To those who watched the American-led war on Iraq unfold in the spring of 2003, the fighting in most cases seemed distant and confused. No matter which television station one watched or which internet site one monitored, it was very difficult to gain a clear understanding of the events taking place during the American march to Baghdad. Reporters and bloggers could only offer their own limited perspective of the events, and watching and listening to multiple sources (which often contradicted one another) made for a cacophony of noise from which it was very difficult to gain a clear understanding of the situation in Iraq and within the collation military efforts.
For the officers and soldiers of the U.S. military, by contrast, the war made sense. The fog of war was dense at times, sure, but the way the war was fought – by armored and infantry units backed by air support and commando operations – was entirely logical and in keeping with the warfighting doctrine developed by the U.S. military since the end of the Second World War. The Iraqis played by the rules, and they lost to a U.S.-led military machine far more accomplished at large-scale maneuver warfare than its nearest rivals, much less Saddam Hussein’s weakened army.
The years that have followed, by contrast, have been fairly confusing for the U.S. military. It took a full three years for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to adopt the kinds of population-centric counter-insurgency tactics that have helped create a little breathing room for U.S.-led forces and Iraq’s politicians in 2007.[i] During that time, the “enemy” quite often refused, as successful guerrillas usually do, to play by the established rules of maneuver warfare. These same guerrillas also proved more than capable in manipulating the imagery of war to further their political aims, causing General David Petraeus’s chief counter-insurgency strategist to remark that the enemy’s efforts could all to often be described as “armed propaganda” campaigns.[ii] Not only did the U.S. military have little idea how to fight a proper counter-insurgency campaign in 2003, it also had no real conception of information operations and how such operations fit into the strategy of both the insurgents and the U.S.-led coalition.
Until recently, complains U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, one of the authors of its new counter-insurgency field manual adopted in 2006, information operations was a field of battle completely abandoned to the enemy. The U.S. knew only how to engage the enemy in physical battle – it had no plan to exploit or explain such operations in the public sphere. When U.S. forces clashed with the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban contacted Arabic-language satellite channels immediately following the clash to make claims of civilian casualties and, in short, spin the battle in their favor. The U.S. public relations officers, by contrast, valued caution over timeliness and often waited days before issuing a statement confirming or denying the casualties.
What is worse, from the perspective of the U.S. military is that while the ponderous American defense bureaucracy has been slow off the mark, the enemy – the insurgent groups against which the U.S. has fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan – have proved more than proficient at the art of propaganda, media manipulation and shaping the way operations and events are perceived by enemy, friendly and neutral populations. In the same way, though the U.S. and its allies talk of the “comprehensive approach,” it is more often than not groups like Hizbullah and Jaish al-Mahdi who best understand military operations as part of a combined effort incorporating “political, military, diplomatic, economic and strategic communication” efforts.
To a large degree, though, the U.S. military cannot be blamed for being caught off-guard by their enemy’s sophistication in managing the way battles and campaigns are perceived. In the past two decades, insurgent, terrorist, and guerrilla groups in the Middle East have grown exponentially more sophisticated in the way they use the media available to them in order to affect the way battles are perceived. From the perspective of someone who studies military innovation, it is a remarkable achievement.
This paper focuses on the evolution of insurgent media operations in support of political-military objectives. Groups like the Taliban and Hizbullah did not start off, from the beginning, as sophisticated manipulators of popular perception. They learned, over time, how to shape the way in which military operations are perceived, and in the process, have taught Western militaries a valuable lesson in the nature of war itself.
Hizbullah and al-Manar
The history of contemporary information operations begins with Hizbullah. In 1990, when the Lebanese Civil War finally ended after 15 years of brutal fighting, the first television station to earn a license from the Lebanese government was al-Manar, Hizbullah’s own outlet.[iii] The way in which Hizbullah used al-Manar, however, was both innovative and reflected a careful study of their adversary, Israel, against whom they fought for control of southern Lebanon until the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.
One of the founders of al-Manar, Nasser Akhdar, explained to researchers Dina Matar and Farah Dakhlallah that the primary concern of al-Manar was to communicate “the daily realities of the occupation of South Lebanon to Lebanese society and the heroic acts of resistance to the occupation in an effort to bolster the resilience of the Community of the Resistance in Lebanon.”[iv] Accordingly, 40 per cent of al-Manar’s daily output in the 1990s was devoted to its coverage of events in southern Lebanon and insurgent attacks on Israel and its Lebanese allies.[v]
Hizbullah soon discovered, though, that its broadcasts had an effect not just on the Lebanese population but on the Israelis as well. “On the field, we hit one Israeli soldier,” one Hizbullah official explained. “But a tape of him crying for help affects thousands of Israelis … we realized the impact of our amateur work on the morale of the Israelis.”[vi]
Hizbullah, which employs a small army of Hebrew linguists to monitor the Israeli media, soon learned that for Israeli news outlets, broadcasting images of dead or dying Israeli soldiers was taboo. If a Lebanese outlet were to broadcast such images, though, and those images were then picked up by the international news wire services; the taboo was lifted. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak, and Israeli outlets began to re-broadcast the images most Israelis could watch anyway.
Consequently, Hizbullah invested much effort and blood in videotaping their attacks on Israeli columns and positions. As soon as the attack had taken place, the cameramen would race back to Beirut to make sure footage of the attack went up on al-Manar in time for the next news cycle. Footage of these attacks had a galvanizing effect on a portion of the Israeli population but also fueled the growing movement against the war and occupation in Israel.
Timur Goksel, the UN’s longtime spokesman in southern Lebanon, explained in 1993 that “Hizbullah knows they’re not going to win the war on the battlefield, so they’re not taking on Israel’s military might on the ground. They’re taking on the Israelis psychologically.”[vii]
Hizbullah pressed their advantage. They understood, correctly, that the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon was only possible so long as it was tolerated by the Israeli populace. Consequently, much of Hizbullah’s propaganda was not just aimed at the Lebanese population but at Israelis as well. One of al-Manar’s daily news broadcasts, even today, is in Hebrew. During the occupation, Hizbullah ran a constantly updated photo gallery of Israeli casualties with the phrase “Who’s Next?” written in Hebrew at the end.[viii] “We aren’t doing this to show off,” said one Hizbullah official “We want to get into every [Israeli’s] mind and affect Israeli public opinion.”[ix]
When the occupation finally ended in 2000 as Israel and its Lebanese allies retreated back behind the “Blue Line” in humiliating and chaotic fashion, one UN official was moved to remark that “75% of Hizbullah’s war against Israel was those videotapes.”[x]
America in Iraq and Afghanistan
When the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were writing the new counter-insurgency manual currently in use in Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors of the manual borrowed – as an example of proper counter-insurgency operations – the operational design used by the 1st Marine Division under the command of then-Major General James Mattis in 2004. The motto of the 1st Marine Division under Mattis, one of the most respected counter-insurgency practitioners in the U.S. military, borrowed heavily from the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.
Maj. Gen. Mattis sketched out the goals of the 1st Marine Division: to promote effective local governance; promote economic development; provide essential services; and develop Iraqi security forces. All of this would undermine the insurgency, Mattis believed, and all of this was to be made possible by Marine combat operations. In turn, everything done by Mattis’s Marines – the entire strategy of the 1st Marine Division – rested upon effective information operations.[xi]
Information operations is defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as “the integrated employment of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own.”[xii]
If that definition sounds confusing, that is because information operations is a field of military study around which the U.S. military is still trying to wrap its head. It has become clear to the U.S. military, though, is that perception matters as much as reality in contemporary combat. The approach to warfare adopted by the 1st Marine Division in 2004 – and its subsequent inclusion in American counter-insurgency doctrine – represents a mini-revolution in the way of war for Western militaries. The way military operations were perceived – by the enemy and by the neutral population – was now viewed as being as important the material results of the operations themselves.
It should surprise no one that insurgent groups tend to learn from the experiences of other insurgent groups. Political scientist Robert Pape argues that tactics such as suicide bombing are adopted from Hizbullah by groups such as the Tamil Tigers and Hamas largely because they are perceived as being successful.[xiii] Insurgency scholars Michael Horowitz and Erin Simpson, meanwhile, argue a functionalist explanation only goes so far to describe the diffusion of tactics among insurgencies.[xiv] Horowitz and Simpson highlight the importance of close ties between groups, noting that suicide bombing is no where to be found in the insurgencies of Latin America yet has flourished as a tactic in the Middle East and South Asia.
You cannot, in short, simply examine the strategic environment to determine why certain tactics are adopted. As Horowitz writes, “Networks of religiously-motivated groups, through the direct diffusion of knowledge from group to group and demonstration effects that influenced non religiously-motivated groups, distributed suicide terrorism around the world.”[xv]
Indeed, the spread of suicide bombing as a tactic to both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is an interesting case study, one that highlights both long-standing ties between Hizbullah and Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups and also the way in which Hizbullah emerged as a model for successful “resistance” against Israeli occupation.
In the same way that insurgent groups “borrow” tactics such as suicide bombing, insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned from the way in which Hizbullah used psychological warfare to great effect against the IDF and have applied such tactics to their resistance struggles against the American-led occupying armies. In Iraq and Afghanistan, however, there are two key differences between Hizbullah’s media and propaganda strategy against the IDF and that of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
First, the enemy’s propaganda has not been aimed to any great extent at undermining the support for the Iraq War in the United States or in allied nations. And second, whereas Hizbullah used traditional media – a television station, primarily, but also radio stations and newspapers – for its psychological operations, the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have more often made use of the new media.[xvi] For Hizbullah, broadcasting a video of attacks against Israelis meant putting the video on television. But who needs al-Manar – or television in general – when you have the internet and YouTube?
The most effective insurgent propaganda in Iraq has made use of the internet and slick sites such as BaghdadSniper.com. On BaghdadSniper, the internet viewer – who could be anywhere from Iraq to London to Indonesia – is greeted with the option of viewing the site in one of six languages: English, Arabic, Urdu, Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese, or German. (But not Persian as the site is affiliated with the Sunni resistance groups.) Viewers can then watch videos of (alleged) attacks on U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq by the anonymous “Baghdad Sniper.”[xvii]
As interesting as the videos are, however, the claims made by the site are just as interesting. The site makes three main contentions: One, in harsher conditions than those in which the American soldiers and Marines operate, insurgents out-perform the American soldiers. Two, unlike the Americans, they are moral – never targeting innocent women or children, whereas the Americans often kill innocent civilians. And three, they, the resistance, have the technical and tactical know-how and skill to challenge the mighty American army on the field of battle. This boast is particularly telling:
”Our snipers are superior to those in the U.S. army. Our men have only minutes to stop, scope, shoot and retreat while American snipers always shoot from a safe place under American control. us snipers hit easy targets. You hardly ever hear that they killed a fighter. [emphasis added] Our men only ever hit armed enemies.”
It is not in the character of a U.S. Marine Corps sniper – commonly regarded as among the world’s most skilful – to brag about their confirmed kills. But that is exactly what the Baghdad Sniper does because he understands the claim to have killed an American – and, better, a video showing the act – is more important than the act itself.
A key difference between the kind of insurgent propaganda broadcast by Hizbullah in the 1990s and the kind broadcast by the insurgents of Iraq is that whereas the propaganda broadcast by Hizbullah was often aimed at its enemy, Israel, the propaganda broadcast by the insurgents of Iraq is neither aimed at the Americans nor, for the most part, Iraqis. As evidenced by the languages in which BaghdadSniper is available, much of this propaganda is aimed at inflaming young Muslims spread from Lahore to London. It’s having an effect, too. A recent study by al-Qaeda expert Jason Burke demonstrated that insurgent propaganda videos on the internet had played a significant role in the radicalization process of young British Muslims convicted of planning or carrying out attacks on civilian targets in the UK.[xviii]
Audrey Kurth Cronin describes the process by which young Muslims are radicalized via insurgent propaganda on the internet, a kind of “cyber-mobilization” revolutionizing warfare to the degree that Napoleon’s levée en masse revolutionized continental warfare at the end of the 18th Century.[xix] When the armies of Napoleon marched across Europe, France’s enemies were caught off-guard by the size of the armies and the way in which they were quickly raised from the whole of the population. In the same way, the militaries and security services of traditional nation-states in the West and Middle East could be surprised by the way in which jihadist armies are raised and deployed, drawn as they are from the disaffected children of the Egyptian middle class and the residents of the slums of Paris and London both. For both, the insurgent propaganda functions as a kind of empowering “call to arms.” British journalist Amil Khan, who has worked extensively with radicalized youths in the UK, says the following:
These videos give you an alternative narrative. Instead of feeling like your community is powerless or weak, they give you the sense that ‘your people’ can be strong – and even stronger than the world’s leading powers. It’s a seductive alternative to the self-image many Muslims, you and old, have that their community, the umma, couldn’t organize a picnic much less challenge the world’s only superpower.[xx]
The insurgents against whom the U.S. Army and its all allies have fought since 2003 and, in Afghanistan, since 2001 have demonstrated a far more sophisticated understanding of the effects of propaganda and the psychological war than the supposedly more advanced armies of Western nation-states.
The next generation
Studying websites such as BaghdadSniper, we have to ask a question: how do we know the acts portrayed on the site in its videos are all real? How do we know, for example, that’s really an American soldier they’re targeting? Or that the American was killed as claimed? Or that much of the video posted on the website was not fabricated elsewhere? It follows that if the claim – and the image – of the attack is more important than the act itself, it might make more sense to fake the act and simply post a representation.
If the U.S. military and the governments of Western nation-states have had a difficult time with the what has popped up on Arabic-language satellite channels and the internet so far, imagine the difficulty they will have when the videos posted on the internet are hoaxes and cannot be verified or definitively refuted without a great deal of effort.
In 1990, the same year in which al-Manar was licensed, the U.S. led its first collation of armies against the army of Saddam Hussein. In the air and ground campaigns that followed over the course of 1990 and 1991, the U.S.-led coalition was able to effectively control the narrative of the conflict. The big media star of the first Persian Gulf War was the first English-language 24-hour news outlet, CNN. In the 18 years that followed the first Gulf War, however, Arab satellite television channels such as al-Jazeera – launched in 1996 – have revolutionized the way in which Arabs receive the news and from whom. And as Marc Lynch eloquently describes in his book on what he calls the “new Arab media,” satellite technology has also allowed pan-Arab newspapers based in London but printed abroad to challenge the hegemony of state-printed newspapers in places from Egypt to Jordan.[xxi]
The internet has created yet another media revolution, the second through which the Arabic-speaking world has passed in a relatively short period of time. The traditional regimes of the Arab world have struggled to cope with these revolutions, and it is only expected that the U.S. and its allies would struggle as well. It is hard enough to control the narrative of warfare when it’s in one language, but how can the U.S. engage with and influence the narrative when it’s in multiple languages and spread out over countless different media? The challenges for the U.S. and its allies appear to be growing, and the performance of the U.S. military thus far does not auger well for the future.
The U.S. Military's response
The U.S. military, despite having witnessed and studied the Israeli defeat in southern Lebanon, went into Iraq completely unprepared for the complicated media environment in which it found itself. In the fall of 2003, I was an officer in the U.S. Army, leading a special operations unit in Iraq. When I inquired as to what psychological operations resources I had at my disposal, I was given two well-meaning soldiers armed with bullhorns. They spoke, they admitted, no Arabic, but they had an Arabic-language recording they could play on their Cold War-era speaker system. The enemy, meanwhile, had a keen understanding of how to use the internet and the pan-Arab satellite stations to shape the narrative of the war.
It took years before U.S. and coalition officers began to understand the propaganda war and what is at stake. The U.S. military, however, remains hampered by four internal restrictions on its information operations and responses to insurgent propaganda. One, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 prohibits the U.S. military from engaging in propaganda aimed at American citizens.[xxii] The problem with Smith-Mundt is that it understandably failed to anticipate the information revolution that has taken place since the birth of the internet. Because you cannot “aim” a message broadcast on the internet toward any one group of people, Smith-Mundt hinders the U.S. military from conducting its own information operations via the internet for fear that such messages might reach American internet users as often as populations in the Arab world.[xxiii]
Second, the sluggish way in which intelligence information is declassified – including information about recently completed operations – means the U.S. military is often slow to respond to insurgent-fueled speculation that coalition attacks have resulted in atrocities or civilian casualties. By the time the coalition can respond – 24 hours is considered remarkably fast – the news cycle has moved on.
Third, U.S. military public relations officers tend to value accuracy over timeliness. They live in fear, understandably, of getting the story incorrect rather than getting the story out too late to be of any use in the information war.
Finally, counter-insurgency scholar Thomas Rid notes a distinction between digital immigrants and digital natives within the U.S. military.[xxiv] For the most part, the upper ranks of the U.S. military are populated by digital immigrants – those individuals who are old enough to remember the birth of the internet. Digital natives – the younger generation – have grown up with the new media their entire lives. They have Facebook profiles, use instant messaging and have never known a world without email. They have, as one officer told me, “been on MySpace longer than they have been in the Army.”[xxv] Digital immigrants, by contrast – the ones actually responsible for prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – are far less likely to quickly grasp the importance of the new media and the way in which insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have harnessed the internet to fight American policy objectives.
Digital immigrant though he may be, General William S. Wallace, fresh off a stint as director of media operations in Baghdad and newly installed as the U.S. Army’s chief of training and doctrine, comes as close as any general officer to understanding the problem. While serving as head of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, he ordered all the majors under his command to practice writing blog posts as preparation for interacting with the new media.[xxvi]
Institutions within the U.S. military are also working hard to understand the depth of the problem. That said, at the recent conference on information operations held at the U.S. Army War College, the author was the only attendee under the age of 30, while an informal show of hand revealed that out of 60-odd officers, scholars and bureaucrats attending, only two had Facebook profiles and only one – the author – had ever heard of the internet tool Twitter.[xxvii] For the foreseeable future, then, it will remain very difficult for the Western militaries to gain the initiative on their guerrilla opponents on the internet and through the media.
In the end, the terrorist and guerilla groups against which both Israel and the United States have fought in the Middle East over the past two decades have demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of war than the mighty armies of the Western nation-states.
For the armies of the Western nation-states – Israel included – war has too often meant the struggle to destroy the enemy’s fighting forces. This understanding of combat reflects an intellectual legacy dating back to the Swiss theorist Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, who tried to reduce war and strategy to simple principles and truths.[xxviii] War, in the Jominian ideal, resembled a board game or an armed variant of the children’s game Capture the Flag. Drawing on experiences in the two world wars, the U.S. and other Western militaries came to believe the key to success was the seizure of an enemy capital or the destruction of the enemy’s army.
War is not, however, necessarily about the destruction of the enemy’s fighting forces. Destroying the enemy’s fighting forces might be desirable, of course, but in the end, war is an act of force designed to achieve a political end. This understanding of war is rooted in the thought of Jomini’s great rival, Carl von Clausewitz.[xxix] Thus far, the insurgents in southern Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been far more careful students of Clausewitz than the U.S. and Western militaries. They understand that it’s not necessarily about how many men are killed or which tanks are destroyed but how the war and its operations are perceived by the publics – friendly, neutral, and enemy. In a forthcoming paper, insurgency scholars David Betz and Neville Bolt write of “propaganda of the deed,” meaning acts of violence “whose signal and/or extreme nature is intended to create an ideological impact disproportionate to the act itself.”[xxx] These acts – such as the 9/11 attacks – are acts whose impact goes far beyond the material damage they cause.
The greatest threat to any counter-insurgency campaign is a dramatic shift in public opinion – in either the opinion of the occupied public toward the occupier or the opinion of the occupying public toward the operation itself. Insurgents, better than counter-insurgents, have valued, targeted and cultivated public opinion to achieve their strategic aims. It remains to be seen whether or not the armies and nations of the West can reverse this trend in the Middle East.
Andrew Exum is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. A former U.S. Army officer, he is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the American University of Beirut. The author of a memoir of combat in Afghanistan, he serves as a contributing editor of Arab Media & Society.