Book review: Propaganda and Counter-terrorism

First published in 2015, Propaganda and Counter-terrorism has gained increased relevance in recent months, as the world comes to terms with the power of propaganda to affect dramatic social and political change.

At the time of writing, there are just days to go before Donald Trump takes office as US president, among the furore of fake news and accusations that have surrounded his campaign from the beginning. Propaganda has never been more relevant, especially in our digital age, where technology has the power to obscure identity, location, and source – along with the concept of truth itself.

Set in the context of a post 9/11 media environment, the book explores how the British and US governments adapted their propaganda strategies to address the perceived threat of global terrorism, which became top of the agenda after 9/11. In the resulting Iraq War, both sides collaborated not only to fight Al Qaeda, but also to produce propaganda of all stripes. Their goal: to change hearts and minds, both at home and in the theatre of war itself.

But, as Propaganda and Counter-terrorism reveals, that was not the only goal. Through extensive interviews with high-profile sources, including journalists, military officials and defence analysts, author Emma L. Briant explores the unseen story of post-9/11 propaganda. She shows on how the UK and US aimed to change existing propaganda systems, seen as ‘outdated’ within a fast-evolving global media landscape where messages could travel at lightning speed across disappearing boundaries.

Early on in the book, Briant dives into a deep unpacking of the terminology used. She defines propaganda as the ‘deliberate manipulation of representations, with the intention of producing a desired effect among the audience.’

Briant points out that propaganda can involve facts as well as untruths, and does not always have to be perceived in a negative light. She lays out the different categories of propaganda, from white (truth), to grey (uncertainty), and black (lies). One could argue that the use of ‘fake news’ in the US election is a perfect example of grey propaganda.

In subsequent chapters the book deconstructs Anglo-American collaboration in propaganda efforts, power-sharing within the relationship, methods used and mistakes made. There is a key focus how the ‘war on terror’ narrative was constructed and delivered, not just by government, but also by many social institutions including the media.

The book includes a case study of the Iraq War, which some sources describe as ‘tragedy and farce’ and a ‘failure of journalism’. The problems arising from this failure have been far-reaching, fuelling anger and resentment within Iraq that has led to unending conflict. The resulting destabilisation has created an opportunity for the rise of ISIS; a brutal terrorist group with the most advanced propaganda ever seen.

In the final chapter, Briant examines how US/UK-led attempts to counter terrorism risk denial of dissent within society, both at home and abroad. She refers to ‘democracy building propaganda’, which shows ‘sustained lack of understanding’ of non-Western cultures, while building a disproportionate fear of terrorist attacks among foreign audiences. This is problematic as it encourages a view of ‘us and them’, which is harmful and hampers efforts to build international cooperation.

My concern is that the view of ‘us and them’ is only getting stronger. We now live in a Trump-led world, which is veering towards increased nationalism, where borders are reinforced and societies encouraged to look inwards, glancing outwards only with fear. As Briant highlights in her closing chapter, ‘dominative foreign propaganda cannot create lasting peace and stability, indeed it shuns true intercultural understanding’.

One of the book’s main strengths is its analysis of extensive source material, which draws on the expertise and insider knowledge of numerous defence, intelligence, security and PR professionals, both in the public and private sectors. These are the people at the coalface of propaganda planning and delivery.

Their input gives the book a distinct authority and instils the reader with confidence in the ideas expressed. Ideally, I’d have liked to see Propaganda and Counter-terrorism examine the role of social media, fake news, post-truth and so on, in shaping approaches to propaganda, but realise this was probably outside the scope of this book at the time of writing. Perhaps a follow-up is due soon.

Propaganda and Counter-terrorism is an important read, if not always an easy one due to the sheer depth of source material contained within. This makes the book a heavyweight in its field, and readers who persevere will gain a host of new insights and intersections relating to the role of propaganda now and in the future; an invaluable understanding in the current climate.

Nuanced communities: Mapping ISIS support on Twitter

Good narrative strategies requires first and foremost an intimate knowledge of the audience being targeted. Nowhere is this more true than in attempts to counter the potent messaging of ISIS. The terrorist group has become well-known for its ability to attract young people from across the world, including those from non-Muslim majority nations, to commit violence in the name of the ‘caliphate.’

ISIS has been a fixture in the global public consciousness for over two years, from its dramatic emergence in summer 2014 to facing near-decline earlier this year, followed by resurgence with its latest attack on Berlin just weeks ago. Long before Berlin, the group had already become notorious for the quality and power of its social media messaging, professionally produced videos and slick English-language print publications.

Concerned national governments and civil society groups have made numerous attempts to counter the ISIS narrative in various ways, ranging from shutting down followers’ Twitter accounts en masse to creating alternative narratives that aim to discredit the group, its ideology and its actions. But despite all these attempts, attacks against European cities remain a very real threat.

As another gloomy and blood-soaked year of ISIS activity comes to an end, the group shows no sign of fading away. Although it has lost physical territory in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing risk of the ISIS virtual caliphate persists.

A whole range of diverse factors determine an individual’s likelihood to become radicalised, many of which have been studied in significant depth elsewhere. Social media is not necessarily the most influential factor, but it undoubtedly plays a role.

RAND, a US-based think-tank, conducted a detailed research study, published in 2016, to examine ISIS support and opposition networks on Twitter, aiming to gather insights that could inform future counter-messaging efforts.

The study used a mixed-method analytics approach to map publicly available Twitter data from across the Arabic-speaking Twitter-verse. Specific techniques used were community detection algorithms to detect links between Twitter users that could signify the presence of interactive communities, along with social network analysis and lexical analysis to draw out key themes from among the chatter.

Research goals were to learn how to differentiate between ISIS opponents and supporters; to understand who they are and what they are saying; and to understand the connections between them while identifying the influencers.

Lexical analysis uncovered four major groups, or ‘meta-communities’ among the Arabic-speaking ISIS conversation on Twitter. These were Shia, Sunni, Syrian Mujahideen, and ISIS Supporters. They are characterised by certain distinct patterns in their tweets. Shia tend to condemn ISIS and hold positive views of Christians/the West/the international coalition fighting ISIS. This is unsurprising considering the long-standing hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims and the fact that ISIS is a Sunni group.

The Syrian Mujahideen group is anti-Assad, holds mixed views of ISIS, and negative views of the coalition. ISIS supporters talk positively in bombastic overblown language about ISIS and the caliphate. They insult Shia, the Assad regime, and the West. Notably, their approach to social media strategy is by far the most sophisticated of the lot. And finally, the Sunni group is heavily divided along nationalistic lines, which includes most countries of the Arab world.

Key findings of interest

1. Unique audiences, essential nuance

Telling the difference in large datasets between ISIS supporters and opponents was key for this study. RAND researchers chose an easy way; Twitter users who tweeted the Arabic word for ‘Islamic State’ (الدولة ا س مية ) were considered to be supporters, while those who used the acronym ‘DAESH’ (داعش ) were opponents. This dividing line isn’t foolproof but, based on what’s known about the significance of these two Arabic terms, it seems a valid way to approach the task. Research discovered that although opponents outnumbered supporters six to one, the supporters were far more active, producing 50 % more tweets daily.

This could point to a couple of things. Firstly the outnumbering suggests that the majority of the Arab world (or at least the Twitter sphere) is anti-ISIS; while the volume of pro-ISIS tweets could suggest passionate support for the group, or on the other hand could point to the presence of armies of pro-ISIS bots or perhaps the use of astro-turfing. The latter two could be an interesting case for new research, especially in the present climate where the curtain has been lifted on use of social media bots, astro-turfing armies and persona management software.

2. Jordanian pilot, Turkish soldiers

The researchers also plotted Twitter activity levels for all four groups, between July 2014 (when ISIS emerged and announced itself to the world), to May 2015. Notable findings were firstly that both the anti-ISIS groups (Shia and Sunni States) showed similar activity patterns, suggesting that both were responding to the same ISIS-related events. All four groups experienced a large spike in activity in early February 2015, when ISIS released a video showing Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive.

After this event, the ISIS supporters activity decreased sharply, while the Syrian Mujahideen’s grew to almost match the Shia and Sunni States groups. Possible explanations (assuming the ISIS supporters are not bots) could include outrage at the murder of a fellow Muslim, and/or outrage at the way he was killed, burning, which is forbidden in the Qur’an. It would be interesting to compare the Twitter response to al-Kasasbeh’s murder with the response to another ISIS burning video, released last week, where two Turkish soldiers were killed.

This comparison could reveal further insights about the nature of the original 2015 spike; or reveal changing attitudes towards Turkey, which has started fighting against ISIS in recent months and has most likely become hated among the group’s supporters as a result.

3. Social media mavens

The ISIS supporters Twitter community analysed in the study showed particular features that made it distinct from the other groups. The supporters group members were more active than the other three groups (despite smaller numbers overall). They tweeted a lot of pro-ISIS terms and phrases, predictably. But most notable about this group was their fluency and command of advanced social media strategy, as shown by their use of certain terms on Twitter. In the study, the supporters group used disproportionately high levels of terms such as spread, link, breaking news, media office, and pictorial evidence.

In general, ISIS has always been exceptionally conversant with social media marketing tools and techniques, in fact far superior to the efforts of many national governments. I would be very interested to see a study that uncovers who exactly is responsible for the ISIS propaganda, what their backgrounds are, and how they were recruited and trained (if indeed they weren’t already expert in this area).

4. CVE insights from Twitter data

Finally, the report offers insights for policy-makers and for those engaged in online CVE efforts across the Arab world. The most important of these is a reiteration of the need for counter-messaging that’s not just tailored, but that shows deep levels of insight into the mindsets of its target audiences. Research like this can help reveal useful themes and connections to build upon.

Also, the ongoing efforts by Twitter to ban pro-ISIS accounts has undoubtedly driven many of them to other channels, most notoriously Telegram. Analysing activity on new channels would be of great use in revealing any shifts in ISIS supporters focus or mindset. Much in the landscape has changed since this report was released, and continues to do so at a rapid rate.

Is prevention better than cure?

A spirited debate this evening at King’s College London highlighted precisely why the issue of Prevent remains so important in today’s terrorism and CVE realms. It was discussed as part of a seminar exploring the role of education in countering terrorism; asking whether peace can be taught.

Firstly, Prevent, part of the British government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy. Prevent has a stated aim to ‘safeguard people and communities from the threat of terrorism’. Whether or not it actually succeeds is a matter of much contention among academia, policy-makers and grassroots actors in local communities. Many would argue that it actually worsens the very problem it aims to fight against.

Tonight’s panel was asymmetric in terms of the speakers and their stances on Prevent. Only one of them, Abu Ahmed, a representative of the Home Office, was there to speak on behalf of the policy, while the rest were champing at the bit to rip it apart. And rip it apart they did.

Ahmed argued that Prevent saves lives. But this rang hollow despite what initially should sound like highly commendable outcomes. As an audience member was quick to point out, everything said about Prevent approaches the extremism issue from a standpoint based on the effects. Very little is said about tackling the causes.

Although Prevent claims to tackle all kinds of extremism, there’s a disproportionate focus on Muslims. No-one in their right mind could deny this fact. Ahmed showed some slides featuring photos of young Brits who had become radicalised and committed crimes as a result. The photos showed almost all brown faces. It was telling when Ahmed pointed out the white far-right extremist in the bottom corner, saying ‘you probably haven’t heard of this one’. Yet this man attacked and burnt down three mosques. Why wasn’t this newsworthy? That’s a topic for a whole other debate…

Rob Faure-Walker, an East London teacher-turned-academic, drew on first-hand experience to illustrate his critique of Prevent. He recounted a time when, before Prevent was enforced, he had debated the issue of homosexuality with some Muslim students in the classroom. They were initially hostile to the idea of anyone being gay, and even went as far as to suggest ‘gays ought to be stoned’. But instead of squashing this aggressive viewpoint, Rob decided to open it up for debate.

For weeks the class debated vehemently about homosexuality. Rob didn’t get very far in shifting their views. Some months later, the bill for gay marriage was passed. Rather dreading the reactions from among his students, Rob braced himself for the worst. But he didn’t get it. The students had decided that ‘marriage between any two people who love each other must be a good thing’. They had picked up their previous less tolerant views by absorbing rigid dogmas. Via the medium of open debate they had been able to challenge these dogmas and had developed more critical views as a result. This can only be a good thing.

If Prevent had been in force at that time, any Muslim students who had raised negative views about stoning gays would surely have been reported to the authorities. Today, Prevent is dampening debate in schools because people (in particular Muslims) have become afraid to raise contentious viewpoints. But this is short-sighted. Without debate how can they have any hope of learning alternative perspectives? How can they learn to challenge dogmatic worldviews? Schools should help to create more critical citizens. Teachers should facilitate debate, not spy on students.

To situate Prevent within a wider context, the panel went on to examine the terms commonly used within it: radicalisation and extremism. Originally purely political terms, both have now become deeply associated with violence, even though this was not inherent in their original meaning. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to hold extreme radical views and to not be inclined towards violence. The two are not synonymous.

Living in societies where freedom of debate is stifled is unhealthy. We may believe the UK is nothing like Egypt, for example, where the secular rulers kept the Muslim Brotherhood repressed for decades, eventually leading to violent outbursts and the rise of terrorism. Nor do we believe the UK is like Syria, where the Assad government vehemently held back religious extremists for decades. Libya under Gaddafi was much the same. We only have to look at the state of these countries today to see what happens when sections of society are systematically repressed and targeted.

Prevent is risky because it spreads fear and ‘prevents’ constructive debate. Those who don’t believe that the Western democratic model is the only way the world could potentially be governed are unfairly targeted by Prevent. Conditions like these only serve to heighten a sense of victimisation and encourage the spread of extremist views and potential violence.

To conclude the session, Dr Rizwaan Sabir pointed out that there are a multitude of expensive PR strategies supporting the core themes of Prevent, but none of them really work. This is because the reality does not reflect the messages – and everyone knows it. Until the two add up, there will always be disconnect. Far-reaching social and political changes are needed, not just targeting the effects of flawed policies on certain sections of society. Actions always speak louder than mere words and people will see through the latter in the blink of an eye.

Rise of nerves


I’d never really thought much about violent extremism before 2001, when images of the collapsing Twin Towers filled TV screens around the world. I was just a naive 18 year old asking my father if the world was ending.  He assured me it wasn’t, but I still remember how alarmed he looked.

The world didn’t end then, but it changed.

Although the events of 9/11 were undeniably tragic, it riles me somewhat when the media elevates this above all other similar incidents. In Turkey, in just twelve months, there have been at least fifteen terrorist attacks, culminating in the big one that really hit home for me. Ataturk Airport, June 28, 2016. 45 dead, 239 injured.

I was due to fly out of Turkey just days later. Of course, that was no reason to be afraid, but it does bring a stark reminder of one’s own mortality.

But the sense of fear in Istanbul started long before the airport attack. As an expat there in late 2014 I remember hearing fellow Brits talking about their fears of spending too long in crowded places, of taking public transport, or of hanging out in Taksim Square.

This rise of nerves coincided with the rise of ISIS; disturbingly close to home over the Syrian border. Turkey seemed immune to attack at that time, in fact some say the Turkish government actively supported ISIS, or turned a blind eye to its cross-border activities at the very least. With that in mind, some of us felt a little safer, assuming that ISIS would not bite the hand that fed it.

But things changed in July 2015, when an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish peace rally in the eastern city of Suruç, killing 33 people. Eyewitnesses reported a curious lack of security at the event, which is unusual for Turkey. From that point on, every month seemed to bring a new attack, and nowhere felt safe anymore.

In early 2016 the focus shifted to Istanbul. Every expat’s anxious nightmare came home to roost when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the tourist heartland, Sultanahmet. Then came another attack in March, this time targeting another popular tourist area, Istiklal Avenue.

The bomber struck on a Saturday morning, where thankfully the street was at its most empty. At peak times, mainly weekend evenings, nearly three million people might traverse that street. It often gets packed rigid; difficult to move in any direction. That used to be dynamic and exciting. In the wake of the bombing, it became terrifying. And these days, it’s not so packed anymore.

In July came the final message from ISIS to Turkey, in the form of the Ataturk airport bombing. It seemed the group had lost patience with Turkey. Something had shifted; no idea what. But now, a few months later, Turkish forces have joined the coalition working to rout ISIS out of Mosul once and for all.

What this defeat will mean for the terrorist group remains to be seen. Analysts offer up a wide range of theories, but simply using military force to defeat the group in Iraq will not defeat the ideology. In fact, it will probably support the compelling ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that ISIS promotes through all its online content.

A concept cannot be killed, it can only be neutralised. Changing hearts and minds through smarter and more thoughtful engagement at the grass roots is one way to start doing this. Of course the social and political challenges will remain. Only deep-seated policy change can shift these. That is unlikely to happen any time soon. But rising Islamophobia and the resulting discrimination and marginalisation must be tackled if we hope to create convincing counter-narratives to combat those of violence.


A short history of fear

Throughout history, humans have been afraid. Fear is one of the most primal emotional responses and can take many forms. It can be individual and specific, like of that flying or of spiders, or more generalised and widespread, such as the ‘Yellow Peril’ fear of the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, or the looming terror of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that arose decades after that.

Fear stems from a lack of understanding. Individualised fears of flying, heights or spiders affect only the individual and are usually harmless to society as a whole. But when fear spreads and takes root, aimed at a group, a race, a nation, a religion, or a concept, that’s when it acquires the dangerous potential to be leveraged as a technique for social control and manipulation, usually to the detriment of some groups and the benefit of others.

In the past, it was difficult to identify exactly how these widespread fears begun, or what factors propelled them to spread across societies. Today, our globalised and tightly connected information society offers new scope for uncovering the truth. Independent journalists and citizen bloggers can share their stories with the world, with the minimum of resources needed to do so. At the beginning, this shift had the potential to dilute the power to shape the wider narrative that governments and mainstream media possessed. But they soon jumped on the bandwagon and emerged more potent than before, sometimes using less obvious yet perhaps more insidious methods.

Unfortunately, the information age offers many ways to hide truth, often by creating smokescreens based around false perceptions. With 24/7 news at our fingertips, information and misinformation spreads like flames sweeping across a field of parched grass. It’s called ‘going viral’, and it’s every digital marketer and content producer’s dream.

But false perceptions are deeply damaging to those affected. If a country has a bad reputation, such as for safety, tourists and investors will hesitate to go there. The economy will suffer and so will the country’s status in the world. It takes a lot of careful planning to restore a lost reputation.

For groups of people, false perceptions are even worse. They become objects of fear wherever they go. They don’t get the chance to show society who they really are, because all the assumptions have already been made. It’s not a level playing field when the narratives of fear are at play. Opportunities shrink away for the members of the feared groups. They experience vilification, whether overtly or more implicitly. They become constantly on the back foot in society.

In 2016, the world’s most feared group is Muslims. This has been the case for over a decade, ever since the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and their vicious aftermath. The narrative constructed around the threat of Islam, Muslims, and the need for the Western ‘war on terror’ has resonated across the years, bolstered by reams of media coverage. Today, it has become an integral part of Western mainstream consciousness.

The Islamophobia narrative received a further boost to almost hysterical levels in 2014, when Islamic State (Isis) burst onto the global scene in a flurry of blood and gore. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere (although we know this is far from true) the aggressive tactics and ruthless nature of the group struck a further heavy blow to the image of innocent Muslims across the world.

Syria and Iraq had already been war-torn before Isis arrived in the public eye. As the group captured their cities, refugees began pouring across the border into Turkey, and from there into Europe. At first, stories such as that of Aylan Kurdi, the small boy who washed up drowned on a Turkish beach, resonated with the world and spurred sympathy in many quarters. None more so than in Germany, where the leader Angela Merkel actively encouraged refugees to move there. This move, which seemed so positive, soon morphed into the beginnings of a new wave of fear. The incident in Cologne on New Year 2015, when North African men were accused of attacking German women, was hijacked to place the blame squarely on refugees. A spate of new Isis atrocities followed, widely reported. The resulting hysteria grew and spread. And so the fear cycle continued.

Since then, Islamophobia has grown to epic levels. It has swept across and permeated Europe, the UK and the United States. The mainstream media is largely to blame, for fuelling exaggerated and often patently untrue narratives. But the unquestioning masses lapped them up, soaking in tales of dangerous refugees who refused to integrate into European culture, instead spending their days groping local women and plotting how to impose sharia law. These perceptions drive far right responses, which in turn shift the political direction of many countries towards the right.

From amid this toxic brew we now reap the effects of fear that was sown. In the UK we have Brexit to contend with, a vote for UK independence driven on the back of exaggerated and often false narratives around immigration. The main party gunning for Brexit, UKIP, used provocative campaign posters to play on British fear of the ‘other’. The posters, ostensibly anti-immigration from the EU, showed large groups of men of Middle Eastern appearance, not white as might be expected from EU countries such as Poland or Bulgaria. The message was loud and clear. Refugees, and hence Muslims, were really the ones to be feared.

Across the Atlantic, the US is experiencing its own backlash. Donald Trump, a man who began the presidential race widely perceived as a bad joke, has gathered steam and emerged as the competing candidate for the White House. Again, he stokes people’s fears of the ‘other’, mainly of Muslims, but also of Mexican immigrants and black people. This has led to an increase in harmful incidents on the ground, affecting ordinary people, such as Muslims being forced off flights for speaking Arabic, kids beaten up at school for being Muslim, and an assortment of other discriminations within an already deeply racist society.

Islamophobia has become entrenched. It won’t go away any time soon. And the people affected by it will respond in various ways. Many will be circumspect and simply carry on with their normal integrated lives. But others will soon grow to resent the constant battering from media and society alike. Some of the affected individuals will want to fight back. Combined with a morass of different factors, from social constraints and lack of opportunity to identity crises and toxic masculinity (the exploration of which are beyond the scope of this post), a few outliers may head down an altogether more dangerous path.

Fighting radicalisation has become a fully-fledged industry these days. Many academics, journalists and commentators make their livings from studying it. Western governments, especially in the UK, have tried many times to devise strategies to stop young people from becoming radicalised.  These are widely deemed to have failed. Again, discussing the multitude of reasons why this is so are a topic for another post. But suffice to say, the nature of the mainstream narrative has an important role to play. One way forward is by trying to shift this in a positive, constructive direction that involves affected groups directly, letting them define their own new narratives at the grassroots level, then making sure those narratives reach mainstream hearts and minds.

Fear Interrupted will act as a platform to do precisely that. It will explore examples of counter-narrative building from around the world, mainly in the digital sphere, showcasing a range of citizen-led initiatives that are trying to reset the mainstream narrative, promote understanding between groups, and, albeit on a small scale, bring some semblance of normality back into our distorted and uneven societies.