Research Findings: Exploring Counter-Narratives to Islamist Extremism

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Research Findings: Exploring Counter-Narratives to Islamist Extremism

Posted on: 7th June 2018



    A global body of research is developing on the drivers of extremism and the narratives that extremists use to recruit and radicalise. This series showcases key insights from our Institute’s extensive data-driven research, which seeks to inform pressing questions of counter-extremism policymaking and practice. In this part, we explore counter-narratives to Islamist extremism.


    • Whether negating extremist narratives or presenting alternatives, effective counter-narrative content must understand extremist messaging. Identifying the right message requires recognition of groups’ agility and continual evolution.
    • Policymakers should support relevant organisations and individuals already engaged in countering extremist narratives with tools and training to increase their reach and impact. Governments and NGOs should be prepared to step back and play a supporting role to ensure the credibility of the messenger is not compromised.
    • Counter-narratives must challenge in the right space. In terms of content, this requires contesting extremist narratives and use of scripture to undermine extremists’ religious credibility. In terms of delivery, this means using media that are accessible and influential among target audiences. An over-reliance on social media can be detrimental.



    Extremism of any type is based on a system of ideas that espouses a narrow, intolerant and closed-minded view of the world. Tackling these ideas requires understanding the ideologies and narratives extremists use and addressing them through effective strategic communication.

    Counter-narratives can be communicated via a range of media and carry different messages. Broadly speaking, counter-narratives can be either negative or positive. Negative counter-narratives seek to challenge, contest and undermine extremist descriptions and assertions, to attack their validity and legitimacy. Positive counter-narratives seek to present a better alternative to the worldview put forward by extremists. Each type has a particular purpose, and the two can be used in conjunction to form a comprehensive campaign.

    Our Institute’s research shows that an effective counter-narrative strategy requires equal importance and attention to be given to the content and delivery of a message. For both, it is crucial to identify the right content and delivery method and understand the target audience and the communications landscape.



    A prerequisite for effective communication strategies to counter extremist narratives is a comprehensive understanding of the ideology and narratives that extremist groups employ in their messaging. This applies to both positive and negative counter-narratives.

    Research by our Institute analysing the propaganda output of Salafi-jihadi groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda has shown that distinct groups share fundamentally similar ideologies. Each movement employs Islamic concepts and scripture to establish a degree of authenticity and legitimacy.

    In our study of propaganda, ideological values, which form the moral basis of groups’ actions, were present in 80 per cent of all sources analysed (see figure 1). The values of honour and solidarity with the Muslim community appeared in 68 per cent of material, and references to the end of days in 42 per cent. The importance of tawhid (monotheism) was revealed in a number of themes throughout the propaganda, in different strands of the ideology: one God, one state and one ummah (global Islamic community). These themes appeared in over 74 per cent of the propaganda.

    Figure 1: Themes in Salafi-Jihadi Propaganda

    Counter-narratives figure 1.jpg

    Key counter-messages that seek to contest such propaganda are roughly split three ways between presenting alternative interpretations, condemning extremists’ actions, and confronting extremists’ use of scripture and religious arguments (see figure 2).

    Figure 2: Uses of Scripture in Counter-Narratives

    Counter-narratives figure 2.jpg

    Research by our Institute has shown that existing counter-narrative materials are failing to adequately challenge in the right theological spaces. That is because the approaches used fail to balance rebutting extremists’ claims with providing alternatives that reclaim the religious discourse from the extremists. Our research has revealed that only 16 per cent of the scriptural references used by Salafi-jihadis to justify their actions are substantively addressed in counter-narrative content.

    To have greater impact, counter-narrative efforts must therefore develop an understanding of both the narratives employed by extremist groups and the context of the intended target audience, taking into account religious, cultural, political and socio-economic factors.



    Identifying the most effective medium to communicate a counter-narrative requires an appreciation of both the modes of transmission used by extremist groups and the ways users access such content. This includes not only social media but also other means of delivery, both online and offline.

    Understanding the communication landscape is essential for successful delivery of counter-narrative initiatives. Language, cultural context, Internet penetration and literacy rates are among the factors that need to feed into decisions about how to deliver counter-narrative content.

    Social media is a low-tech, low-cost online environment that can achieve international reach and exposure in a short space of time. The rise in mobile devices and Internet access means social media is a convenient way of challenging extremist narratives.

    However, content that users are likely to encounter in their social media feeds reflects their existing interests and tendencies, creating an individualised bubble that can often be difficult to penetrate with conflicting opinions. Segmentation (identifying which demographics or groups of users to target) and audience-analysis tools (to understand users’ interests, likes and online behaviour) help achieve more targeted counter-narrative campaigns and mitigate the risk of preaching to the converted.

    Search-engine results are another large online domain where extremist content has been documented as readily accessible. Research by our Institute has found that a broad array of extremist content on websites—including violent material such as ISIS magazines and al-Qaeda videos as well as nonviolent content such as anti-Shia sectarian articles and an Islamist guide on how to establish an Islamic state—is just a click away for users seeking content for a range of Islam-related keywords (see figure 3).

    Figure 3: Types of Extremist Content in Online Search Results

    Counter-narratives figure 3.jpg

    Our research has also shown there is a dearth of counter-narrative content in the organic search results for a range of keywords that return links to extremist material. Of the counter-narrative efforts identified, the majority were led by religious organisations, while comparatively few were produced by government or civil-society actors (see figure 4).

    Figure 4: Producers of Online Counter-Narrative Content

    Counter-narratives figure 4.jpg

    Paid content, whether on search engines or in social media, offers an opportunity to gain prominence in a short space of time. Tech platforms have made funding opportunities available for these options. However, there remain concerns about the efficacy of paid content, which tends to receive less interest and is trusted less than organically placed content.

    In some contexts, online delivery of counter-narratives may not be the most effective means of reaching target audiences, in which case alternative, offline media have an important role to play. Our Institute works with local partners in Egypt and Nigeria to build capacity among religious leaders with the skills required to engage with their local communities. Our Supporting Leaders programme provides these leaders with the communication skills and networks to effectively challenge extremist narratives using the extensive theological and scriptural knowledge they already possess.

    Meanwhile, our education programmes support young people to develop the skills necessary to navigate complex ideas and cope better with nuance in a globalised world. Generation Global, our international dialogue education programme, gives teachers practical classroom tools that build students’ resilience to extremist narratives. It does so by developing students’ skills of dialogue and giving them opportunities to practise these skills with their peers, increasing open-mindedness and changing attitudes towards others who are different. Compass, our mentoring project, gives young women access to support to explore issues relating to identity and belonging to society, to build resilience as they transition from education into adult life.



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