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Beating the Terrorist Brand -- The Need for a Political Offensive

05/19/2015 03:48 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016
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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 shortcomings in the seemingly neverending war on terror.

Undoubtedly, this year's report will say the global situation is worsening, as it has concluded for a couple of years now. In the last 12 months an Islamic State has been established, exacerbating the Middle East sectarian divide; localized conflicts in North, East and West Africa have spread; Yemen is in turmoil; and Afghanistan/Pakistan stability shows no sign of improving.

Despite President Obama's switch to a strategy of funding a proxy fight against terrorists -- a policy I have questioned -- there seems to be little good news in the global war against terrorism.

How we talk about terrorism matters, as fame and influence is what the terrorists seek. Those fighting terrorists struggle to reduce their influence -- often talking and acting in ways which all too often inadvertently reinforces the terror message. Today, many goverments who are fighting terrorists with U.S. funding are trailing behind them -- both in terms of neutralizing the propaganda of their deeds and communicating a better, more influential offering.

Joseph Nye said that, alongside a strategy of hard, military containment, it was soft power that brought down the Soviet Union. And it seems it was a smart blend of hard military and soft political power that converted Irish republican terrorism into today's mostly peaceful Northern Irish politics. However, we do not seem to be deploying a similarly strong dose of blended soft and hard power to defeat the terrorists today.

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, Kenya, Washington D.C. and London, I will start by identifying how we are going wrong, then use the next post to suggest improvements to positively influence populations and help beat the terrorists.

Do not...

1. ... 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 we fail to appreciate events from the point of view of the other, and really listen to why there is the clamor of conflict, before launching our response. After U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq and the conflict faded from our consciousness, Iraqi civilians continued to suffer a recorded doubling of casualties year-on-year. We may have "got over" what happened at Abu Ghraib, but such events 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, many are living an entirely different daily experience from the "good versus evil" context that we talk of. After taking off the blinkers, and seeing the realities experienced by people and politics in many corners of the globe, we need to better reflect on and respond to other people's experience of reality.

2. ... confuse foreign public diplomacy with Western domestic politics.

For years, the U.S. and other governments spent more effort in proving the necessity and righteousness of the war in Afghanistan, than it did in 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" 17 times to describe the creation of a set of unequal relationships to address "specific challenges" to U.S. "interest." By fighting terrorism in this way, the U.S. presses the proxy governments to serve the U.S.' agenda over and above addressing issues around their domestic legitimacy.

These so-called partners who can access significant military funding have an interest in building perceptions of a global specter of terrorism - and being an important part of a global war.

3. ... 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, within a local political and cultural context.

Even Generals among U.S. allies have reinforced misleading rhetoric coupling 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 strengthening their terror messages and reputation.

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. Strong security is about good politics, not about the military -- and must be a process visibly led by politicians, not Generals.

4. ... focus on the evil.

Fact: Terrorists terrorize. Their power is in the emotional 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; perpetuating 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 at the heart of a conflict that we erroneously brand as international terrorism. And we must also consider where else this analysis fits.

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 and Mali's north, Somalia's broken state and -- yes -- alienated communities in the west. This cannot be a coincidence.

This is not so about the absence of institutions and "ungoverned areas;" sometimes there is too much government, of the uniformed variety. Rather, this is about forgotten people - and their needs - and our communications must more actively involve them.

5. ... simplify.

We still do not really know who, or what, we are fighting. The ongoing misuse of the term, "Islamic extremist" -- even alongside statements describing terrorism as unIslamic -- obscures and distracts from a genuine understanding. It endows the extremists with the legitimacy they seek rather than undermining their cause.

Recently, President Obama has wisely and conspicuously avoided this polarizing tagline -- using the far more descriptive and less emotive, "violent extremism." However, most of his allies are not following suit. Why don't governments lead more discussion in using the term "unIslamic extremists?"

Tag lines aside, the way the U.S. government categorizes terrorism enables many governments to avoid debate and solutions to long-standing political grievances. Governments the world over need 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.

A much more thorough popular discussion of the terms, "Islamic" and "Islamism", would be useful in the West, especially given the other Islamic State that we have been fighting for and funding for more than 10 years; the Islamic State of the Republic of Afghanistan.

If we want to undermine the terrorists we need to enable extensive discussion of what the enemy stands for and expose the viability of different political, social and cultural agendas. When we curtail or distort public 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.

6. ... alienate our friends.

Critically, communications of U.S. foreign policy served to bolster the flimsy partnership between al Qaeda and the Taliban, thereby strengthening their influence, even when intelligence assessments told the United States they were separate and divided. The vast majority of the Taliban was never the real threat and, brought into the political process early on, 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 joint terms. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, for many years we failed to take seriously the local concern we heard about night raids and a 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 in Afghanistan failed to resonate because it was inconsistent with our military and political actions locally, as the propaganda of our deeds undermined our political offering.

7. ... 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 U.S. government's own authoritative research shows the process of radicalization to be 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 terror brands -- and aids recruitment?

And at the same time, I have seen governments prefer to amplify the role of covert foreign agency in terrorist attacks, distracting attention from local grievances and avoiding questions of local legitimacy.

The propaganda of our deeds

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 inadvertently help them, 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 the second blog.