of the National Security Advisor of Nigeria against Boko Haram. Prior to joining Albany Paul set-up and ran the largest communications campaign in the Iraq theatre for the US Army.

For more insights from Paul Bell and his team, visit:

Note: This article, based on a presentation to the Abu Dhabi-based Hedayah institute, owes an intellectual debt to two thinkers and writers in this sphere: one the French sociologist Olivier Roy; the other, David Kenning, a counter-radicalization strategist from Northern Ireland with whom I have worked on these issues for more than a decade.

  1. I live in Ireland for forty years and the David Kenning whom you describe as a N-Irish counter radicalisation strategist is a complete enigma. Never heard of the man other that there seems to be some obscure psychoanalyst who hires himself out to the Amsterdam urban council. It maybe time they investigate this guy’s antecedents. And maybe you can enlighten us?

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