The aim of this paper is to examine the role of historical narratives in extremist propaganda, seeking to show how and why they are used to enhance the impact of such propaganda. To that end we use the concept of the ‘competitive system of meaning’, which lies at the heart of extremist propaganda and forms their grand overarching narrative. Through the use of two constructs, in-group/out-group identity and crisis/solution, propagandists form a cylindrically reinforcing narrative. This paper is exploratory in nature, and is envisaged as the first step in much more detailed research into the role of historical narratives in extremist propaganda. It seeks to show the importance of historical narratives to propaganda by identifying and exploring five ways in which such narratives are exploited to reinforce the extremists’ ‘competitive system of meaning’. 

Keywords—terrorism, violent extremism, propaganda, strategic communications 

About the Authors 

Dr Alastair Reed is a Senior Researcher at the International Centre for Counter- Terrorism (ICCT) and the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University in the Netherlands. His research interest include (counter) terrorism and violent extremism, with particular focus on propaganda and strategic communications. 

Jennifer Dowling MSc teaches at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her areas of research include counter-terrorism, strategic communications, and propaganda used by armed groups, with specific focus on the Irish Republican Movement. 


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