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Ending al-Qaeda: The Psyop Approach


Interesting bit in The American Interest:

"In a September 2007 video, al-Qaeda's third-highest leader, Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, published a strategy, largely based on al-Qaeda errors in Iraq, showing how the West can fight and win its "war of ideas." Why would he do this? That is unclear. Al-Libi may have believed that the United States lags so far behind the global jihadist movement that al-Qaeda has little to fear.6 In any event, his six-part strategy for the West focuses almost exclusively on countering al-Qaeda's narrative:

  1. Amplify cases of ex-jihadis who have renounced armed action;
  2. Fabricate stories about jihadi mistakes and exaggerate actual mistakes;
  3. Prompt Muslim clerics to issue fatwas that incriminate the jihadi movement;
  4. Support Islamic movements that disavow terrorist violence, particularly those with a democratic approach;
  5. Aggressively neutralize or discredit the jihadi movement's guiding thinkers; and
  6. Spin minor disagreements among jihadi leaders into major doctrinal or methodological disputes.

This actually strikes me as a pretty good list. As to why a jihadist cleric would issue this, it seems pretty simple to me. I've seen more than a few "beware of the following dirty tricks from the other side, so you're prepared" pieces among political partisans. Why not among theocrats, for whom religion is politics and vice-versa?


"2. Fabricate stories about jihadi mistakes and exaggerate actual mistakes;?

The potential for doing this around the demise of bin Laden (e.g. "who informed on him") is immense; same with the killing or capture of any other high-profile enemy. When they're lying low electronically and relying on couriers...

I think this strategy is absolutely correct. We have a major problem in implementing it- essentially we've accepted the CAIR demands that:
A. Jihadi terrorism isn't a muslim community problem and any implication that it is is racist.
B. Asking fellow muslims to oppose jihadi violence violates Rule A.

I agree with JK that this list wasn't exactly put together for the benefit of the west, but for the benefit of those against whom it would be used. It's not as though we don't constantly engage in self-criticism, and discussions of our weaknesses in order to fix them.

When talking about strategy (as this does) rather than operational details, that's not a particularly big problem-- a strategy that hinges on no one knowing about it is pretty weak.

On the other hand, while I see little harm in us trying to do those various things, I don't think we're going to get much bang for the buck out of it. We're just not the right group to do it-- those are basically elements of a propaganda campaign. We generally aren't good at it, and all propaganda campaigns assume the targets are stupid. Not just wrong, but actually too stupid to consider the source.

To the extent that 1, 3, 4, and 6 happen, it's best if they happen on their own, and can't be shown to be tools or stooges of the West. 2 is ultimately useless no matter who does it because it's a pure lie.

I'll admit 5 is a bit of an exception, if by "aggressively neutralize" one means, "kill." We can definitely do that.

Marcus Vitruvius,

I'm surprised by your comments. You're quite right, propoganda is exactly what this is, but I think your argument of "consider the source" falls flat. It ignores the way propoganda is disseminated and the audience that we should be targeting.

One of the biggest considerations in good propaganda is the source. This means false flag operations and pushing propoganda through orthoganal sources instead of broadcasting it ourselves. Direct propaganda (loud speakers, leaflets, etc.) are almost always targeted at emergent situations, not prolonged campaigns. Attempting to goad entrenched Taliban fighters into attacking or convincing defenders to surrender or shift to defend another area are all good examples of direct propaganda.

But what we're talking about here is long-term propaganda, and I think you'll find that most of this is indirect. In the Middle East, this means publications, sympathetic clerics and tribal leaders (often on the take), foreign governments, etc. It's too simplistic to view our PSYOPS efforts in one dimension where we're the source.

Further, you have to consider the target. I would argue that propoganda is even more effective in the Middle East than elsewhere. There, information is much harder to come by; the narrative is easier to control and the source of information much easier to conceal. Conspiracy theories are much more prevelant in society and are more believed by the populace; this makes discrediting leaders and spreading rumors easier. Terrorism is killing many, many Muslims, and this makes clerics and locals much easier to sway. Honor (perception) is a large cultural factor; this makes discrediting the jihadi movement's guiding thinkers much easier. This list goes on.

Consider who the target actually is; it isn't committed radicals. It's their support, it's the people who shelter, fund and inform them. It's the parents and clerics and tribal leaders who influence teens and young men. If these dry up, not only are their efforts seriously hampered, but our intelligence gathering becomes much easier, and their networks become much easier to infiltrate and dismantle.

It's also targeting the on-the-fence radicals who are considering joining a radical group and whether the cause is just and worth dying for. Discrediting the groups, amplifying ex-jihadis, anything that introduces small amounts of doubt or apathy ("these people aren't worth dying for") will serve to deny them potential recruits.

I certainly agree that this may not be a slam dunk, but I hardly think it would be ineffective or dismissed because we're ultimately behind it.



If there were some way to do all these various things completely untraceably, I might agree. But there really isn't, largely because we really really suck at keeping secrets. We're just plain bad at it. Sooner rather than later, the story would get out, and whatever the Muslim equivalent is of "Even the Devil can quote scripture," would get trotted out and it's game over.

Propaganda of that nature really only plays to our weakness.

The best propaganda we have is who we are: People whose military put their lives on the line to protect the ordinary citizens of Iraq. People who treat women like real people by not shrouding them away from the world, and encouraging them to engage the world. People who treat men like grown-ups instead of sex-starved teenaged boys (by not shrouding women away, etc.) People who treat our citizens like free people by (gasp!) giving them free access to communications... and to communicate.

I think a better plan for propaganda is to just get people the tools to determine the truth for themselves. Which is easier said than done, but is at least in the realm of the feasible and (in my opinion) effective.

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