Adam Serwer:

As Michael Jacobson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy pointsout in his recent report, a key part of “deterring and dissuading” potential terrorists is developing an effective counter-narrative to those propagated by extremist groups. Jacobson notes that in 2008, speaking at a WINEP event, then-undersecretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis Charles Allen warned that “no Western state has effectively countered the al Qaida narrative.”

Both the attempted underwear bombing on Christmas Day and Osama bin Laden’s subsequent propaganda tape taking credit for the attack are evidence of al-Qaeda’s operational decline since September 11. Al-Qaeda has proved to be its own worst enemy when it comes to justifying its existence — a recent study showed that only 15 percent of al-Qaeda’s victims have been foreigners, meaning that the vast majority of those killed have been Muslims. But recent terror-related incidents point to the importance that terrorist narratives, when they resonate, have in inspiring or radicalizing the disillusioned, even in the United States.

I… dunno. Adam says that even Bush realized the need to counter al-Qaeda’s narratives and did so by saying “America ‘didn’t torture’ and said Guantánamo Bay should be closed as early as 2006.” So, in other words, he lied. This is supposed to be wise policy?

“Narrative” and “Framing” have always struck me as intelligence-insulting bullshit. The use of euphemism is a flashing light on the road to Error. First off, al-Qaeda fucked itself terminally by — as Adam notes — the thousands of Muslims it kills without pity, mercy or explanation. It was probably fucked from the start: it wants to create a Caliphate that stretches from Spain to Indonesia. I can cite about five different Doctor Doom storylines that are more plausible outcomes for world domination. (One of them involves the Negative Zone.)

But anyway. The U.S. approach to al-Qaeda’s “narrative” should be to point and laugh. I’m serious. Ridicule is a powerful tool, particularly when aimed at conspiracy theorists. I believe in taking al-Qaeda’s capabilities and its plans seriously and its lunacy about the way the world works not even remotely seriously. The only significant aspect of that sort of crap is the fact that among some people it has social currency. That needs to be confronted.

But saying “we don’t torture” while manning an indefinite-detention facility isn’t the thing to do. The thing to do is to stop manning indefinite-detention facilities and fighting unnecessary wars. Sometimes you’re going to have to do shit that al-Qaeda will seek to exploit. Fight in Afghanistan, for instance. Sometimes you have interests and ties that al-Qaeda will seek to exploit. The diplomatic relationships with Israel and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for instance. You mitigate that stuff. But you don’t insult people’s intelligence by pretending it’s something it isn’t. That’s for al-Qaeda to do.

Update: Matt Duss defends “narrative” as a useful concept and I don’t really know why. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here, but I really do think actions speak louder than framing.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman