Tuesday, July 17, 2007

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.

  1. The Iraqi insurgent media network is a boon to global jihadist media, which can use materials produced by the insurgency to reinforce their message.
  2. Mainstream Arab media amplify the insurgents’ efforts, transmitting their message to an audience of millions.
  3. The insurgent propaganda network does not have a headquarters, bureaucracy, or brick-and-mortar infrastructure. It is decentralized, fast-moving, and technologically adaptive.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


Blogger Chris said...

Great stuff, as always.

7/17/2007 08:23:00 PM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

Both the Nazi and Japanese militarist narratives seem to have large scale popular support. Both were reinforced by political coercion and cultural coercion. (Rather more cultural coercion in the Japanese case and rather more political coercion in the German case it seems.)

I think that the interesting thing about the current Islamic yearning for global domination/ allah-dammerung is that there is no state apparatus to block/jam/counter a counter-narrative. It is the historically networked and decentralized tribal/religious apparatus that is serving the late industrial age role of the authoritarian state.

The Nazi and militaristic narratives were not destroyed until the sponsoring states were destroyed.

We know of ways of destroying tribal cultures without resorting to genocide and the Europeans seem to be very good at destroying religion all while taking five week vacations and enjoying generous pensions. So what is the next step?

7/17/2007 08:30:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Or Wretchard, we can go along with a great heaping load of admiration for jihadis, until we lose cities.

Then, kill half the Muslim world.

One problem with counter-narrative: Daily Kos, the far-left, has a stranglehold on the institutions of the Web: Digg, Google, Yahoo, etc. There is no counter-narrative possible.

7/17/2007 08:34:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Part of the counternarrative is for our own benefit. Why did Shakespeare make Harry give that speech in the lull before Agincourt? Was it for the benefit of the French? No, it was for the purpose of steeling English hearts. "We few, we band of brothers."

7/17/2007 08:38:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

So what is the next step?
Get off oil and collapse the cost of water desalination.

7/18/2007 04:21:00 AM  
Blogger lugh lampfhota said...

Wretchard has illustrated an important facet of this "war", the West is defenseless against enemy propaganda. Wretchard mentions "our narrative"? Is there even an "our" or "we" anymore in the West?

All that seems to matter to most Westerners these days is self-interest. Can I get re-elected, can I be famous, can I get rich quick? Not even a passing thought for the common good.

I've come to believe that the West is losing because the West is lost. A hollow shell awaiting a breeze to blow it to dust.

7/18/2007 04:52:00 AM  
Blogger Panama Ed said...

Well, the MNF press releases carry the propaganda story line of the Sunni Inssurgents, in Iraq.

Multi-National Corps – Iraq
Public Affairs Office, Camp Victory
APO AE 09342

RELEASE No. 20070714-07
July 12, 2007

Iraqi Army and Coalition Forces kill insurgent cell commander in Baghdad
Multi-National Corps – Iraq PAO

BAGHDAD – Iraqi Army and Coalition Forces killed a rogue Jaysh Al-Mahdi Special Group cell commander July 11 during an intelligence driven operation in eastern Baghdad. ...
... Intelligence shows a clear link to his group partnering with outside Persian extremists, whose goal is to destroy the legitimate government of Iraq and create instability in the region.

Persians, the US Military and the MNF now recognizes Persia as an active player in the Iraqi Civil War.

Not Iran, but Persia. Direct from the Sunni propaganda machine.
As General Lynch said in Anbar, the Sunni beleive the Government in Baghdad is Persian.

The MNF Iraq now playing the wahabbist terror tune in its press releases.
Success in Anbar, all we needed do was surrender, then fund the enemy through appropriate tribute payments.
Success is at hand.

7/18/2007 06:26:00 AM  
Blogger james said...

I'm very interested in hearing what you and others have to say about "counter-narratives." I haven't come up with anything much new since my old post on hearts and minds, and I'm hoping some creative thinking will get us going in this battlefield.

7/18/2007 07:17:00 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...


Great post and analysis, but I'm afraid what you have laid out is going to be pretty challenging.

1. Breaking a set narrative can be pretty tough - see Bill Shirer in late 1930s Berlin. Admittedly the Nazis didn't have Digg and Wikipedia to deal with.

2. A true counter-narrative will be absolutely crucial to the stabilization of Iraq. Right now, we have a winner: stop al-Qaeda from blowing up the neighborhood. But a negative goal only unifies in the short term. The central government needs to articulate a political vision for Iraq, or as al-Qaeda gets reduced, Iraqi society will break into factions again.

Disrupting the true believers, as you described, may work well with the current negative narrative, but doesn't seem robust enough for the next phase.

I appended a link here to a recent post about Bill Roggio's Public Multimedia and Dan Gillmor's comments on citizen journalism. I have trouble with trackbacks, so here is the link.

7/18/2007 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

See my latest at Capturing the Man, Destroying the Idea regarding the breaking story of the arrest of al-Qaeda's top man in Iraq.

7/18/2007 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 07/18/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

7/18/2007 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...


I think the right response to the questions raised by your "hearts and minds" is to just go and do it. There's no reason why one can't set up a TV station -- like Talking Heads TV -- on the Internet. But some investment is necessary. Research, language capability, interactivity with an Arabic audience. Shannen Rossmiller, the Montana mom who has been catching terrorists faster than a medium-sized intelligence department, has shown us how. But other than the requirement for a lot of midnight oil burning, I don't see why any of us can't be superstars on the Arabic Net.

7/18/2007 03:42:00 PM  
Blogger RDS said...

We can't even begin the narrative until we have a good name for what's going on. "GWOT" and its various proposed substitutes come up short.

I propose humbly the term "Counterjihad."

It's directly to the point, names the opponent (jihadists), doesn't blanket all muslims but makes clear it's a response to something coming out of islam, and is broad enough to counter not only the hot war but also creeping sharia, and isn't so narrow as to focus on al-Qaeda but a whole umbrella of threats.

And it makes clear it's defensive and not imperialistic.

Sure I'd love to use Crusade instead but THAT'S a non-starter! :)

More developed arguments at my posting The Counterjihad.

Hey, it's an idea...

7/18/2007 05:28:00 PM  
Blogger Ari Tai said...

re: counter-narrative.

I wonder how much it costs us to only tell the truth as best we know it? The enemy in this war-yet-not-a-war has no hesitation to lie. The Brits did some phenomenal deception and propaganda during WW2. I hope we are doing the same today, but I worry, am almost certain we are not.

The tools these fascists are using are our invention, we can take them away if we choose to (let them build their own). But maybe governments can't do this given our current sensibilities, perhaps it’s best left to private efforts.

We can take away the distributed media channel by flooding it ourselves, and encouraging our side to watch closely the big media who are able to decipher the fake from the real (means they have inside information and relationships to be able to sort the good courier of a tape, thumb-drive, or web-site download from the bad courier). Which should be enough to lead to their AQ contact's elimination. Fill the channels with both misinformation intended to start fights and even more horrific staged atrocities. Video and audio that makes the fabled (or not) cannibalism story look mild.

The local populace (encouraged, if not outright claimed as fact by their elected-or-not leaders, including religious) think we do this and worse, so there’s no additional harm here. Many of our own citizens are willing to believe the worst so it can’t make any difference in public opinion polls. Whomever does this on civilization's behalf could even occasionally let the big media know that this is going on and every few months publish the list of vids they faked from a year or so ago given the operational value fades quickly for those we’re targeting.

It'd have the added benefit of smoking out all the faux stringers who are little different than the NVA agents embedded in the South Vietnamese army. And the AQ groups that are currently using the web will have to establish more traceable signatures to assure authenticity to each other, which will result in more leaks and kills.

What's needed mirrors AQ's media organization - a small number of distributed teams (10s – 100s of people) with some minimal Hollywood skills to each turn out an atrocity YouTube every few days and some on-the-ground private channels (Iraqi, Afghan and other foreign citizens who love freedom and can keep a secret) to deliver the media using the same anonymous runners / children to the same stations that now broadcast AQ propaganda uncritically (with a smaller percentage published on the Web).

Where every week some horrific manner of abusing and killing the military and civilians (and offending religious sensibilities), each more appalling than the past, is introduced (causing the major media to have to go investigate for themselves, and AQ to eventually start to deny their role). For that matter, be an equal opportunity appall-er, do the same to the good guys, tell stories about how absolutely degraded we are and the terrible things we’re doing to everyone else. Make it so bad it defies belief and it too must be investigated by major media, so they come to the military or other institution’s defense (Yes, I know, but I can dream).

Best case, we'd have a large enough effort by these teams to generate a knock on all those big media doors every couple of hours.. Every AQ product should be lost in 10 of ours. In time they might learn to just say "go away we do our own reporting."

It would also separate the adults from the children back here (civilization). People would have to decide what to believe based on their faith in their country, its people, its leaders and representatives, and its system of government, not one narrative v. another.


7/18/2007 05:41:00 PM  

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