Like dozens of others, the husband and wife team who shot up a San Bernardino community center were inspired by U.S. born al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen by a drone strike in September 2011. The San Bernardino shooting should serve as a reminder that killing propagandists can be an important tactical victory, but is not sufficient to fully disable their effectiveness or to counter their message. Beyond targeted strikes against individuals, the United States government needs to address two distinct tasks. First, it needs to better explain its kill-capture operations to earn greater legitimacy through transparency. Second, it must conduct a truly effective covert strategic communication effort that delivers an attractive alternative to the sophisticated efforts of violent Islamic extremists.
Awlaki’s skill at propaganda connects San Bernardino with Hassan Nidal at Fort Hood, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez in Chattanooga Tennessee, and Faisal Shahzad in Times Square. Awlaki is known to have been admired by many other terrorists, to include the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Boston Marathon bomber brothers Tsarnaev. Since Awlaki was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator in 2011, two views of his assassination have developed. First, killing him made him a martyr, increasing his stock-value, which in turn made his widely available material even more sought-after and respected. Second, killing him was something that needed to happen. Even though we cannot get rid of what he’s already said, at least a dead man can tell no more tales. Besides, Awlaki was an operational leader in addition to a persuasive ideologue and spokesman.
It would be easy to be convinced of the first argument. Awlaki was killed in 2011, but most of the long list of terrorist acts he inspired occurred later. Therefore his death was inconsequential, or worse, made him stronger. Indeed Awlaki’s poison is still readily available to anyone who wishes to hear him opine on everything from obesity to bomb-making. Martyrdom is valued in the jihadist worldview, so it makes perfect sense that in death, he still commands respect. Similarly, it would be easy to be convinced of the second argument: Being a U.S. citizen, having lived and worked in the United States, and being natively fluent in English made Awlaki a uniquely insidious messenger to spread violent Islamic extremism to Americans and the wider English-speaking world. He was, after all, the Joseph Goebbels of the global jihad.
However, both of these arguments miss the mark. The first misses the unpleasant fact that killing one’s opponent is sometimes necessary. Destroying assets removes them from future effective use. Killing men like Awlaki may inspire some, but it demoralizes and disables others. The second misses the point that while it is true that Awlaki was particularly dangerous, reaching Western audiences with great skill, killing the messenger is not sufficient to defeat the message. Killing propagandists is important if and only if it is combined with an appealing counter-message that can change minds and plausibly change political behavior. Terrorism is a political act. Terrorists desire to remake the political world in which they find themselves; the deaths and destruction they cause are intended as a means to some other end. As a tactic employed to obtain a political objective, effectively countering the tactic means effectively countering the political message communicated through the violence.
Some suggest that the attractiveness of Western culture should be powerful enough to counter the dark vision of violent Islamic radicals. This was the intent of the U.S. State Department’s short-lived “Shared Values Initiative,” launched in 2001. Such initiatives struggled to employ what Joseph Nye called “soft power,” the ability to shape the preferences of others without material coercion, but instead relying the power of attraction. Indeed, the attractive power of Western concepts such as liberal democracy, free speech, and freedom of worship can only be useful if these are communicated effectively — in the right language, to the right population, using familiar cultural forms — and if people are convinced enough and capable of effecting political change. As Daniel Byman writes in his new book, since negative opinions against the United States are so powerfully held among Muslims in the Middle East, “a more successful approach would focus on Al Qaeda, its ideology and its many mistakes … [and] make the debate about how bad the jihadists are, not how wonderful America is.” It is questionable if any message originating in the United States could ever be effective at countering the political messages promulgated by people like Awlaki and his successors, not to mention the sophisticated media arms of the Islamic State.
So the United States appears to be stuck on the horns of a dilemma: Killing folks like Awlaki, though justified, cannot solve the problem on its own, but the United States also struggles with effectively communicating an attractive political vision that rivals what Awlaki and his successors disseminate. Ironically, the answer is to do more of both, and get better at it. Two distinct improvements are called for.
A More Transparent Targeted Killing Campaign
The U.S. government could do better at making its drone program more transparent by explaining its targeting process and efforts at reducing collateral damage immediately after a significant strike has occurred (such as those that killed Awlaki and the next most prominent American al-Qaeda leader, Adam Gadahn). This was one of the conclusions of the Stimson Center’s Commission on U.S. Drone Policy. There are two audiences for this effort, Western audiences and the wider Muslim world. By explaining its kill-capture missions better, Western audiences may be more inclined to accept their legitimacy. This will make it easier to sustain political support for these missions. For audiences in the wider Muslim world, the U.S. government should publicly acknowledge when civilian casualties occur, explain in part how targets are selected and missions are approved, and describe how precision weapons systems are designed to keep civilians out of harm’s way. Some audiences will never accept a message from the U.S. government as trustworthy; but greater transparency will allow the United States to fill the information vacuum presently exploited by jihadi propagandists. Governments allied with the United States will be able to point to something definitive that is being done to mitigate civilian losses, rather than decry those losses and protest violations of their sovereignty.
Unfortunately, transparency can provide important information to potential targets as well. This is a weakness of the drone program. The United States wants to kill jihadists where they are while limiting risk to U.S. personnel, but it must also contain the recruiting value of the collateral damage that inevitably occurs in a targeted killing campaign waged from the air. Practically, only the most important targets, under the best conditions will be found and killed. The United States needs to be better at explaining why the lives of some civilians were worth taking in order to kill men like Awlaki and Gadahn, and to explain the steps it takes to mitigate civilian losses. This will help ensure that the United States is not making more enemies than it kills on the battlefield.
A Better (Covert) Communications Strategy
America’s current overt communication strategies to counter jihadist movements have been derided as stilted, amateurish, and ridiculous. Since any message sponsored by the U.S. government will be immediately dismissed as propaganda by many in the Middle East, and more broadly among Muslim communities, an effective communication strategy must be entirely covert. The U.S. government must account for the fact that it is highly unpopular in the Middle East. The implication is that no matter how sophisticated the medium appears, or how broadly the message is disseminated, if done overtly, the U.S. government will be ineffective at countering violent radical Islamic propaganda. Even if done covertly, any political message sent to counter radical jihadist messages must also be finely tuned to appeal to a variety of audiences — this requires considerable effort. U.S. intelligence agencies continue to suffer from insufficient cultural and linguistic assets. Effective communication is facilitated by knowing the right language — the vocabulary, the grammar, the stories, jokes, and slang — that can lend credibility and genuineness to a message. Unfortunately this knowledge is best learned through human assets developed only with considerable investment of time and effort.
Killing and Communicating to Victory
Killing Awlaki unfortunately did not prevent his propaganda from influencing the minds of people who killed innocent people after he was gone. One might conclude that killing propagandists is therefore ineffective and future efforts in aid of disrupting terrorist violence should be directed to more productive tasks, but this argument is only partially correct. Awlaki and Gadahn were uniquely effective at their work, and the world was improved with their demise. However, the work cannot end there. People need to be reminded of why men like Awlaki and Gadahn need to be killed, even in the face of collateral losses. Perhaps more importantly, killing the propagandists must be accompanied by a truly effective campaign to counter their political messages. All terrorism is politics; counter-terrorism must similarly be oriented toward shaping political preferences.
Scott Englund is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara Orfalea Center and a Non-Resident Fellow with TRENDS Research and Advisory. Prior to earning his Ph.D., he served as an intelligence analyst, deploying four times to Iraq between 2006 and 2009.