The Empire of the Mind
Analysts Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo do a book-length analysis of the media efforts of Sunni insurgents and conclude they fill an actual demand in the Arab world for certain messages, of which "anti-Shi'ite hate speech is an increasingly prominent part" -- and that leaves their narrative open to certain vulnerabilities. Entitled "The War of Ideas and Messages" the downloadable PDF, the authors key findings are:
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
These findings coincide with those of a counterterrorism expert I recently heard speak who concluded that the messages emanating from Iraq were radicalizing Muslims in Western countries to a dangerous degree. It was this radicalizing message, with its theme of Muslim victimization and the duty to Jihad repeated time and again, which motivated cells to act in general concert with other cells of which they often had no explicit knowledge.
He is was completely right in characterizing the current world crisis as being primarily an information war, and only secondarily a kinetic contest. Where I disagree is in the details. I have little faith in conventional outreach to Imams and mosques of conventional policy prescription, although as the reader will notice, I describe my own version of counterorganizing in the last paragraphs. Nor do I think that the specific address of "root causes" will bring much gain. My own view is that the war in Iraq is convenient, but not a necessary circumstance to construction of the terrorist narrative. The September 11 attacks were carried out on the strength of Bin Laden's Fatwa to Bill Clinton and William Perry for defiling the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia to base aircraft to enforce the No-Fly Zone. The attack narrative predated OIF. It will survive it. An American retreat from Iraq would change the details, but not the general tenor of the terrorist narrative. Other pretexts will be found -- the Balkans, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Mindanao -- to justify further attacks. The only way to counter a narrative is to produce a counter-narrative -- a plausible version of events and a roadmap to the future which will compete with that of the Jihad's.
But I digress, Kimmage and Ridolfo tell the media half of two days of fighting in Iraq. And the media half is arguably the more crucial half of the information-kinetic combat split. The researchers look at:
the events of March 25 and 26, 2007. By the violent standards of today’s Iraq, they were unexceptional days (see Figures 1 and 2). In central Baghdad, a suicide car bombing killed two Iraqis, while a roadside bomb in the capital claimed the life of a police officer. A mortar attack killed one in Al-Iskandariyah, 50 kilometers south of Baghdad. Four U.S. soldiers died in a bombing in Diyala Governorate, and another in an attack in Baghdad. But those events are only half the story—the half told by news agencies, newspapers, television channels, and official statements. Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, the motley collection of armed groups fighting to evict U.S. forces and supplant rival domestic claimants to rule Iraq, had its own story to tell about what took place on March 25 and 26. Posted to sympathetic websites on the Internet, the insurgents sang the praises of their self-proclaimed quest to rid Iraq of foreign “crusaders” and domestic enemies.
The operations of those two, unexceptionable days was processed into a flood of information warfare products through a variety of channels tailored to reach a global audience -- even to those without knowledge of Arabic. And each of these messages was crafted to fit the politico-religious narrative of the Jihad. The sophisticates of the New York Times might be surprised to see the medieval version of those same Iraqi events which they are accustomed to viewing through their own and particularly American partisan prism. Nowhere is Valerie Plame mentioned, dear though the subject is to their hearts. And while a separate media product will be offered to cater to their refined secular palates, the Jihadi press release for the sophisticated Westerner is presented with a knowing wink from the chef; it is the fast-food version of a dish, which in the original sees the world in terms that would not be out of the place in Eco's Name of the Rose.
The vast majority of the statements issued in March 2007 use religion-based, pejorative codewords for the targets of attacks.U.S. and coalition forces are called “crusaders”and “worshippers of the cross.” Iraqi police are “apostates.” Iraq’s National Guard is the “Idolatrous Guard.” The Shi’ite Imam Al-MahdiArmy—named after the Mahdi, or redeemer,whose coming is supposed to herald the end of the world—is referred to as the “Army of the Antichrist.” Shi’a are termed “rejectionists” fortheir supposed rejection of true Islam. Thus,insurgents’ rhetoric implies that they fight U.S. and coalition forces because they seek to impose Christianity on Iraq, government forces because they have turned their backs on Islam,and Shi’a because they are heretics.
But these religious precepts are cleverly packaged. Like the standardized formats of the Western infotainment; the soap opera, sitcom and cop-show, the Jihadis offer an equivalent menu of time-tested genres based on Islamic culture. There are scriptural texts, inspirational stories, martyr biographies and even -- for the literary minded -- poetry. The media varies. There are books, audiovisuals, videotaped attacks, etc. And unlike the Western media which sees it as a duty to criticize their societies and their governments, Jihadi media is frankly partisan. Only Western civilization has no advocate in the raging debate; bereft of even so much as a public defender.
There are Jihadi movies the equivalent of "Enemy at the Gates". "Major insurgent groups and affiliated media production units also release longer films to convey messages that are broader than attack videos allow and more direct than written statements. Perhaps the best-known insurgent films are the two titles in the Juba series, produced by Al-Boraq for the IAI. The two films detail the exploits of a legendary IAI sniper, known as “the sniper of Baghdad,” who purportedly killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers. The second film is available for downloading in a variety of formats on a dedicated website in English and Arabic (www.jubaonline.org)." Stories like the "Baghdad sniper" are a sensational half-fictions of course, but they are stories which find no rebuttal in the mainstream media, which may not even be aware of the parallel world or who may actually use the products of the mirror universe themselves.
Underpinning this terrorist media empire is a distribution system and a "studio" system which commission products. "Films are announced and distributed on the same websites that make other insurgent materials available, with banner advertisements to publicize the release and provide a link for downloading (see Figure 40). The video files are normally distributed through free uploaddownload services in a variety of formats (Windows, RealPlayer, DivX) and four file sizes, ranging from high-quality (up to 500 megabytes) to mobile-phone quality (less than 10 megabytes) (see Figure 41)."
And yet, for all the extensiveness of the this media empire, it remains entirely virtual. It has no physical headquarters, a few safe houses excepted. The terrorists narrative masters have already made the shift to the new media, at a time when the networks still pay millions for a news anchor to read headlines to an audience at specified times on TV.
The impressive array of products Sunni-Iraqi insurgents and their supporters create suggests the existence of a veritable multimedia empire. But this impression is misleading. The insurgent-media network has no identifiable brick-and-mortar presence, no headquarters, and no bureaucracy. It relies instead on a decentralized, collaborative production model that utilizes the skills of a community of likeminded individuals.
In its adoption of this production model, the insurgent-media enterprise resembles the global jihadist media endeavor that was already in existence when a U.S.-led military operation toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Global jihadist media provided a blueprint for the creation of insurgent media, and the foreign jihadists who flocked to Iraq to fight in the wake of the invasion spearheaded the drive to create a media presence for the insurgency. While a jihadist agenda is by no means common to all or even most Iraqi insurgent groups, insurgent media overlap with jihadist media at numerous junctures, and, as we shall see, reinforce their message.
And against this 21st century narrative engine the West has offered pitifully little resistance, unless one counts such desultory activities as "public diplomacy" and the odd press conference at which the "newsmen" ask questions related to their agenda and not about the subject of the briefing. In the information warfare battlefield the US is preposterously outgunned. Even the traditional media is drafted into the service of spreading the Jihadi narrative. Kimmage and Ridolfo also discover the "amplifier" effect, a subject which I described in almost exactly the same terms to characterize the workings of the blogosphere when it "jumps the spark gap" to the headlines at a presentation I gave in Herzilya, Israel. The concept reappears in Kimmage and Ridolfo as terrorist memes make the leap from the obscure website onto the front page and are avidly carried by the MSM.
There are a variety of means for amplifying the insurgent message. Materials posted to insurgent group homepages are regularly picked up and posted to broader forums. A message or video posted to one forum is then reposted to other forums, thereby amplifying the message to potentially thousands of Internet users (see Figure 90). From there, mainstream Arab media access the materials and use them in their print and broadcast reports. For example, Al-Jazeera often runs video clips from insurgent attacks in its newscasts.
The "weaknesses" the the terrorist narrative machine identified by Kimmage and Ridolfo aren't weaknesses at all. They are really consequences of the technological structure that empowers the Jihadi narrative machine. Because there are few barriers to entry in the new media, messages of the different Jihadi groups diverge and eventually come into conflict. For example, al-Qaeda's pan-Islamic, but really sectarian Saudi narrative eventually finds itself at odds with those of other Muslim nationalities. And while the Western blogosphere thrives on debate, amens and not controversy are the stuff of which theocracy is built. Once doubt enters the temple, there can be no return to perfect faith. And once heresy makes it's way to YouTube it, or its producers must be stamped out. Nowhere does the Jihadi message split more easily than along ethnic lines. Schism and heresy has always been the bugbear of religious movements.
Recent films released by Ansar al-Sunnah and ISI/Al-Qaeda show graphic scenes of the Sunni insurgent groups executing Shi’ite employees of the Defense and Interior ministries (see Section 7.1, A Day in the Life of Insurgent Media). In both films, the executions are carried out in response to crimes allegedly committed by Shi’a against Sunnis, heightening a sense of mutually reinforcing sectarian reprisals. Another film by Ansar Al-Sunnah juxtaposes incendiary comments by Hazim al-A’raji, an aide to Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, with footage of the gruesomely mutilated corpses of Sunnis (see Figure 95). As al-A’raji urges “Shi’ite believers” to kill “loathsome Ba’athists” and “filthy Wahhabis” and assures the killers that they will go to paradise, the film’s unmistakable message to Sunnis is that they face the gravest peril and must take up arms. The combination of hate speech and glorification of violence calls to mind disturbing parallels with the media campaign that preceded the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
In general -- and I was sorry not to have the opportunity to debate this fully with the counterterrorism expert -- the two least explored areas of counterterrorism are the art of counternarrative and counterorganizing. The US military in Iraq has belatedly discovered counterorganizing in the Anbar and Diyala Salvation councils, but there is still much to be done in the area of the counternarrative. My own guess is that the private new media sector in the West will wage the most effective counternarrative operations, either directly or by empowering the debate within Islam -- and even within the Jihad by providing grants to dissident Muslim intellectuals, and by supporting bloggers doing straight news gathering within Muslim countries. The enemy of the simple, convenient narrative is complexity and fact. The enemy of cant and obscurantism is debate. And those elements cannot be kept out of the stream in which the Jihadi tale-tellers swim. Amplifying the "weaknesses" in the Jihadi narrative machine means mobilizing content providers to tell the counter-narrative. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Live on the Internet, die on the Internet.
But more on this in another post.