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Revisiting the Theatre of Terror in CVE

13 Nov 2019

Strategic communications in CVE—sometimes referred to as “counter-narratives” or “alternative narratives”—are difficult. They are often maligned for a lack of evidence demonstrating their effectiveness, or worse, that they may have a detrimental effect. In this Perspective, we draw on findings from a recent study which suggests that strategic communications campaigns may rely too heavily on messages which highlight the atrocities of violent extremist groups—in particular, the so-called Islamic State (IS). This could be problematic if considered within the context of Jenkins’ seminal “Theatre of Terror” argument in which he argues that groups carefully choreograph their actions to appear strong and spread fear. The over-use of this tactic could—inadvertently—be helping violent extremist propagandists by reaffirming the group’s military strength, which is at the heart of their message. Rather than focusing heavily on this tactic, a range of other possibilities are discussed which can credibly undermine violent extremist messaging.

A Linkage-Based Framework

In a recent issue of the Journal for Deradicalization, we conducted an exploratory study into a corpus of CVE strategic communication messages. Our analysis was guided by a framework developed by ICCT Associate Fellow Haroro Ingram, in which he develops a “Linkage-Based” approach for campaign and message designers to combat militant Islamist propaganda. Ingram offers a number of communication strategies and tactics, which we used as coding points to analyse a corpus of messages. These include:

  • the target audience;
  • if the message employed positive or negative tactics;
  • whether it attempted to evoke an emotional or rational choice;
  • whether the message was offensive or defensive in nature.

We collected data from 10 different campaigns from Hedayah’s Counter-Narrative Library that focus on violent extremist groups in the MENA region, coming from both Western and local governments as well as civil society. The study yields a number of interesting findings, such as a relationship between language and tactics. Arabic messages were more likely to appeal to an identity-choice; emotional appeals which can draw on factors such as gender, family community, national identity, or religion. Conversely, English messages were more likely to appeal to rationality, such as highlighting the financial support that governments are providing to rebuild countries in the region. Another instructive finding is a prevalence towards offensive messaging—perhaps suggesting that message designers have learned from mistakes of the past, in which campaigns debated extremists online, providing them a platform and allowing them to set the agenda.

In this Perspective, we focus on just one of these findings with important consequences. While messages were both positive and negative in nature, when they were the latter, they focused on a specific type of negativity. In ICCT papers, both Berger and Ingram categorise negative messages into the “five Ds”: divided; disabused; disillusioned; directionless; discouraged. Over half of the total messages in the corpus used the disabused tactic, which focuses on delivering facts which undermine the view of violent extremists to their target audience; highlighting the atrocities that they have committed. These messages tended to be fact-based, too, highlighting the number of people that the group killed or the damage that it left in its wake in Iraq and Syria. In comparison, the other four Ds were used in less than 15% of cases each, showing a clear prevalence for disabused.

Given that the campaigns we selected were between 2015-2017 (i.e. on the back-end of IS’ physical and virtual caliphate) it is perhaps to be expected that strategic communication efforts would leverage the ‘disabused’ angle. After all, at that time—following atrocities such as the genocide and the enslavement of the Yazidis; the ransacking of Mosul; and grotesquely violent propaganda videos—IS had become globally infamous. This means that there was a great deal of material that those designing strategic communication efforts could use to disabuse audiences of the notion that the group had been in the process of establishing some sort of utopia. However, by focusing so much on IS atrocities, the strategic communication campaigns that we studied may also have run the risk of doing the terrorist group’s work for them.

The Theatre of Terror

We argue that viewing our findings within Jenkin’s seminal “terrorism as theatre” argument offers the view that CVE strategic communications that repeatedly highlight the atrocities of terror groups could be making a strategic error. Jenkins argues that rather than mindless or irrational violence, terrorism is carefully choreographed to attract as much attention as possible to increase the spread of the perpetrators’ message, or in other words, ‘Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not the actual victims. Terrorism is theatre.’ Most importantly for our discussion, he argues that:

“Terrorism aims at creating an atmosphere of fear and alarm—of terror. Such an atmosphere causes people to exaggerate the apparent strength of the terrorists' movement.”

Other scholars, such as Gabriel Weimann, have made similar points more recently, drawing on the importance of ‘script preparation, cast selection, sets, props, role playing, and minute-by-minute stage management’ for terrorist attacks to underline their role as violent dramas intentionally staged for their psychological effects on various audiences.

It has been forty-five years since Jenkins first made his seminal argument, and yet it fits the rise and fall of IS as if it was written in 2019. Scholars that have studied the group’s propaganda output note that they often utilise heavily orchestrated stage management to fulfil their strategic aims. For instance, Winter has repeatedly noted the group’s carefully planned media releases play a role in the intent to ‘feed into the idea that Islamic State is a real ‘state’ with a real army, hence contributing to its utopia-building narrative’. Similarly, Klausen notes that the social media accounts of early foreign fighters were tightly controlled and coordinated by the group so the on-looking world could see their output, including Twitter broadcasts of executions. The parallels between the arguments offered above detailing heavy stage management are clear for all to see. In both the group’s media propaganda and their terrorist attacks—i.e. “propaganda of the deed”—the group was attempting to portray themselves as a strong and powerful actor; depictions of grotesque violence are a feature, not a bug, of IS propaganda. They were (one part) of the groups overarching strategy to appear like an actor that can protect their in-group and punish the out-group.

When we see terrorism as violent theatre, the extent to which media coverage actually plays into terrorist organisations’ goals becomes a tricky debate. Traditional news organisations appear to have become more sophisticated at balancing the need to cover terrorist events with the risk of providing the perpetrators free airtime. Yet in 2017, Britain’s most senior police officer expressed concerns that coverage was helping to spread propaganda. Similarly, a large multinational news organisation, which we are intentionally not providing a link to, still hosts the full, unedited 22 minute video of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive. Social media, too, is currently coming to terms with the best ways to address the issue; the video of the Christchurch terrorist attack was only viewed live by 200 people on Facebook, but less than 24 hours later, the platform had removed 1.5 million copies. Similarly, a YouTube spokesman noted that during the first 24 hours, the speed of uploads was occasionally as fast as one video per second.

Do Violent Extremists No Favours

While traditional and social media outlets face their own struggles with projecting terrorist violence, the focus of our study relates to CVE strategic communications. We found that the majority of messages in our sample used the “disabused” frame set out in Ingram’s approach. It is, then, possible that CVE strategic communications campaigns may have been doing IS’ propaganda strategy a favour in highlighting the group’s atrocities in favour of other persuasive techniques. After the liberation of Mosul, for example, a number of campaigns focused on the damage left by the group, and their continued threat. While there is nothing inherently wrong with doing so, repeatedly reinforcing messages that the group is (or at least was) a powerful entity could be a long-term strategic fault. In a country like Iraq, which has had a succession of weak governments that have been unable to defend their citizens and cities from insurgent groups, highlighting the group’s military prowess may be a mistake, even if they are being portrayed in a negative light.

In a recent paper for Europol, Reed and Ingram outlined what they call the first rule of CT/CVE messaging. Building on the longstanding ethical norm of “do no harm”, they suggest that message and campaign designers should keep to the maxim of “do violent extremist propagandists no favours”. Although their discussion is more focused around the offensive/defensive nature of messaging, the same principle runs through: a range of different tactics must be used to proactively undermine extremist messages. To that end, cultivating stories that, even if inadvertently, highlight IS’ military strength may reinforce the group’s “competitive system of meaning.” That is to say, IS claim that Sunni Muslims—the eligible in-group—are in existential danger at the hands of the various out-groups, such as the West, Shia Muslims, and the rulers of Muslim countries. The group claims that they, and only they, can solve this crisis by destroying the out-groups in an apocalyptic war. Highlighting the group’s military prowess reinforces this claim and provides certainty to their uncertain audience, which research has suggested may lead people to become more receptive to the black and white messages that extremists offer. In other words, IS claim that their audience are in danger, exacerbating uncertainty, and then attempt to provide certainty by positing themselves as the sole solution. On this reading, constantly reaffirming the group’s military power may fuel this assertion to uncertain audiences.

If Not Disabused, Then What?

This then raises the question: if strategic communication campaigns should not overemphasise the ‘disabused’ frame, then what is a good alternative? The other four tactics that Berger and Ingram suggest offer a number of other options. Message designers can highlight the divisions within violent extremist movements by discussing inter-group conflicts, such as that between IS and al-Qaeda. They can consider stories of violent extremism not delivering on its promises, such as the Islamic State’s health service. Another option is to communicate the lack of a clear and tangible agenda, emphasising inconsistent strategic decisions to suggest that they are making it up as they go along. Messages can also convey that groups have no chance at winning, calling attention to the many international actors around the world that have joined together to fight the group.

Given that IS currently has only minute military strength—all the more so when compared to its heyday—this may be a perfect time for this kind of message to resonate. In a policy brief for the ICCT, discussing effective ways to counter IS messaging, Berger offers a number of examples. He suggests that the group’s insistence that they will not surrender can be countered by focusing on their inability to wage war and hold territory, highlighting their abandonment of the town of Dabiq without a significant fight, which holds symbolic importance for them. In his analysis of IS video output, Nanninga notes that as the group has become less powerful militarily, it has lost the ability to celebrate major successes on the battlefield and has instead opted to place more emphasis on the self-sacrifice and perseverance of its fighters—this leaves a space for messages which highlight the group’s military failures. Of course, no message is a silver bullet and should be part of a wider strategy with simple and robust overarching goals.

This perspective is not intended to be overly prescriptive; used sparingly, there is a clear persuasive value to highlighting the evils that violent extremist organisations perpetrate. Furthermore, all CVE interventions should be evidence-led and if campaign designers conduct rigorous target audience research and find that this may be an effective and persuasive tactic to use, then they should use it. If, on the other hand, this tactic is being overused and the reason is because it is a low-hanging fruit, without care for the potential negative consequences then it could be a problem. More than anything else, CVE should be ethical and the maxim of not making matters worse should drive all interventions. Given our lack of scientific knowledge as to the effectiveness of these kinds of strategic communications, message designers should err on the side of caution. As always, more research is needed. In this case it would be valuable to know whether this sample of messages is an outlier and whether other campaigns in different parts of the world, targeting different types of violent extremist organisations also use similar tactics prevalently.