Head Shots, Body Shots, or Lead with an Influence Strategy

influence strategy

Head Shots or Body Shots? This is a Question that
Should Defend Influence Strategy, Not Lead It

By Ajit Maan.

In an insightful recent article “Counterterrorism Targeting – Head Shots or Body Shots?” Thomas G. Pledger advocates augmenting the kill/capture counter-terrorism model with network targeting. I don’t have any problem with that as long as the question follows (defends, protects, and backs up) influence targeting of the non-kinetic variety.

While “capture when you can” is an intelligence requirement, “kill” is less advantageous. Retribution, as Pledger notes, has got us into considerable trouble.

The kill/capture model is problematic and has even been counter-productive. These operations not only have failed to eliminate al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, they have resulted in the proliferation of violent extremism by directly feeding into the narratives that support it.

The younger leaders who have filled their ranks of those targeted individuals are more extreme, more aggressive, more lethal, and less likely to compromise diplomatically. Network targeting has been effective in slowing down adversarial operations by a few days in some cases, but their organizations are designed to take those sorts of losses.

It is past time to reconsider our own militarized narrative. The story we tell ourselves is predicated upon the belief that the U.S. is conducting a “war on terror.” Even contextualizing the conflicts as ideological is understood in militarized terms. A militarized understanding of the battlefield naturally leads to military force – capabilities to defeat the enemy. But this narrative is faulty and the weapons being used to combat extremism are ineffective because the nature of the conflict has been misidentified.

We need to counter extremism with methods and tools that shape environments and affect behaviors. Military action is only one of these tools. It should be placed behind others. Most importantly, we need to lead with a comprehensive strategic narrative that speaks to the identity of its audience.

Our adversaries understand this concept, have embraced it, and have incorporated strategic narratives across their operations. AQAP, ISIS, the Taliban al-Qaeda, and many other jihadi groups effectively disseminate their brand and reinforce their ideologies through broad information operations to control the strategic narrative.

An imperative is that ours should encompass the adversary’s narrative. This is not a counter-narrative. It is not a rebuttal. A strategic narrative will not be successful if it is limited to the narrative terrain established by extremists and should not be focused on responding to their messages. What I am suggesting involves re-narrating the events of the opposition’s narrative and co-opting their meaning. In other words, we must tell our own narrative in a way that re-frames the opposition’s and offers a bigger, better, smarter alternative of understanding, identifying and acting.

Responding to terrorist messaging has already resulted in what were predictable problems: 1) We have no footing upon which to win ideological or religious debates. 2) Losing those debates has resulted in further loss of credibility. 3) Responding elevates and legitimates the adversarial narrative. 4) Responding is a defensive position. We should not put ourselves in a defensive position. Rather, we need to position ourselves offensively, to get out ahead of their narrative, encompass it, and swallow it up.

Further, an effective strategic message must target, and be delivered to, the population not the terrorists. In an unconventional warfare campaign the key terrain is the human terrain. That is where we either win or loose. We need better messages that connect to our TA’s core identity narrative, through which both hard and soft power will be understood.

Our narrative must demonstrate how extremists are using the population as a proxy force and how they don’t, in fact, share common identities, interests, or objectives with the audiences they are trying to control. Our message should focus on the damage terrorists have done to the target population and how their actions provoke responses that will negatively affect that population. That message will resonate with the target audience because it is consistent with their immediate experience.

Developing a coherent strategic narrative is the best weapon to stem recruitment and combat extremism. It is a national security imperative. Questions about how best to enforce the strategy should come after we have a strategy.


“Counterterrorism Targeting – Head Shots or Body Shots”, SOF News, by Thomas Pledger, April 2, 2020.

Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is CEO of the award winning think-and-do-tank Narrative Strategies, Professor of Politics and Global Security at Arizona State University, Affiliate Faculty at the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, Member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, and author of seven books including Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear.

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