The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

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The following post was contributed by IRG member, indeed IRG founder, John Mackinlay.

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On Sunday 27 April Taliban fighters attacked Afghanistan’s National Day parade with light mortars, RPGs and AK 47 fire. The firing started during the 21 gun salute at the climax of the parade and the presence of camera crews and reporters from every major TV station and international news agency ensured that the story and above all the images were instantly beamed across the world in several major languages in time to make the evening news. After the initial reactions, there has been no intelligent acknowledgement in the US and European print stories which followed on Monday that this attack is part of Taliban’s propaganda of the deed (POTD) campaign and the extent to which the media are its major propagating asset. Are our “defence correspondents” too shy to scrutinise their own indispensable part in the Taliban POTD strategy or genuinely unaware of their central role in post modern insurgency?

In his yet to be published paper “Hearts and Minds: Time to Think Differently” Steve Tatham (researching at UK’s Defence Academy) shows convincingly that Taliban moved to a much more sophisticated propaganda approach in 2006 when it became the “key component in their campaign”. It is also possible that Taliban were increasingly aware that their previous efforts fell far short of the expectations of a potential audience that was multilingual and routinely exposed to the best television products in the world and therefore educated and very demanding in a visual sense. This point is also made in Nicholas O’Shaughnessy and Paul Baines about to be published 2008 paper “British Muslim Susceptibility to Islamist Propaganda: An Exploratory Study”. According to Steve Tatham Taliban’s re-branding project began by sending a start up team as interns to Al Qaeda’s video production unit Al Sahab in 2006 and very soon afterwards in early 2007 their own production standards visibly improved. In April 2007 the new, media savvy Taliban began to promote themselves as “the people’s movement” thanks to a five part series screened by Al Jazeera and compiled by their credulously enthusiastic Pakistan reporter. In June 2007 images of a Taliban suicide bombers graduation ceremony augmented this new image of themselves on the internet and in June a spokesman announced that they were henceforth the “New Taliban”.

Seen in this context Taliban’s recent attacks in Kabul (in January at the Serena Hotel and yesterday at the National Day parade) should be considered by our defence reporters with greater rigour as part of a new and highly sophisticated POTD campaign in which they themselves are a key factor. It is unlikely that the National Day attack was conceived as just another event in a series of random bang – bang attacks, which is how it has been reported. Had Karzai’s parade gone according to plan there would be no images of Sunday’s National Day ceremony now appearing on any of the international channels or newspapers. A burst of small arms fire and a few mortar bombs transformed it into a much more sensational event for the press who with steadfast incomprehension have filed exactly the images and moments that the Taliban’s own propaganda manager would have chosen himself. By doing so they boost up a global interest in the particular aspects of its disgrace, the sense of pantomime, the rout of be-medalled parade soldiers scampering across the parade square before the Taliban fire and worst of all rows of dignitaries diving for cover behind their seats on the flag decked parade stand. Thanks to the media all that remains of this tragic day are these relentlessly unforgiving and unqualified images.

The incident on Sunday demonstrates a classic propaganda of the deed partnership in which the insurgents with growing skill select a media-significant target and with witless incomprehension international reporters beam the most sensationally damning images of the event around the world so as to deliver the worst possible interpretation. There is no need for a Taliban subtext or even a photo caption, the images speak powerfully for themselves sending messages of a stricken regime put to flight in their gilded uniforms by the daring fighters of the Taliban.

The failure of frontline reporters to understand their role in a POTD campaign is emphasised in BBC 2’s flagship series on terrorist attacks “The Age of Terror”. In it Peter Taylor, who has been reporting on terrorism for 30 years makes a “thoughtful and intelligent examination” of the Palestinian hijack to Entebbe and the PIRA bomb at Enniskillen. But in both programmes so far his cameras dwell endlessly on the kinetic details of the attacks and at no time does he explain the two campaigns in terms of their significance in the evolution of insurgency. In particular the fact that neither attack had any military or tactical significance and that to succeed as part of a nascent POTD campaign their respective stories and images had to reach the outside world via the media, and that the assumption that the media would was central to the operational concept in each case. Taylor seems to view the attacks from a moral island without appearing to understand the concept that was being played out and above all that the media were part of the problem.

In the media’s defence it could be argued that on Sunday in simple, unqualified descriptive terms they showed what took place, and how are we to trust them if they withheld images and stories so that a different account emerges? However newspapers and TV stations have always been biased towards an editorial perspective or a particular audience. They also impose restrictions on themselves for apparently honourable reasons – to protect the privacy of children, rape victims, Prince Harry’s military service and caveats on impending military and police operations. The BBC routinely prefaces its news from Zimbabwe with the notice that their reporters are banned from that country. Why not therefore include in this category of honourable exceptions a constant qualification and declaration of their status in the reporting of a post-modern insurgency in which the POTD motive is central to every attack? Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks? But short-termism and golden–goose-egg syndrome ensure that no ambitious editor will forgo immediate profit to prevent the emergence of a regime in which their own function would be banned.

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9 Responses to “The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy”

  1. Ethan B. Says:

    Well argued; I came to the same conclusion. An IED attack on a Kabul back alley wouldn’t have had near the same affect. Karzai’s survival is a non-issue; the damage was done when images were transmitted to thousands of Kabulis and Afghans showing the Taliban’s brazen attack (on a military parade, no less!).

    A wise man once said, “Journalists are whores to sensationalism and ratings.” Unfortunately, while true, they are wholly entitled, important, and necessary whores. My question–or input, rather–is regarding the suggested news prefaces. If a Western news outlet shows such prefaces regarding a Taliban/anti-Western/extremist-related incident, wouldn’t it fit nicely into the conspiracy theory-laden worldview of the European Islamist radical? While it makes sense to you and me to deny the PotD benefits to the Taliban, it could be used a fuel or propaganda by Taliban-sympathetic or anti-Western groups in the UK. I could see statements such as, “Even the BBC has been taken over by neo-Imperialists refusing to show their defeat at the hands of the Taliban!” Not to mention, such prefaces would encourage many radicals or even curious young adults (myself included) to search for such images on the internet, fueling a reliance on radical news networks versus major ‘independent’ news outlets. Just an initial reaction–your thoughts?

  2. Patronus Analytical Says:

    The Taliban and Propaganda of the Deed…

    The Insurgency Research Group has an excellent analysis of the significance of the Taliban attack on Sunday’s Afghan National Day parade. The whole post is worth reading but don’t do it yet. Read the following exerpt first and then watch the No Comme…

  3. Links for 1 May 2008 « ubiwar.com Says:

    […] Mackinlay’s post yesterday for the IRG on the Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy elicited a number of […]

  4. Maurice Tugwell Says:

    A brilliant and timely statement of the problem. The next stage is to get the political and military brass in theatre on side. They must insist that every plan should include a paragraph on propaganda, and this will follow the counter propaganda strategy of the converted brass.

    That will do for a start.

    Keep it going
    Maurice Tugwell

  5. Orin Hasson Says:

    I agree with Ethan.

    Your point is very well taken JM. The Taliban are clearly becoming media savvy, and the importance of their attacks overwhelmingly lies in the impression it sends off rather than its direct kinetic impact. This is particularly true since it is Western governments that are vitally propping up the Karzai government with money and troops and public support in the West for continued engagement is extremely shaky. In America specifically there is acute worry of a repeat Vietnam morass (perhaps now better described as a worry of Iraq morass).

    But you have a free market for information content, fierce competition for eye balls, and the footage of the Taliban attacking a parade will be widely shown. Footage of a pre-scripted parade going well will not. That’s how the game works and I wouldn’t recommend trying to swim up stream against it–you’ll lose. In any case, any effort to get news organizations to orient their coverage against attempts at POTD by the Taliban is a very slippery slope towards tacit censorship. (Think of the Chinese news services not broadcasting riots in Tibet for national security purposes… they could claim the Tibetan ‘terrorists’ were just trying to use POTD).

    Instead you should request the BBC have experts like yourself on right after showing footage like the parade attack to discuss how the Taliban are staging these events and what there harmful intent in doing so is. That sort of post-modern analysis is stuff the news networks love to have talking heads discuss, and its not a complicated argument to make. I’m not sure you’ll be able to completely beat back the emotional effect the images have, but its a start.

  6. Will Says:

    The whole question of how to mitigate the effects of insurgent PotD is a tricky one, but as you argue, an increasingly important issue that we have to come to terms with. I agree with Ethan’s comment though, that placing constraints on the way the media reports events could backfire if not handled correctly – becoming the object itself of further propaganda for the insurgents, and potentially driving the curious towards less mainstream media where the context in which a report is viewed could be even more damaging – both because of the possibly more radical editorial slant of the irregular media hosting it, and/or because other similar videos are posted alongside it, increasing the viewer’s exposure to negative propaganda. This has been an issue to a certain extent with insurgent combat footage from Afghanistan/Iraq/Chechnya etc – which attracts those looking for something a little more raw/exciting/cool than is offered by regular TV news, and leads them to ‘jihadi’ web sites, where they get exposed to more than just dramatic combat clips.

    There’s definitely mileage in the idea that events could be reported without always showing (and endlessly repeating) associated video footage, thereby depriving events of much of their immediacy and impact. However, as you acknowledge, getting competitive editors to forsake video footage is likely to be tough even in the West, and virtually impossible elsewhere, where we have no influence over how constituencies critical in the wider struggle are presented events. Again, while I agree it would help if editors, rather than implicitly glamourising such events, stressed that they were basically tactically irrelevant publicity stunts, the problem remains that even if Western editors complied, it remains highly unlikely that editors throughout the Muslim world would be equally compliant. A similar idea, but one subject to the same limitations, would be to get editors to agree that when covering such propaganda-type events they would undertake to provide an equivalent amount of footage favourable to the counterinsurgent (much like when they cover party politics before elections), e.g. Karzai speaking strongly after the event, or realism shots of wounds suffered by innocent civilians, etc.

    However, bearing in mind the problematic nature of attempting to coerce/coopt media outlets, and the fact that any cooperation received is likely to be from Western outlets rather than those reaching the more vital constituencies across the Muslim world, countering media-driven insurgent PotD might best be achieved not by struggling to interdict the media delivery of insurgent deeds themselves, but by enhancing our own information operations. This could take the form of targeted and timely responses to individual events, such as the parade attack, designed to be ready to serve as counter-weights in the evening news broadcast; and generalised content for day-to-day consumption, e.g. combat footage of successful operations released within minutes of resolution. This should be provided freely and coveniently (e.g. already subtitled in many languages) to anyone who wants it. With most media outlets unable to put reporters on the ground in conflict zones, and therefore receptive to free audiovisual content, this would seem to give you a fair crack at having a decent amount of positive coverage going out around the world on a regular basis – hopefully enough that the viewer is ready to themselves automatically contextualise insurgent PotD events when they do occur. Both of these happen to a certain extent already, but in neither case are they done comprehensively enough – or perhaps more importantly, in a sufficiently timely fashion. In short, if you can’t control the medium, all you can do is seek to influence the message.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any easy answers to this one, but there’s no doubt it’s definitely a debate worth having.

  7. NEVILLE BOLT Says:

    Lest we forget Alastair Campbell’s TV studio-offensive that led to the culling of BBC bosses over Iraq, I would make a plea on behalf of the media which walks a permanent tightrope between critical independence and government pressure. John Mackinlay’s article highlights the dilemma for all journalists and news organisations covering Afghanistan and other conflict spots. True, many reports could apply the kind of techniques John mentions, namely the BBC’s intros to Zimbabwe stories reminding viewers of the Corporation’s prohibition from working inside the country, or its exercising a sensitivity to safeguarding the interests of minors or rape victims. Perhaps that could be a useful contextual device to begin to explain what is happening in Afghanistan. But in the end I’m not sure what the public makes of riders saying the BBC is banned from Zimbabwe. In fact it all too often appears that the organisation is cynically attempting to promote the derring-do of its intrepid staff when they do go in. I suspect these riders wear a bit thin or actually go unnoticed by most viewers after a while. To add a studio interview on the back of each report is not realistic for reasons of time. Anyway I sense this might eventually bore the audience (remember news is both information and entertainment) or come across as some kind of propaganda, whose strings are being pulled by unseen hands.

    I fully endorse John’s analysis that propaganda occupies the central role in Taliban military strategy, and more generally that postmodern insurgency asserts the primacy of POTD. However, we should not always presume journalistic myopia or misunderstanding, or indeed that every reporter or analyst should share our view. I haven’t spoken to Peter Taylor specifically about the absence of the POTD angle from his BBC2 ‘Age of Terror’ series. However he has offered to come in and address the Insurgency Research Group later this year. We should explore this line with him then.

    Equally we need to remind ourselves that the media, even the British media, does not act homogeneously, that television, radio, press, and net do report according to different worldviews, and indeed from divergent political and corporate agendas. Within each of these strands of journalism, and in the larger press or broadcasting groups, there remains a reasonable diversity of opinion. And that’s healthy. Journalists may appear ‘feral’, they may hunt in packs, but that doesn’t mean the wolves see eye to eye. Although BBC News did not carry the Kabul story as POTD, the Economist (3/5/08), by contrast did. Their correspondent describes it as a Taliban ‘propaganda victory’, noting that such ‘spectaculars’ without requiring much logistical input, mould public opinion.

    The Western counter-narrative has to live with a permanent dilemma. The Taliban and other insurgents will continue to piggy-back on Western (and non-Western) media outlets. Indeed they will do their best to control them, shaping campaigns within a strategy of ‘political marketing’, completely cognisant of the demands of what makes a ‘good story’. Why are we so surprised? After all, our own political parties and lobby groups do that to each other every hour of every day. However censoring footage from a Taliban ‘spectacular’, crosses the line in the sand. Moreover persuading news editors to remove the violent spectacle from a news compilation (one ingredient of a ‘good story’), and merely replacing it with talking heads recounting what they witnessed, offers a new take on the myth of Sysyphus. Media outlets already exercise discretion, periodically self-censorship. But even if these images were to be self-censored and removed from our screens, we know they will get out somehow from bystanders, non-Western news networks, NATO troops or Taliban propagandists. Consequently the damage to journalistic credibility, built on fair and truthful reporting, with Western domestic and foreign audiences and readerships, risks being even more far-reaching. It’s a dilemma.

    What strikes and unsettles many non-Brits about UK media reporting of Zimbabwe, for example, is its unrelenting, hostile coverage of the Mugabe regime – albeit this reporting appears valid and justified to most who have visited that country. But interestingly this is not mirrored by most international broadcast networks. It just so happens that the British media’s approach to Zimbabwe coincides with UK Government policy towards Mugabe. Through their owners’ corporate agendas, public funding rounds or state licensing regulations, our media organisations already stand too close for comfort to government. I suspect John is not suggesting independent media now begin to promote government policies. That would be a dangerous road to go down. What I believe John is really looking for is not a rider, disclaimer or scene-setter on each report, but a fundamental process of re-education, a new way of interpreting and communicating events, so that all outrages and attacks are presented through this permanent prism of POTD. So it is in the conception of the story. That means the reporter at source should interpret events through a lens other than one of political economy, or military gains and setbacks. So perhaps what is needed is for groups like IRG to engage more with the journalistic community, and edge towards this elusive prism through a continuous process of argument and persuasion. The real work needs to be done off-air, not just on.

  8. Propaganda of the Deed « ubiwar Says:

    […] by ubiwar on 8 May 2008 IRG member Neville Bolt has responded to John Mackinlay’s The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy over at the IRG blog, […]

  9. Scraps of Consciousness, Volume Something or Other… « Kings of War Says:

    […] a few months back on this issue which you should read in which he explores the relationship of the media, propaganda of the deed and insurgent strategy. Essentially, says Mackinlay, the media are part of the […]

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