U.S. Counterterrorism Narrative: A Way Forward

Madeline Kristoff


While it seems to be widely agreed upon that the U.S. counterterrorism narrative is failing, little empirical evidence is available describing the U.S. counter-narrative strategy since 9/11 or an analytical framework for measuring its success or failure. This research is designed to contribute toward filling that gap by investigating the effectiveness of the U.S. counterterrorism narrative strategy between 2001 and 2016 and developing an effective U.S. government counterterrorism narrative strategy for the future. This thesis creates a framework for measuring the American government’s post-9/11 counterterrorism narrative in the period 2001 and 2016 by using four methods: content analysis of U.S. presidential speeches, content analysis of U.S. Department of State (DOS) Twitter postings, an assessment of overall U.S. counterterrorism strategies, called performative power, and applying the social identity analytical method to two speeches delivered in November 2016.
First, this thesis analyzes a sample of 75 speeches given by U.S. presidents overseas and directed at a foreign audience between 2001 and 2016. In addition, this thesis analyzes 50 randomly selected tweets produced by the DOS “ThinkAgain_DOS” Twitter account posted between 2014 and 2016. Words and phrases from each speech and tweet are coded into one of four categories: countering perceptions, undermining adversarial leadership, positive vision, or promoting commonality. Each category is then given a weighted index score based upon the number of times words or phrases from that category are found in each speech or tweet. These weighted index scores are then averaged out by year and plotted against the number of terrorist attacks in the United States during that same year.
Next, the thesis analyzes the performative power of the U.S. counterterrorism policy between 2001 and 2016. The performative power of counterterrorism strategy aims to measure the “social visibility” of counterterrorism measures to establish a correlation between the amount of “social drama generated” and terrorist attacks. Once the performative power of counterterrorism policy is determined per year, that data is plotted against terrorist attacks in the United States during the same year to find a correlation using a regression analysis statistical model.
Lastly, this thesis applies the social identity analytical method to assess two speeches (one delivered by a U.S. president and one delivered by an Islamic State leader) qualitatively within an overall social context. The social identity theory framework demonstrates how and when groups change, how a group is impacted by changes in communication, and how a group’s socially constructed identity may allow a group to change from terrorist tactics to non-violent political activity.
Any recommendations for an improved U.S. strategy on counterterrorism narratives must be grounded in lessons learned from the U.S. narrative from 2001 through 2016. After conducting a content analysis, this thesis determined that the only speech factor with a strong statistical correlation to terrorist attacks in the United States during the same year was promoting commonality. When U.S. presidential speeches included more messages that cultivate commonality with foreign audiences, terrorist attacks in the United States in that year decreased. Although not a causal measurement, this simple statistical model demonstrates a negative relationship between these two variables. Using the social identity analytical method framework illustrates that appropriated in-group identifications continue to make a difference between terrorist groups, governments, and religious identifications more broadly, and that the U.S. government has failed to understand these nuances or to react correctly to the broader terrorist landscape.
To implement these recommendations, an interagency counterterrorism office would be best established under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS is responsible for a variety of programs and activities abroad and domestically to counter terrorist groups and their activities. To develop a comprehensive counterterrorism narrative strategy, a collaborative, interagency counterterrorism office is best placed within the DHS. Analysts in this office would be responsible for integrating ongoing social identity analytical method analysis in all areas of social groups and movements worldwide and domestically, as well as keeping track of opportune moments for targeting narratives. This counterterrorism office would also maintain metrics on the entire U.S. government performative power on a regular basis. While this thesis only studied presidential speeches, other political leaders make legislation and deliver speeches that explain counterterrorism policies. The interagency counterterrorism office must incorporate the development of counterterrorism narrative strategy for all those who speak on behalf of the U.S. government.
U.S. counterterrorism narrative strategy from the post-9/11 period from 2001 to 2016 has proved largely ineffective. Content analysis of 75 U.S. presidential speeches, 50 DOS Twitter postings, and the measurement of U.S. performative power demonstrated that only the narrative factor of promoting commonality has a negative correlation with terrorist attacks. More messages promoting commonality correlates to decreased terrorist attacks. To fully understand when to use this messaging more often, the social identity analytical method demonstrated that the U.S. government has lacked comprehension of social in-group identification nuances or how to react appropriately to the larger terrorist social context. To target messaging effectively, the framework should be applied on a consistent basis, to target narrative messages that promote commonality within a larger comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.

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