4 September 2015

Propaganda of the Deed: How insurgents are seizing the initiative in the information environment


Editor’s Note: This essay was first published by the Australian Army Intelligence Corps Journal, Bridges Review. 

On a clear afternoon in March 2011, the relatively still air in Uruzgan’s Tarin Kot bowl was punctured by a blast wave and flame ball that rose more than 100 metres into the sky.

Insurgents had concealed an improvised explosive device within a motorcycle, and infiltrated it into the logistics soak yard outside the Multi-National Base Tarin Kot. The IED was set between two civilian trucks carrying highly flammable JP-8 jet fuel, which blazed through the soak yard when the device was remotely detonated. Several civilian trucks were destroyed and a small number of Afghan civilians were killed or injured in the attack. Importantly, Multi-National Base Tarin Kot was not breached, no military personnel were wounded or killed, and the loss of two tankers worth of aviation fuel had no impact on operations from the base. The soak yard, a force protection measure, worked as it should.

Militarily, the attack by Taliban insurgents was an absolute failure. As a propaganda event, the ball of flame, which could be seen throughout the Tarin Kot bowl, was spectacularly effective. Locals immediately assumed the attack was on the grounds of the base itself and the rumour network went into overdrive, describing casualties and damage. Local media, and their Western affiliates, quickly reacted to the event with reports of an attack against the base. Engagements by Uruzgan officials and ISAF Commanders did little to stem the tide of reporting that circled the globe, announcing a successful attack against the military base. No amount of explanation concerning the military insignificance of the attack could overcome a perception that the insurgents had struck at the heart of the Australian commitment to Afghanistan. Australia, and its ISAF partners, were on the receiving end of a burgeoning insurgent tactic now known as “propaganda of the deed”. Despite having the facts, Australian and ISAF Commanders were powerless to slow the spread of the idea.

Dr Neville Bolt’s 2012 work, The Violent Image, defines propaganda of the deed as:

“a terrorist act of political violence aimed against state targets, sometimes populations, with the objective of creating a media event capable of energising populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation. Today’s revolutionary uses the weight of the media against the media.”

In simple terms, insurgents utilise the reach and immediacy of modern communication networks to dominate the information environment. They have little concern over whether this coverage is perceived as positive or negative to their cause. They simply want the coverage of their brand and need to sustain it. This focus has insurgent leaders planning and executing operations designed purely for their propaganda appeal and in the modern age, using personnel for an information effect on the global stage rather than against a traditional military objective. Human lives are sacrificed for air time and social media prominence. Archaeological marvels are destroyed for front page coverage. Slavery, executions and public punishments drawn straight from the Dark Ages are designed to ensure each news bulletin continues to highlight the organisation’s brand.

Achieving information dominance is a central line of effort and resources are assigned to sustain it. While Dr Bolt’s definition is relatively new, the concept is as old as insurgency itself. Islamic scholar Abu Bakr Naji in his 2004 work, Management of Savagery, co-opted the concept for his al-Qaeda strategy and professed to have been influenced by 14th Century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. Naji advises Jihadist leaders to provoke responses from the West in order to lock them into a long-term war of attrition. Brutal, mobilised violence, often against non-combatants is a key tenant of the strategy. For this generation, the most memorable of these events is the Al-Qaeda-directed attacks against New York’s financial district and the Pentagon on 11 September, 2001. There have, however been several more through the life of the insurgencies that have consumed the West during the past 15 years. Thankfully attacks of the scale and complexity of those in America, and later the UK, have been minimal, but the current conflict with Daesh has escalated the ‘propaganda of the deed’ concept to a level unseen through the past decade. Daesh’s split from al Qaeda has done nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for Naji’s strategy.

While much has been written on Daesh’s use of social media and the barbaric actions of the group, efforts to contextualise these events within a campaign construct are limited. We have focused on the product itself rather than how it is supporting a military campaign. This has led to a vast array of agencies and organisations seeking to disrupt the content and flow of information from the adversary. An online game of ‘whack-a-mole’ is well underway. The effectiveness of this endeavour remains doubtful. Similarly, direction to ‘message harder’ in an attempt to regain the information advantage is problematic given the constraints the Coalition places on itself for accuracy and the truth. Straight facts from an official spokesperson do little to compete with the noise and light of Daesh propaganda. Daesh commanders have embraced Dr Bolt’s theory as a central line of effort in their operation to build and sustain their proposed Caliphate. It is the very definition of asymmetric warfare. Actions, many of which remain incomprehensible to Western military planners, have been deliberately designed to generate information dominance of the Daesh brand at the regional and global level. Fear, intimidation and ultimately compliance of populations are second and third order effects of ensuring sustained, global, dominance of the brand. This dominance allows Daesh commanders to retain freedom of action across their self-declared Caliphate.

Like the Tarin Kot attack, many of the Daesh events are small-scale and tactical in nature, but integrated, coordinated and synchronised with the wider campaign for strategic effect. The physical effects are felt locally. The cognitive effects span the globe. Most importantly these events are designed to prompt a response. Each significant act seeks to goad those opposed to Daesh into acting in a pre-determined way. It is a strategic shaping campaign calculated to establish space for Daesh elements to transition from fighting to governance in controlled territory by ensuring the Iraqi and Coalition elements arrayed against them remain reactive.

Daesh’s control of the storyline is well developed and exploits the reach and rapidity of the modern media environment. As Dr Bolt highlights in his definition, Daesh have perfected using the weight of the media against the media. Coalition successes in one area of Iraq are swamped by spectacular, yet often militarily insignificant actions undertaken by Daesh, in another. Heavily promoted Daesh operations are quickly abandoned in propaganda when events do not go to plan and alternate operations are rapidly launched to regain the information advantage. This cycle of action/exploitation has remained relatively constant since operations against Daesh commenced. With the benefit of hindsight, these planned events are relatively easy to identify as they are the ones exploited by centralised media agencies in Daesh controlled territories. While barbaric actions by Daesh fighters are unfortunately common place and evidence of these deeds is awash on social media, it is the significant events, disseminated through the central agencies, which are truly synchronised with the military campaign to achieve an information effect. They are the events or incidents which penetrate through the noise of daily operations.

A good example of Daesh’s ability to rapidly reorient the employment of propaganda of the deed activities occurred earlier this year. In February 2015, Daesh elements were suffering under the weight of a combined arms operation at Kobane and Kurdish elements pushing hard to reclaim ground inside their traditional lands. The Daesh offensive into Iraq was being blunted by Coalition airpower and some extremely courageous fighters in the North, but it was not decisive. Daesh elements had also pushed hard into the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province and had for the most part culminated despite repeated attempts to break out, including a suicide attack against a combined Iraqi/Coalition base. For several weeks there was no change in the information environment and the Daesh brand remained prominent, with increasing concern over the efficacy of the Coalition campaign. On the morning of 2 March, Iraqi elements supported by Popular Mobilisation Forces launched a significant, surprise, operation to secure the Northern city of Tikrit. As the operation commenced, Daesh’s immediate response was to attempt to portray it was still in command of the city through the dissemination of imagery. This tactical action, like the prolific use of flags, is designed to ‘prove’ control and is focused on local and regional audiences.

When the combined Iraqi/Popular Mobilisation Force operation began to seize and hold territory near Tikrit, Daesh dominance was challenged physically but also in the information environment. This new advance, coming on the back of weeks of stagnation, the operation’s implied Iranian support, and conflicting information concerning the Coalition’s support, immediately captured the attention of the world. This triggered a response from the adversary. Daesh commanders acted to regain the information advantage by shifting the focus of coverage. In Anbar Province, young men, mostly foreign fighters, were directed to drive explosive laden vehicles against Iraqi Security Force targets. The men were photographed, their attacks captured on film and the detonations of their final moment thundered through the province. There was no supporting manoeuvre from Daesh elements. Suicide bombers were not used to breach fortifications in advance of a ground assault. It was simply eight misguided young men sent out to die — spectacularly. This event was live tweeted, by friend and foe alike forcing Tikrit from the news and social media feeds and replacing it with Ramadi.

The March suicide operation in Ramadi had very little military impact. The casualty rate was extremely low and the targets themselves were of limited significance beyond being Iraqi Security Force positions. One suicide attacker succeeded in killing only himself. It was an operation designed for information effect and Daesh commanders maximised its impact by ensuring the attackers were from a number of western countries. The significant territorial and materiel losses in Tikrit were replaced by stories concerning the young men coerced into giving their lives for an ideal they would never see realised. The attacks also played on the deep sectarian fissures in Iraq, ensuring Sunni tribal leaders would appeal for support, detracting from operations in Tikrit. It was a calculated move to shape reaction and regain information dominance. While military commanders are stereotyped as taking a hard, pragmatic view of events to make calculated decisions, it is much more difficult for popularly-elected officials, already under significant pressure. Dominant coverage, coupled with increasing concern by the population, places significant stresses on political decision making, and it is this fissure that Daesh seeks to exploit with its strategic acts. The political concern impacts on the military campaign.

The well-staged, mass executions which have become the hallmark of the al-Baghdadi reign are similarly designed to dominate coverage and ensure the idea of a struggle towards an Islamic Caliphate remains prominent. These acts are designed to generate coverage and keep Daesh at the forefront of thinking. The high quality videos of the events are disseminated at the time and place of the Daesh leadership’s choosing, rather than as the events unfold. The exploitation of barbarism is synchronised for best effect. Daesh propagandists have cued onto what generates coverage and create events to sustain it. It is for this reason that the flow of foreign fighters, exploited as rudimentary precision-guided weapons, remains critical to Daesh. The death of a young westerner fighting for a brutal and incomprehensible organisation is news and will generate ongoing coverage. There is a requirement however, to ensure that each significant event remains somewhat unique. Daesh leaders learned by the third execution of a single westerner that the tried and true method perfected by al-Zarqawi in 2004 was receiving far less coverage than planned. The creative department of Daesh’s propaganda wing have ensured that each new act of barbarism is unique in some way to ensure dominant coverage. Unfortunately, this requirement for mass propagation almost guarantees that we have not yet seen the worst of our adversary. In order to use the weight of the media against the media, the action must ensure widespread coverage.

Daesh propagandists have worked to ensure continued dominance of the information environment. Daesh commanders have synchronised this capability with military operations to generate both an information and a military advantage, in line with their campaign plan. It is a brutally asymmetric effort that orchestrates the deaths of friends and foes alike, to stay on the front page and at the top of a social media stream. Daesh have proven adept at converting an information advantage into an operational one. They use the information environment to set conditions for the other elements of their campaign. Daesh want reaction and are targeting the West to achieve it. The best thing we can do to counter it is to ignore it completely and focus on defeating them militarily.

Success in the land domain will degrade the effectiveness of Daesh’s campaign in the information environment. With the balance of power in the information environment very definitely aligned to Daesh, exploiting the Coalition’s dominance in the land and air domains will allow us to prove success and regain the initiative across all facets of the campaign. The alternative, focussing on defeating an asymmetric adversary’s strength, dominance of the information environment, is somewhat futile. 

Jason Logue is an Australian Army Information Operations specialist. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

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