It’s the Ideology, Stupid

The missing dimension of counterterrorism strategy is a mouse click away.

In his counterterrorism address earlier this month, President Obama said the United States would need to use “all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.” Yet a strategy to counter Internet-facilitated radicalization remains the biggest missing dimension of U.S. counterterrorism statecraft to date. Although this challenge appeared on White House radar years ago and a strategy was promised in 2011, this significant and complex undertaking was instead treated in a blog post.

Whether Woolwich or Boston, radicalization leading to violence remains a major challenge to the West. It is not going away, and neither is use of the Internet for various terrorist purposes. Why should we care if the Taliban tweets or Hezbollah is a savvy and active user of Youtube and Facebook? At first glance this may seem like small ball; but it isn’t. The Internet has figured prominently in an overwhelming number of cases of “homegrown” radicalization and terrorism plots, blurring the lines between foreign and domestic threats.

Terrorists use the Internet for four primary purposes: to practice tradecraft, convey “how-to” knowledge, radicalize and recruit prospects, and engage in computer network attacks (CNA). Multiple terrorists groups have exploited social media to advance these ends. They include Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the TTP), and Somalia’s Al-Shabaab. From planning to operations, from inspiration to training, the Internet has served to multiply and magnify the power and impact of our adversaries across the globe.

How can we counter this threat? There are four response options: monitoring and collection; shutdown; pushback; and deny and destroy via cyber attack. Each course presents pitfalls. With the first, monitoring and collection, the challenge is knowing when to string them up versus when to string them along. The second option resembles a game of whack-a-mole, as shutdown success in one spot usually gives way to pop-up in another. Still, pushing such material to the margins is still a valuable exercise. With the fourth option, cyber attack, the danger is blowback—when the target reverse-engineers the attack tool and turns it on the initiating entity.

As for the third response—ideological pushback—the pitfalls seem manageable, but little has been done in this area. Indeed, our shortcomings on pushback are deeply problematic. To borrow and tweak a past presidential turn of phrase: “It’s the ideology, stupid.” Ideology is the lifeblood that sustains al Qaeda and like organizations worldwide. Until we hit back hard in this area, our adversaries will manage to recruit and replenish their ranks as well as recharge and retain those already in the fight.

The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is doing some good work overseas in this area in foreign languages. But it is not enough. A systemic strategic communications effort is needed, aimed at exposing the hypocrisy of our adversaries’ words versus their deeds.

This counter-narrative effort might well be guided by what we might call the Five Ds: dissect and de-legitimize, disaggregate and de-globalize and de-glamorize. The goal is to knock terrorist groups off balance; embarrass their leadership by bringing to light their seamy connections to criminal enterprises and drug trafficking organizations; and broker infighting among al Qaeda, its affiliates and the broader jihadi orbit in which they reside—which will damage violent extremists’ capability to propagate their message and organize operations.

From Russia’s FPS to China’s Renren, each country has its own native-language version of social media, which can serve to counter the dark corners of the Web, where aberrant attitudes and ideas are shared and reinforced. Local response efforts are especially significant as many of the solutions reside outside government and will require communities policing themselves. Governments can help to magnify voices at the grassroots that possess the credibility and authority necessary to affect outcomes.

Above all, however, we must remember the victims of terrorism. Unless we capture and convey the lost dreams, hopes, stories and opportunities, we will not have done justice to victims of terrorism and their survivors. Important work in this area has already been initiated, including by individuals and nongovernmental organizations such as the Global Survivors Network, which has worked to amplify the voices of survivors of acts of terror—and thereby help to thwart radicalization and build a powerful counter-narrative.

Working in tandem will help make all of these efforts more than the simple sum of their parts. For example, online monitoring and information collection are activities that are most productively pursued through bilateral and multilateral partnerships. Every country can and should further the exchange of facts and trends observed and emerging in its neighborhood and the particular languages used there. The Boston marathon bombing is a case in point, spanning from New England to the North Caucasus.