Strategic Communication and Violent Extremism: The Importance of State Action

Published date01 August 2018
Date01 August 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Strategic Communication
and Violent Extremism:
The Importance
of State Action
Damien D. Cheong1
State action is an important form of strategic communication and therefore signi-
ficant to countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives on and offline. While non-
state actors often use state action (and sometimes inaction) as a motivation to
incite and legitimize violence against the state as well as its citizens, generating such
negative sentiment does not always require instigation. This is especially so when
the action(s) of a state are extremely controversial. As many violent extremists
(including lone actors) have been radicalized as a result of state action (or in action),
it is necessary for the state to not only carry out positive actions but also have
them widely publicized. This is envisaged to counter adverse narratives and address
tangible issues that push individuals towards violent extremism.
Countering violent extremism, state action, radicalization, strategic communication
In September 2016, a senator from the Democratic Party in the USA, Ted Lieu,
wrote a letter to the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, urging her to support
the ‘United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ call for an interna-
tional, independent investigation into the civilian deaths and war crimes in Yemen’
(Lieu, 2016). Lieu argued that ‘The repeated killing of civilians by the Saudi
coalition, done with US assistance, violates not just our [the US’] moral con science
but degrades our reputation and standing in the world [author’s emphasis]’
(Lieu, 2016). He also noted that ‘many people in Yemen hold the US responsible
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
5(2) 129–148
2018 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797018783115
Research Fellow, National Security Studies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Republic of Singapore.
Corresponding author:
Damien D. Cheong, Research Fellow, National Security Studies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Republic of Singapore.
130 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 5(2)
for the actions of the Saudi military coalition’ and that the US was ‘potentially creat-
ing numerous recruiting opportunities for terrorists with every US-enabled bomb
that drops in children and civilians [author’s emphasis] in Yemen’ (Lieu, 2016).
The senator’s arguments and observations are important for three reasons:
first, civilian casualties validate violent extremist narratives and can directly and
indirectly aid terrorist recruitment. The speed at which news of such incidents is
disseminated (via traditional or social media), as well as how these incidents are
framed, suggests the following: (a) individuals do not require instigation (by a
jihadi firebrand or preacher) to feel outraged; a news report on either of these
mediums will suffice; and (b) the state often cannot respond to such reports in a
timely manner, which enables misinformation and negative sentiments to spread
easily. Second, the state no longer has to be directly involved in a military conflict/
campaign to be held responsible for human casualties; it is presumed to be ‘guilty
by association’. Third, a state’s existing countering violent extremism (CVE)
initiatives (on and offline) can be severely undermined because of its actions/
involvement in the conflict, especially when casualty rates are high. These obser-
vations arguably apply to situations where the state is involved in armed operations
(domestic or international) that result in a humanitarian crisis.
How then should a state respond in a situation where engaging in armed con-
frontation is necessary, but is likely to cause human casualties/fatalities as well as
inevitable public backlash? How can the state minimize negative public sentiment
in the long term?
It is argued that undertaking positive state action at the macro- and micro-levels can
help address these challenges. Providing or increasing humanitarian assistance in times
of peace, or as part of rebuilding efforts following armed conflict, could be viewed as
an undertaking at the macro-level in that it caters to a larger segment of affected society.
An undertaking wherein the state provides assistance at the unitary, family or local
community levels multiple times as part of an ongoing programme could better serve
as an example of micro-level service provision. Such interventions are envisaged to
improve the state’s overall image, thereby minimizing public backlash, especially
when the state has to carry out controversial action in the future, and bolstering existing
CVE efforts. However, it must be acknowledged that the proposed strategy may not be
as effective if mistrust of the state already exists at elevated levels.
In support of this argument, this article will first discuss how state action can
be understood as strategic communication. Next, it will examine how human
casualties affect audiences and why news media tend to focus on such stories.
How such stories feed radicalization, contempt for a state and overall impact on a
state’s CVE efforts will also be discussed. Several macro- and micro-strategies of
different countries will be analysed to identify useful learning points. Finally, the
article will conclude with some thoughts for the future.
Strategic Communication and State Action
Strategic communication or ‘communication through words and deeds in pursuit
of national strategic objectives’ has, in recent times, become more prominent
across the globe (Cornish, Lindley-French, & Yorke, 2011, p. ix). In terms of

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