Thanks to Matt Armstrong for tipping me off to the online proceedings of the 2008 Unrestricted Warfare Symposium at Johns Hopkins, which includes an interesting set of briefing slides by Col. Karen Lloyd of J3, Joint IO Warfare Center. The interesting part of her presentation was what appears, from the slides, to be some frank discussion of what the US is currently doing in the information operations arena against al-Qaeda, including from Slide 6:
- "AQ is losing" campaign
- demonstrated success against network
- demonstrated capability of coalition capability
- highlighting success of local efforts (Al Anbar Sheiks)
- Exploit friction between AQ and associated movements
- AQ use of indiscriminate violence; killing Muslims
... and from Slide 10:
- Weaken ideological appeal by exploiting disillusioned jihadis
- fabricate stories and exaggerate real jihadi mistakes
- amplify mainstream Islamic voices countering AQAM ideology
- use information operations to fracture the AQAM
Now, compare this to an April 23 speech at the Washington Institute by deputy national security advisor for combatting terrorism Juan Zarate called "Winning the War on Terror," which offered four examples of the "growing rejection of the al-Qaida program and message":
- the Anbar Awakening, which shows "the heart of al-Qaida's supposed constituency, the Sunni Arab tribes, openly and violently rejecting al-Qaida's presence and ideology"
- critiques written by former jihadists, such as Dr Fadl, Salman al-Awda, and the new Quilliam Foundation
- challenges to al-Qaeda from mainstream religious scholars such as Grand Muftis from Egypt and Saudi Arabia
- opposition in Arab countries to attacks on civilians.
These examples offered by a senior American official to an American audience in support of the claim that "al-Qaeda is losing" (persuasive enough to merit a story in the Washington Post) mirror, nearly point for point, the examples presented by Col. Lloyd of successful US information operations aimed at defeating al-Qaeda.
Look, Col. Lloyd's presentation contains a number of very good suggestions for an information operations campaign against AQ. I've made similar suggestions over the years. Unlike many public diplomacy scholars and practitioners, I have no principled objection to strategic communications and agree that they have an important place in national strategy. And I do think that some of these campaigns have put al-Qaeda on the defensive, particularly on the issue of their killing of innocent Muslims.
But this only makes it more important to highlight yet again the very real risks of "blowback", conventionally defined as "the consequences that resulted when an intelligence agency participated in foreign media manipulation, which was then reported by domestic news sources in other countries as accepted facts." In this case, the blowback effect would be Americans coming to believe our own propaganda about al-Qaeda and then formulating policy based on our own disinformation. It's one thing to "fabricate stories", "exploit disillusioned jihadis", or transmit a narrative that "al-Qaeda is losing" in order to weaken al-Qaeda with Muslim audiences and counter their propaganda. It's another when such information operations then filter back into our domestic policy debates or into the policy-making process (or, worse yet, if shaping the domestic arena is actually the point - but that's a slightly different set of issues).
As I've said many times before, I honestly do not think it is possible in this era of globalized media for messages directed to foreign audiences to somehow not be heard in the United States. Any successful information operations abroad are going to filter back into the American debate - and quickly. It's a problem if Americans are formulating their policy preferences - or American policymakers are formulating policy - based on "un-flagged" American-made propaganda. It's even more of a problem if the practice breeds rampant skepticism, such that any information which doesn't confirm pre-existing beliefs is reasonably dismissed as a probable information operations campaign.
I don't have answers to these questions. But I think that it really does produce some extraordinarly problematic issues. All the more reason to hope for some serious discussion and debate in the strategic communications crowd will be triggered by Matt Armstrong and John Brown's planned conference on rethinking Smith-Mundt (the cold war era ban on the domestic dissemination of foreign propaganda, if Armstrong will allow me the crude simplification). I'm looking forward to that discussion.
UPDATE: to make a bit more precise what I mean, here's an example:
- do I think that the US should have agents participating on jihadist forums in a misleading or disruptive way? Yes.
- do I think that the US should have agents reading jihadist forums to extract information about their thinking and attitudes? Yes.
- what happens when the second group of agents (or regular old analysts like Evan Kohlmann and me) reads the stuff planted by the first group, if it isn't somehow flagged as disinformation? um...