Strategic Narratives: From DARE to Try Again

Is there a way to use a “strategic narrative” to combat violent extremism? If so, how do you think this might work in practice?

Strategic narratives are stories used to change an outcome. Its power relies on the belief that human pathos, ethos and logos can connect to a story of shared value or premonition of things to come. The first strategic narratives I can remember growing up was in DARE classes that included “case studies” of kids that did drugs and ended up with horrible consequences. These narratives that the program provided were meant to educate and sway kids from using drugs and alcohol at an early age. Still, many teenagers alike get peer pressured into trying some type of drug before they leave high school and memories of DARE classes become running jokes. I use this example to highlight that even on my most impressionable minds at an early age, before a “first interaction”, there are outside forces that work stronger than some strategic narratives can deliver.


Britain and the US have sought to use strategic narratives to combat violence extremism, through shared stories and aggressive social media campaigns to cartoons and TV shows. On March 16th the US military dropped 60,000 pieces of paper out the sky with a cartoon rendering of what happens to people with they join ISIS. The international community views tactics like these as inadequate and silly.


The State Department’s Eid al-Fitr Celebration this year was themed “ The importance of Story Telling: Highlighting the Voices of Muslim Woman”. They had the bright idea to show a US propaganda, cartoon which depicts a Middle Eastern woman (without hijab) fighting off terrorists. Needless to say, the room filled with dignitaries from the Muslim community and MENA state officials did not clap. This tactic to combat violet extremism by targeting the youth appeared miscalculated and offensive.

It is quite difficult for a government to use a strategic narrative to combat violent extremism in practice. For one they lack the ethos. The US and other western countries are seen as the enemy and non-credible beacons of authority. They lack logos and ethos. ISIS connects to its supporters through an ideological and emotional frame. The US’s war on terror or their social media tactics are not successful with garnering enough emotional appeal to combat those interested in joining ISIS.

The War on Terror as a strategic narrative played on the fears of the autonomy and safety of US citizens. The campaign was able to garner great support with the American people and Congress. The US knew their target audience and was a credible source to the American people. It falls down to any communication challenge: who is the audience, is your target audience actually accessing the information, is the person delivering the content a credible source? The US and other nations will need to think more strategically to combat the daesh complex, skillfully crafted ideology.


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