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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005

Part II

Transition to a New Campaign

Chapter 7
Fighting the Battle of Ideas in Iraq


Insurgent Information Operations

Clashing with friendly messages were the opposition’s ideas and propaganda. A large number of insurgent and terrorist groups in Iraq proved to be adept at using all types of media to further their cause and to discredit the Coalition and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). By 2005 the insurgent’s successful use of IO led Brigadier General G. Donald Alston, the spokesperson for MNF-I, to argue that the media had become a vital force multiplier for the insurgents: “What I mean by that is that [the insurgents] attempt to use the media to appear more capable than they really are and to intimidate others with attack videos and Web site postings.”50 Bruce Hoffman, a noted counterinsurgency expert, agreed with this assessment, adding that what makes “the insurgency in Iraq so different from previous ones is the insurgents’ enormous media savvy.”51 From the perspective of Soldiers on the ground, the enemy’s IO capabilities could be confounding. The Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment (1-503d IN), operating in the city of Ramadi in 2004 described the enemy’s IO as “far more responsive and effective than [Coalition forces’] IO efforts. We found the enemy could print and post flyers/posters detailing their version of an event inside of 24 hours.”52 The report from the 1-503d IN continued by pointing out the sophisticated means used to reinforce the insurgent message, “The enemy will also pass rumors supporting the posters and flyers and make physical threats to repress people who know the truth.”53

According to Lieutenant General Metz, insurgent organizations were adaptive, relentless, and technologically capable.54 Metz stated the Iraqi insurgent “recognizes that the global information network is his most effective tool for attacking what he perceives to be our [Coalition forces’] COG: public opinion, both domestic and international.”55 Like Coalition forces, the insurgents understood the power of integrating information-based operations into other missions and often used mass media in these efforts. Lieutenant Colonel Swan, the information officer for 3d Brigade, 2d ID in 2004, found this out firsthand in Mosul, and asserted, “[the insurgents] understand how valuable media is and the psychological value and that is the only weapon they have so that is why they are so good at getting videos out and getting them out ahead of us.”56 The local population in Mosul and elsewhere turned almost exclusively to Arab media and insurgent outlets for their news; consequently, they had little information about any of the positive activities of the Coalition forces.

This basic failure to win the tactical battle of ideas became apparent to senior leaders in the US Government. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented on this enemy capability, stating that Islamic extremist groups, including the insurgents in Iraq, have “poisoned the Muslim public’s view of the United States” through its “deft use of the Internet and other modern communications methods” that the American Government, including the military, has failed to master.57 Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Boylan, who served as the director of MNF-I’s Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) in 2004, recognized the insurgents’ ability to use the media for their own purposes:

I think there were some spectacular attacks that were done to ensure that they were seen by the media to help foster the terrorist organizations’ information operations roles of publicizing their events. They did a great job of getting their information out on the web and they did a great job of getting it out on our TV networks. . . . In fact, I would say that they are much better at information operations, if you will, than we are, and they are more timely, because they don’t have to rely on the truth whereas we do. They can lie, cheat, and steal and we can’t so they can beat us to the punch almost every time.58

Insurgents often had a cameraman at the site of a car bombing, and within minutes of the explosion, the images appeared on the Internet without having to be vetted in any approval process and with little regard for the distinction between news and propaganda. Countering this type of instant “news” in Iraq, as Boylan noted, was almost impossible. The insurgents also used dozens of Web sites to wage a propaganda war and pass on the latest tactics to defeat Coalition forces to other insurgents.59 The audience for most of the insurgent’s propaganda was the Iraqi public, but more and more the insurgents targeted Muslims all over the world. According to one study of tactics used by the Iraqi insurgency, the insurgents employed propaganda to “garner sympathy from the Iraqi population for their ‘struggle,’ while keeping the international media spotlight on the American-led occupation of Iraq.”60

One of the most gruesome propaganda tools used by insurgents in Iraq involved videos of executions. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argued that graphically violent videos were part of “a calculated set of actions and images directed toward influencing a mass audience. In this way, the audience was often more important than the action itself, and the symbolism was inseparable from the strategy.”61 Insurgent groups intended these videos to serve as a warning to Iraqis helping the government or Coalition forces and to demoralize public opinion in Coalition countries.62 The capture and beheading of Western hostages showed the Iraqi population that the Coalition forces were unable to provide them security, and concurrently served as a recruiting tool for young Muslims around the world interested in joining the insurgent effort.

The vast cultural divide between Western nations and most parts of the Muslim world exacerbated the Coalition’s difficulties with IO. Insurgent and terrorist propaganda leveraged their close familiarity with Iraqi, Arab, and Muslim norms and values while IO officers at all levels struggled to understand the basic elements of the culture with which they were trying to communicate. To a great degree, the larger clash of Western and Arab Muslim cultures hampered the Coalition IO effort in Iraq. Every action and every message launched by the Coalition was interpreted within the context of Iraqi conditions as well as in terms of the international, ideological, and religious conflict.

Chapter 7. Fighting the Battle of Ideas in Iraq

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