The Psychological Battle Against Terror

A man prays by a memorial for the dead. Image credit: Christian Hartman, REUTERS.

There is a special aspect to be considered when analyzing the modus operandi and tactics of jihadist movements. As we all know, criminals usually act in secrecy, trying to leave no trace of their underground activities and avoiding capture. However, jihadi attacks and claims of responsibility have largely proven that violent extremisms aim to operate in the open.

In a word where communication is key, contemporary terrorism has become a constant and disruptive daily presence. Because their attacks are in the open, we feel a threat even when terrorists seem inactive.

The reason of this spectacularization can be found in their main purpose: what do terrorist groups want to gain from their attacks?

Behind all criminal activities, there is a certain desire for power. In the specific case of terrorism, it is all about power to influence people’s emotions.

It is plain to see that terrorists want to instill fear. As the German philosopher Hannah Arendt stated, “fear is an emotion indispensable for survival”- but violent extremism has led to a pathological and relentless “state of terror”. The Big Threat of our time has quickly wormed its way into our lives, and now we need to cope with its several consequences.

Terrorists want to develop a general and constant state of insecurity that follows people everywhere, in everything they do. The impact of terrorist attacks on the human psyche ranges from short-term psychological conditions to long-term pathologies: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, constant sense of doom, anxiety and anguish about future risks, feelings of terror and helplessness, anger and desire for revenge.

If even a few of these signs sound familiar to you, then their aim has been achieved.

It is not easy to deal with the effects of terrorism on mental health, and it is even harder to put into practice effective strategies to properly counter this insidious violence.

It is clear that we all should play an active role in facing this threat by taking action on a daily basis with a pure “contrasting strategy.” This strategy simply consists of disappointing the terrorists’ expectations: since extremists want to disrupt our sense of safety, we should be even more resilient, take back control of our lives, and resume our daily activities as soon as possible.

The most challenging part of this strategy will be learning to deal with our personal emotions, which is why civil and governmental institutions should try diverse approaches to boost social cohesion and control. This will help people mitigate the sense of loneliness and helplessness that normally occur after shocking events and traumatic times.

Given the amount of power terrorists now wield over everyday life, it is critical that we do not give them any more influence. Ultimately, the power to reduce this influence begins in our own hearts and minds.

Psyops: A New Frontier in Counterterror?

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An American soldier spreads free newspapers to the people of Baghdad as part of a mission in psychological operations. Image credit: Department of Defense.

“Capture their minds, and their hearts and souls will follow”.

This slogan, popular among psyops experts, clearly exemplifies the main implications and targets of psychological operations in war.

The term “psyops” refers to strategic operations aiming to evoke emotional reactions in other people. Daniel Lerner, Social Scientist and Military Intelligence Officer in World War II, identified three levels of psychological operations:

  • White Propaganda: characterized by gentle methods of persuasion. The information given is truthful and not strongly biased. Sources are cited. At this level, the most powerful techniques are narratives, framing, omissions and emphasis.
  • Grey Propaganda: the source of information is ambiguous or non-disclosed, but the messages cannot be proven false. Information shows a clear bias, and a combination of omissions and selective emphasis is used.
  • Black Propaganda: achieves its objectives by means of falsifications. Its purpose is to create confusion and deceive its audience about the origins of information. This strategy has proven to be the least effective and durable in the long term.

Today, psychological operations play a key role in counterterrorism programs. If properly used, strategic communication can help induce a shift in human behaviors and attitudes- potentially making psyops a kep weapon in the fight against terrorism.

According to current approaches and approved studies, in the war against terrorism psychological planned activities are expected to act on at least four areas, with the purpose of:

  • inhibiting people from joining terrorist groups;
  • producing dissent within groups;
  • facilitating exit from groups;
  • reducing support for groups and their leaders.

Before being able to change human emotions, every counterterrorism strategy must first understand what causes them. For this reason, it is of primary importance to investigate the variables that motivate people to join extremist groups before we can engage in successful psyops.

Messages spread by jihadist extremists clearly label their enemies as disbelievers and invaders. These strong and dangerous beliefs are a powerful means of promoting extremist ideology, and must be countered with our own narratives. In order to be effective, these counter-narratives should be able to reverse the effects of jihadi propaganda by promoting a positive image of democratic societies and values. Psyops can be used to introduce potential radicals to more positive images of secular society.

Peace-building is an extremely complex and delicate task, one which requires the intervention of several forces and involves a wide range of actors coming from different cultural backgrounds. Even so, we must not give up hope. The stakes are high: if we are successful, the reward will be more freedom, respect and peace for all of global society.