Bad Intelligence and Hard Power

If you are invested in defending torture on the basis of its potential utility, it would be prudent to frame the issue by claiming that the torture of captured extremists has led to useful intelligence. That way, your detractors will respond either by arguing that torture did not lead to useful actionable intelligence, or that torture is ethically unjustifiable even if it is a useful method of information gathering.

Either way, the pro-torture argument comes out ahead — because given this way of framing the issue, the worst-case scenario is that torture is ineffective and unethical.

But, in fact, that is not the worst-case scenario. There is a scenario far worse even from the most utilitarian point-of-view — a scenario involving bad intelligence.

What if torture elicited bad intelligence? Can anyone reasonably doubt that it did? And what if bad intelligence was deemed actionable? What actions, policy decisions or strategies were put into place based upon bad intelligence, and what are the effects? How do we know we are not seeing those results now, and how will we know when we experience the results in the future?

Framing the debate as a matter of ethics or utility glosses over the possibility of counterproductivity.

The worst-case scenario is that torture is not only wildly unethical, but also damages our diplomatic stance, tarnishes our credibility thereby making counter­terrorism strategy even more challenging, reinforces extremist propaganda, causes moral injury to the torturer, and leads to actions that would have not otherwise been undertaken that produce effects that cannot be predicted.

Hard power strikes in Iraq and Syria seem to have had some effect on the operational capacities of the Islamic State, but the efforts of Western governments to counter the appeal of such groups and deter civilians from joining their ranks have so far been inadequate. Extremist ideology has been successfully marketed, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of recruits willing to leave their lives behind and die for it.

The U.S. State Department estimates that 12,000 foreigners from 50 countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups, including the Islamic State. The international community is familiar with their narrative but has been unable to counter it with another.

We have been witnessing less powerful nonstate actors cause a powerful nation to adopt a defensive position by narrating the disconnect between theory and policy, between words and actions, and between self-professed identity and behavior.

The Islamic State’s narrative has been successful by working in two ways simultaneously: by focusing on U.S. hypocrisy (on our own terms) and by providing a similarly simple story-line for themselves, one that encourages the audience to understand past and present conflicts as elements of a global attack on Islam by the Zionist-Crusader alliance. It is a coherent and consistent narrative into which emergent elements can quickly fit without having to re-narrate every conflict.

The larger narrative is reinforced effortlessly on the part of the Islamic State and groups like it by revelations of fabricated evidence of weapons of mass destruction, pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and now revelations of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The United States urgently needs a counternarrative to address extremist propaganda, and it should be delivered by a credible source. Unfortunately, both the narrative and the credible source have proven difficult to come by.

Given recent and not-so-recent revelations, government sources may not be the most credible nor trustworthy messengers of an anti-terror narrative. The message might have better reception if it comes from civilian ranks.

Whoever takes on this battle and wherever they come from, will have to come up with a strategy that directly attacks the narrative (not the ideological) basis of extremism with equal and opposite force.

This is where soft power should come in — not to wage an ideological battle, but to wage a battle of narratives. Why a battle of narrative rather than ideology? Because ideological battles take time. Narratives work immediately.

A story will outpace the facts every time. And the effects of stories will last long after the facts are forgotten. Stories don’t have to defend their premises. All they have to do is cause associations and provoke identification.

Communicating in times of urgency should take the form of story-telling and should enlist cognitive triggers. This variety of strategic communication is not a substitute for rational analysis and logical argument; it is the way to communicate the products of analysis and reason, particularly when there is an urgent and immediate need to affect behavior.

Narratives change how power works.

Whoever constructs the operative narrative holds power. As we are seeing, that makes narrative the perfect weapon for a less powerful actor. It is there, at the narrative level, that we must be confrontational.


Ajit Maan Ph.D. is the author of “Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies,” “Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self,” and she edits the Strategic Narrative blog.


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Editors Note: this article was originally published at www.oregonwand.org on January 8th, 2o15