Hope as a Counterterrorism Strategy?
After the historic presidential elections in the United States, messages poured in from around the world congratulating the American people on their transformative new President. One of the voices in the chorus was that of Abu Omar al Baghdadi, also known as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In a statement released on a jihadi internet forum he claimed that Obama's victory was also a victory for the jihadists fighting in Iraq and around the world. Apparently, everyone really does want to bask in the Obama glow.
According to Baghdadi, Obama's victory was a repudiation of America's involvement in the Iraq war. It signaled that the American people had finally been worn down by al Qaeda's winning strategy of attrition and terrorist tactics. You'll recall one of Obama's campaign platforms was ending America's military presence within 16 months of taking office. But al Qaeda's messages had nothing to do with our 44th president, nor what his election means for America's prospects of winning or losing the war against violent Islamic extremism. Rather it has everything to do with how well al Qaeda plays the communications game and how ineffectual we have been in countering their core message... so far.
Despite the fact that al Qaeda has been embarrassingly rejected by the very Muslims they claim to represent in Iraq and despite the fact that they cannot defeat us on the battlefield, we are still losing on the most important battle front - communication. We are losing because of one reason. Al Qaeda knows how to effectively communicate with the Muslim world and we don't.
Al Qaeda understand the punch of a powerful message. As soon as al Qaeda was established the very first thing they did was develop their communications strategy and began transmitting messages. They did this before they even conducted a single attack. Al Qaeda realizes that the message is the main front of the war on terror- not the battlefield or the urban targets of terrorist attacks.
While most Muslims think al Qaeda is despicable, there is no denying that their message permeates throughout the Muslim world. It reaches young Muslims through Arab satellite stations, internet forums, online videos and on the street whispering campaigns.
Al Qaeda's communication strategy is effective not only because it is pervasive, but because it is simple. The West is to blame for your troubles and they are against the values of Islam.
Though we have invaded two countries, fortified our cities and stepped our intelligence and law enforcement efforts around the world, we have failed to do the very thing needed to rid the appeal of al Qaeda once and for all and that is build a communications strategy around a simple but effective message that can counter al Qaeda's extremist hate.
Our current president has been labeled one of the most effective communicators in recent memory. This talent must now be directed towards a comprehensive counter terrorism strategy whose center piece is communication, not military action or belabored outreach efforts.
With a new Obama administration, we finally have an equally simple and elegant counterterrorism message - Hope.
Hope as a counterterrorism strategy sounds about as intangible as hope as an election strategy. At first many people disparaged Obama's simple, some would say simplistic, message of Hope and Change, saying it will do nothing to solve the very real problems facing America today. But we all witnessed how powerful this message has been and can be. Nowhere is this yearning more strongly felt and hope desperately needed than the parts of the world that are the breeding grounds of Islamic extremism.
President elect Obama alluded to this 'hope as counterterrorism' strategy during an election speech in which he outlined his foreign policy platform at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "Al Qaeda's new recruits come from Africa and Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Many come from disaffected communities and disconnected corners of our interconnected world. And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?... That child looking up at the helicopter must see America and feel hope."
Our new President intuitively understands how our enemy has been organizing and spreading their message because he has organized and communicated in a similar way. Despite the fact they are communicating diametrically opposed ideas, both al Qaeda and the incoming Obama administration mobilize others to spread their message through the internet, satellite television, blogs, and new other new technologies, planting the seed and nurturing, but not overtly directing, their growing swell of supporters. This is the new communication and organizational strategy of the information age.
If a new Obama administration can indeed formulate a new counterterrorism strategy based on their election strategy of a simple message, clearly and forcefully articulated through a gradual swell of grass roots support, then we will be well on our way to truly countering Islamic extremism and anti-Americanism. We finally have a president who can communicate and inspire. Now its time to build a counterterrorism strategy based on communication and inspiration.
Lydia Khalil is a former counterterrorism analyst for the New York Police Depart and an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.