Best Defense

The ‘kill/capture’ approach ain’t working for us: Narratives do better than drones

The “kill/capture” approach to terrorist organizations, from a military perspective, has been relatively successful in removing the head from the snake — top leadership. Since President Obama took office there have been approximately 500 drone strikes and capture operations that have killed or captured over 3,300 terrorists. Yet these operations not only have failed to eliminate al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, they have resulted in the proliferation of violent extremism by directly feeding into the narratives that support it.

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By Jim Sisco and Ajit Maan
Best Defense guest narrators

The “kill/capture” approach to terrorist organizations, from a military perspective, has been relatively successful in removing the head from the snake — top leadership. Since President Obama took office there have been approximately 500 drone strikes and capture operations that have killed or captured over 3,300 terrorists.

Yet these operations not only have failed to eliminate al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, they have resulted in the proliferation of violent extremism by directly feeding into the narratives that support it.

The problem is that the snake is more like a starfish, which regenerates its severed parts creating more terrorists. In Pakistan for example, arrests removed many mid-level Taliban commanders weakening its chain of command. However, analysts believe that the younger leaders who have filled their ranks are more extreme, more lethal, and less likely to compromise on a political settlement.

It is time to reconsider our own militarized narrative. The story we tell ourselves is predicated upon the belief that the U.S. is conducting a “war on terror” or involved in a “clash of civilizations” or even an “ideological battle.” Therefore, the appropriate response, we have concluded, is through the application of military force — capabilities and technology to defeat the enemy. Unfortunately, this narrative is incorrect and the weapons being used to combat terrorism are ineffective because the war on terrorism has been mis-identified.

We need to counter terrorism with methods and tools that shape environments and affect behaviors. Military action is only one of these tools. It should be placed alongside other tools in the context of a larger strategic narrative that is long term and speaks to the identity of its audience.

Our enemies understand this concept, have embraced it, and have incorporated strategic narratives across their operations. AQAP, ISIS, al-Qaeda and even the Taliban effectively disseminate their brand and reinforce their ideologies through broad information operations that include social media to control the strategic narrative. For example, when Ibrahim al-Rubeish, a spokesman for AQAP, was killed recently by a drone strike, the organization posted a statement on Twitter. According to a translation, the statement said Mr. Rubeish “spent nearly two decades as a mujahid,” an Islamic fighter, “in the cause of Allah, battling against America and its agents.” It went on to describe the attack as part of a “hate-filled Crusader strike” against individuals waging jihad against the Zionist infidels.

We need a new and better message, one through which hard and soft power will be understood. It also should encompass the adversary’s narrative. This involves re-narrating the events of the opposition’s narrative, co-opting their meaning. In other words, one tells one’s narrative in a way that re-frames the opposition’s and offers a bigger, better, smarter alternative of understanding, identifying and acting.

An effective strategic message must target, and be delivered to, the population not the terrorists. In an unconventional warfare campaign the key terrain is the human terrain and winning the hearts and minds is essential to achieve victory. A strategic narrative will not be successful if it is limited to the narrative terrain established by extremists and should not be focused on responding to their massages.

Responding to terrorist messaging will result in three foreseeable problems: 1) We will lose an ideological or religious debate. 2) Losing that debate will result in further loss of credibility. 3) Responding leaves us continually in a defensive position. Rather, we need to position ourselves offensively, to get out ahead of their narrative, encompass it, and swallow it up.

Winning hearts and minds is accomplished through messages that resonates with the target audience, which means selecting our narrative battles wisely. Our narrative must demonstrate how extremists are using the population as a proxy force and how they don’t, in fact, share common identities, interests, or objectives of the individuals and communities they are trying to control. Our message should focus on the damage terrorists have done to the population and how their actions provoke responses that will result in further turmoil. That is the message that will resonate with the target audience because it is consistent with their immediate experience.

Strategic narratives don’t tell the truth; they tell the meaning. They don’t reflect the world as it is; they reflect the narrator’s ideological stance and they do so without argument, or debate, and without permission. However, to be effective and forceful, a narrative must be credible and to appear that way it must reflect the reality that the target audience perceives. Moreover, words without action are meaningless. Therefore, strategic narratives are best fought within an irregular warfare context with military operations contributing to the desired outcomes. Developing and empowering a coherent strategic narrative is the best weapon to combat terrorism and a national security imperative.

James Sisco is the president of ENODO Global, a business intelligence firm that focuses on population-centric analysis to solve complex social problems in dynamic cultural environments. Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is a social and political philosopher and author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies and Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self. She also edits the Strategic Narrative blog.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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