THE battle of narratives is the least understood aspect of countering extremism and terrorism. Engaging primarily in hard approaches means states maintain a monopoly over countering extremism, with little input from civil society, which gives extremist groups an advantage. But killing terrorists alone won’t kill their ideology; thus it is necessary to adopt a more diagnostic and holistic approach.
Extremists use emotional appeals couched in generalities about victimhood, brotherhood, jihad, liberation, conquest, caliphate, etc to attract young disaffected followers. Democracy is deemed an illusion, and violence the only means for change. In Egypt, the ouster and death of Morsi further strengthened this belief, helped reconstruct the jihadist narrative, and intensified the debate on conceptual vs operational caliphate.
In announcing the establishment of an operational caliphate in 2014, the militant Islamic State group found an opportunity to undermine Al Qaeda, which struggled for decades but failed to establish one through its conceptual approach. IS took full advantage of technology and online spaces to expand its influence, and argued that a caliphate could only be established through territorial gains. They claimed Al Qaeda was a mere organisation, whereas they were a ‘state’.
In developing their narratives, the authors of extremist ideologies sought to establish historical linkages as well as adapt to their target audiences. The narrative of Al Qaeda included violent jihad, implementation of Sharia, freedom from external influence, territorial integrity of the ummah, protection of resources and an ideal Islamic empire. In 2013, Ayman al-Zawahiri sought to simplify Al Qaeda’s concept of caliphate. With IS’s emergence, Al Qaeda projected itself as a less sectarian organisation, the sole ‘pragmatic’ option. In his earlier writings, Zawahiri supported attacks on non-combatants and glorified suicide bombing. He subsequently revised his stance, directing followers to not target public and residential areas. Al Zawahiri also criticised the Muslim Brotherhood for adopting the ‘Western democratic model’, described by him as a ‘modern-day disease’. He believed that global consumerism had weakened Arab nationalism, as secular rulers bribed the clergy to appease them.
Extremists know how to appeal to their target audience.
In 1997, the Afghan Taliban established a self-styled ‘emirate’, but over time its religious hues gave way to a more nationalist narrative. Thus, the Taliban shuttled between religiosity and Afghan nationalist passions.
After declaring its allegiance to IS in 2014, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (renamed Wilayat Sinai) argued that ‘freedom’ could not be achieved through parliamentary politics and that spilling blood was the only option.
In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba opted for secularism and modernisation whereas Salah Ben Youssef struggled to establish an Islamic order. The secular narrative resulted in the emergence of the Islamic Tendency Movement. The Jasmine Revolution bid to democratise Tunisia in 2011 only led to more chaos and economic uncertainty. Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia vetoed the idea of democracy. Meanwhile, militant groups took advantage of Tunisians’ high literacy and bilingual proficiency to employ them on multiple fronts.
While Al Qaeda and IS had different models to bring about their desired social transformation, both sought to utilise the tribal fabric of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen to their advantage. It was easy, for instance, for terrorist groups to multiply their influence in the Kanuri tribe, scattered across Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Both also tried to understand their target audience in their selected area of influence. They took advantage of difficult terrains and abject poverty. They focused on the illiterate and isolated, preferably located in weakly or ungoverned areas, who were easily manipulated through cultural and religious appeals. They created narratives specifically to reunite former militants. They celebrated their dead instead of mourning them. In constructing the ‘enemy’, they referred to them as animals.
In drafting counter-narratives, states are supposed to follow the guidelines in Security Council Resolution No. 2354, which expresses concern over terrorist groups misrepresenting religion to justify violence, recruit fighters and garner support.
Besides successful military operations, Pakistan drafted the National Action Plan (2014), Counter Extremism Policy guidelines (2018), National Internal Security Policies (2014-2018 and 2018-2023) and Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Act, 2020. It is high time that Pakistan reassesses all such endeavours and readjusts the institutional and legal frameworks of counterterrorism to address ground realities. Pakistan has successfully defeated the savages, but the smouldering embers of ideological warfare have yet to be extinguished.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2020