Many countries have embarked on a wide range of efforts designed to diminish extremist violence. One prominent category of such activities is counterterrorism communication, which includes various forms of engagement focused on diminishing the appeal of violent extremist ideology and disrupting paths to radicalization, with the ultimate goal of reducing support for, and incidence of, terrorist violence. In the past decade, terrorists and acts of terrorism have proliferated. Through numerous forms of media, terrorists are embracing new opportunities to spread the psychological impact of terrorism throughout the world, to provoke outrage, and to rally supporters and recruits. Terrorism today involves not only violence, but also theatre, where attention is paid to script preparation, sets, props, role-playing, minute-by-minute stage management, and flashy YouTube videos. To respond to this evolving reality, counterterrorism communication adds nuance to the traditional, or kinetic, approach of detaining and killing terrorists to thwart their efforts. In addition to detaining, killing, and physically constraining their ability to arrive at and
attack targets, mixed approaches also seek to limit terrorists’ access to conventional mass media, reduce and censor news coverage of terrorist acts and their perpetrators, and minimize the terrorists’ capacity for and the effects of media manipulation.
The transition from a kinetic to mixed approach should be applauded. A mixed approach defends against active terrorists, while also acting to diminish the creation of new terrorists and diminishing the notoriety or other benefits they gain from publicizing their acts. For example, The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, otherwise known as ISIS or Daesh, uses every available media channel to recruit fighters, intimidate enemies, and promote its claim to have established a caliphate. To date, dozens of Twitter accounts spread the group’s messages, in addition to YouTube videos, JustPaste (to publish battle summaries), SoundCloud (to release audio reports), and other mobile applications like Instagram and WhatsApp (to spread graphics and videos).5 Effective responses to this diverse media arsenal can target radicalized group attitudes, beliefs, norms, or social identities to move whole groups or particular subgroups onto less violent paths. Persuasive appeals can be delivered through interpersonal channels (e.g. via covert infiltrators) or through media and direct communication with group members. Even if these efforts fail to affect a group as a whole, deepening internal disputes can create discussion and debate over how violence will be used.
Counterterrorism communication also holds the promise of reaching individuals prior to radicalization. Interrupting the terrorists’ recruiting efforts and seeking to affect the characteristics that make some individuals vulnerable to radicalization or recruitment has the potential to slow or stop this process. While many models of radicalization exist, most suggest several stages where individuals move from pre-radicalization, to radicalization, to mobilization (i.e. committing themselves to violence). Counterterrorism communication aimed at individuals in these intermediate stages could, for example, work to diminish the credibility of terrorist group leaders, document manipulative strategies used by groups in recruiting, and discredit violent action as an effective means of instituting change.