Strategic communications and foreign fighters


Identify examples of counter-radicalisation strategic communications projects in conflict-affected and nearby states aimed at preventing young people from becoming foreign fighters. Present the lessons learned emerging from these projects and evaluations of them.


Key Findings: There is limited coverage of strategic communications programmes specifically aiming to prevent the recruitment of citizens who travel to conflict zones to become foreign fighters. There is relatively more coverage of strategic communications with respect to broader counter-radicalisation or countering violent extremism (CVE) approaches, but there are few case studies and rigorous evaluations.

Strategic communication efforts have increased greatly in recent years, but relatively few details are available in the public domain. The majority of case studies in the literature are from the US and in Europe, with limited detail on programmes in conflict-affected and nearby states.

These often focus on measures to prevent the recruitment and travel of citizens from European countries as foreign fighters, rather than citizens of conflict-affected or nearby countries. A few case studies were found in conflict-affected or nearby countries where foreign fighters are known to have originated. These are based on descriptive accounts of the activities, with little or no substantial evaluation.

The recommendations and lessons learned in the literature appear mainly to be based on counter-radicalisation activities based in or funded by the US or Europe. In many cases, the recommendations made are normative, or based on expert opinions. Key points include:

  • Countering ideology: It may be important for strategic communications to counter the ideology underlying extremism. This entails challenging assumptions, beliefs, and meanings; targeting contradictions; and highlighting political differences.
  • Using credible messengers: Governments are more effective when they play an indirect role and support civil society in the design and delivery of alternative narratives. Credible messengers include former violent extremists and foreign fighters; the victims of violent extremism; those from conflict zones; and individuals with influence over at risk youth, including young people themselves. Cultural, religious, and local authorities can also provide powerful voices to delegitimise extremist groups purporting to protect their constituencies.
  • Understanding the audience: Potential and returned foreign fighters, and those from the wider society who could stop potential recruits from travelling have different counter-narrative needs. It is crucial to understand the specifics of extremist groups and the contexts in which they operate, as well as admitting the validity of grievances that recruiters use and offering constructive means of addressing those grievances.
  • Online campaigns: Efforts directed at committed extremists may offer insignificant returns. It may be more worthwhile to target politically aware contributors to blogs and social media who empathise with the grievances of extremists, but who are undecided as to how these grievances should be addressed.
  • Positive messaging: It is important to channel frustration and concern by providing a positive alternative to those considering travelling to conflict zones to become foreign fighters. This may include emphasising non-violent options such as charitable giving.
  • The importance of actions: The communication of foreign or domestic policy via strategic communications can fail if it is not followed up with actions. Credibility gaps arise when there is a mismatch between words and deeds. It is important for politicians and soldiers to be perceived as honest.
  • Whole of government approaches: Inter-governmental units such as the UK’s Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU), and the US Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (CSCC) are held up as good practice examples.
  • Evaluation: Some states have struggled to develop or implement reliable monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. Governments should work together to establish a monitoring and evaluation framework so that even small-scale activities can be compared and evaluated.