Posts Tagged ‘InfoOps & Media’

Winning the War of Words in Afghanistan

26 July, 2008

The International Crisis Group has released a report entitled Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?. The report examines the way in which the Taliban exploits various forms of media to further its campaign, and focuses on what may be learned about the movement from studying its use of the media – both in terms of what the movement says in its communications, and what it does not say.

Executive Summary:

The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement. Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. The result is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban. The Karzai government and its allies must make greater efforts, through word and deed, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda, particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties from aerial bombing.

Analysing the Taliban’s public statements has limits, since the insurgent group seeks to underscore successes – or imagined successes – and present itself as having the purest of aims, while disguising weaknesses and underplaying its brutality. However, the method still offers a window into what the movement considers effective in terms of recruitment and bolstering its legitimacy among both supporters and potential sympathisers.

The movement reveals itself in its communications as:

  • the product of the anti-Soviet jihad and the civil war that followed but not representative of indigenous strands of religious thought or traditional pre-conflict power structures;
  • a largely ethno-nationalist phenomenon, without popular grassroots appeal beyond its core of support in sections of the Pashtun community;
  • still reliant on sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though local support has grown;
  • linked with transnational extremist groups for mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over these links internally;
  • seeking to exploit local tribal disputes for recruitment and mainly appealing to the disgruntled and disenfranchised in specific locations, but lacking a wider tribal agenda; and
  • a difficult negotiating partner because it lacks a coherent agenda, includes allies with divergent agendas and has a leadership that refuses to talk before the withdrawal of foreign forces and without the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law).

Out of power and lacking control over territory, the Taliban has proved adept at projecting itself as stronger than it is in terms of numbers and resources. Despite the increasing sophistication of some of its propaganda, however, it still puts out contradictory messages that indicate internal rifts and the diffuse nature of the insurgency. These reveal a cross-border leadership and support apparatus striving to present a unified front and assert control even as various groups maintain their own communications networks. Maintaining relations with transnational jihadist networks, which have a more global agenda, is a potential problem for the Taliban, which has always been a largely nationalistic movement.

A website in the name of the former regime – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – is used as an international distribution centre for leadership statements and inflated tales of battlefield exploits. While fairly rudimentary, this is not a small effort; updates appear several times a day in five languages. Magazines put out by the movement or its supporters provide a further source of information on leadership structures and issues considered to be of importance. But for the largely rural and illiterate population, great efforts are also put into conveying preaching and battle reports via DVDs, audio cassettes, shabnamah (night letters – pamphlets or leaflets usually containing threats) and traditional nationalist songs and poems. The Taliban also increasingly uses mobile phones to spread its message.

The vast majority of the material is in Pashtu, and a shortage of language skills in the international community means much of this either passes unnoticed or is misunderstood. English-language statements are relatively crude, but the Taliban is able to put out its story rapidly. More effort is devoted to Arabic language output, aimed at soliciting the support of transnational networks and funders. The overriding strategic narrative is a quest for legitimacy and the projection of strength. Use of tactics such as suicide bombings – previously unknown in Afghanistan – and roadside bombs, as well as such audacious actions in 2008 as a prison break in Kandahar city, an attack on a military parade attended by President Hamid Karzai and an assault on a five-star hotel demonstrate that grabbing attention lies at the core of operations.

Within Afghanistan the Taliban is adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement and disillusionment. The Kabul administration needs to ensure it is seen as one worth fighting for, not least by ending the culture of impunity and demanding accountability of its members. The international community must provide the necessary support and pressure for improved performance, while also examining its own actions. Whatever the military benefits of arbitrary detentions, they are far outweighed by the alienation they cause. The effectiveness of aerial bombardment, even if strictly exercised within the bounds of international law, must be considered against the damage to popular support. Greater efforts are needed in Western capitals to explain to their own populations the necessity of staying for the long haul rather than yielding to the pressure of quick fixes that give only the appearance of action.

The Taliban is not going to be defeated militarily and is impervious to outside criticism. Rather, the legitimacy of its ideas and actions must be challenged more forcefully by the Afghan government and citizens. Its killings of civilians and targeting of community leaders need to be highlighted, including a public accounting for actions by the militants through open trials – something that has not yet happened. Strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government and ensuring that its actions – and those of its international backers – are similarly bound by the rule of law should be an important complement. Ultimately, winning popular support is not about telling local communities that they are better off today. It is about proving it.

Read the full report here.


Owning ‘the Means of Communication’ in Insurgency

12 May, 2008

Relevant to the recent discussion here on this site regarding the propaganda of the deed in contemporary insurgency is a post by Brigitte Nacos over at the CTLab site. Nacos, who has written extensively on terrorism and the media, cites the recent engagement in Lebanon to illustrate the value for insurgents today in owning ‘the means of communication’, as well as having a deed-driven message to communicate.

Once upon a time, Karl Marx assigned power to those who own the means of production. Today it’s safe to say that power is in the hands of those who either own the means of communication or otherwise manage to communicate their messages directly to their target publics. Governments and influential interest groups have always understood this, and so have terrorists. This point was once again driven home in the latest clash between the Lebanese government and its backers and Hezbollah, the terrorist organization that has actually grown into a mighty guerilla and de facto ruling force. While Hezbollah’s own al-Manar television and radio networks carried the threats and hard-line rhetoric of Hezbollah’s leader Sheik Nassan Nasrallah, the organization’s fighters silenced the Sunni majority party by taking its television station off the air and setting its newspaper offices on fire.

Read the whole post here.

Insurgency, the Media and the Propaganda of the Deed

8 May, 2008

IRG member Neville Bolt, who is completing a PhD on the Propaganda of the Deed in the War Studies department at King’s, has added the following to the debate regarding the role played by the media in facilitating insurgent exploitation of the POTD strategy, and the difficult question of how best to respond.

NB: To read John Mackinlay’s original post, criticising the role played by the media in accentuating the propaganda effect of insurgent operations such as the recent Taliban attack on Karzai and the Parade in Kabul, click here. To read the perspective of BBC editor Nick Walton, who edited the World Service’s coverage of the Taliban attack for the Newshour programme, click here.


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.


Read More:

John Mackinlay:
The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

Nick Walton:
The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

Afghanistan: Americans have the wristwatches, but who has the time?

[My] State Failure:
About an indirect approach to information operations

Did the Taliban Master 19th Century Anarchist Theories While We Slept?

A Soldier’s Story – Video Blogging from Helmand

4 May, 2008

In what it calls ‘a ground-breaking departure for newspapers’, the Sunday Telegraph has ’embedded’ a video camera with a front-line infantry regiment about to deploy on a 6-month tour to Helmand in Afghanistan.

Readers will be given a soldier’s eye view of life in Helmand, where 8,000 British troops are locked in an increasingly bitter conflict against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.

The Sunday Telegraph will receive regular video dispatches from Corporal Billy Carnegie, a section commander with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the 5th battalion of The Scottish Regiment (5 Scots), which will appear on the Telegraph website on a regular basis.


Cpl Carnegie’s soldiers will video his unit taking part in foot patrols and combat operations against the Taliban, as well as helping with reconstruction and winning the hearts and minds of the local population.

His dispatches will record how soldiers fight and survive in the austere environment of the Helmand Desert, where temperatures soar to 50 C in the Summer.

Although ‘ground-breaking’ for UK newspapers, this type of project is not in itself new. Most notably, Deborah Scranton used the technique of providing active-duty soldiers with the means to record their own experiences for her prize-winning 2004 documentary The War Tapes, and also for her current PBS Frontline documentary Bad Voodoo’s War (available to view online here), both of which follow US troops in Iraq.

The Sunday Telegraph’s offering is unlikely (or even intended) to match the production values of the Scranton features, but should prove an interesting experiment, if only to see how much licence they are granted by the MoD. While text-based milblogging is quite common among US forces, it is comparatively rare among UK forces, and early examples have been characterised by run-ins with the authorities, as detailed by Daniel Bennett (BBC / KCL War Studies PhD) in this post and this post on his Reporting War blog.

I’m also interested in how much potential such projects may have as information operations, both domestically and internationally. On the domestic front, General Sir Richard Dannatt expressed concern last year at the “growing gulf between the army and the nation”, adding that “when a young soldier has been fighting in Basra or Helmand he wants to know that the people in their local pub know and understand what he has been doing, and why.” Such video blogs would seem an obvious and accessible means of addressing this issue, and reinforcing popular support for the deployment.

Similarly, on the international front, it might be worthwhile for the MoD to arrange, perhaps in return for access, for media outlets like the Telegraph to make subtitled versions of such products freely available for reproduction by foreign-language media outlets around the world. As bottom-up, independent collaborations between ordinary footsoldiers and journalists, such projects have a credibility with audiences that top-down government / military initiatives would struggle to match, and this should be exploited.

Meanwhile, the first post in the Telegraph series is available to view below. It is simply a pre-deployment introduction to CPL Carnegie and his section, with the Afghan sequences to follow over the coming weeks.

Warning: non-UK natives may struggle with some of the Scottish accents!

NB: If you have any problems viewing the embedded video, try the Sunday Telegraph site here.

Documents of Note #3

3 May, 2008

The following is the latest in a periodic round-up of reports, papers, monographs, etc likely to be of interest to IRG members and the wider COIN/CT community.


RAND has published Volume 5 in its Counterinsurgency Study series of monographs, which is co-authored by IRG founder John Mackinlay and Alison Al-Baddawy.

Rethinking Counterinsurgency

The May-June edition of the US Army Combined Arms Center’s Military Review includes the following piece by Philip Seib:

The Al-Qaeda Media Machine [PDF]

The Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College has published the following studies:

Precision in the Global War on Terror: Inciting Muslims through the War of Ideas – Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur [PDF]

Global Climate Change: National Security Implications (ed. Carolyn Pumphrey) [PDF]

The SWJ Magazine has published interim versions of the following papers:

Social Epidemics and the Human Element of Counterinsurgency – CPT Nils French

Iraqi Non-Lethal Contributions to the Counterinsurgency – CPT Justin Gorkowski

The Counterinsurgency Cliff Notes – CPT Craig Coppock

The US Department of State has released the latest in its annual series of terrorism assessments:

Country Reports on Terrorism 2007

The International Crisis Group has released two new reports on Iraq:

Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape

Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy

The Combined Arms Research Library has made the following documents available. Original date of publication is provided if the document is not new.

Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 – David Galula, 1963 (2006 Rand edition with foreword by Bruce Hoffman)

War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency – RAND

55 Trends Now Shaping the Future of Terrorism – Dr. Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies

Defeating Cross Border Insurgencies – Thorsten Joergensen, 2007

Tactical Handbook for Operations Other Than WarUK Ministry of Defence, 1998

Strategic Assessment of the Mau-Mau Rebellion – Robert Eatman, 2007

Chechen Suicide Bombers – Robert W. Kurz and Charles K. Bartles, 2007

The Evolution of Al Qaeda – Sean Wilson, 2007

Globalization and Asymmetrical Warfare – William Hartman, 2002

Piracy and Maritime Terrorism: A Seamless TransitionJohn Hahn, 2004

Asymmetric Warfare: An Historical Perspective – Frankling Miles, 1999

Why Insurgents Fail: Examining Post-World War II Failed Insurgencies Utilizing the Prerequisites of Successful Insurgencies as a Framework – Frank Zimmerman, 2007

Secrecy News
has made available the following reports from the Congressional Research Service:

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategies, Approaches, Results, and Issues for Congress [PDF]

Iraq: Regional Perspectives and U.S. Policy [PDF]

High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments [PDF]

The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

2 May, 2008

Following John Mackinlay’s earlier post regarding the media’s complicity in the use made by insurgents of the propaganda of the deed – which focused in particular on the coverage of the recent Taliban attack on the National Day parade in Afghanistan – the following response has been contributed by Nick Walton, who edited the Newshour programme on BBC World Service radio which covered the Taliban attack in depth.


From the point of view of an informed layman, I understand and largely agree with your analysis of what happened, from the motives of those attacking, to the resultant images broadcast around the world without a caveat attached regarding POTD.

However, speaking as a journalist, things are a lot murkier! POTD is one layer of context (albeit a vital one) that allows us to understand an event such as this attack. Inevitably much of the context has to be stripped out on the day to day reporting of events such as attacks, actions etc…

For news programmes (with varying degrees of analysis) and other media, the first thing to do is to report what happened – in this case, for instance, we conducted an interview with an MP who was on the podium when it was attacked, along with sounds from TV footage to tell the story of what happened.

Some forms of media stop there. Newshour, for instance, has room to continue further, so we used an interview with our correspondent – the key question being asked was to be brought up to date with any reaction from both within Afghanistan and outside. This added more of the ‘what happened’, and allowed us to touch upon the analysis, although quite superficially. I gather that our focus was on the security-failures aspect of the attack.

We cannot bombard the listener with full analysis and context every time, so, on issues such as this, we generally try to visit certain areas of questioning to provide a narrative over time that helps people to understand or at least interpret what is happening. Tactics such as POTD fit in to this, but will not be brought up at every instance.

Other media, obviously, are less able to spend even the time that we spend – but that does not mean that they are not doing their job. For the six o’clock news, for instance, much of what they do is predicated on the assumption that for those who wish there are other sources that allow people to access the context and so on as appropriate.

One of those sources would be an in depth programme such as The Age of Terror – and I agree with your point regarding that series. But then I would never look to TV for anything too intelligent or subtle.

Ah, but the one thing that I have signally failed to address is why do the insurgents’ jobs for them by showing the attack at all (in particular without the context of the POTD)? On that count, why show, on the day that it happened, September 11th? Well news is sensation, news is things happening, news is stories with beginnings, middles and ends, that fit the medium. The attack made an interesting start to the programme – it was vastly more engaging than most other things happening on Sunday – and thanks to the TV sounds and the MP eye witness, it made engaging radio.

No one would seriously argue that it was not news – the motives involved are a consideration, but we cannot self censor an event such as this attack on the grounds that those carrying out the attack did it for the publicity. If Greenpeace dress up as rabbits and hold a protest to draw our attention to the rainforest, that’s not news for me – but if they gain publicity by means of a terrorist attack, I’m afraid it is (provided it is treated responsibly).

Obviously we need both awareness of any motives, and sensitivity while dealing with the material. This certainly does not happen, as there is very little understanding or awareness of such unfashionable military concepts in journalism these days (as there isn’t understanding of areas like economics or science – too many bloody English Lit graduates in journalism, if you ask me).

This is only a partial defence, and probably only a surface explanation of the media’s actions regarding Sunday’s attack. After all, I am only an accidental journalist, and mostly a reluctant one too. There is more to say, but a skimpy e-mail would not do it justice…

The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

29 April, 2008

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


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.

Arab Public Opinion, Al-Qaeda & the Long War

19 April, 2008

A recent opinion poll surveying Arab public opinion provides some fascinating insights on a range of issues relevant to anyone with an interest either in the region, in the countering of Al-Qaeda inspired transnational militancy, or in information operations.

The poll was conducted in March 2008 by the University of Maryland, in conjunction with Zogby International, and queried 4,046 people from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Outlined below are some of the findings I found particularly interesting.


Only one question directly polled attitudes towards Al-Qaeda, but the responses are revealing:

When you think About Al Qaeda, what aspect of the organization, if any, do you sympathize with most?

30% – That it confronts the US.
21% – I do not sympathize at all with this organization.
18% – It stands for Muslim causes such as Palestine.
10% – Its methods of operation.
07% – It seeks to create a Taliban-style Islamic state.

Firstly, it is highly significant that the single most significant reason given for sympathising with AQ is its opposition to the US, rather than any inherent qualities of AQ itself. A similar result (33%) was returned in the 2006 version of the survey.

Taken in conjunction with the fact that only 7% of respondents sympathised with AQ’s ultimate goal of recreating a Salafist caliphate (also 7% in 2006), and the fact that 83% of respondents had either a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat unfavourable’ view of the US (see below), this would suggest that the single most effective strategy for countering AQ is not attacking either its ideology or its network – important as such efforts are – but reducing antipathy towards the US among AQ’s targeted constituencies.

Secondly, and most worryingly, the 21% of people claiming to have no sympathy with AQ at all is markedly less than the 33% who expressed no sympathy with AQ in 2006, suggesting that passive support for at least some aspects of AQ’s agenda is actually rising.

Much has been made of the suggestion that AQ’s brutal tactics, particularly the casualties inflicted on other Muslims, is turning ordinary Muslims against the organisation, with the rise of the Awakenings Movement in reaction to Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) excessess rightly cited. However, while those who always had reservations about AQ’s tactics may have been further repelled by AQ’s escalating brutality, the fact that 10% of respondents sympathised with its methods of operation in 2008 – down only 1% from 2006 – suggests that few of those who previously sympathised with the use of terrorism as a tactic have been dissuaded by the increasing barbarity.

Also interesting is the fact that 18% of respondents sympathise with AQ because they believe it stands for Muslim causes such as Palestine, up from 14% in 2006. Recent AQ communiques have placed greater emphasis on AQ’s support for the Palestinian issue than has been usual in the past, and it would seem the propaganda is getting results.

The US, Foreign Policy & Information Ops

Bearing in mind the apparent importance in the struggle against AQ of improving perceptions of the US, it is worth examining those questions in the poll which provide an insight into the nature of anti-US sentiment.

Generally speaking, what is your attitude toward the United States?

64% – Very unfavourable.
19% – Somewhat unfavourable.
11% – Somewhat favourable.
04% – Very favourable.

Would you say your attitudes toward the US are based more on American values or American policy in the Middle East?

80% – Based on American policy.
12% – Based on American values.

The United States has been actively advocating the spread of democracy in the Middle East, especially since the Iraq War. Do you believe that?

65% – I don’t believe that democracy is a real American objective.
20% – This is an important American objective, but the United States is going about it the wrong way.
08% – This is an important objective of American foreign policy that will make a difference in the Middle East.

Which TWO of the following factors do you believe are most important in driving American policy in the Middle East?

50% – Controlling oil.
47% – Protecting Israel.
33% – Weakening the Muslim world.
30% – Preserving regional and global dominance.
12% – Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
07% – Fighting terrorism.
06% – Promoting peace and stability.
04% – Spreading human rights.
04% – Promoting democracy.

While the extent of antipathy towards the US is discouraging, particularly since the respondents all come from countries whose governments have favourable relations with the US, the fact that only 12% of respondents objected to US values, compared to the 80% who objected to US policies, indicates that this situation is eminently reversible.

In part this requires not a change in policy, but a change in the way policy is presented and communicated. Redressing the fact that 33% of respondents believe that US policy in the Middle East is aimed at weakening the Muslim world would seem a good place to start. The fact that this allegation is one of the key platforms in the Al-Qaeda narrative is indicative of just how far our information operations lag behind those of AQ in influencing the populations that form the long war’s centre of gravity.

Regarding policy itself, the following policy shifts were advocated by the respondents:

What TWO steps by the US would improve your views of the US most?

50% – Brokering a Comprehensive Middle East Peace with Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border and establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capitol.
46% – Withdrawal of US forces from the Arabian Peninsula.
44% – Withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
28% – Stopping economic and military aid to Israel.
13% – Pushing even more to spread democracy in the Middle East.
13% – Providing more economic assistance to the region.

Other Findings

The following are some of the key findings of the survey, as selected by the survey’s publishers. Particularly interesting is the fact that in Lebanon only 9% express sympathy with the majority governing coalition, while 30% sympathize with the opposition led by Hizballah, and that Nasrallah has increased his popularity as the most admired leader in the Arab world, being nominated by 26% of respondents.

Iraq: Only 6% of Arabs polled believe that the American surge has worked. A plurality (35% ) do not believe reports that violence has in fact declined. Over 61% believe that if the US were to withdraw from Iraq, Iraqis will find a way to bridge their differences, and only 15% believe the civil war would expand. 81% of Arabs polled (outside Iraq) believe that the Iraqis are worse off than they were before the Iraq war.

Iran: In contrast with the fears of many Arab governments, the Arab public does not appear to see Iran as a major threat. Most believe that Iran has the right to its nuclear program and do not support international pressure to force it to curtail its program. A plurality of Arabs (44%) believes that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, the outcome would be more positive for the region than negative.

The Arab Israeli conflict: There is an increase in the expressed importance of the Palestinian issue, with 86% of the public identifying it as being at least among the top three issues to them. A majority of Arabs continues to support the two‐state solution based on the 1967 borders, but an increasing majority is pessimistic about its prospects. If the prospects of a two state solution collapse, 50% believe it would lead to a state of intense conflict for years to come, while only 9% believe it would lead to a one‐state solution, and only 7% believe that the Palestinians would eventually surrender.

Palestinian Divisions: In the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, only 8% sympathize with Fatah most, while 18% sympathize with Hamas, and 38% sympathize with both to some extent. In so far as they see Palestinians as somewhat responsible for the state of affairs in Gaza, 15% blame Hamas’s government most, 23% blame the government appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas, and 39% blame both equally.

The Lebanese Crisis: Only 9% express sympathy with the majority governing coalition in the current internal crisis in Lebanon, while 30% sympathize with the opposition led by Hizbollah, 24% sympathize with neither side, and 19% sympathize with both to some extent.

Popular Leaders: Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, increased his popularity as the most admired leader in the Arab world (26%). There was also an increase in the popularity of President Bashar Assad of Syria. Also striking, however, was the emerging popularity of modernizing Sunni Arab leaders, particularly Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, when respondents identify the two leaders they admire most.

Attitudes toward the US: 83% of the public has an unfavorable view of the US and 70% express no confidence in the US. Still, Arabs continue to rank the US among the top countries with freedom and democracy for their own people. 32% believe that, from the point of view of advancing peace in the Middle East, American policy will remain the same, no matter who wins the US elections. 18% believe that Barack Obama has the best chance of advancing peace, 13% believe Hillary Clinton has the best chance, while 4% identify John McCain as having the best chance for advancing peace.

Global Outlook: France continues to be the most popular country, China continues to make a good showing, and views of Pakistan have declined.

Media: Al‐Jazeera continues to command the largest share of the Arabic news market, with 53% of Arabs polled identifying it as their first choice for news, with practically no change from last year. Egyptian Television and Al‐Arabiya have made some gains over last year. To a plurality of respondents, the quality of both Al‐Arabiya and Al‐Jazeera has improved over previous years, with only a small minority perceiving a decline.

Download the full survey here [PDF].


The Economist has an article on the increasing attention being paid to assessing opinion in the Muslim world by polling organisations such as Gallup and Zogby International.

China, Tibet & Counterinsurgency in Cyberspace

10 April, 2008

In David’s earlier post on the possibility of an emerging proto-insurgency in Tibet, he cites the fact that Tibetan activists are effectively exploiting virtual networks to further their cause:

In common with other groups, Tibetans are using some of the cutting edge techniques of post-modern insurgency. These include virtual networks involving a diaspora, alliances with other groups with similar or related aims, global connectivity, and a really rather sophisticated and effective propaganda campaign.

According to a report in Information Week, these techniques of post-modern insurgency David refers to are being countered by opposing techniques of post-modern counterinsurgency. The report claims that ‘A shadow war against organizations supporting Tibetan protesters has erupted in cyberspace, mirroring efforts by Chinese authorities to quell unrest in Tibet.’

Among the techniques being employed is the following:

The cyberattack involves sending e-mail messages to mailing lists, online forums, and people known to be affiliated with pro-Tibet groups. To enhance their legitimacy, the messages contain information related to recent events in Tibet and may appear to come from a trusted person or organization.

But the content is simply bait, a social engineering con, to get recipients to open the documents and trigger an exploit. “The exploit silently drops and runs a file called C:\Program Files\Update\winkey.exe,” explains Hypponen. “This is a keylogger that collects and sends everything typed on the affected machine to a server running at And is a Chinese DNS-bouncer system that, while not rogue by itself, has been used over and over again in various targeted attacks.”

While the source of the attacks has been traced back to China, this doesn’t necessarily mean the Chinese are responsible. Greg Walton, who researches Chinese computer espionage and provides IT support for Tibetans, states: “These attacks are sophisticated. We can only speculate where they’re coming from. We can say the control servers are based in China. But these servers can just be stepping stones.”

Interestingly, although it is probable that China is indeed the origin of the attacks, it is likely that they are a bottom-up emergent phenomenon rather than a state-controlled initiative. As Marcus Sachs, director of the SANS Institute Internet Storm Center, explains:

Sachs recounted how in 2001, following a collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a People’s Liberation Army jet, Chinese hackers attacked U.S. servers. “Best we could tell, there was no Chinese government involvement,” he said.

Sachs believes the cyberattacks directed at Tibetan organizations are similarly the actions of Chinese hackers motivated by nationalism, without national direction.

The massive cyberattack on Estonia last year, in response to Estonia’s decision to move a Russian war memorial, presents an analogous situation. While Russia’s hand in the affair is easy to imagine, cybersecurity experts mostly see the attack as an act of nationalist zeal rather than coordinated, state-sponsored cyberwarfare.

If it is true that the Chinese state is not behind the attacks, it would suggest that what we are witnessing is the evolution of a form of open-source counterinsurgency resulting from the spontaneous mobilisation of a distributed network of self-selecting ‘virtual counter-insurgents’. Conversely, if the Chinese state is responsible, it raises other important questions. As the Information Week piece concludes:

Now that the Internet has evolved from a geeky curiosity to a shared transnational platform of economic, social, and political consequence, the question becomes, what kind of political response is appropriate for such attacks?

The Al-Qaeda Media Nexus

6 April, 2008

Daniel Kimmage has produced an interesting paper, entitled The Al-Qaeda Media Nexus: The Virtual Network Behind the Global Message, on behalf of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The 22-page paper examines the ‘guerrilla media network’ that has evolved around Al-Qaeda and the various localised Salafi Jihadist groups with which Al-Qaeda is affiliated.

This brief study surveys a representative sample of Arabic language jihadist media from July 2007 and attempts to answer two simple, yet crucial, questions: What does the structure of jihadist media tell us about the relationship between Al-Qaeda central and the movements that affiliate themselves with it? And what can the priorities of jihadist media tell us about the operational priorities of Al-Qaeda and affiliated movements?

The paper pays especial attention to the role played by ‘Media Production and Distribution Entities’ – organisations that serve as the virtual interface between the jihadist groups and their target audiences – particularly the three MPDEs that produce or distribute media products on behalf of more than one jihadist group – i.e. the Global Islamic Media Front [GIMF], Al-Fajr Media Centre [Fajr], and Al-Sahab Institute for Media Production [Sahab].

Banner of the Global Islamic Media Front

Banner of the Global Islamic Media Front [GIMF]

In addition to examining the way in which these MPDEs operate – including the scrupulous care they take over branding, and their attempt to control unregulated ‘media exuberance’ on behalf of their followers – the paper has some useful things to say about the role they play in creating a coherent virtual movement out of a distributed emergent network.

the Al-Qaeda media nexus accurately reflects the loose structure of the would-be movement itself. The nexus links a variety of entities, some real and some virtual, through a decentralized web of connections that were likely spontaneous ties of both convenience and contrivance at their origination but have since hardened into ties of convention….

Despite this decentralization, the network’s activists attempt to pursue common goals through the coordinated use of online media. MPDEs maximize synergies that would otherwise be lost if armed groups simply posted statements on their own. An MPDE such as Fajr, which distributes statements by a number of groups operating in different theaters, creates an implied link and suggests a larger movement. At the same time, the links created by MPDEs, which post media products to recognized jihadist forums through “accredited” correspondents, establish the authenticity of the media products and make it difficult to introduce spurious offerings that might confuse the information battlespace. [p17]

As a result of his analysis, Kimmage comes to the following conclusions:

  • The ”original” Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden accounts for a mere fraction of jihadist media production.
  • Virtual media production and distribution entities (MPDEs) link varied groups under the general ideological rubric of the global jihadist movement. The same media entities that “brand” jihadist media also create virtual links between the various armed groups that fall into the general category of Al-Qaeda and affiliated movements.
  • Three key entities connect Al-Qaeda and affiliated movements to the outside world through the internet. These three media entities — Fajr, the Global Islamic Media Front, and Sahab — receive materials from more than one armed group and post those materials to the internet.
  • Information operations intended to disrupt or undermine the effectiveness of jihadist media can and should target the media entities that brand these media and act as the virtual connective tissue of the global movement.
  • While video is an important component of jihadist media, text products comprise the bulk of the daily media flow. Within text products, periodicals focused on specific “fronts” of the jihad are an important genre that deserves more attention from researchers.
  • The vast majority of jihadist media products focus on conflict zones: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
  • The priorities of the global jihadist movement, as represented by its media arm, are operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and North Africa.
  • Jihadist media are attempting to mimic a “traditional” structure in order to boost credibility and facilitate message control. While conventional wisdom holds that jihadist media have been quick to exploit technological innovations to advance their cause, they are moving toward a more structured approach based on consistent branding and quasi-official media entities. Their reasons for doing so appear to be a desire to boost the credibility of their products and ensure message control.
  • In line with this strategy, the daily flow of jihadist media that appears on the internet is consistently and systematically branded.

Read the whole paper here [PDF], or RFE/RL’s interview with Kimmage about the project here.