NRC interview with David Kenning: Amsterdam, November 2017

This interview was conducted by Bas Blokker - top NRC journalist and now Washington Correspondent. It took place against the background of the recent death of former Amsterdam mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, whom Kenning advised on countering radicalisation and polarisation.

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                                    NRC Handelsblatt – 17 November 2017

                                             By our editor Bas Blokker

                                          Interview with David Kenning

Before we get to the questions, we need to know to whom they will be addressed. In most interviews that is obvious, but the introduction of David Kenning cannot be taken so lightly. There are too many people who do not believe he is who he says he is.

This is what David Kenning (63, born in Belfast) says: that he is a counter radicalization expert, even an "expert's expert", one who advises experts. This has been questioned on blogs and in newspaper columns, also in NRC. He is also called a guru, a Rasputin, a character who beguiles people. All this happened a few weeks ago when Kenning’s name emerged as the creator of a 'grey campaign', films that were designed to keep young people from radicalization and violent extremism.

Well, Kenning unequivocally demonstrates with documents that he is indeed an expert's expert - but that he can say little about it because his expertise is set in the world of secret services. That is why the reports and analysis that he has written are not public. In the documents he shows, he is asked, consulted and thanked by politicians, civil servants, senior military personnel and people from security services. At a closed meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in June 2013 in London he was honoured by being asked to give “The Kenning Lecture”. A representative of the Dutch NCTV was present there. The newspaper contacts a few of his clients and they confirm Kenning’s presentation of his activities.

At the end of 2015, Mayor Eberhard van der Laan was so impressed by Kenning's ideas about extremism and polarization that he publicly praised him for his advice. That is the only thing for which Kenning is not grateful to Van der Laan for - who died in October - "In the fifteen years that I have done this work, I have always stayed in the background. And if that had been up to me, I would have kept it that way. " Since November last year, he no longer charges for his work for Amsterdam, and since Van der Laan has gone, he no longer gives formal advice to the municipality.

Until 2002 Kenning was also a brand expert, not in advertising, but in strategic communications  - "….The Church of England was one of my clients". He was working in Iraq when James K. Glassman, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under President George W. Bush, asked to meet him in Paris. Glassman was mainly engaged in the fight against violent extremism, he says himself from Washington, where he has a consultancy. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US had "conceptual problems," says Glassman. Kenning summarizes these problems as: "The Americans were trying to explain to the world how great their values ere - just after they had invaded Iraq!"

Glassman had tried to show that the Americans had nothing against Muslims, that there were 3,000 mosques in the US, that they had fought side by side with Muslims in liberating Kuwait. "David Kenning made it clear how pointless this line was. People who directly contradict you tend to harden their position - they did not believe you anyway. If you want to convey your message, you have to do that on the basis of something they already believe in. A simple, but deep insight. On his advice, we began campaigns that prevented Muslims from violence, who showed that there were other options than violence. "  Glassman refers to Kenning, whom he invited for a lecture about IS last year, the "smartest and most influential advisor " in this area.

Small effects

Kenning shows some films that he has worked on, with which "governments" - about clients he remains discreet - exert influence on angry or frustrated youth in the Middle East. One of them comes from a series that is still running. Kenning shows research into the effectiveness of such a series. It compares the views of tens of thousands of people before and after they had seen the campaign, and people who had not seen the campaign. They were scientifically researched and analysed. You see shifts to more tolerant views among campaign viewers. "Small effects at first," says Kenning, "but they grow quickly over time." The comparison with the 'grey campaign' of Amsterdam is obvious. (see box).

Kenning takes a sheet of paper and draws four diagrams with arrows illustrating how to counteract the influence of enemies. Direct confrontation: you're wrong, I'm right. "That was the American method at the time I met Jim Glassman. They had a movie in which featured a number of horrific terrorist explosions, ending with the question: "Is this what you want?" The number of terrorist recruits soared. "

Second way: Deflection – “Don’t attack me, attack him”. "Very effective in the 'Sunni Awakening', when the coalition succeeded in convincing Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq in 2007 that Al Qaeda was a more dangerous enemy." Third way: Displacement - to show that you cannot only defend Muslims by fighting, but by helping them in other ways.The fourth way, "my way", says Kenning: "Dissolution. This undermines your emotions that fuel extreme convictions and actions. "That was the idea behind the 'grey campaign', a series of vlogs that were commissioned by the Amsterdam city hall - secretly, the project never passed the experimental phase. It annoys Kenning that the vlogs are labelled as dangerous. 

He also refers to a now closed media campaign that attracted many viewers in the Middle East and North Africa. "In it alternative ideas were portrayed. Research showed that these ideas were being adopted by young Muslims who would otherwise have gone to Iraq to fight. It became very popular and went viral. Young people started to imitate the main characters. "The main function of this campaign, says Kenning, was a form of anger management and keeping an open mind. Keeping young people from making wrong choices. It was not an instrument for de-radicalisation, just like the Amsterdam vlogs. There was no propaganda content in it. The films did not try to tell you what to think, but rather howto think. What can be wrong with that? "

Band of Brothers

Kenning receives the strongest criticism of his ideas when he says that the cause of extremist violence is not important for combating it. His training as a psychoanalyst is involved here. "The methods of psychoanalysis helps me penetrate the deepest parts of the mind." "People get an identity from parents, friends, community. They wear this identity as if it were a suit of clothes. But for some, the suit is not a good fit. They then seek out another identity, one that comes from how they might fit in from their own experiences. But, if they find this new identity is rejected by others they can get into a crisis, a double-bind, because of all the contradictory messages. They don’t feel comfortable going backwards to their original community – even if they wanted to – nor are they accepted by the new group. "IS recruitment propaganda -"essentially a media company"- is specifically tailored to this dilemma. Are you unable to connect? Then you can belong to us…. 

Kenning refers to Marlon Brando in The Wild One(1953) where Brando leans against the jukebox and a girl asks: "And what are you rebelling against, Johnny?" And Brando says, "Whaddaya got?" "It's a nihilistic revolt," says Kenning. "In this worldwide band of brothers, the suicide attacker adopts a radical new identity he has no need to explain to others." 

In combating violent extremism, Kenning says we must look at the psychology of the individual who is inclined to extremism. Recently, in Het Parool, researcher Amy-Jane Gielen of the University of Amsterdam summarized his way of thinking as the motive of Syria goers as "a drive for adventure, caused by a disadvantaged socio-economic position". Kenning is astonished: "I never claimed that. If a 'deprived socioeconomic position' was the driving force of jihadism, you would have to have hundreds of thousands of Syria visitors. Or none. "

He insists to his clients that they can’t really have much influence over the factors that may lead to extremism. "We cannot give him his girlfriend back, undo the pain from his father who beat him, can’t force his boss to like Muslims. We cannot remove the tensions that are caused by Western foreign policy or wars. It is pointless to contradict any religious beliefs - he won’t accept that from us. By the time the government meets this young man, these factors have already done their job. So we can only do something with his mind. We can make it resilient, open to doubt and to the appeal of other ideas. 


David Kenning was fifteen years old when he witnessed the start of the troubles in Belfast. A civil rights movement of Protestants and Catholics together was hijacked by the independence fighters of the IRA. The movement was protesting for equal rights in local elections - "a perfectly legitimate goal, completely democratic protests." It ended in a bloody civil war. "Neighbourhoods, streets suddenly became Catholic or Protestant, my grandmother had to leave her house because she was living in a Catholic neighbourhood. People who moved house sometimes set their old house on fire, not to leave it to the 'enemy'. Those people were peaceful, friendly citizens a few months earlier. Radicalization can go as fast as that. "The crazy thing about identity,” says Kenning, “is that it’s often more important how the other person sees and identifies you than how you see yourself. "We didn’t feel like Protestants, but the others saw us as Protestants." 

According to him, this was also the main goal of Al Qaeda's attacks of September 11: divide, polarize, radicalize. That is where Kenning ends up at his main point. It is not the terrorists who threaten Western democracy, but our response to terrorist attacks. "Populist politicians, populist blogs, who always produce fear. The fear is disproportionate to the real danger. "IS and populists in the West havea common goal, says Kenning: to undermine the soft values. "From the motto of the French Revolution, Freedom, Equality, Fraternity, the first two are legal concepts. But the third, fraternité, is equally essential. These are where the values uch as tolerance, compromise and respect for the other reside, the cement of society. IS has announced that it wants to destroy the grey middle of peaceful coexistence. The stories produced and distributed by IS are aimed at this. Aimed? Deliberately? Is there a David Kenning-like person also thinking of grey and white campaigns at IS? "Absolutely. He’s called Abu OntKenning. "

Fear Industry

According to Kenning, radical Islamic groups would not get a foot on the ground without the resonance they find with their counterparts in the West. "The fear industry feeds polarization, it’s what the populists and IS do. For populists, sowing fear is a way to gain power through elections. For Muslim extremists, it means gaining attention and publicity for a marginal affair. Do you know anyone who gets their sense of radical Islam from visits a jihadist blog? No, they read about it in De Telegraaf or NRC Handelsblad. "  

The revival of identity politics and radical activism is an extra risk, says Kenning. Thinking of his childhood in Northern Ireland he worries about the possibility of an extremist group hijacking a social movement. "That can happen with street movements, peaceful and with legitimate goals, a movement that focuses on identity and recruits through a sense of victimization - something that liberalism struggles to handle. In Belfast, extremists hid behind peaceful demonstrators and fired at the police from the second line. When the police intervened with force, mistakes were made, innocent people were wounded or killed. In this way, police action increased the support for extremist ideas. "Difficult for politicians, he sees: if they intervene too soon, they impede peaceful and legitimate protest. If they intervene too late, extremism may have already seized around them.” 

"That requires the wisdom of a judge. Van der Laan thought like a judge. He always sought a balance between the rights and freedom of the individual and the common interest. " According to Kenning, depolarisation is the most important task for the new Minister of Justice and Security. "The best remedy against extremism is strong social cohesion." He sees how populist blogs absolutise and weaponize the idea of reedom against equality - "the biggest obstacle to their agenda." He spoke to Van der Laan about it. "Dutch freedom is linked to tolerance and solidarity, cooperation. If that connection is lacking, and the Americans, for example, have lost it, then freedom will become a burden for those who do not succeed socially. If it goes wrong here, the government will help you. But over there – in America - it’s really everyone for himself. That’s no more than the freedom of the sinking ship. Amsterdam is not a sinking ship, I said. Eberhard loved that. "