Beyond Appearances: Part 1: The war within democracy: understanding the alliance of IS and populism

Until we understand that IS and other radical Islamists are engaging us in a psychological war, populist politicians, policies and media will continue to play the role of "useful idiots" by helping to create the conditions that assist terrorists to recruit - and feed a vicious circle of mutual dependence between the terrorists and the rising tide of populism.




(This draft is written in the context of optimising strategic communications campaigns and other interventions to counter terrorist recruitment.)

                                                                         PART 1  


1.         All our efforts and policies to counter terrorist recruitment must be understood in the context of asymmetric warfare where the terrorist strategy requires us to become agents of our self-harm - and help their cause - in other words that we become unwitting players in our own defeat.

1.1.      The meta-picture for IS - its real-politikobjective - requires our self-harm since it is unable to significantly materially damage us by itself. It needs to get into our heads - to make us become more reactive and frightened than we need to be; to cause us to make mistakes; to overreact; to change our nature and, in the end, help play their “game”.

That “game” is to assist IS to recruit and increase support for its violent counter-cultural narrative, values and actions. They need us to start arguing with ourselves, misread the situation, and they need our help to build their brand. If they provide “the pull”for potential recruits our designated role is to provide the all-important “push”.The West has managed this with consummate ease in the years since 9/11.

1.1.2.   IS’s activity in the West - whilst dangerous - is extremely low-intensity; actually a small-scale, counter-cultural revolt. They will be satisfied with an end-game where they can say to us: (”Look around you. Look at what we made you do to yourselves….”) 

* (Witness too, UK PM Theresa May after the London Borough attacks -- “Enough is enough… I will tear up the human rights act” and the US travel ban on Muslim countries.)

1.1.3.   If we fail to understand this framing, this perspective and context -- the potential self-defeating role of our mass psychology in democracy -- we run the risk of becoming enablers for the IS strategy.

1.2.      IS has chosen a psychological war against the West - a war that’s being played out in the media. Why?

(1) Since IS has no serious military, manpower or resources, launching a conventional war against the West would be pointless. In a psychological war the West’s military, resource and power advantage is by-passed and neutralised - indeed, using force - as in the Iraq war - can be self-defeating. IS’s (only) advantage is to be found in the way it’s able to use psychology and mind games rather than military force. 

(2) So, the manipulation of our mass psychology is a great equalizer for IS, but critically, one that the West has real problems dealing with. It means that warfare has evolved into the ability to know, understand and influence what people think and feel. And it also comes down to a test of democratic leadership - vision and strength. IS can be extremely effective in prosecuting this kind of war since …..

(3) Without strong leadership, open societies are vulnerable to relatively sudden and intense movements in mass psychology and cannot defend themselves – or protect their core democratic values -- against the impact of fearful images, threats and narratives delivered through an open media and free speech. Reality has little to do with it; being a psychological war, perception is everything and an enabler for the exaggeration and amplification of fear.

In a survey of 20,000 young people conducted by the Varkey Foundation, a global education organization, 83 percent of people aged 15 to 21—including 82 percent of young Americans—said their No. 1 fear for the future is the rise of terrorism and extremism.

IS will be delighted by these figures…(“Look at what we’ve made you do to yourselves.”). In this regard it's interesting to note just how much more effective the radical Islamic ideology is in radicalising the West against Islam, than radicalising Muslims against the West. Has it occurred to anyone that this might be its real purpose?

1.2.1.    In short, this is a war IS thinks it can win - over time - since it’s not seeking a military victory or capturing territory, or a moment of final victory, but only the manipulation of irrational fear-- creating more vulnerable and fearful states of mind that lead to social and political division and polarisation. In a manner of speaking they have only not to lose in order to win by making us feel we must be endlessly vigilant and under constant threat of attack. As “useful idiots” in the psychological war, populist politicians, press and social media are strategic enablers for IS and will ensure we are reminded of the threat they pose.

1.2.2.    They have to take the fight to us where we are most vulnerable - on an exaggerated threat of death, fear for loss for a way of life and fear of cultural Islam encroaching ideologically into the West. In short, they are radicalising us

1.3.      Terrorist attacks in Europe are rare. Despite the murderous intent, their primary function must be understood - through the lens of mass psychology and communications - as grotesque forms of advertising and brand building.

1.4.      IS’s psychological war is made more threatening by the pretence - the decoy - that it’s engaging us in an ideologicalwar - that radical ideological conflict emerging from within democracy is the realthreat to our way of life. This threat of ideological infiltration and creeping Islamic domination is used as a “Trojan Horse” - a smokescreen and a force-multiplier - to intensify the spread of fear … a useful tool, made more useful for IS by influential but deluded, stupid, and/or ideologically manipulative people in the West who promote  “The Clash of Civilizations”.

Newsweek: May 2016: “The perceived threat of Islamic extremism has also been exacerbated by politicians. For instance, former presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz of Texas responded to the Brussels attack with a Facebook post reading, “They—we—are all part of an intolerable culture that they have vowed to destroy.... Our country is at stake.”Really? Who’s hysterical here?

As one commentator  has said, “This overinflated and manufactured fear of Islamic extremists poses a threat to national security, which has resulted in an inaccurate prioritization of U.S. domestic and foreign policy concerns.

1.4.1.   Fear is a particularly difficult emotion for democratic leadership to deal with since it cannot be dismissed or ignored even when it is not well-grounded. There is a clear mismatch between the real risk and the perceived threat- a mismatch that both the terrorists and populists exploit. 

            The links below are quite typical of the findings of social research surveys about national levels of fear and the actual threat of terrorism. Of particular interest is the link directly below which shows that Trump’s aggressive policy initiatives and hard-line attitudes to Muslims entering the US has had the effect of increasing, not decreasing, the public fear of a terrorist threat. No doubt this is quite deliberate on Trump’s part.   The emotion of fear is the perfect weapon in asymmetric warfare since fear itself is asymmetric -a little goes a long way. It is easy to plant the seeds of fear but difficult to remove them. It erodes trust - reason, balance, nuance - almost instantly. It’s also contagious – once fear gets a toehold in a society it can spread quickly. The process of socio-political hystericisation (spread by politicians, media and “experts”) also means that other new fears can be quickly generated on the back of the original fear. Fear breeds fearand where the mass psychology of a country is concerned, that makes democratic leadership and the recall to common sense very difficult. 

1.5.      The critical importance of the “strategic centre of gravityThe objective in any conflict is to protect and defend one’s own “strategic centre of gravity” (defined by the military as "the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act”.  (My definition is:“That dynamic resource that enables you to function and defines your purpose - the loss of which will mark your loss of will (or inability) to continue”)) whilst seeking to understand and destroy the enemy’s strategic centre of gravity (ie: for IS, that key element that prevents us from neutralising them). 

1.5.1.   Essentially,the West’s (collective) strategic centre of gravity is its core democratic values that sustain the open and tolerant society: in a phrase, social cohesion. When social cohesion unravels our values start to disappear and we cease to have integrity.

IS’s strategic centre of gravity is not, as many have thought, the radical ideology but its ability to inspire and sustain recruitment. (The two things are not the same and as have seen, IS will do whatever it takes to recruit and inspire - including ignoring radical Islamic creeds.) In short, if IS can't recruit, the organization collapses.

1.5.2.   In this context we must acknowledge that in a psychological war theweakness of democracy is its inability to defend its strategic centre of gravity,namely social cohesion based on the positive, open, tolerant, pluralist, respectful and hopeful states of mind of its people.These are the core values which, even more than a vote, characterise the tolerant society and how it functions. These core values, since they are not legal concepts cannot be legally protected. They require everyday thought, reflection and imagination to practice them. IS knows that …fear kills thought. And in a psychological war, if you can’t think, you lose.

1.6.      The real domestic facilitators - and force multipliers -- for the IS strategy are the mainstream and social media, populist politicians and those who espouse strong, vocal, anti-Islamic views. Polarisation, exclusion, prejudice and discrimination are important drivers of sympathy and support for the extremist position. Polarisation intensifies personal grievances and expands the extremes at the margins. This is how our domestic politics helps play the IS game - and it’s not a numbers game. The IS strategic centre of gravity is its continuedability to recruit and inspire attacks. By self-polarising our societies we play a leading role in strengthening rather than attacking their centre of gravity. This is a critical mistake. 

1.6.1.   One aspect of this – and it demonstrates perfectly the notion of self-harm – is the way that so-called liberals are also (especially in the US) demonizing Islam as anti-democratic – that Muslims – let alone radical Islamists - can never fit in with democracy. The link to the article below is disturbing in that it suggests liberals in the US are actually more dangerous than right-wing bigots in this regard since they their arguments are penetrating a much wider social group and driving policy thinking.

            And this – below - from France where discrimination against Muslims is running high on the back of a rolling national state of emergency…

And this from the German state of Bavaria where from June 2018 Christian religious crosses will have to be displayed on all public buildings. The Muslim population of Bavaria is less than 4%.

1.6.2.   As part of their weakness in the face of this psychological war, democracies are caught in an IS trap where our strategic weakness is exploited along two vectors - one to weaken ourkey values, and one to strengthen our enemy’s. 

1.7.      Since 9/11, the West has over-militarised its response to the jihadist threat and failed to grasp what it means to be caught up in a psychological conflict

1.7.1.   There is no final, military, political or security solution to asymmetric warfare of this kind. The best we can do, materially, is to manage the situation and minimize the risk. But this can never be good enough to prevent attacks and can never destroy the IS strategic centre of gravity. The only means by which the conflict can actually be put to sleep is through the terrorist cause failing to sustain recruitment.

1.8.      Apart from getting us to damage our social cohesion, IS needs our media and political policies to help them build their brand and build an aggregate narrative of how we in the West perceive them. That is part of their asymmetric advantage; the more we talk about them, the stronger they become; the stronger they become, the more we talk about them. In this way we are building an unofficial brand narrative for them - and even where we criticise and demonize them, this helps to amplify and raise consciousness of them as an option. It doesn't matter that our version of IS is different from IS’s version of itself since the potential recruit is more likely to become aware of them, in the first instance, through the push of our narrative accounts - not the pull of theirs.

1.8.1.   The cleverness of the IS brand “poison-pill”. There is a further asymmetric advantage for IS in choosing to fight a psychological war. Psychological warfare is often a kind of brand warfare and IS is fundamentally structured as a media conglomerate. It understands that the IS brand is playing the role of counter-cultural outsider - the rebels’ game -- where our disgust and disdain – and the confrontational public/media discourse about them -- is important in growing its appeal to the counter-cultural pre-jihadist mindset. This is one reason why we should avoid direct confrontation in our strategic communications.

1.9.      A further asymmetric disadvantage that IS has over us is that it’s not a numbers game…. only a very few terrorist attacks and individuals can make an enormous impact on the mass psychology of societies and the subsequent creation of self-harming policies and reactions. 

1.10.    Democracy’s big asymmetric advantage is not size, resources, militaries or values but the fact that we have only to get potential terrorist recruits/volunteers not to act ie: to do nothing. IS, on the other hand, has to get them to do something quite extraordinary. If we know what this means and how to handle it, it represents a huge advantage for us. For now, it means, IS has to source and inspire people who are prepared to see human life - and what it means to be alive - in a very particular and wholly counter-intuitive way. And that’s as difficult as it is rare and explains why there are so few actual jihadist terrorists despite the radical ideological blitz.

1.11.    Postscript to this section: Extract from interview with Prof. John Horgan in Scientific American.  (     )

Q: Will the world ever be free of terrorism?A (Horgan): “Not until it becomes an ineffective and unattractive strategy for groups who bank on the predictability of our responses to their actions. For that to happen, it depends in part on States holding the moral high ground, formulating responses based on evidence, and not falling into the traps that terrorist groups are so clever at setting for States. So, in other words, no.”

1.12.    We should not be optimistic that we can come through this unchanged or unharmed - especially when we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. If you’re in any doubt as to how much nonsense in particular that the Americans are capable of in their ideological thinking, take a look at the link below. No irony is too great it seems…..

Perhaps it is already too late.