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Research Paper

Al Qaeda’s “Single Narrative” and Attempts to Develop Counter-Narratives

14 Jan 2014
Long read by Alex P. Schmid

In this Research Paper, Research Fellow Dr. Alex Schmid dissects the nature of Al Qaeda’s propaganda strategy by looking how it incorporates in its ideological narrative Islam’s sacred texts and traditions and how it manages to link these to widespread contemporary grievances in the Muslim world. Al Qaeda’s survival is tied to the credibility of its narrative "story" rather than the physical survival of its leadership.

The Research Paper discusses mainly American and British efforts to challenge the integrative (hence: "single") narrative of Al Qaeda. Current counter-narratives often fall short of reaching objectives due to a lack of credibility – a result of the gap between official Western declaratory policies and actual policies on the ground. Efforts to sell “hearts and minds” products often floundered on policies that lack legitimacy or stood in stark contrast to professed values like adherence to human rights standards, thereby creating perceptions of double standards and hypocrisy. While Al Qaeda's policies exhibit similar, and in some areas even greater, discrepancies between what is being said and what is being done, these have not been fully exploited.

Following the discussion of governmental efforts to counter Al Qaeda’s narrative, findings and suggestions from academia, think tanks, religious scholars and others trying to counter Al Qaeda's narrative are presented. While it is generally true that counter-narrative work is still in its infancy, the survey of various proposals and programs makes clear that important building blocks for a more creative effort of countering the ideological attraction of Al Qaeda exist.

One of the problems with counter-narratives is their defensive and reactive nature and their focus on packaging messages. This paper emphasises the importance of crafting and spreading an alternative narrative. While counter-narratives have to aim at discrediting the exclusive narrative of Al Qaeda, the alternative narrative has to focus on the propagation of the West’s own values in a manner that is inclusive of Muslims in Western diasporas. Both narratives – the counter-narrative and the alternative narrative ought to be propagated simultaneously.

Read the Research Paper.

How to cite: Schmid, A. P. "Al Qaeda’s “Single Narrative” and Attempts to Develop Counter-Narratives", The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism - The Hague 5, no. 1 (2014). DOI: