#Reviewing Ajit Maan: Narrative and Counterterrorism in the Digital Age

Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies. Ajit Maan. Lanham, MD: University Press of Maryland, 2016.

Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare. Ajit Maan and Amar Cheema, eds. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2017.

As Donald Trump prepared to take the oath of office and become President of the United States, I was in the midst of reading two stimulating recent books by Dr. Ajit Maan of the group Narrative Strategies. I had met Maan last year in Abu Dhabi, where we were separately addressing an audience of military officers and civilian leaders at the National Defense College. She spoke as a scholar whose work focuses on counterterrorism. I was there as the author of a philosophically-oriented book about kinship, government, and individual freedom that’s received some interest from military intellectuals.

Over dinner one evening with a collection of local expats, Maan expressed interesting and unusual perspectives about a variety of subjects, and as I boarded the long flight home, I made a mental note to check out her work. It’s not often that one meets a specialist in countering violent extremism who is deeply influenced by post-structuralist literary theory. A few months later, I was paging through her short but rich book Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, as well as an edited volume of essays she’s just published with Brigadier (Ret.) Amar Cheema of the Indian Army, Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare.

Both books contain many insights and observations that should be useful for readers of The Strategy Bridge, and I’d like to point to a few of them here, using the occasion to offer some of my own views about the field. Before I do, though, I’d like to flag an overarching issue that these books don’t in fact raise directly, but which after January 20 arises unexpectedly from their pages like a genie from a bottle.

This issue is this: to the extent that soft power is ultimately far more important than kinetic operations in combating violent extremism—as Maan puts it in Soft Power on Hard Problems, “we are in a war over influence”—the recent presidential campaign likely inflicted significant damage on American counter-terrorism strategy by providing potential extremists narrative leverage, and it’s probable that current and future actions of the administration vis-à-vis violent extremism will further harm our capacities in ways that could take multiple political generations to overcome.[1] The recent executive order concerning immigration, widely viewed as the imposition of  a “Muslim ban,” is case in point. But there will be many more decisions to come that our enemies will effortlessly characterize as part of a civilizational battle between Islam and the West.

The publication of Maan’s books thus inadvertently suggest the following, dispiriting question: what’s the future of soft power in countering violent extremism in the face of language used recklessly and policies toward Muslims that seems to play directly into the worldview of the very extremists we are seeking to combat?

The Polished Narratives of Violent Extremism

“Ineffective communications,” writes Paul Cobaugh in the useful lead essay of Soft Power, are “at the heart of our failings.”[2] Our enemies have not made the same mistake. Take the Islamic State’s recent video, “You Must Fight Them, O Muwahhid.” The video provides a graphic tutorial in how to kill non-believers, and it encourages Daesh sympathizers to carry out attacks against the nations of kufur: “The kuffar fight us and you for our religion. So kill them” (2:07). Setting aside its ideological content, it’s worth examining this deeply disturbing work from a purely technical, clinical perspective to underscore how much care Daesh puts into narrative construction. (Maan offers a related textual analysis of a white supremacist and radical Islamist statement in Counter-terrorism.[3])

Consider the barbaric execution of a young man, whom I will not name, for his collaboration with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which begins at 4:45 of the subtitled, edited version of the video generally available online. The prisoner is shown running through the desert with an explosive-filled backpack while his captors shoot at his feet. The backpack is then detonated, and his body is blown apart. The images are highly graphic—this is a scene of utter horror and evil—and it’s ethically essential to bear in mind while “reading” it closely that it is a video of a man being murdered. Yet its very graphic quality makes it easy to overlook the effort put into its creation. The video’s effects are the result of methodical production and editing.

To begin with, the video seems to have been shot at 25 frames per second, a deliberate aesthetic choice that gives it a distinctly cinematic look. It’s the frame rate of film purists. (25 fps is the cinematic frame rate for PAL and SECAM countries; in the United States and NTSC countries, it is 24 fps. I’ve included a screenshot of the video file information above.)

Likewise, to heighten the video’s cinematic feel, the videographer has taken care to use a shallow depth of field, likely by employing a strong neutral density filter to enable him to keep his aperture wide despite the powerful sun overhead (4:47-48, 5:04-05). He also generally follows the compositional rule of thirds in his shots, directing viewer attention for maximum effect. And within the first seconds of his work, he both swiftly pans (4:41-44) and uses a racking focus (4:45-7), signaling his cinematic aspirations.

In short, this Islamic State propagandist clearly has been tutored in the aesthetics of cinematography, and he likely views himself as a filmmaker. He seeks to use of the distinctive aesthetic resources of film art on behalf of his ideological cause.

The video also gives some clues about its production. In addition to using at least one, and probably two, tripod-mounted cameras, the production crew employed a camera drone for bird’s-eye shots (5:25-31). To maintain visual continuity, there either were multiple cameras set up along the length of the prisoner’s run, or he was repeatedly forced to wait in the desert while the camera operator and other production staff moved a single camera and reset the shot before he was forced to run again. The production, that is, was likely stopped and started multiple times. Although no recording device is visible in the video, the prisoner seems to have been forced at some point to wear a wireless lavalier microphone, which presumably would have been removed before detonation of the bomb that killed him.

The camera angles likewise reveal real forethought. The video includes extreme long shots, long shots, medium long shots, medium close-ups, and extreme close-ups, as though it were following a cinematography textbook. Some shots are from eye-level, and others are from a bird’s-eye, low-angle, or worm’s-eye view. One scene is shot in the direction of the sun from the bottom of a hill to capture the prisoner running toward the viewer in silhouette (5:11-14). At times, the prisoner seems to have been directed to jump straight over the camera itself (5:15) or to run just to its side (5:24)—the director clearly relished the worm’s-eye shot and took care to produce it. (See the image above, a screenshot of the video after it was imported into Premiere Pro; green text added.) No shot is repeated twice, maintaining the viewer’s visual interest.

In post-production, the editor cut the film to make each shot last about three seconds, about the “blink of an eye”—a classic editing technique. He added the sound of heartbeats and a suspenseful music track. He worked to maintain audio continuity across visual jump cuts (4:55-5:00). And he edited the audio in various ways for maximum effect.

In the final seconds of the young man’s life, for instance, he is shown in a bird’s-eye shot from a drone (5:27-29). We hear his breathing, likely recorded earlier in his run. It would be easy to miss, because it operates just below the level of consciousness, but there is low-pitched, suspenseful instrumental music playing in the background, its volume slowly rising. The waveform at right is a representation of the video’s audio after being imported into Adobe Audition. Volume is colored-coded, with yellow representing higher decibel levels than orange and purple, and frequency ranging from low at the bottom to high at the top. The suspenseful music track is represented by the yellow line at the bottom. Note that just before the explosion, the volume of the breath track sharply increases for a single breath, possibly the result of the editor manually adjusting the volume, and in any event a deliberate editing choice.

After the explosion, the audio cuts out dramatically before the video continues: the explosion is shown once again from a new camera angle (5:31-32) and then there is both a drone-shot and tripod-mounted smooth, slow pan across the prisoner’s dead body (5:33-40), likely enhanced through image stabilization in post-production. As indicated on the vectorscope at right (it’s basically a color wheel), the pan across the prisoner’s corpse has been balanced for skin tone: the white cloud to the above-left of the center point on the scope represents the deceased’s skin color, which falls precisely on the “skin tone line” used for color balancing.

In the final seconds of the video, part of the prisoner’s escape is played swiftly in reverse motion (5:41-46), until viewers see one of his captors filling a backpack with explosives and holding a remote detonating device (5:47-55). A black-robed fighter is then shown in full silhouette from behind, detonating a bomb in the far distance (5:56-58). The scene is made to look as though it records the actual killing of the prisoner, but a comparison of the three different images of the explosion in the video suggests that in fact it was a simulation after the fact—the editor likely sought out this specific shot with which to culminate his narrative of retribution.

This video was not made to repulse, but rather to inspire. In the words of Doyle Quiggle, writing in the Journal of Terrorism Research and Small Wars Journal, videos like this one are meant to tap into the “bio-cognitive substrates of social-identity formation” by providing their audience with “aesthetic pleasure” and linking that pleasure to an overarching conception of law and justice. In doing so, they deploy aesthetic strategies “from non-Islamic sources, such as comic books, film, and video games,” including, as here, the transgressive narrative strategies of pornography, to foster in-group solidarity and trust.

The producer, director, editor, and staff who made films like this one will be eager to respond to reckless  language deployed without an appreciation of the international consequences of rhetoric directed to achieve domestic political ends.

Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies

One of the challenges raised by the widespread contemporary interest in narrative and “story” in popular discourse, including in the popular discussion of foreign affairs and counter-terrorism strategy, is that the terms are regularly drained of sharp analytic content. “What’s our national story?” “How can we develop counter-narratives to our opponent’s propaganda?” Too often, narrative and story are used as synonyms of much broader concepts like “values,” “ideas,” or “ideological point of view.”

This state of affairs is partly the result of trends in the humanities, where the study of narrative now extends well beyond the confines of a single text to encompass a broad, open-ended, intertextual network of discourse. In addition, it signals pervasive doubts about the nature of truth in western culture. In the name of any number of ideological causes and sensitivities, contests between truth-claims today are often reduced to differences between “stories” that cannot be adjudicated through reference to higher rational or argumentative principles (see Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition).

Yet if narrative is to be effective in combating violent extremism, and in assisting liberalizing forces in the ideological civil war within Muslim communities, then it’s important that theorists of soft power write about the subject in technical terms, and that they encourage stakeholders in their work to do so as well. The use of the terms narrative or story, that is, ought to become more stringent, and focused as much on the formal aspects of storytelling as on its thematic content.

I suggest this not to call for a fuddy-duddy monitoring of the field, but instead to encourage the kind of strength that comes with analytical precision. Chat with any group of Hollywood screenwriters—the best and most effective narrative practitioners in the world, at least within the field of popular culture—and critical discussion of any script quickly turns to abstract matters of form: How is a plot constructed out of particular elements that have been laid out in a specific order? What’s the arc of the narrative? What’s the trigger of the action? Is there a “reversal”? What’s the nature of the resolution?

It’s a short jump from questions like these to those considered by contemporary narratologists and literary theorists. And a number of studies in the area of countering violent extremism, for instance work by Beatrice de Graff or William D. Casebeer and James A. Russell, strongly point in this direction.

Maan’s work represents an unusual contribution to this theoretically-informed writing, and I found it consistently stimulating and rewarding even when I disagreed with some of its conclusions—perhaps especially then. (I should add that I also would have wished for both books to bear the deeper impress of an editorial hand—but that’s an issue characteristic of much of the field.) What makes Maan’s writing especially interesting is its grounding in literary deconstructionism, post-colonial theory, and post-modern hermeneutics. In this respect, hers is project of intellectual arbitrage that takes real courage. It’s not every day that one encounters scholarship in counter-terrorism that follows in the tradition of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gayatri Spivak, and Paul Ricoeur.

To understand why Maan’s work is so interesting, it’s helpful to contrast deconstruction, or post-structuralist theory more generally, with the structuralist approach from which it grew. In particular, while there are many philosophical differences between the two schools, it’s their different reading practices, their approaches to interpretation, that are most important to countering violent extremism.

Most important, mid-century structuralists were inclined to seek out the unity of any given text. This unity existed because all texts were said to be constructed from a set of basic, atomic-level building-blocks contained within the linguistic architecture of the text itself. These building blocks included, especially, certain basic, perhaps universal binary oppositions of meaning, such as the gender opposition of male and female, neither of which could exist in itself without being contrasted with the other. Structuralists thus often confined themselves to a descriptive analysis of content within the four corners of a work—theirs was an internal reading for semiotic consistency. To see brilliant, brief examples of such readings of popular culture, take a look at Roland Barthes’s Mythologies.

By contrast, deconstructionists—poststructuralists—don’t read for textual unity but rather for contradiction and indeterminacy. They do so in part because of how they believe texts work or how they create meaning. Most notably, according to post-structuralists, techniques of close reading consistently reveal that the binary oppositions central to the structuralist conception of language are in fact unstable within any given text. Indeed, it’s precisely this instability, on their view, that underlies how a text comes to mean: a text only means through its connection to systems of meaning that exist outside its four corners. In addition, outside the four corners of a text also stands the psychological desires and cognitive frameworks of readers. These shape how readers encounter texts and fill their gaps with content—and, in turn, how they construct their own selfhood in the process of textual consumption.

"La Trahison des Images" or "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("The Treachery of Images" or "This is not a pipe") by René Magritte (Wikimedia)

Maan stands in this poststructuralist tradition, and it allows her to read the literature of violent extremists in ways that open its meanings in truly illuminating ways. It also leads her, in Counter-Terrorism, to a powerful insight, and a controversial conclusion, which grows from the post-colonial tradition of literary theory linked to post-structuralism. In Maan’s view, the narratives of violent extremists possess the same formal structure as narratives deployed by colonizers, and they therefore offer the same basic structure of psychological identity to their readers. They do so by offering a grand, unifying narrative in which subjects construct a linear selfhood and unified identity. There is thus a “symbiotic” relationship between terrorism and colonialism at the level of narrative form. Islamist terrorists narrate as colonizers.[4]

Based on this arresting insight, Maan contends that narratives deployed to combat extremism should abjure the effort “to create a central space,” a unifying narrative of selfhood. Instead, public communications should “fully embody hybrid ontologies and…identify with dislocation,” in part because “the ideal of a unified self…has the effect of marginalizing non-unified or discontinuous autobiographies” (and such marginalization, inter alia, may hinder deradicalization by posing barriers to social reintegration). The project of counter-terrorism communications, writes Maan, instead therefore “should be to fully occupy marginal space.”[5]

As an old-fashioned liberal modernist, I’m inclined to disagree with this conclusion—yet I’ll certainly be thinking about it for a long while.

Equally strikingly, Maan finds such marginal space in the narratives and the personal psychology of “multicultural existence”—an existence, she asserts, which is more consistent with an eastern ideal of selfhood. What’s more, in a grand conclusion, she conceives of that multicultural existence in fully patriotic terms: “We, the United States,” she writes, “are already in possession of a metaphor that encompasses conflict. The U.S. already has the advantage here; we are the alternative metaphor.”[6]

Soft Power on Hard Problems

This is certainly heady stuff. Yet it is written with applied, on-the-ground strategy in mind. In the UAE, I was struck by how deeply this post-structuralist theorist seemed to reach the very practical men and women at the National Defense College. And, indeed, in Soft Power on Hard Problems, Maan and Cheema’s contributors provide a range of practical suggestions—many of them radical and against the grain in their own right—for thinking about their respective subjects

In chapter one, for instance, Paul Cobaugh explicates fives specific lines of effort in pursuit of stability in the Middle East, and he details best practices for a narrative strategy sensitive to contextual nuance. In chapter two, after laying out a conception of international politics with which I found myself in deep disagreement, Amar Cheema provides a variety of sensible, persuasive suggestions for “building peace” and “sustaining peace.”[7] Eirini Patsea argues in chapter three for the importance of building “social cohesion” and “rehumanzing the other” through a process that taps into a psychology of surplus based in religious belief.[8]

In chapter four, Christopher Holshek advocates for a model of “military civics” so that the American “strategic software suite” can process an operational environment “in which the power of persuasion is increasingly more relevant than that of coercion.”[9] That model finds interesting echoes in Christopher Mayer’s essay, in chapter five, which advocates for a conception of military service based on “self-fulfillment” rather than selflessness.[10] And in an analysis of the narrative construction of identity of extremist women, Farhana Qazi compelling recommends “re-explaining the narrative of life and death in Islam” through proper use of Islamic history and scripture, concluding the volume.[11]

Each of these essays made me think, and they contain many helpful insights and suggestions. Yet as I read them, I couldn’t keep myself from repeatedly wondering what possibilities exist for implementing any of their recommendations in the midst of the current political environment  in the U.S. As Cobaugh notes in his discussion of the 5Ws of messaging: “The hate regularly displayed in the U.S. and Western press toward Muslims … increases the risk of undermining the very Allies we need as our credible messengers to erode the ideology of the extremists.”[12]

A Parting Thought

“We are the alternative metaphor,” writes Maan. Considering the care that Daesh puts into its own narrative construction, therefore, one wonders whether the most strategic thing that the United States can do right now on the international stage is to get its own story straight.

Mark S. Weiner is author of The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom. He is a professor of legal history and constitutional law on leave from Rutgers School of Law.

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Header Image: "The Storyteller" (Chuck Marsahll)


[1] Ajit Maan, “Interdiction,” in Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, edited by Ajit Maan and Amar Cheema (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2017), v.

[2] Paul Cobaugh, “Soft Power in the Lead: The Foundation,” in Soft Power on Hard Problems, 15.

[3] Ajit Maan, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2016), 19-26.

[4] Ibid., 39-40.

[5] Ibid., 46, 50.

[6] Ibid., 72.

[7] Amar Cheema, “Syria-Iraq: Beyond the Zero-Sum Narratives,” in Soft Power on Hard Problems, 49-55.

[8] Eirini Patsea, “Kingdom of Consciousness: Peace-Building Meta-Narratives,” in Soft Power on Hard Problems, 59-74.

[9] Christopher Holsheck, “National Strategy on a Dollar: Finding a Civil-Military Principle for Coordinating Peace and Security,” in Soft Power on Hard Problems, 83.

[10] Christopher Mayer, “Committed Service: Bringing Together Service and Self-Fulfillment for the Military Leader,” in Soft Power on Hard Problems, 97-110.

[11] Farhana Qazi, “The Muhajirat: Tracing the Literature of Radical Women,” in Soft Power on Hard Problems, 125.

[12] Cobaugh, “Soft Power in the Lead,” 30.