The War of Images and Ideas: a reality in modern conflict

Danger Room is on a cyber-roll with information warfare. Noah posts today on a report by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that “reveals weaknesses In Sunni-Insurgent media war“, a war we have yet to participate in. In the war of images and ideas, the United States (and some might say Karen Hughes) seems to think we’re fine sticking with print, the digital domain be damned (and there are others who think digital is the way to go).

I haven’t gone through the report yet (tonight), but it’s key findings are spot on and resonate with anecdotal evidence:

  • Sunni insurgents in Iraq and their supporters worldwide are exploiting the Internet to
    pursue a massive and far-reaching media campaign. Insurgent media are forming
    perceptions of the war in Iraq among the best-educated and most influential
    segment of the Arab population.
  • The Iraqi insurgent media network is a boon to global jihadist media, which can
    use materials produced by the insurgency to reinforce their message.
  • Mainstream Arab media amplify the insurgents’ efforts, transmitting their message
    to an audience of millions.
  • The insurgent propaganda network does not have a headquarters, bureaucracy,
    or brick-and-mortar infrastructure. It is decentralized, fast-moving, and
    technologically adaptive.
  • The rising tide of Sunni-Shi’ite hate speech in Iraqi insurgent media points to the
    danger of even greater sectarian bloodshed. A wealth of evidence shows that hate
    speech paved the way for genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
  • The popularity of online Iraqi Sunni insurgent media reflects a genuine demand for
    their message in the Arab world. An alternative, no matter how lavishly funded
    and cleverly produced, will not eliminate this demand.
  • There is little to counter this torrent of daily press releases, weekly and monthly
    magazines, books, video clips, full-length films, and even television channels.
  • We should not concede the battle without a fight. The insurgent media network
    has key vulnerabilities that can be targeted. These include:
    • A lack of central coordination and a resulting lack of message control;
    • A widening rift between homegrown nationalist groups and Al-Qaeda affiliated
      global jihadists.

See Dave Kilcullen’s latest post at the Small Wars Journal and consider each of his five facts in the context of information and psychological warfare empowered by the above. Then, see another recent post of Dave’s, especially number 5, “Develop a capacity for strategic information warfare”:

Contrast this with our approach: We typically design physical operations first, then craft supporting information operations to explain our actions. This is the reverse of al-Qaida’s approach. For all our professionalism, compared to the enemy’s, our public information is an afterthought. In military terms, for al-Qaida the “main effort” is information; for us, information is a “supporting effort.” As noted, there are 1.68 million people in the U.S. military, and what they do speaks louder than what our public information professionals (who number in the hundreds) say. Thus, to combat extremist propaganda, we need a capacity for strategic information warfare—an integrating function that draws together all components of what we say and what we do to send strategic messages that support our overall policy.

Now, pick a story you recently heard in the news. For discussion, let’s say you picked the Taleban’s attempted use of a 6 year old boy to be a suicide bomber. Fortunately, the lad didn’t know why he was told to push the button so he asked a police officer to remove the vest.

Karen Hughes, in one of her few recent attempts at public diplomacy, asked Where’s the outrage last year. Yes, where is the outrage of highlighting the un-Islamic tactic? Where’s the outrage in emphasizing the nihilist approach of the terrorist and insurgent against anybody who remotely opposes them, US or not? This requires participation in the information front and we’re not there.

Or maybe you picked the New York Times story this morning about insurgents wiring a whole neighborhood as a booby trap. Think the residents were keen on seeing their homes destroyed? Do we do anything to help place blame? Do find new homes of the IDPs (internally displaced persons)? Does anybody in Iraq (or elsewhere since support and recruiting is global) know if we are?

We have the advantage of the truth and yet we don’t use it. The reasons why not are numerous and all are invalid. More on that later.

There is more here than the number of “public information professionals”, this about finally realizing and operationalizing that kinetics is not the name of the game. We know the requirements, we can read about them, and yet we’re repeatedly in the same position. We know what information can do (Rwanda, as cited in the report).  

The “surge” won’t be successful without effective psychological warfare. At some point, we’ll have to stand up and play the game. Too bad trust will continue to erode, recruits will continue to be available, money will continue to flow, protection will continued to be offered to the bad guys, the people necessary to rebuild Iraq will continue to leave, and so many good men and women will continue die while we continue to sideline ourselves. It’s time we got into the real fight. “Ne cras, Ne cras”. No, it’s not like yesterday.