It’s the message, not the messenger

There is no question that in the war of ideas between us and the terrorists we are not winning, despite the fact that the odds are so much in our favour.  Our way of life is so superior to that of the terrorists that this should not really be a contest and I shouldn’t have to write this blog.  But things are what they are and we have to face facts: we need to do much better at promoting who and what we are.

Because the bad guys are doing better than us there is a lot of talk about getting at and undermining their message.  Some advocate counter-messaging (I will return to that later).  Others want to shut the message and the messengers down.  It is here that I wish to begin.

In the wake of San Bernardino, we have learned that an old familiar face played a role in the radicalisation of Syed Rizwan Farook who, along with this wife, killed 14 people before being gunned down by law enforcement.  The radicaliser?  None other than Anwar al Awlaki, the US-born Yemeni scholar who provided lots of inspiration (he was also part of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula e-zine Inspire) before a drone got him in 2011.  In response to this revelation, some are calling for Internet service providers to take Awlaki’s material off the Web so that it does not influence others (see story here).  This call is admirable but wrong-headed for two reasons.

First, nothing ever really disappears from the Internet.  Take one site down and the material on it resurfaces somewhere else with lightning speed.  Or it migrates to the Dark Web which is harder to patrol and control.

Secondly, it is the MESSAGE and not the MESSENGER we need to worry about.  Years ago I was part of an effort with my intelligence peers to predict the next Awlaki (this was before he died).  Aside from my opposition to trying to predict the future, I found the exercise futile because what is more important than who.  Yes, personality and charisma do matter, and we certainly saw that in the passing of the AQ baton from the magnetic Usama bin Laden to the dour Ayman al Zawahiri, but it is the message that needs to be attacked.  Killing the messenger and leaving the message allows someone else to step into the breach.  And this is exactly what happens time and time again.

The message promulgated by groups like AQ and IS is wonderful in its simplicity and reach.  It claims that the West is at war with Islam and that Muslims have divine sanction to use violence to protect themselves and to spread the word of Allah.  Whatever its shortcomings and inaccuracies it is working as witnessed by those who subscribe to it, including otherwise well-integrated couples like the husband wife team in California.

But rather than argue with the terrorists, why are we not showing that our way of life is better?  As the old Latin phrase says “Acta non verba” (words not deeds).  Deconstructing the extremist view of the world is inferior to demonstrating through our actions that our world does not look like the version they are ranting against.  We are not at war with Islam.  Muslims know what their faith really stands for.  We are tolerant of difference.  Our society is made up of people who may disagree with each other on politics, faith or culture but where that is ok.  As English author Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously wrote in her biography of the French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  That is the beauty of who we are.

Internal dissent, bigotry, xenophobia and religious intolerance are not helping.  That is not our message.  Let us get back to who we really are and what we have built over the centuries.  If we do, the terrorists do not stand a chance.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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