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Mind Games

A brief history of information warfare

Philip M. Taylor
October 07, 2010
A satellite dish on a former miniature golf course in Saudi Arabia, 1991.(Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images)
A satellite dish on a former miniature golf course in Saudi Arabia, 1991.(Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli information warriors—both government operatives and the media they work to manipulate—fail to understand global media warfare. Their mishandling of the crises in Lebanon and Gaza and the recent flotilla incident has cast Israel as the villain in the global theater of war and conflict. Israel has not understood the difference between how it sees itself and how others perceive its actions, or if it has, it seems not to care whether the audience dislikes its performance on the Middle Eastern stage. Many Western observers are bemused by the actions of a democratic nation that arguably has the best cause in the world but the worst propaganda, especially on a regional and wider global level. Perhaps, for domestic political purposes, Israel is too preoccupied with domestic opinion—which, in reality, can be relied upon to be largely patriotic given that the Jewish state is bordered by so many hostile neighbors.

Yet Israel is hardly alone in failing to grasp the forces that have reshaped the nature of armed conflict in our 21st-century global information society, in which perception is almost as important as—some would say more important than—reality. The term “information warfare” first gained currency at the end of the 1980s as the Cold War was drawing to a close. Indeed the Gulf War of 1991 was labeled by some analysts as the “first information war.” Ever since, the phrase has entered popular media parlance, while academic journals, international conferences, and even scholarly institutes have been created for its analysis. It is sometimes used interchangeably with “media warfare,” but as it also became a military doctrine the relationship of IW with media relations—or military public affairs—can sometimes cause confusion in military parlance, where it has been replaced by the broader term “information operations.”

Of course, the use of information in warfare has always been a vital component of military strategy. The side with the best intelligence about its adversaries’ capabilities, troop sizes, equipment, and disposition, together with an understanding of the terrain, psychology, motivation, and even the weather conditions that were likely to affect the outcome of battles, has always enjoyed a greater likelihood of victory—from Alexander the Great to today’s commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Information operations, or IO, have increased in military significance as modern conflicts have shifted from conventional war-fighting to counterinsurgency strategies that require greater attention to so-called “hearts and minds.”

IO as a military doctrine is broadly seen as a toolbox of capabilities consisting of computer network operations, electronic warfare, operational security, psychological operations, and deception. Computer network operations, or CNO, are about defending one’s own computer-based military systems—information assurance—as well as attacking adversaries’ systems. The attempt by NATO to destroy the broadcasts of Radio Television Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo conflict is often cited as an example of the latter, but that was really media warfare; the attempt to disrupt Serbian command-and-control capabilities is a much better example of electronic warfare. (The Stuxnet worm that has attacked the control systems of the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran also comes to mind.) Combined CNO and electronic warfare are what most people think of when talking about information warfare, such as the devastating 2008 cyberattacks on Estonia’s financial and other computer services by suspected Russian info-warriors resentful about the move of a memorial to Soviet World War II soldiers.

As the military doctrine of information warfare was emerging throughout the 1990s, there was an obsession with the new technology that was increasingly driving a revolution in military affairs—from cameras on the noses of smart missiles navigated by GPS services coordinated by satellites to the widespread take-up of Internet access, email, and cell telephony. The military began to talk of “asymmetric warfare,” in which a militarily inferior opponent could inflict significant damage through computer-based technologies using viruses, worms, trojans, and other “info-bombs” in cyber or hacker warfare. The threat most feared was an “electronic Pearl Harbor,” not Sept. 11—an attack that may have been coordinated partly using the Internet, but it was carried out by people who piloted old-fashioned airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

With the Cold War won, the U.S. government had also downgraded its international information programs, culminating in the closure of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, creating a space that adversaries were eager and able to fill with a new kind of asymmetric warfare. Especially in places like the Middle East, terrorist groups were able to internationalize themselves quickly and at a very low cost by tapping into the global power of World Wide Web. The Palestinians were among the first to demonstrate how local causes could be internationalized via new media as the so-called “Electronic Intifada” became the most potent force-multiplier in the arsenals of Fatah and Hamas. Terrorist groups like al-Qaida, popularly thought of as struggling for a return to medieval values, embraced new media technologies not just to coordinate their planned violent attacks but also to disseminate their messages and recruit followers from the worldwide Muslim community, the Ummah.

The Sept. 11 attacks also demonstrated how sophisticated terrorists are when exploiting the old media to wage their new kind of warfare. Striking at rush hour, when so many TV stations have traffic helicopters patrolling the skies above the cities, helped ensure that the attacks would be captured live (in real time) on television—and it worked. How many people have described watching those terrible scenes on live television that day as like watching a movie? From the terrorists’ point of view, that was precisely the point—especially given the importance in Islamic thought of bearing witness to so-called acts of martyrdom. Terrorists also understand that their acts of violence are unlikely to succeed in a military victory—they are acts of theater designed to strike fear into their opponents and instill pride in their supporters. The audience is their main target, not the victims of their violence, although the target audience is more likely to be the chattering classes who are most likely to express horror and disgust.

So, the declaration of a “global war on terror,” fought primarily with kinetic weaponry—guns, bombs, and drones—played into the terrorists’ hands. Acts of violence might repulse most sensible people, and the waging of a kinetic war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and again in Afghanistan, did precisely that, especially among the Islamic Ummah. Anti-Americanism, even in non-Islamic countries, grew to unprecedented levels as the war on terror dragged on to twice the length of World War II. The Internet became the primary battle space for anti-American and anti-Western propaganda about a renewed crusade against Islam, a clash of civilizations and a Zionist-Christian plot to subordinate Muslims everywhere.

It is impossible not to conclude that the war on terror completely missed the point about what Sept. 11 was all about. Although the ongoing fighting has been re-branded by the Obama Administration into the “struggle against violent extremism”—which is better than the use of the word “war”—the realization that a war of ideas is what’s really happening has come far too late in a conflict in which words and images matter and the primary battle spaces are Google, YouTube, and Facebook. For good or ill, the citizen information warriors who fight these conflicts are the bloggers, the citizen journalists, and digital eyewitnesses who disseminate images from Abu Ghraib or Afghan weddings to a global audience.

It is in this virtual theater that the real war is now being fought. From just a handful of extreme jihadist websites in 2001, there are now thousands. We are in the era of Web 2.0, in which interactivity rather than just the passive receipt of information is the norm: This is a space in which it is impossible, to use military jargon again, to take command and control or achieve full-spectrum dominance. It is also a strategic space, in which military doctrines like information operations have real limitations. IO embraces the use of military deception, and whereas terrorist organizations don’t play by the same rules when it comes to information and disinformation, democratic military organizations do have a degree of accountability. If they lie deliberately, they will get found out in an era characterized by the near-impossibility of keeping secrets. And if that happens, the credibility of any truthful messaging that may be disseminated will be irreparably damaged. IO has proved useful, to varying degrees of success, in the real war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan but only really at the tactical and operational levels of command. For al-Qaida, it is the main tool at the strategic level of communication.

Although the United States and its allies are now in the process of developing strategic communications capabilities for conducting “global engagement” (another rebranding by the Obama Administration), early hopes for a return to non-military information strategies created by the president’s 2009 Cairo speech are as yet unfulfilled. As long as the war in Afghanistan continues in its current kinetic surge there is little likelihood of short-term success in the information domain. Many in the audience will continue to think they are watching a tragedy, and no matter how well the military actors perform, war is no laughing matter.

Philip M. Taylor is a professor of international communications at the University of Leeds, U.K.

Philip M. Taylor is a professor of international communications at the University of Leeds, U.K.