Information Ops: It’s Not All Bad News

It’s become something of a truism that the outcome of the struggle against what for simplicity’s sake I’ll call Jihadist terrorism (you’ll understand shortly) depends in large part on driving a wedge between terrorists and the broader Muslim world that does not support their tactics. And the consensus has it that not only are we losing the information operations (IO) battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world, but that we’re at an inherent disadvantage in the “war of ideas” because our tradition of a free press hamstrings us when faced with an enemy that can not only control its message, but freely resort to lies and disinformation as well.

The bad news is that with regards to our IO efforts in the Muslim world, not only are we not faring very well, our efforts to win sympathizers might in fact be alienating our target audience. This Army War College monograph (.pdf) by Sherifa Zuhur, Precision in the Global War on Terror: Inciting Muslims Through the War of Ideas, does a fine job of explaining why. It’s a long one, complete with a very informative ABC’s of the Islamic world that most policy-makers would, I’m sure, be pretty hard-pressed to navigate. To sum up Zuhur’s argument, here are some of the principle errors we’re making:

– Defining the enemy in terms that are so broad that they unintentionally target Muslims that pose no threat to the U.S.
– Bundling the enemy (ie. making no distinction between elected leaders like Ahmadinejad, local groups like Hamas and extra-national networks like al-Qaida) in such a way as to undermine any effort to isolate it.
– Conflating legitimate (in the eyes of the region) resistance with terrorism so as to alienate potential sympathizers.
– Believing we can remake Islam and the Arab World as we like, independently of any cultural and ideological antecedents.

The bulk of the monograph is the ABC of Islam, but you can cheat (I did) and just go through the introduction and the conclusions (pp. 115-118). One thing we really need to confront when it comes to our public diplomacy in the Islamic world is the well-known “lipstick on a pig” phenomenon. Here’s how Zuhud applies it to our IO in the Islamic world:

U.S foreign policy in the Middle East and the Islamic world is riddled with contradictions. Even if these could be better rationalized, insofar as American policies are perceived to be unjust, to support neocolonialism, to include detrimental aspects of globalization, and to attack Islamic values while promoting American commercial interests and a longterm U.S. military presence in the region, they will be opposed in the region.

In other words, once we’ve isolated the terrorists, we’ve still got a ton of legitimate Muslim hostility to our regional policies to deal with.

The good news on the IO horizon has to do with the idea that we suffer from some inherent handicap compared to the enemy when it comes to message control. Take for, instance, this weekend’s revelation of a Pentagon effort to turn sympathetic ex-military media analysts into amplifiers of the DoD’s Iraq line. The ease with which the Pentagon could mount such an effective IO campaign domestically seems to undermine the idea. Still, the reaction to the piece, which was admittedly more muted than I expected, revealed the kinds of challenges the American tradition (expectations?) of a free and unmanipulated press present to IO efforts.

But according to this study of the al-Qaida media network that Kevin Drum flagged, terrorist media networks are now facing their own difficulties when it comes to controlling the online information channels that link operational units to their broader sympathetic audiences. These mainly revolve around sourcing and maintaining “brand” authenticity, especially as the terrorists’ surprisingly effective Web 1.0 IO efforts collide with the challenges to message control presented by Web 2.0:

Recent years have seen the rapid development of increasingly interactive Internet-based applications and social networks sometimes termed Web 2.0. While conventional wisdom holds that jihadist media have been quick to exploit technological innovations to advance their cause, the development trend seen in this study suggests that jihadist media are moving toward a more structured approach to online media based on consistent branding and quasi-official MPDEs [media production and distribution entities]. Their reason for doing so is likely a desire to boost the credibility of their products and ensure message control.

The al-Qaida “home office” even went so far as to release a position paper in 2006 in which it condemned “media exuberance,” and warned supporters against user-generated content. This kind of attempt to control both communication channels and content demonstrate the ways in which al-Qaida is maturing as an organization, with all the operational challenges that presents.

Kevin takes solace in Daniel Kimmage’s conclusion that “. . .the desire of Al-Qaeda’s media-production teams to strictly control the messages being put out on the Internet could ultimately backfire, causing Al-Qaeda to lose support from its sympathizers.” But I wonder if the support base al-Qaida loses through its IO discipline doesn’t pose an added “free electron” type of threat, as opposed to a net loss for anti-American terrorism in general.

An interesting sidenote is that the study, commissioned by Radio Free Europe, is technically subject to Smith-Mundt restrictions, and should be off-limits to domestic audiences.

Update: Looks like Ezra Klein shares my concerns about al-Qaida’s loss of organizational discipline.

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