Since 9/11, the US government has spent nearly $6 trillion trying to win against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. A fundamental problem has been the narrowness of the approach. Emphasising physical, hard power, policymakers have paid little attention to the cultural landscape that shapes the lives of potential extremist recruits.
To evaluate and forecast the current threat landscape and eventually win the war, governments must develop better, more precise cultural intelligence (that is, insights into the mindsets of youth, as reflected by trends in fashion, music, religious practice and so on) to help inform traditional, hard-power military analyses. By creating a rigorous cultural-listening ‘machine’ that unites cultural data with other hard- and soft-power intelligence, governments can become far more alert and proactive on the ideological battlefield.
Lagging Behind the Bad Guys
American policymakers, and their counterparts around the world, currently assign officials in their embassies to assess local changes in cultural practice. Counter-terrorism and public-diplomacy officials might sift through this type of data, developing one-off programmes or initiatives in response. But no government has teams dedicated to evaluating all the cultural data related to Muslim identity and uniting this grass-roots intelligence into a larger, hard- and soft-power intelligence tapestry. Lacking a holistic picture of grass-roots micro-trends, governments routinely fail to understand extremism’s early stirrings in local communities. Policymakers end up reacting to extremism after the fact, once the bad guys have already exerted a hold on vulnerable youths.
Consider what happened in the Maldives. When I visited this island nation in 2010, I noticed seemingly small, outward changes to Muslim identity, as well as ruptures from traditions that had emerged over 800 years of local Islamic history. I heard how local authorities and parents were exerting subtle pressure on females to stay out of school; how conspiracy theories were flourishing, linking the island’s climate crisis to incorrect Islamic practice; how youths were donning Arab dress, reading from Saudi-sponsored Qurans and listening to Arab music and sermons; and how locals who had once welcomed Western tourists were now shunning them.
At the time, such seemingly minor and independent changes were not unique to the Maldives. From Trinidad to Central Asia to the Maghreb, Muslim youths were creating new cultural norms and reconceiving Islamic identities. But governments didn’t register these cultural shifts, understand their meaning or adjust their ideological responses to the extremist threat. Focused on hard counter-terrorism measures, the policy community failed to discern that an unyielding ‘us vs. them’ ideology was taking hold in Muslim communities the world over. Western media pundits and policymakers alike were subsequently flummoxed on receiving ‘surprising’ reports of foreign fighters from the Maldives and elsewhere joining the so-called Islamic State.
Governments must pay attention to cultural minutiae, just as the military systematically reviews and assesses its adversaries, down to their last piece of military hardware. Throughout the US government, officials scrutinise the air, land and naval forces of Russia, China and North Korea, tracking their training, overall readiness and similar measures. Such a dedicated preparedness function is needed on the ideological side of the war, too. Instead of only quantifying how many satellites, troops and weapons their adversaries possess, governments must ask why youths throughout the globe are favouring a particular lifestyle brand, gravitating to halal-based food choices, reorienting their travel experiences or adopting religious paraphernalia foreign to their local communities.
Governments must pay attention to cultural minutiae, just as the military systematically reviews and assesses its adversaries.”
Policymakers must also analyse these data, turning them into actionable insight. At present, policymakers might read reports about how the massive infusion of Saudi petrodollars is transforming local religious and cultural landscapes, replacing time-honoured expressions of Islam with hard-line Wahhabism. But policymakers don’t integrate disparate cultural data into a comprehensive, global assessment of Muslim youth. It isn’t enough to know that Wahhabi ideology has transformed local identities throughout the world, fuelling the rise of violent extremism. Policymakers must go further, identifying more precisely how lifestyle changes among youths contribute to their recruitment by terrorist organisations, and what specific actions governments can take to intervene.
Governments Can Do Cultural Listening
When it comes to cultural listening, governments can take inspiration from the private sector, especially companies that sell into youth markets. Leading cultural lifestyle brands such as Microsoft, Hulu, Spotify, Sephora and KFC have dedicated staff who act as cultural curators. Observing trends in media, art, fashion, food, science and music, they decipher what consumers are thinking, what kinds of products they might want and how these brands might best market their goods and services.[_]
When it comes to cultural listening, governments can take inspiration from the private sector, especially companies that sell into youth markets.”
Governments can develop this readiness capacity by undertaking the following action items.
First, they should collate cultural data. To the extent it’s collected, on-the-ground knowledge of cultural changes like those under way in the Maldives circa 2010 is typically transmitted via one-off diplomatic cables and the like. Though these cables may prove illuminating to their immediate recipients, they disappear into an intelligence black hole. Governments must bring the same hard-power discipline of preparedness analysis to their soft-power initiatives, compiling all available data and weaving them into a larger cultural tapestry.
Second, governments should build a global connected consciousness. Many diplomats, analysts and other policymakers speak passionately about the need to better coordinate intelligence sharing among governments. But when it comes to behavioural norms, there is little precedent for sharing, much less for taking action. Governments must work together to unpack, analyse and act on cultural data: it’s the only way to grasp broader, global developments unfolding across larger demographics of interest, like millennial and generation-Z Muslims.
Finally, policymakers should infuse relevant specialists into assessment teams. Government officials should partner with best-in-class cultural-listening experts in the private sector, utilising their real-world knowledge to understand developments on the ground. Companies possess the data, technology and cultural expertise needed to discern what extremism-related events occur in local contexts—and, more importantly, why.
Companies also make use of edge dwellers—cultural warriors, activists and behavioural scientists who inhabit the fringes of their cultural contexts and thus can predict trends before they unfold. Such individuals can alert policymakers to changes in demographics, cultural practices and local identities, helping them spot and thereby address emergent trends in extremism. Further, companies possess dynamic and timely megadata on global cultural movements that can help decision-makers understand the vulnerabilities of local youths to extremist messages.
For more examples of cultural listening best practices, governments need only look to their adversaries. When the so-called Islamic State began attracting recruits and expanding its territorial footprint in 2013, Western media outlets were convinced that such an appalling ideology would hold no appeal for women. The terrorists knew better and started targeting women, keenly exploiting music, fashion and social practices in their messaging. Unlike Western policymakers, they had been paying close attention to how youths were experiencing their religion, and moved nimbly to exploit such cultural awareness.
As the world becomes increasingly fragmented, as the Muslim youth population continues to expand at an unprecedented rate and as generational change intensifies, cultural listening only becomes more imperative. Governments can outwit their adversaries, arresting extremism before it takes hold, but only if they monitor and capitalise on cultural trends. The ideological war is theirs to win—or lose.
Governments can arrest extremism before it takes hold, but only if they monitor and capitalise on cultural trends.”
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Download all the essays in this collection as a PDF or read them online:
National Security Readiness Requires Cultural Listening