Out, Out—The Role of Messaging in Countering Domestic Violent Extremism

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KathRYn Roberts


Countering the radical Islamist narrative remains a high priority of the United States in its ongoing efforts to counter domestic violent extremism. In 2014, the rapid emergence of the Islamic State (IS) brought the idea of narratives to the forefront of public discussion. As the first terrorist organization to leverage social network platforms to their full potential for its strategic communications, IS and its graphic, taunting messages captured the attention and imagination of the world. Experts inside and outside government described IS as a uniquely gifted adversary capable of reaching into the United States and turning its people into violent terrorists from afar. These same officials also condemned the U.S. as unable to effectively challenge these messages, emphasizing the potentially devastating consequences of this failure.

The idea that strategic communications is essential to terrorism is certainly not new. In a prescient 2005 letter sent by Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Zawahiri wrote, “I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”[1] However, in 2014, the tactics of communication felt new and the U.S. government seemed ill prepared to respond. An assessment by Boyle and Kallmyer from the Broadcasting Board of Governors captures the general sentiment in Washington at the time well, “The information front against terrorist organizations is now of vital strategic significance, and the U.S. government was initially caught unprepared.”[2]

Given the extensive historical experience of the United States in strategic communications and wartime strategic influence campaigns, this perception of failure is somewhat surprising.[3] Countering IS was a top national security and defense priority throughout the Obama administration. The National Security Strategy 2015 specifies that the U.S. will “support alternatives to extremist messaging” and “undertake a comprehensive effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”[4] A summit on countering violent extremism (CVE) held at the White House also explicitly addressed counter-narratives, and in conjunction with that summit, the White House announced dedicated staffing and additional funding for the overall CVE program.[5] Yet, throughout 2015 and 2016, the belief of failure in Washington held firm. It begs the question, as a top White House priority, with resources and experience committed to the cause, why would government efforts fail?

This thesis began with an attempt to answer this deceptively simple question: is the U.S. really failing at efforts to counter-message radical Islamism? From the onset, significant challenges arose in finding an answer; first and foremost, there seems to be no meaningful strategy for counter-messaging. In 2011, the White House published a strategy entitled Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States with an accompanying Strategic Improvement Plan (SIP) that tasked multiple federal agencies with a variety of “strategic” deliverables, some of which include counter-messaging. However, no specific goals, performance measures, or evaluation plans were provided, nor did the SIP direct coordination efforts across these agencies.[6] The result is unsurprising. In 2016, Congress commissioned a comprehensive review of CVE efforts by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found no “cohesive strategy” or “measurable outcomes” across the government, despite the 2011 plan.[7] The report says:

The federal government does not have a cohesive strategy or process for assessing the overall CVE effort. Although GAO was able to determine the status of the 44 CVE tasks, it was not able to determine if the United States is better off today than it was in 2011 as a result of these tasks.[8]

Without a strategy to review or any supporting data, there is no basis upon which to authoritatively evaluate the existing programs. Put alternatively, it is inappropriate to call these efforts a failure because it is not possible to answer the question: failing at what. A natural outgrowth of this initial finding is why then does the U.S. believe it is failing? What was it hoping to accomplish that seems, as of yet, unattained?

Exploration of this second question requires a deep look into the ideas and assumptions underlying current and desired efforts in counter-messaging. The purpose of this thesis is to answer this second question, why does the U.S. believe it is failing, along with another, under what conditions could it succeed? Or simply put, what is the U.S. trying to accomplish and how accomplishable are these goals? To address these two points, research for this study is conducted in two phases.

First, a review of official documents, including testimony, public statements by relevant departments or their senior leaders, websites, and reports is performed to construct a “most-likely” set of objectives for counter-messaging.[9] Working with these objectives, root cause analysis is used to identify assumptions and ideas that underlie them and they are organized into a framework for analysis.

Second, in phase two, this framework of ideas is critically examined against a comprehensive literature review to identify potential areas where expectations are unrealistic or underlying assumptions do not align with the collective knowledge of relevant academic disciplines. Many disciplines can contribute to an understanding of communications as it relates to terrorism; however, this study focuses on five where clear, direct association is evident: political communications, strategic communications, political science, sociology, and terrorism studies. In the case of each objective and its associated assumptions and ideas, these five disciplines are consulted for their respective wisdom on two questions: is it an achievable or appropriate goal for homeland security or law enforcement officials, and if so, is counter-messaging the most fitting tool to achieve this goal? In the end, very little evidence suggests yes for any of the objectives reviewed.[10]

Ultimately, it appears that rather than a failure of execution, the critical problem with U.S. counter-messaging is a failure of understanding and a misalignment of tactics to desired outcomes. While on its face it seems simple enough to accept that if an adversary is putting out messages that may have negative consequences, it is a good idea to counter them; as it turns out, this is not necessarily the case, and in fact, introducing counter-messages may result in the exact opposite of what the messenger wants.[11] It takes a deeper understanding of how messages are sent and received by individuals and groups, how narratives are intertwined with individual and group identity, how radicalization occurs, and the difference between radicalization and mobilizing to violence to recognize the flaws in the current thinking about counter-messaging. This paper provides this needed context and concludes by offering suggestions on the potential scope and limitations of domestic counter-messaging campaigns moving forward.[12]



[1] Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat (New York: Random House, 2007), 28.

[2] Robert Boyle and Kevin Kallmyer, “Combatting the Islamic State’s Digital Dominance: Revitalizing U.S. Communication Strategy,” The Washington Quarterly 39, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 29–48, DOI: 10.10

[3] The United States ran extensive strategic communications campaigns during WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. For more information on historical U.S. strategic communications efforts, see James Farwell and John J. Hamre, Persuasion and Power: The Art of Strategic Communications (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012); Bryan Freeman, “The Role of Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs, and Psychological Operations in Strategic Information” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2005), 15–36.

[4] White House, National Security Strategy 2015 (Washington, DC: White House, 2015), 9–10, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy_2.pdf. Similar language is also present to show continuity into the Trump administration. White House, National Security Strategy 2017 (Washington, DC: White House, 2017), 15, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-cont

[5] White House Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” February 18, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/18/fact-sheet-white-house-summit-countering-violent-extremism.

[6] The SIP says “we will coordinate activities, where appropriate, to support the CVE effort” but it does not say who the “we” is; no one is explicitly overseeing plan implementation writ large, although the National Security Staff and an Interagency Policy Committee are referenced in some places as architects of the plan and could ostensibly be those responsible for its execution. Later, the plan outlines how each task has a lead agency, in many cases several of them, responsible for coordinating the task, which appears to leave no one at the head of the project with visibility across all tasks and may account for the GAO findings presented in the 2017 report.

[7] Government Accountability Office, Countering Violent Extremism, Actions Needed to Define Strategy and Assess Progress of Federal Efforts, GAO-17-300 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2017), 16.

[8] Government Accountability Office, 2.

[9] Two points can be made. First, these objectives are used to encompass both what it supposed to be done and also what it wants to accomplish (so it includes the assumed desirable outcome). Second, it is necessary to depart from the published “strategic objectives” outlined in the 2011 document because they are not strategic.

[10] The objectives are presented for the first time in Chapter IV.

[11] Kate Ferguson, Countering Violent Extremism through Media and Communication Strategies (Bath, England: Partnership for Conflict, Crime, and Security Research, 2016), 9, http://www.paccsresearch.org.
uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Countering-Violent-Extremism-Through-Media-and-Communication-Strategies-.pdf; Kris Christmann, Preventing Religious Radicalisation and Violent Extremism: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence (London: Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, 2012), 30.

[12] Although this study focuses specifically on radical Islamism, it is worth noting that its findings can also apply more broadly to any identity-based political movement. Narratives are an essential component of identity politics, and so, how the U.S. government chooses to address the issue of narrative is critical when considering those groups. Radical Islam is one example of many.

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