Winning Their Hearts and Minds

Despite the acclaimed elimination of Osama Bin Laden this past year, the War of Terror persists. While the traditional military measures – like ground operations in Afghanistan – are winding down, the Obama administration continues to escalate drone deployment and precision strikes. Military operations against terrorist groups are not winding down; if anything, they are heating up.

An overlooked and undervalued part of the war on terror is the public relations battle. The focus thus far has been on convincing the international community that the cause is just – and that has been overwhelmingly successful. But even more important is convincing the people who are most dangerous to us. Let’s be honest, violence isn’t very effective at intimidating suicide bombers, and creating martyrs only makes violent jihad more appealing. 40 Americans joined the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab (which officially merged with Al Qaeda this year) in 2011. Domestic terrorist attacks are increasingly attempted by legal citizens, so-called “homegrown” terrorists. Forget about heads of state: we need to convince the young people of our own countries that we are on the right side of this conflict.

The battle for those hearts and minds takes place far from the world of CNN and press conferences. International terrorist organizations boast an increasing web savvy and use online advertising to swell their ranks and defend their cause. Al Shabaab itself recently produced a video that boasts uncannily skillful production.

Thus the death knell of the classic image of terrorists as cowering in squalid caves; this video features background music and some pretty slick graphics. Terrorists with shrouded faces speak – often in English – of the spiritual advantages of a life of Jihad and of the decadence of Western civilization. They defend their actions and encourage others to join them. It’s a recruiting film.

The efficacy of their media tactics is contestable, but there’s no doubt there have been results. The hijackers of September 11 were under the direct supervision of Bin Laden and the upper echelons of Al Qaeda and had trained for years to fly airliners. But more recent attacks have been of a new, Do-It-Yourself brand of terrorism. Originating in online videos and forums, these are paradoxically both more difficult to prevent and less effective.

So where is our counteroffensive? What are we doing to combat radical Islam’s propaganda? The West has a long history of cultural diplomacy. Such soft power is important, and should be exercised delicately. I was stunned when I read that Andrew W.K., the self-proclaimed “king of partying” and purveyor of such tunes as “Party Hard” and “Make Sex” had been tapped by the US Embassy in Bahrain to be a cultural ambassador there. Fortunately, the State Department has since rescinded the offer. But one does wonder what exactly the US agenda on cultural diplomacy is – if there even is one.

When a young Muslim sympathetic with rebels in Syria or monitoring the protests in Egypt goes online, what does he or she find? Right now, the most important public relations are on Youtube and Twitter and we are letting the terrorists frame the debate for us. They provide a clear, well-delivered message with personal testimonials. The rest of the world – East, West, North, South – all of us who don’t subscribe to suicidal violence as piety – needs to get on our game and establish a clear and effective message. I hope we are still capable of making the case that we oppose terrorism not so we can preserve hedonism, but so that we can promote freedom and peace and equality.