Maneuvering within Islam`s narrative space
January-March 2018
By: Brian L Steed

ISIS serves as the exemplar actor for demonstrating what is meant by maneuver in the narrative space. There is not space here to explain their conduct in detail, so what follows is a brief summary. ISIS conducts their maneuver in the narrative space by placing the greatest emphasis on ideology. All of their “words-deeds-images” support their position as the caliphate and as the army of the righteous in this great battle of the ages. They support this ideological main effort with what is termed a strategic approach. This combines a broad-based engagement effort that includes a spectrum of personal interaction, recruitment and seduction all the way to broadcast images and videos and online magazines targeting specific cultures and communities. This is wrapped in an opponent-oriented strategy of exhaustion. ISIS does not seek military victory. Instead, it seeks societal and economic exhaustion: to make the enemy invest so many resources into security as to induce economic collapse. Finally, there is the supporting effort of violence. The graphic violence garners media attention, providing resources to the engagement effort, and it also serves to communicate the narrative of an inexhaustible (remaining and expanding) foe that will do whatever is necessary to win. What is necessary is always supportive of the ideology.

Conflict is a competition for influence, and that influence is achieved through a variety of tools. Strategic narrative is a tool that explains the overarching purpose of operations in “words-deeds-images.” Strategic narrative provides guidance with parameters for communicating stories through various means. These stories both express intent and weaken cognitive dissonance. Successful narrative requires full comprehension of the narrative space landscape and empowers the use of all capabilities.

Maneuver in the narrative space is the execution of the strategic narrative through the braided cord of “words-deeds-images.” This occurs most effectively when the narrative space is fully understood from the perspective of the opponent or counterpart. In the case of Iraq, the United States could only conduct effective maneuver in the narrative space if American leaders understood the Iraqi narrative space terrain morphology in terms of basic shape, as well as the key and decisive terrain. Then it is possible to construct an interwoven or braided cord of “words-deeds-images” that support the strategic narrative and enable the actor to gain a position of advantage or strike at the center of gravity. Maneuver happens through a combined campaign that includes effective use of memes and data, along with messages, stories, imagery and actions or deeds. The deeds are critical in that people will tend to evaluate actions as more important than words. Most critical is that to effectively transform the narrative morphology, one must maintain a tight braid of “words-deeds-images” such that the intended audience cannot see a disparity between what is said, what is done and what is shown.

Actions in the physical space have influence and impact on the narrative space terrain (see Figure 1.7). These actions can be violent or nonviolent. The plan associated with such maneuver needs to recognize the intent of the “words-deeds-images” such that one knows whether they are depositional, erosional or tectonic. The specific challenge with tectonic events is that it is hard to predict the resulting narrative terrain morphology following a tectonic episode.

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