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Understanding The Narrative Of The Terrorist From The Perspective Of The Youth


Terrorists have been very successful in capturing the hearts and minds of the young people. They have done so by developing and disseminating a rhetoric that depicts their cause as both righteous and heroic against an adversary both evil and cruel. In this particular aspect, the terrorists have seized the narrative by being able to articulate and express their thoughts in a way that is far more appealing and dynamic than that of the authorities. This calculated and deliberate move has brought about great dividends in the form of a growing pool of recruits, mainly consisting of young people. The terrorist’s deceptive and creative ability to factor the premise of violence into their ideology needs to be taken into account seriously when formulating counter terrorism strategies.



A very perceptive John F. Kennedy once remarked that ‘A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death’. Ironically, this is the strategic reasoning that defines the thinking of the terrorist. Not only have they understood the potential importance and significance of an idea but they have also identified the best potential carrier of this message: the youth.


In any conflict, there is an assumption that there are two sides: two opposing parties, who battle, either literally or figuratively, to inflict defeat on the other, and subsequently gain dominance at the physical, mental or emotional sphere. The arena of terrorism is no different. Hence, the authorities, mainly governments, have identified their adversaries and have focused on deterring, denying, disrupting and destroying the activities of the terrorists. The terrorists on the other hand, have similar objectives but with one significant difference. I would argue that unlike the authorities whose main focus is solely the terrorist, the focal points of the terrorists are two pronged: i.e. their adversary (the government) and also their audience (the people). Hence, while the authorities are concentrating mainly on identifying and stopping the terrorists, the terrorists are focused both on countering the authorities and gaining the control ofthe population (either through force or deception).


The Way of the Terrorist

While much has been written on the use of coercion by the terrorists to bend the will of the people, little has been said on the use of deception on the part of the terrorists to target and win the support of the people, in this case, the young people.


In this context, the terrorists have been most successful in glamorising their struggle and painting their cause as a righteous one, against tyranny and injustice. This has purposely and deliberately been carried out to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the young people. Indeed, idealistic notions of a ‘just cause’ against the ‘cruel and dictatorial aggressors’ usually find resonance with the psyche of the young. After having captured their hearts, these terrorist groups subsequently seek to indoctrinate their young minds with the rhetoric of their struggle. This could perhaps explain why young people in areas of conflict seem to have a very thorough knowledge of the ideology of the often small and ill-equipped radical groups. Indeed, it is ironic that the authorities, who in most cases control the media and dictate the national agenda, are often well behind the fringe extremist groups in capturing the emotions and feelings of the young. Thus, while the authorities may have the necessary hardware, it is the terrorists that have proven to be more adept in engaging, and responding to, the young people.


Exactly how have they been able to do this?

How have the weaker, and violent party i.e. the extremist/terrorist group been able to trump the stronger, supposedly organised authorities in winning the loyalty and sympathy of the young people?


They have been able to do so simply because they have gone to great lengths to seize the discourse and the narrative, and to engage young people at the mental and emotional levels. This paper hopes to take a preliminary look at the possible narrative that has been designed, developed and employed by the terrorists to target, recruit and gain the support of the young people.


The Best Lie Always Contains an Element of Truth

The terrorists have mastered the art of deception and have done so by mixing in elements of both truth and lies into their rhetoric and ideological arguments. They have ensured that areas which are discernible to the youth in terms of comprehension and substantiation are in most cases, truthful. For example, terrorists go to great lengths to research, document and disseminate the many forms of injustices, perceived and real, happening across the world. Hence, conflicts in areas such as Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Chechnya are all carefully and methodically studied, and the research compiled, designed with addition of images, both photographic and videotaped, and finally disseminated. This is done to showcase the perception that injustices, discrimination and prejudices are very real and are causing needless pain, suffering and misery to numerous groups of people whose only fault was to belong to a particular ethnicity, religion or culture.


The impact of this suffering and pain has been further reinforced through the calculated use of visual images either through still photography or videos. Given the advent of the YouTube and social media such as Facebook, these images have the potential to be disseminated far and wide with the express purpose of creating outrage and anger. Also it is significant to note that the main audience of the new media, which has been heavily utilised by terrorist groups, remains the young people. In this regard, let us consider some of the thoughts that have been advanced by the terrorists in their quest to captivate and capture this target group.


Violence as a Form of Revenge

Realising that the conventional approach of winning the support of the people through elections and persuasion would be difficult or time consuming; terrorists rely heavily on the use of violence to achieve their objectives. Violence is in most cases however, unpalatable to the majority of the people; unless some form of justification is attached to its use. It is in this context, that the terrorists have proven to be tremendously creative and deceptive.


The tactic to justify the use of violence is expounded at three levels. Firstly, the conclusion is made that the innocent have suffered tremendous pain and misery at the hands of the enemy and retribution is but the only way to teach the ‘aggressors’ a lesson. Osama bin Laden captured this thought when he argued, ‘But when the victim start to take revenge for those innocent children in Palestine, Iraq, Southern Sudan, Somalia, Kashmir and the Philippines, the ruler’s lama and the hypocrites come to defend the clear blasphemy’.


This primal urge for revenge is further reinforced through the extensive use of images capturing the suffering, misery and pain of the perceived innocent people. Given this environment, anything short of violence against the enemy is seen as treacherous and an insult to the memory of those that have suffered and died under the hands of the ‘oppressor’. Hence, violence becomes acceptable both to retract revenge and also to teach the enemy a lesson in an environment that emphasizes the dictum of ‘an eye for an eye’. This could explain why a captive on the hijacked TWA flight 847, could not understand when a hijacker kept running up and down the aisle of the plane with a grenade and shouting the name of her home state, “New Jersey! New Jersey!” The terrorist was doing so because it was the USS New Jersey which had fired on Shiite sites in Lebanon.


In the context of young people, when they are presented with ‘insurmountable evidence’ on the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the authorities, together with detailed pictures and images of pain and suffering, the affinity to violent conduct, which in normal circumstances would be considered anathema, now becomes both plausible and possible. This situation is also exacerbated when the individual concerned sees the authorities or people in power act in a perceived cruel or despotic manner by. For example, the German militant Michael ‘Bommi’ Baumann in his book How it All Began states that it was the unprovoked killing, by the German police, of a student protesting against the Shah of Iran that turned him into a terrorist. The desire for revenge also explains the reason why attacks take place on the anniversaries of earlier violent actions. The Oklahoma City bombing, for example occurred on the anniversary of the storming of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.


Further compounding the problem is the natural susceptibility that comes from being a young man or woman. Emotional instability that is prevalent in some young people could mean that they are easily controlled and manipulated. Weak impulse control and an idealistic sense of how the world should be, could mean that they are more prone to extremes and perceive the world from a binary viewpoint i.e. ‘us versus them mentality’. Challenges of developing an identity and issues with self-esteem and selfworth could lead to an excessive need to feel strong, powerful and in control, which in turn induces young people to take risks which could lead them to violent action. The environment in which the youth comes from also plays an important role in determining his or her choices. Kevin Toolis in his book Rebel Hearts provides a compelling insight on the culture that made joining a terrorist movement in Northern Ireland the most natural thing in the world for a young man to do.


It is sad to note that while issues involving the dynamics of the youth and their susceptibility towards terrorism have been researched and studied extensively, it often times seems that it is the terrorists who have fully grasped the significance of this particular stage of development in young people and been able to exploit it far better.


Violence on Behalf of the People

Besides making the point that they are using violence as a tool of retribution, the terrorists are also attempting to vindicate their violent actions by declaring they are doing it for the people they claim to be fighting for. They have portrayed themselves as defenders of the innocent against the ‘oppressors’. Hence, following their rhetoric, violence is not carried out as a tactic of the terrorist group but rather it is the natural response on behalf of marginalised people against an unjust authority. The late Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Vellupillai Prabakharan captured this thought when he said, ‘It is the plight of the Tamil people that compelled me to take up arms. I felt outrage at the inhuman atrocities perpetrated against an innocent people. The ruthless manner, in which our people were murdered, massacred, maimed…’ Hence, while in actual fact, violence and terror are well calculated tactics used in asymmetrical warfare, as in the case of terrorism, the terrorists have been able to shift attention from their insidious use of violence to the justifiable need for self-defence against a cruel, authoritarian regime. To do this, the terrorists take great pains to document the plight and conditions of the people they claim to be fighting for.


The spotlight on the suffering of the people at the hands of the unjust authorities, have two main consequences: it shifts emphasis from the acts of violence conducted by the terrorist groups themselves to the oppression and cruelty faced by the perceived innocent victims. Hence, instead of focusing on the tactics of violence employed by the terrorist organisation against the authorities, people will be drawn into looking at the suffering of the oppressed. This creative rhetoric enables them to continue using violence as a tactic while continuously maintaining their stand that violence is merely the justified response on behalf of the innocent people they claim to be fighting for. Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi, one of the founders of Hamas, encapsulates this thought when he stated in an interview, ‘You think we are the aggressors. That is the number-one misunderstanding. We are not: we are the victims.’


Also, there is the distinct possibility of the terrorist act opening up another avenue – that of inflicting ‘secondary trauma’ on external parties who are watching the struggle, with the hope of gaining their sympathy or even active participation. This phenomenon of ‘secondary trauma’ is defined as a set of symptoms that parallel those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which include hyper-arousal symptoms such as feeling tense and/or having angry outbursts. These sets of emotions could happen when an individual associates himself with victims of violence and as a result, over a period of time, identifies with and feels the suffering and pain of the victim as if it is his own. The Fort Hood incident, in which a US Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 12 people was said to have been possibly caused by secondary trauma. Identification with others, and as earlier mentioned, the desire for revenge is a potent combination that drives terrorism. Secondary trauma is now a significant factor given the advent of the internet which as mentioned earlier, allows boundaries between time and space to be crossed with ease. Hence, the misery and suffering of any group anywhere in this world has the distinct possibility of being transported into our living rooms via the internet or the television. This has given the terrorists opportunities to highlight their cause, gain a sympathetic following and at times receive direct support via either monetary means or recruitment.


Violence as the Only Alternative Available

Finally, terrorists, who in most cases have been the first to use the tactic of violence in their struggle, have justified the use of violence by arguing strenuously that they have done so simply because there are simply no other alternatives left. This ties in with their justification that when dealing with this particular adversary, violence is the only possible response. Hence, the statement, ‘we have no choice’ is often used to give the impression that the situation has reached this stage not due to the actions of the terrorists but because of the actions of the authorities. The late LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabakharan stated, ‘The Tamil people have been expressing their grievances in parliament for more than three decades. Their voices went unheard like cries in the wilderness. In Sri Lanka there is no parliamentary democracy where our people could effectively represent their aspirations. What passes as parliament in Sri Lanka is an authoritarian rule founded on the tyranny of the majority.’


To support this reasoning, the terrorists go to great lengths to portray the enemy as one that does not understand any language but the language of violence. Simply put, according to the terrorist, brute force is the only way of dealing with the adversary as nothing else will be accepted. They do this to ensure any plan of negotiating or compromising with the enemy is simply a non-starter. This line of reasoning is extremely significant for the terrorists simply because violence is very much their primary currency. Should any other forms of dealings with the adversary be considered, either in the form of compromise or negotiation, it would be extremely difficult for them to continue with the use of violence, their primary activity. 


The terrorists therefore have ingeniously portrayed themselves as victims of circumstances, whose resort to violence is not intentional but simply due to the absence of any other alternative.


Victory – A Question of When and Not If

Besides the emphasis on violence, terrorists are also adept at giving the impression that it is simply a matter of time before they attain victory for their struggles. While the reality on the ground may be far different, the terrorists’ seek to convince the potential youth that it is just a matter of time before they are victorious. They do so through for two distinct purposes. Firstly, to showcase and exaggerate the strength and advantages they have over the enemy, be it in terms of the dedication and skill of their recruits, their brilliant and courageous leaders, divine assistance, or the sheer potency of their tactical, operational and strategic plans. They seek to convince the young people that though they may appear to be the weaker party, they are in actual fact going to emerge victorious.


Hence, the terrorists place great emphasis upon the dissemination of rhetoric on the quality of their recruits. This not only seeks to balance the equation when dealing with a numerically superior adversary but also seeks to inspire potential recruits. God, as the force behind the terrorist organisation, is also prominently highlighted. Divine intervention not only gives credence and legitimacy to their struggle, but also provides reassurance to the youth and instills perseverance when things are not going well for the terrorist organisation. Terrorists are also very well aware that including the divine equation to young people not only increases their hope but ensures loyalty, as the young individual is no longer fighting for just any group, but for a group that is perceived to be carrying out the will of God. The leaders of terrorist groups are also often highlighted as beacons of hope and inspiration. Terrorist organisations constantly work on the image of such leaders making them appear heroic and courageous legendary figures, so as to bring about awe and devotion on the part of the followers, sympathy on the part of the population and even fear on the part of the enemy. Stories are circulated on the brilliance of the leadership in inflicting crushing defeats on the enemy and the sheer fear on the part of the adversary when dealing with these leaders. All these efforts are carefully designed to give the impression that despite what is being said by the media or regardless of the situation on the ground, the terrorist organisation is on the path to victory.


Secondly, terrorists often seek to discredit the authorities by painting them as being incompetent, corrupt and lacking the mandate and goodwill of the population. Hence, while possibly acknowledging the superiority of the enemy in terms of strength of numbers and military might, terrorist organisations constantly portray the enemy as being on the brink of collapse due to the intrinsic and extrinsic problems that it is facing. Any positive development on the part of the adversary is simply seen as mere propaganda to shore up support for a dying regime and any setback on the part of the terrorist group is seen as a temporary setback that would have little effect on the final outcome of the conflict. This unrealistic assessment of the proceedings of war is often uncritically accepted by the young people.


Understanding and Challenging the Myths of the Terrorists

It is pertinent to note that the terrorist rhetoric mentioned earlier, particularly their justification for the use of violence, finds tremendous traction with young people. In this regard, I would argue that authorities, in their counter-terrorism strategies have not paid sufficient attention to debunking and developing a counter narrative to that of the terrorists. Therefore, while great attention is paid to countering the terrorists mainly via hard power and kinetic force, scant attention is given to the fact that much ground has been lost, particularly in tackling the youth at the mental, emotional and intellectual planes.


In this regard, hard and searching questions need to be asked, among them being:


  • When a youth is confronted with the terrorists’ rhetoric and propaganda,does he possess the ability to analyse critically the assumptions and presuppositions of the terrorists and is he equipped to offer a counter to the narrative of violence subscribed to by the terrorists?;
  • Should not the authorities have a more active role in challenging the myths of the terrorists?; and
  • Do the current counter-terrorism efforts take into account the need for developing a counter narrative to the terrorists?


The Premise of the Terrorist

The main rhetoric of terrorists comprises of a simple three-step progression, as follows:

  1. There are injustices occurring in many parts of the world;
  2. There is a need to act; and
  3. Violence is the only possible response.


These straightforward assumptions appeal to idealistic and simplistic youths and have the added advantage of being partially true. Firstly, it is reiterated and reinforced that there are tremendous acts of injustice, cruelty and discrimination, causing incredible misery, suffering and anguish to numerous innocent people all around the world. Reports, images and lifewitness accounts all bear witness to this and it is conveyed by the terrorists to any interested individual through any available means.


Secondly, the gauntlet is thrown in the form of a question:

  • What are you going to do about this?
  • What is your response to this tragedy?


Given the volatility, the need for action and the high sense of idealism among the young people, the need to act upon this grave injustice will naturally be very great. Indeed, young people often wonder, how it was possible for this terrible injustice to have lasted all this time without anyone doing something about it. Then regardless, of what has happened in the past, the youth is motivated to act and correct this terrible injustice.


It is significant to note that the terrorist has not strayed far from the truth with the first premise: there are numerous cases of wrongdoing happening all around the world causing great pain and misery to the innocent. Also, acting to correct these flagrant abuses is not only morally correct, it is also the right thing to do.


Young people not only are able to both identify with and comprehend these two premises but they are also drawn by idealism and altruism to wholeheartedly support these ideas.


It is however here that the terrorists slip in the third premise, innocuously, as the most natural progression from the initial two premises: Violence is the only possible response.


Thus, first the young people are shown graphic evidence of the first premise – that injustice is thriving and causing tremendous misery. Once their conscience is seared and their idealism evoked they are subsequently confronted with the second premise – that they now have to act. In this excited state, where emotions are stirred and passions are running high, the third premise of violence being the sole alternative is offered and often, blindly accepted, with little critical evaluation or thinking on the part of the young person.


Hence, it is significant to note that in the hand of the terrorists, the youth do not simply arrive at the conclusion that violence is a possible alternative but they are instead carefully, methodically and systematically led through various stages, involving their mental and emotional faculties, passing from intellectual analysis to a stirred conscience and finally to a perceived undeniable conclusion that violence is the sole alternative.



Countering terrorism without taking into account the message of the terrorist and the nature of their potential audience is both counterproductive and dangerous. It is significant to note that while terrorists have developed a simple yet comprehensive three-step model that i) describes the problem, ii) calls for action and iii) provides the solution, i.e. violence, the counter narrative by the authorities remains vague and the response to the concerns of the youth feeble. Given this, it is imperative that the authorities rectify this concern regarding susceptible youth by designing, developing and disseminating a counter narrative with specific focus on the youth as the audience.

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