Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Shift in Counterterrorism Communication Strategy

Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson write in PolicyWatch that the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has recently undergone a shift.

Where, previously, the emphasis was on selling the U.S. as "the good guys" (Remember Charlotte Beers? Remember Karen Hughes?), the emphasis now is on demonstrating the degree to which al Qaeda and its fellow travelers are "the bad guys":

Today contesting al-Qaeda's ideology is an integral part of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Efforts now concentrate on discrediting the terrorists. The United States has gone about this using a two-fold approach. As National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Michael Leiter suggests, the United States is trying to point out "how bankrupt" al-Qaeda's ideology is, and demonstrate that "it is al-Qaeda, and not the West, that is truly at war with Islam" by highlighting the extent to which Muslims are victims of the organization's attacks.

In general, the United States is trying to highlight the fact that al-Qaeda is a merciless and cruel organization whose tactics -- such as deploying mentally deficient people as suicide bombers -- are repugnant. As Leiter argued, "showing the barbarism of groups like al-Qaeda in the light of truth is, ultimately, our strongest weapon."
This message can have some traction - for instance, we've already seen evidence of this in the eventual Sunni rejection of al Qaeda for its horrific practices in Iraq.

In a way it's basic politics: Demonize your opposition.

For the strategy to be effective, this message needs to work on the local level. The homegrown threat, which was discussed in this post on Tuesday, can be countered by demonstrating the bankruptcy of al Qaeda's ideology. Trusted Muslim leaders can be a vital ally, as they are best able to formulate counter-arguments that are based on an Islamic perspective. These arguments can have real weight against the "cut-and-paste" version of Islam that is taught by the usually self-taught radicalizers (see this post).

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