Understanding narratives – the reality of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency

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Yesterday, the House of Commons saw some to-and-fro rhetoric between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition around counter-terrorism in the wake of the Algerian attack and its aftermath. It’s important to recognise within the wide context of the news stories and the political analysis that at the personal level there are families across the globe now who have been robbed of sons/brothers/fathers/husbands – and they need support in what comes next for them in their lives.

In the Commons yesterday, there was an expected increase in rhetoric about the need to fight terrorism. The Prime Minister, towards the end of his initial comments, said:

“In sum, we must frustrate the terrorists with our security, we must beat them militarily, we must address the poisonous narrative they feed on, we must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive, and we must deal with the grievances that they use to garner support. This is the work that our generation faces, and we must demonstrate the same resolve and sense of purpose as previous generations did with the challenges that they faced in this House and in this country.”

In response, the Leader of the Opposition:

“In particular, the task is to understand the nature of the new threat, which is more decentralised and fragmented and takes advantage of the ungoverned spaces and security vacuum in parts of north Africa. At the same time, in its response the international community needs to apply the lessons of the past about the combination of diplomacy, politics and security required to help to bring about stability in the region.”

“More broadly across the region, countering the emerging threat of terrorism begins with understanding it and talking about it in the right way. The work to deal with that threat will be painstaking: diplomatic and political as much as military; and collaborative and multilateral, not unilateral. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are talking about a number of distinct regional organisations, some using the banner of al-Qaeda and others not, rather than a single, centrally co-ordinated or controlled group? Each of these threats needs to be monitored and countered appropriately.”

Taking the two areas of that on which I feel qualified to speak – the understanding element and the poisonous narrative. I believe one is essential and the other is a deeply misleading concept that blinds us to opportunities and threats.

Understanding the region, the people and groups within it, is crucial to undermining support. Having done some work with narrative research in Egypt the year before the Arab Spring, I can say with some confidence that underlying dispositions arise from small grievances and historical events – usually things that sit well below the radar of analysts sitting far away. It’s the coalescence of common grievances and perspectives that tends to drive social movements, and these are only visible at the personal, the local level. It’s why we gather experiences and narratives about day-to-day life, not grand events (although those can crop up in the material we collect).

For monitoring, it’s more useful to watch for emergent clusters of narrative around common themes – letting the people on the ground tell you what is bothering them. Pre-defined categories and questions can be too directive – gaining us at best answers that fit within our previous suspicions, at worst allowing the people we’re hearing the opportunity to give us the stories they think we want to hear. (cf The Hoaxing of Margaret Mead)

The poisonous narrative is a tempting but dangerous notion. It’s also a simplistic one that is easier to fit into newspapers and popular discussion than a more difficult, more nuanced one. The truth – as I pointed out some time ago at a conference – is that there is no single terrorist narrative. There are many narratives – each one different in its inception – that, as people become part of the movement, is co-opted and shaped to fit a bigger motivation. It’s an end-result after radicalisation, to my mind, less of an instigating motivation. In essence, one person’s dissatisfaction with their life warps over time to become “the West is keeping me down”.

To mistake the end-point as the motivation is deeply misleading.

There are other problems with this approach too. If we as observers approach the subject with the concept of a single narrative, we emphasis and activate our own cognitive biases – we go into the problem counting basketballs and risk not seeing guerillas. If we’re looking for the early signals of rising dissatisfaction and potential radicalisation, a single narrative will blind us. We will miss the early warnings – but more crucially we may miss early opportunities, moments when small incidents addressed quickly will dampen down ill-feeling and dispositions towards violence.

If we see a single poisonous narrative, the temptation is to find a cure or a counter-narrative. And as Dave and I have both commented on in the past, this is a Bad Idea. There won’t be a counter-narrative – but there may be multiple local narratives and thousands of micro-narratives. Countering and curing are both approaches that define something as negative and look for that which will eradicate it. Instead, by looking at all those different narratives, the better approach is to amplify some – through action, through diplomacy, through aid and, yes, through military options where necessary – and dampen others.

The approach instead is an ecological one – how do you encourage the plants you want in your garden, weeding out those you don’t want early and while they are small. Wait until they’ve coalesced into something large and its roots are too deep to remove easily.

[At some point, I need to write that article on Gardening and Narratives – I’ve only been contemplating it for 20 months now. Elephants have shorter gestation periods…]

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2 thoughts on “Understanding narratives – the reality of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency”

  1. An excellent well thought through response especially on the poisonous narrative. It’s ironic that when ecologists working in conservation begin to try and control their particular nature reserve they are taunted with the phrase “wildlife gardener”. So beware the gardening domain its rather complicated.

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