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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Defeat Terrorists by Dominating the Narrative Space

I have been asked, “How can stories defend against enemy fire?” Or, more aggressively, “This is war, and you want us to tell bedtime stories?” Those are fair questions. My answers are generally that firepower emanates from human beings and human beings are motivated to act in certain ways for certain reasons. We can, to an extent, prevent enemy fire and we can do so non-kinetically.

Some people prefer kinetic force because they know how to exert it and they feel confident about its results.

Firepower may seem more expedient and permanent. It is certainly the former, but it is not the latter. In fact, kinetic engagement often creates second-, third-, and fourth-order problems, and one of the ways it does that is by feeding into hostile narratives that are the real center of gravity of those we fight. That is why countries and organizations that can cannot win a kinetic war still occupy the attention of multinational militaries.

Undermining public trust in government is high on the “to do” list of those forces seeking to destabilize communities. But make no mistake – the role of narrative strategies is central to battlefield maneuvering even when the battlefield is physical territory. Anytime militaries are engaged they benefit from the support of the public on the home front, the civilians in the conflict zones, and the international communities tasked with policy decisions. When we ask for support we need to tell people what we want them to do, why we want them to do it, how it will serve them, and what results they can expect. Moreover, a comprehensive narrative strategy will develop a military mission statement that goes beyond the what, where, and how. It will describe the meaning of each action for each line of effort’s contribution (why it matters) and the intended effect on the entire mission.

The center of gravity in any conflict is the narrative space. It always has been. We just call it a different name now because we have a more sophisticated understanding of cognitive function. The Department of Defense is still struggling to get a grip on what narrative is. To understand the impact of narrative, understanding Narrative Identity is imperative, as is understanding the meaning-making function of narrative. Narrative operates at a very basic and fundamental (less than conscious) level and yet efforts to use narrative strategically have treated narrative as a conscious communication tactic.

If you don’t understand the narratives people live by, then you don’t understand what motivates their behavior. If you don’t understand how identities are inherited and developed through narrative, then you don’t understand what you are engaging when you communicate.

Narrative directly impacts the threat environment whether in a physical conflict zone, or in terms of the effects of radicalization, or the interference of foreign governments in domestic politics. Therefore dominating the narrative space should be a priority. That is where non-state actors fight best. That is where foreign governments have proven effective in waging war fight without getting dirty hands. That is precisely where our enemies dominate, and no amount of firepower will create a win in that space.

Coalition forces are having serious trouble keeping up in the narrative space. Keeping up is a bad idea, anyway.

To the extent that we understand this center of gravity we have focused our energies on counter-narratives – in other words, we have focused our energies on keeping up. That is a strategic blunder. We cannot win by keeping up. We win by dominating the COG – the narrative space.

It is strategically imperative that we stop focusing on counter-narratives and get out in front of our adversaries with our own narrative. We need to undermine the appeal of hostile narratives, not by addressing them but by challenging them with a more appealing vision.

It is counter-productive for us to engage in narrative conflict. We need to produce narrative dominance.

The last thing we should do is put ourselves on the same moral footing as our adversaries. And countering adversarial narratives does something even worse – it puts us in a responsive moral position. I am not suggesting that we ignore adversarial narratives; on the contrary, we should be paying close attention as we need all the intelligence we can get (Narrative Identity Analysis) to be effective. But our response to adversarial narratives should not be public counter-narratives; rather, we need offensive narratives crafted with both form and content that undermine adversarial implications without direct reference.

But how do we communicate with audiences who are hostile to us and our narrative? What do we do when we are dealing with a population that doesn’t share our values, or our worldview, or our understanding of historical context? The answer is, we don’t “tell” them anything and we do not “deliver” a message. Instead, we should do two things simultaneously: 1) we disrupt adversarial cognitive frameworks and 2) we enact our own narratives.

My brand of narrative strategy understands meaning not as something that is static and can be conveyed whole and intact, but as something that is constructed in social interaction. The messenger’s intent is evaluated by the audience and meaning happens in that initial interaction and continues indefinitely. Social interaction sometimes solidifies certain meanings and sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes social interaction even undermines intended meaning.

According to the communications model most of us have been taught, however, effective communication involves securely passing information from sender to receiver uncompromised, unfiltered, and undistorted. This outmoded communication model does not take into account the active involvement of the audience. And this erroneous linear model of communication has everything to do with failed counter-messaging efforts.

Based on the antiquated communication model, the goal of counter-messaging has been to control or “counter” extremist messaging. But the goal should be to encourage the meaning-making audience to re-interpret fundamentalist narrative, to cross cognitive frameworks, and to encourage the audience to actively revise their own narratives. Those who determine how that is done will be in control of the COG.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.


Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one assigns meaning to one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes that identity influences behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. After establishing herself through her work on Internarrative Identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Her work was the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 multi-authored scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of Internarrative Identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience thereby uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world.

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