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Terrorism and the information node

It’s not a shock. Terror groups have leveraged the information domain to craft political messaging, recruit members and psychologically deter their opposition. How can the US and their allies learn from these capabilities and apply these in the era of superpower competition?

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Wed, 10 Nov 2021
Terrorism and the information node
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Twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan, as well as SOF-aerial campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq. Considering the technological mismatch between the combatants, one would assume a swift and overwhelming victory for US-led forces against often ad-hoc transnational terror organisations.

We all know now, however, that evidence points in the other direction. Across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, non-state terror organisations in recent months have demonstrated overwhelming successes. While US-led efforts have observed some “tactical military successes”, non-state actors have nosedived into the grey zone, and exploited informational vectors to gain influence in a non-kinetic theatre.

These are the views of Dr Joseph Mroszczyk, contractor at the Naval War College in the US and an officer in the US Navy Reserve, and Dr Max Abrahms, associate professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University, writing for the Modern War Institute.


Indeed, the information vector offers obvious benefits to threat actors: recruitment, ownership or denial of violence and influencing the psychological outlook of their enemies. As the world continues to move from a conflict environment characterised by non-state actor competition to conventional superpower competition, the pair urged the US to better comprehend and wield the information vector, especially amid tensions with Russia and China.

“Beyond amplifying a political message, political scientists understand terrorism as a means to demonstrate resolve, coerce concessions and attract recruits and other resources. Indeed, the informational dimension of a terrorist attack aims to cause political or religious changes, distinguishing terrorism from other types of criminal violence,” the pair explained.

According to their findings, by exerting competitive control over the information dimension of a conflict, terror organisations have found that they can inflict maximum casualties on opposition groups while also denying their involvement in politically sensitive attacks.

“Terrorist groups deny organisational involvement in an attack to improve public perception of the group. The Taliban leadership, for example, eagerly assumed organisational responsibility for selective attacks against military targets, while distancing themselves when operatives committed indiscriminate bloodshed,” the pair noted.

“For instance, the Taliban claimed responsibility when operatives ambushed Mohammad Qasim Fahim, leader of the alliance that toppled the Taliban in 2001, on a road in northern Kunduz. By contrast, the leadership denied organisational involvement when Taliban operatives were widely believed to be the ones behind a 2013 attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jalalabad.”

In addition to crafting effective political narratives, the pair explained how information warfare is also an impactful means to psychologically undermine one’s enemy while recruiting new members.

“Similarly, the Islamic State attracted over 40,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries. When mainstream social media platforms are shut down, terrorist communications have gravitated to encrypted apps such as Telegram. In some cases, terrorist groups communicate with new mechanisms before they have reached peak popularity in society: the Islamic State was an early adopter of TikTok,” the pair observed.

Unfortunately, the US and its allies are off to a very slow start in this exploitable dimension, due to “difficulties such as whole-of-government synchronisation, a lack of ownership of the issue, and other bureaucratic obstacles that inhibit rapid and agile manoeuvre”. Simply, the US and its allies are unable to effectively author a strategy to dominate this battlespace.

To overcome this, the pair noted that the military must exploit the core competencies of the terror groups to reverse their competitive control over certain segments of society.

“For example, a concerted effort to highlight the carnage of terrorist attacks can chip away at a group’s appeal. Attributing attacks against civilians to a group before it has a chance to deny involvement could hurt the group’s image and ultimately reduce its appeal among potential recruits,” the pair suggested.

Even in the era of superpower competition, the information vector will be increasingly leveraged as a means to undermine one’s adversary.

Indeed, the pair cited a 2019 RAND Report noting that “since Russia and China both value their current status as legitimate and respected members of the international system, they remain vulnerable to information campaigns orchestrated to heighten the reputational costs associated with their aggressive or hostile actions”.

While the information continuum will prove beneficial to the West in undermining the legitimacy of adversarial superpowers, the pair argues that the US must act first and decisively in the information sphere.

Citing the American Psychological Association, the pair illustrated that combatting false information might not only be difficult – but could also result in a “backfire effect”.

“Terrorist organisations have understood that speed of dissemination is key, as demonstrated by their rapid release of propaganda videos designed to frame an event or an attack to their advantage. The United States must recognise that in the global competition against Russia and China, the velocity with which it can disseminate information could provide advantages,” they said.

Despite overwhelming superiority on the battlefield, the US and their allies were overcome by simple irregular warfare and grey-zone capabilities. Such lessons must be onboarded as the world moves to an era characterised by superpower competition.

This article originally appeared on www.defenceconnect.com.au.

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