Communicating counterterrorism

July 18, 2012

This is from a very mod­est, prac­tic­al and illu­min­at­ing speech by a career US dip­lo­mat, until recently tasked with using “pub­lic dip­lomacy” for coun­terter­ror­ism pur­poses.

Les­sons from Pre­vi­ous Attempts 

…Pre­vi­ous mes­saging pro­jects had a spotty record in the way that they tapped into the intel­li­gence com­munity to inform their work, fail­ing to estab­lish sys­tems and pro­ced­ures to tap into the IC in a coher­ent man­ner. In addi­tion, they some­times suc­cumbed to “mis­sion creep,” or con­ceived their mis­sion in such broad ways, for example, the so called “war of ideas,” as to make it so dif­fuse that it was dif­fi­cult to see where it began and ended.

I also per­ceived that the efforts had largely been headquar­ters-driv­en with little input from pro­fes­sion­als in the field and very mixed buy-in from our mis­sions abroad. And finally, in the memo I wrote sum­mar­iz­ing my find­ings, I thought it worth emphas­iz­ing that this is a “hard prob­lem.” There are no simple fixes. We’re try­ing to influ­ence the beha­vi­or of people who are very hard to reach and view the world through a far dif­fer­ent prism. It’s not really much like selling car­bon­ated bever­ages or tab­let com­puters, and we should be cau­tious or at least select­ive about the les­sons we draw from the mar­ket­ing and advert­ising worlds.

Build­ing Blocks

…[A]s we built capa­city, we had to con­stantly prove value, even before we had genu­ine cap­ab­il­ity to do so. The Air Force doesn’t often fly an air­plane and build it at the same time, but we didn’t have a choice. We quickly focused on two or three key ele­ments:  First, put [the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic Coun­terter­ror­ism  Com­mu­nic­a­tions] CSCC on a sol­id insti­tu­tion­al basis with­in State and the inter­agency. That meant simple but basic things like obtain­ing a unique organ­iz­a­tion­al code, thus giv­ing the organ­iz­a­tion an iden­tity that a bur­eau­crat­ic sys­tem can com­pre­hend.

It also meant mak­ing sure that we had the White House and Nation­al Secur­ity Coun­cil sup­port needed in order to be seen as a truly legit­im­ate inter­agency organ­iz­a­tion. This was partly achieved through an Exec­ut­ive Order, which was issued a year after we star­ted work, after we had con­vinced most inter­agency part­ners that we were ser­i­ous. It also meant estab­lish­ing a sens­ible budget for at least two years. All this sounds like a bunch of inside Wash­ing­ton bur­eau­crat­ic base­ball, and it is exactly that, but I would con­tend it was one of my most import­ant con­tri­bu­tions, because it posi­tioned CSCC to actu­ally carry out its mis­sion…

My next pri­or­ity was to quickly build the link to the ana­lyt­ic side of the intel com­munity. This is reflec­ted in the struc­ture of the CSCC, with one side led by a seni­or intel officer who leads ana­lys­is to inform the actions of the oper­a­tions side. From the early days, the IC provided extraordin­ary people to serve with CSCC. They are not only gif­ted ana­lysts in their own right, they are expec­ted to reach back into their organ­iz­a­tions for addi­tion­al spe­cif­ic ana­lyt­ic­al expert­ise needed for pro­jects. This integ­ra­tion of intel­li­gence into the world of Pub­lic Dip­lomacy [PD] remains a work in pro­gress, and we lit­er­ally broke some new ground in the pro­cess.  We built … a secure facil­ity in which intel ana­lysts can read­ily pro­cess their products and work togeth­er more closely with com­mu­nic­at­ors. That kind of facil­ity costs money, and it shows com­mit­ment…

There was anoth­er reas­on I thought it was so import­ant to emphas­ize a strong ana­lyt­ic­al base, not all from intel­li­gence, but from many sources. It quickly became clear to us that we needed to spend much more effort on under­stand­ing our audi­ence, before try­ing to determ­ine the best mes­saging con­tent or tech­nique.

We com­mis­sioned work on the evolving nar­rat­ive of Al Qaeda and focused increased ana­lyt­ic­al atten­tion on its affil­i­ates. We enlis­ted out­side schol­ars to advise us about these groups and the envir­on­ments in which they oper­ate. We estab­lished a strong work­ing rela­tion­ship with a sim­il­ar organ­iz­a­tion in the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment to build shared ana­lyt­ic­al find­ings. And finally, on our ana­lyt­ic­al side, we began to devel­op an abil­ity to meas­ure our out­puts and their impact.

 

So What’s the Product?

So what did we actu­ally do in the way of com­mu­nic­a­tions? …[L]et me provide a few examples of tech­niques we employed in the first year and a half of CSCC. We essen­tially had three lines of action: digit­al engage­ment, provid­ing tools to com­mu­nic­at­ors, and work­ing with spe­cif­ic coun­try teams.

We inher­ited, re-focused and grew the Digit­al Out­reach Team, now made up of twenty or so nat­ive of Arab­ic, Urdu and Somali. These indi­vidu­als … engage dir­ectly in dis­cus­sions on online for­ums and pro­duce tailored videos and social media cam­paigns.

Their intent is to influ­ence the debates that take place online, mak­ing sure that there is some counter-bal­ance to the extrem­ist voices that encour­age viol­ence. They don’t try to con­vert the con­ver­ted; they do try to reduce the num­ber of new adher­ents to viol­ence.

In addi­tion to enga­ging in con­ver­sa­tions online, (all openly attrib­uted), they use the videos they pro­duce – mash-ups drawn from eas­ily avail­able sources – to rein­force the same points, often point­ing to the weak­ness of the Al Qaeda argu­ments.

Our second approach was to provide mater­i­als for use by our posts and oth­er U.S. gov­ern­ment com­mu­nic­at­ors. These included “com­mu­nic­a­tions tem­plates” on ways to respond quickly to a ter­ror­ist kid­nap­ping, or to employ the voices of vic­tims of ter­ror­ism as a counter to the ter­ror nar­rat­ive, as a couple of examples.

…[W]e developed an online com­munity with­in the gov­ern­ment to draw togeth­er use­ful mater­i­al on our tar­get audi­ences and the weak­nesses of Al Qaeda and its affil­i­ates. For example, we col­lec­ted writ­ten and visu­al media on one of Al Qaeda’s clear vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies – its hor­rible record of killing fel­low Muslims. We also sup­por­ted a small grants pro­gram for a selec­tion of our posts over­seas to work with loc­al NGOs and oth­er groups on demon­stra­tions of the resi­li­ence of com­munit­ies in the face of ter­ror.

With these pro­jects, we were test­ing the hypo­thes­is that resi­li­ence can be strong counter-bal­ance to ter­ror­ism, pos­it­ing that des­pite attacks by ter­ror groups, coun­tries and soci­et­ies are able to move on and prosper without fun­da­ment­al changes and without being mired in the chaos and fear that ter­ror­ists hope to cre­ate.

Our third area of emphas­is was to design com­mu­nic­a­tions sup­port for spe­cif­ic posts in coun­tries con­front­ing ter­ror threats and incid­ents. In the case of Pakistan, we helped the post devel­op a com­mu­nic­a­tions frame­work for coun­ter­ing viol­ent extrem­ism and we recruited two tal­en­ted Pakistani-Amer­ic­ans to engage the Pakistani gov­ern­ment and civil soci­ety on these issues.

Sim­il­arly we focused con­sid­er­able effort on assist­ing our State and mil­it­ary pro­fes­sion­als in the field work­ing to counter Al Shabab in Somalia. These pro­grams with indi­vidu­al posts, which were expand­ing gradu­ally when I left, work on the some­what obvi­ous prin­ciple that you have to be close to the prob­lem to under­stand it, let alone influ­ence it. What we had not com­pletely bar­gained for, how­ever, was the degree of com­plex­ity in address­ing the issues, and I want to come back to that later when I talk a little about les­sons learned.

 

Role of Out­side Factors

In the midst of build­ing CSCC, two exo­gen­ous vari­ables need to be men­tioned that had a tre­mend­ous impact on our work. First, Mohamed Bou­azizi set him­self afire in Sidi Bouz­id, Tunisia in Decem­ber 2010 and thus com­menced a series of events that con­tin­ue to play out.   From our point of view, one of the primary effects of this was to essen­tially push Al Qaeda into the back­ground, at least tem­por­ar­ily.

Al Jaz­eera, for example, had bet­ter things to cov­er and the people of the Middle East were focused on seiz­ing the oppor­tun­ity for demo­cracy and not inter­ested in the least in Zawahiri’s strange off key state­ments.

The second out­side factor was of course the demise of Al Qaeda’s seni­or lead­er­ship, includ­ing Osama Bin Lad­in and oth­er key plan­ners and com­mu­nic­at­ors. The role of the affil­i­ates in Yemen and Somalia expan­ded, but the notion of a cent­rally organ­ized, effect­ive Al Qaeda receded pre­cip­it­ously, and thus their abil­ity to recruit tal­ent dropped off as well.

 

What Works?

Finally, we developed a pretty strong paradigm on what we thought worked and what didn’t in the sub­stance of coun­terter­ror­ism com­mu­nic­a­tions. Ham­mer­ing away at the weak­nesses and con­tra­dic­tions of Al Qaeda is crit­ic­al. Our inten­ded audi­ence is try­ing to decide wheth­er to engage in viol­ence. Our object­ive was to nudge them away from that path by sow­ing doubt about ter­ror­ist organ­iz­a­tions. We were not focused on their level of admir­a­tion or dis­taste for the United States; we were not focused on wheth­er they liked us or not; we were not focused on selling the Amer­ic­an way of life. Oth­ers in the PD arena deal with those issues using a vari­ety of oth­er tools.

Our reas­on for being was to help reduce the pool of recruits to viol­ence by influ­en­cing this small group and the imme­di­ate envir­on­ment around them. I did not see us as waging a war of ideas, but rather enga­ging in repeated focused inter­ven­tions to den­ig­rate the ideas and prac­tices of the ter­ror­ists. The idea of ter­ror­ism against the United States is neither wide­spread nor widely accep­ted in any part of the world, just as domest­ic ter­ror­ism is neither wide­spread nor widely accep­ted in this coun­try.

To pro­tect the United States, we felt that we needed to main­tain a dis­cip­lined focus on that very small, but poten­tially very dan­ger­ous, group of indi­vidu­als who are temp­ted to viol­ence.   That’s pretty spe­cial­ized Pub­lic Dip­lomacy and it demands con­sid­er­able skill and rig­or.

 

Les­sons Learned

Let me wind up with a few les­sons learned and mod­est sug­ges­tions. As I said, this is spe­cial­ized work.  The typ­ic­al State PD officer at a U.S. mis­sions abroad has a broad port­fo­lio of activ­it­ies that he or she man­ages, most of them focused on defense of cur­rent policy to for­eign audi­ences or organ­iz­ing exchange and cul­tur­al pro­grams.

It is dif­fi­cult to expect these officers, already stretched, to devote the time and effort neces­sary to carry out com­plex pro­grams aimed at very nar­row audi­ences. As I left CSCC, I was com­ing to the con­clu­sion that if we are to suc­ceed in the field … we need to send people to the field who are exper­i­enced and spe­cial­ized in this type of work.

I sum it up this way: as a nation, we invest in and deploy SEAL teams to do very spe­cial­ized, very dif­fi­cult coun­terter­ror­ism work. We need to adopt the same approach to the people we ask to carry out very spe­cial­ized and very dif­fi­cult PD func­tions. In order to effect­ively counter the ter­ror­ist mes­sage, they need deep for­eign lan­guage skills, they need con­sid­er­able exper­i­ence work­ing in the cul­tures where there tar­get audi­ence lives, and they need back up from a soph­ist­ic­ated ana­lyt­ic­al appar­at­us. And the sys­tem and budgets need to per­mit the time and lat­it­ude to grow and sus­tain this expert­ise. The seeds of this approach already exist in CSCC, in the Mil­it­ary Inform­a­tion Sup­port Oper­a­tions (MISO) teams, and in small pock­ets else­where in the sys­tem, but the time has come for an inter­agency focus on build­ing and nur­tur­ing high qual­ity in C/T com­mu­nic­a­tions teams, equi­val­ent to the qual­ity of SEAL teams.   I believe CSCC should be entrus­ted with that respons­ib­il­ity.

My second obser­va­tion is about inter­agency coöper­a­tion. I believe CSCC has offered a good example of an inter­agency effort that actu­ally works. We quickly assembled a team of thirty or so very tal­en­ted people with a range of agency affil­i­ations. But this co-oper­a­tion requires atten­tion by the lead­er­ship, or it will with­er and die.

As agency budgets con­tract, one would hope that the impulse would be to find bet­ter ways to share respons­ib­il­it­ies and cap­ab­il­it­ies, and I think most seni­or offi­cials would agree with me, in prin­ciple. How­ever, I fear the oppos­ite will occur – that agen­cies will circle the wag­ons around pet pro­grams and pull back from inter­agency enter­prises.

Whenev­er we briefed Con­gres­sion­al staff about CSCC, they were uni­ver­sally sup­port­ive and staffers often asked how they could help. I con­sist­ently told them that find­ing ways to recog­nize and reward agen­cies for effect­ive inter­agency coöper­a­tion was at the top of my list.

A third obser­va­tion con­cerns overt com­mu­nic­a­tions, that is, pub­lic dip­lomacy versus vari­ous oth­er forms of influ­ence. Long before I took up the CSCC job, I ques­tioned those who said that we have to rely on oth­er cred­ible voices to carry the anti-ter­ror mes­sage. They have cred­ib­il­ity that offi­cial U.S. gov­ern­ment sources can’t match went the argu­ment. I agree that a range of oth­er voices cer­tainly have a place, but not for a minute do I think that the voice of the U.S. gov­ern­ment is irrel­ev­ant or lack­ing an audi­ence. It’s one of the best brands around – people every­where want to know what we think and many of them want us to know what they think.   They may not agree with us, but we should not mis­take that for lack of interest.

The ter­ror­ist pro­pa­gand­ists on the web, for example, often reacted in ugly ways and strong lan­guage to our Digit­al Out­reach Team’s post­ings, but we know that they felt com­pelled to react and to defend their bank­rupt ideas.

 

 

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