Why America needs a new story


(CNN OP-ED) On Wednesday, police in Boston shot and killed 26-year-old Usaamah Rahim after he allegedly threatened them with a large knife.

Rahim, who was under police surveillance in a terrorism investigation, is believed by police to have become radicalized by militant Islam social media sites. His shooting came one month to the day after two Arizona men, claiming to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), were killed by police in Garland, Texas, as they opened fire at a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest.

These stories form part a growing body of evidence that Westerners are willing to break with their home societies to wage jihad against perceived threats to their faith. Yes, the total numbers remain small. But policymakers cannot ignore the trend.

Why is this happening?

The key to answering this question lays with understanding the power of “the story,” by which I mean the use of compelling narratives that seek to persuade and to spur action. In a nutshell, the story is that the great cultural and religious tradition of Islam is under attack by decadent Western infidels, and so it is every Muslim’s duty to rise up in its defense.

It’s not a new story. But violent extremists, notably ISIS, are vastly more skilled at telling it these days. Through the adept use of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, using high-quality production and compelling imagery and rhetoric, ISIS has emerged as a highly effective storyteller mobilizing sympathizers to its cause.

We dismiss the power of this particular story at our own peril. For millions of Muslims throughout the world, many of whom are alienated or see themselves as marginalized in their societies, that story offers something deeply attractive: a sense of honor, purpose and mission, and ultimately a sense of identity and belonging. Those are things that spur action.

In contrast, what story does America tell to the world? Our nation’s storytelling lacks clarity and direction. While the Bush administration attempted after 9/11 to launch an international “rebranding” campaign, it foundered and was ultimately abandoned — a catastrophic decision.

Obama’s election in 2008 seemingly offered a fresh start, but his administration, too, has failed to grasp the power of story on the world stage.

So we have failed to understand and respect the compelling story our adversaries tell, while offering no competing narrative. That formula explains why we remain deadlocked in our confrontation with extremists — and why we’ll continue losing without a new approach.

Too many Westerners have developed a sense of cynical hopelessness about the Middle East, assuming it’s impossible to reach a Muslim audience. But from my own experience serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere, I know this is untrue.

Working and living among both tribal cultures and educated elites, I was struck by how deeply people yearned for a viable alternative to the brutal, reductionist, reactionary narratives peddled by the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS and other extremists.

Sadly, the United States has failed to engage and support potential allies on the ground, and the result has been the longest war in our nation’s history, with no end on the horizon, and with potentially disastrous consequences for the future. If we are to change minds in the Muslim world, then they need to hear a competing story, one that underscores how working with the United States to defeat extremism can have a positive impact on their lives and societies.

What I describe here has worked before. Consider the Western victory in the Cold War. Over the course of decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States told a coherent story that centered on our society’s openness, prosperity and sense of possibility. Dissidents in the Soviet Union and its satellites were heartened by this narrative, which offered an alternative to the despotic Communist regime they lived under.

But ultimately, the way forward begins with recognizing the problem: that long-term success in today’s struggle, as in the Cold War, rests in large part on telling a better story. That begins with first understanding and respecting the power of the story that violent Islamic extremists are offering their adherents, and then supplying a superior alternative.

Until that happens, we should prepare for more incidents of ISIS-linked terrorism in the United States — and next time we may not be able to stop them.

D. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret and military adviser to Concerned Veterans for America, is the author of the 2015 book “Game Changers: Going Local to Defeat Violent Extremists.” The views expressed are his own.