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Communicating to win: how terrorists gain advantage in the information environment

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The appeal of terrorist groups remains strong. For at least the past two decades, the United States and its allies have pursued terrorist organizations across the globe, disrupting their networks, killing or capturing their leaders, and removing their safe havens. Yet with the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan, jihadist organizations expanding across Africa, and the threat of an Islamic State resurgence in Iraq, tactical military successes have not defeated them entirely.

Terrorist organizations remain resilient in part because they possess advantages over the US government in the information environment. The nature of the information environment—in which a statement, photo, or video is disseminated worldwide in an instant—often forces the United States into a reactive posture, allowing terrorist groups to maneuver freely toward their messaging objectives.

Terrorist groups manipulate information for a variety of goals, including to recruit new members, distance themselves from attacks that are politically costly, and issue threats that can change the behavior of their targets. In response, the United States struggles to keep pace, consistently identifying the problem while falling short of making the changes necessary to compete. Today, faced with adversaries that are far more sophisticated than any terrorist group, the United States would do well to learn from its mistakes in the information environment over the past two decades of counterterrorism operations if it hopes to compete more successfully with Russia and China.

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