11 January 2015

Quilliam has today published a strategic briefing on countering Islamist extremist narratives, available to download for free here.

With the emergence of the terrorist organisation ISIS and its ability to recruit foreign fighters from around the world, focus has fallen on its propaganda output and the various narratives that run through its communications.

Previous Quilliam reports such as the Virtual Caliphate series identify these narratives, and in the past six months, governments and civil society organisations have set about trying to counter these narratives with innovative online and offline campaigns.

The short report, written by Quilliam’s Head of Policy Jonathan Russell and Managing Director Haras Rafiq, considers how:

  • Islamist extremist groups have developed a core narrative;
  • ideology, most notably Salafi-jihadism, is used to underpin this narrative;
  • Islamist extremists groups and individuals use this narrative to exploit vulnerable people in the radicalisation process; and
  • countering the Islamist narrative is central to effective counter-extremism.

Three case studies of recent Quilliam-led counter-narrative campaigns – #NotAnotherBrother, Negotiate, and #NousSommesUnis – add a practical side to the theoretical analysis. This strategic briefing aims to encourage more stakeholders in civil society to engage with this vital work and seeks to provide advice to these future counter-narrative campaigns.

This strategic briefing makes the following six recommendations:

    1. Counter-narratives must focus on the Salafi-Jihadi ideological underpinnings of the Islamist narrative which protect it from all criticism. This means working with Muslim reformers to undermine the certainty of the ideology and provide alternative interpretations of Islam that are synonymous with human rights and accessible to ISIS’s target audience. These approaches must counter the aspects of the ideology detailed in paragraph 8 and offer alternatives that are firmly rooted in both Islamic values and in human rights values.


    1. Government must ensure that it avoids: vilifying Islamic values or Muslims; partnering, funding or promoting those who propagate aspects of the Islamist narrative or the Salafi-Jihadi ideology; and forgoing human rights norms in counter-terrorism legislation, counter-extremism policy, foreign policy and domestic policy. In so doing, it must instead promote the liberalisation of these domains to ensure that the grievances that are exploited by extremists are not unwittingly exacerbated and that counter-narrative approaches are not derailed.


    1. Counter-extremism practitioners must engage with: those in the public sector, such as in the Ministry of Defence; those in the private sector, such as technology companies; those in the 3rd sector, such as counter-extremism organisations; and academics focusing on counter-radicalisation, behavioural science, and strategic communications; to build stronger coalitions to counter extremist narratives more effectively.


    1. Counter-narrative campaigns must prioritise target audience analysis, behavioural change approaches, effective dissemination strategies, and evaluation techniques ahead of content creation. During campaign assembly, counter-narratives must consider finding the most appropriate message, messenger, language, tone, format, and medium for the specified target audience to achieve the specified behavioural change.


    1. Dissemination of counter-narratives and alternative narratives, whether online, offline, or both, is the central element for the effectiveness of a campaign. Further research and experimentation is necessary to improve campaigns’ abilities to penetrate echo chambers, influence target audiences, and effect behavioural change.


  1. Promoting this approach online and offline must be a priority for this government as part of its new counter-extremism strategy. Given that it is most effectively led by civil society, government must consider helping to build coalitions and empower organisations to do this, and build the necessary capacity to contest the prowess of extremist groups and individuals online and in other ungoverned spaces.

Quilliam’s Head of Policy Jonathan Russell says:

“Beyond terrorist organisations like ISIS, it is clear that all Islamist extremists perpetuate a comparable narrative. Countering this myopic worldview and offering accessible and attractive alternatives, firmly rooted in human rights, is the responsibility of all those who find extremism abhorrent and antithetical to their values. We would like to help people all around the world to do this more effectively.”

The strategic briefing can be accessed here.

For comment, please contact [email protected]; if you or your organisation would like to work with Quilliam on counter-narrative work, please contact [email protected].