Last weekend, Secretary Rumsfeld was an awesome presence on both cable and network television. Part of his mission was to put into the proper context, and to further explain the meaning of, the recently leaked “Rumsfeld memo.”
With this memo, Secretary Rumsfeld challenges his able staff to revisit some basic points about the War on Terror. Most importantly, he wants to know what the United States can do to stop the next generation of terrorists from surfacing. In his words: “We need to have… a battle of ideas to see that we don't have continuous people moving into the terrorist world and becoming terrorists at a rate that is equal to or faster than we're able to capture and kill them.”
Concerning this last point – which articulates the ultimate endgame of the War on Terror – it is helpful to examine the ideational factors in Iraq specifically, and in Muslim and Arab states more generally, that contribute to the perpetuation of terrorism. Simply put, a means must be formulated to achieve the objective laid out so succinctly by Secretary Rumsfeld.
Unfortunately, as Mr. Rumsfeld points out in his memo, the United States “is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan” that will ensure victory for America and its allies in the war of ideas. Moreover, the current effort to win over the “hearts and minds” of America’s enemies neglects, at least publicly, a strategic apparatus for confronting the more nuanced forms of propaganda – rumors, superstitions, myths, and all things irregular and bizarre – which are often the most immediate progenitors responsible for anti-U.S., anti-Western incitement and violent action. A political warfare equivalent to the low-intensity conflict (L.I.C.) theory of the 1980s, this new phenomenon can be called low-intensity propaganda (L.I.P.).
Make no mistake, overt public diplomacy and public affairs that promote and clarify U.S. policies and American values through traditional channels (radio, T.V., cultural and educational exchanges) are invaluable. In their current capacity (the occasional interview on Al-Jazeera television by U.S. officials or funding of Radio Sawa, etc.), however, they are inadequate weapons vis-à-vis militant Islamists or other terrorists armed with the requisite funds and the will to kill. (Visit the websites of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and the Palestinian Media Watch to get a sense of what I mean).
For instance, in Iraq today insidious rumors are spread about American and allied forces that reinforce the fallacious, preconceived notions of Western intentions and beliefs regarding the Middle East that have been propagated throughout the region by hostile media over the years. Objectively speaking, many of these rumors are so strange and fictitious it is hard to imagine that they would resonate in any society. But they do; and the United States is ill-equipped to counter these rumors or other L.I.P.
A few examples to illustrate my point: On April 10, 2003 the Hamilton Spectator (Ontario, Canada) interviewed Iraqi citizens, young and old, who recounted the rumor that Saddam Hussein was equipped with a “gem in his arm, which some say is red, some blue,” that repels bullets. On July 11, 2003 the Chicago Tribune reported that among the rumors “now circulating on Iraq’s streets” are the following: “Night-vision goggles let soldiers see through women's clothes…. Jews are rushing back to Iraq to buy up land, and the country's oil is being piped to Israel…The bubble gum that U.S. troops hand to kids comes wrapped in pornographic pictures…U.S. authorities are keeping power off in Baghdad as punishment for recent [terrorist] bombings…most of [which]… were carried out by Americans themselves.”
These are not just harmless, irrational tales. They are both a main source of information as well as a precursor to violence. CNN’s Karl Penhaul reported on April 29, 2003, twenty days after the fall of Baghdad, that “most people at this stage in Iraq, within Iraq, are getting their information from rumors.” Add to this the words of one local Iraqi, as reported by The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec) on June 14, 2003, that “these rumours affect the people in a negative way…They push people to use their weapons against Americans,” and the danger to American personnel becomes palpable.
It has been reported by the Chicago Tribune that Coalition soldiers have tried to dispel some of the more outrageous rumors, such as the ability to see through the clothing of Muslim woman, by pulling aside local leaders and letting them try on the night vision goggles. Seeing is believing; so the theory goes. Other news reports record less successful results. The Boston Globe noted in August 2003 that “examples abound of the culture gap between the well-intended US information campaign and Iraq’s rumor-mill reality.”
So the question remains: From where does L.I.P. originate and how can the United States counter this phenomenon?
In one report it appears that rumors have always played a significant role in Iraqi life. The Gazette noted in June 2003 that Iraq “institutionalized the study and use of rumors. Saddam clearly viewed them as a tool of power. His security services monitored and collected them. His intelligence services fabricated and spread them.” According to The Gazette, Maan Izzat, a former editor in the Ministry of Information, admitted that “Every day without fail…Saddam would receive a report with details of the most prevalent rumours, as well as political jokes. That was his way of keeping his finger on the pulse of the people, and of knowing when to get tough.” The Gazette also noted that “while Saddam’s intelligence services were spreading rumours, his security service, which was a separate agency, was collecting them. Agents around Baghdad wrote daily reports that attempted to gauge the public mood by identifying rumours.”
The origination, and subsequent dissemination, of rumors and other L.I.P. continues in post-Saddam Iraq. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, “red” mosques, “led by imams hotly opposed to U.S. troops in Iraq,” act as one source for bitter accusations and lies that often become rumors. The New York Times noted just last week that “banners calling for Jihad, or holy war, against American troops have been put up around many important Sunni mosques.” And on June 9, 2003 the Associated Press ran a story about Islamic author Alaa el-din al-Mudaris and “Iraq's first homegrown book about the war.” The AP described his 124 page book, written in two weeks, as a “hodgepodge of anti-American tirades and wartime rumors” which “feeds the web of myths” and repeats some of the rumors that were prevalent under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The AP reports that the book was published locally by the Al-Rageem publishing house in Baghdad, and was “funded by the author.” Astonishingly, there have been two editions of this book and 4,000-6,000 copies have been sold at the price of $1.
Why are the aforementioned stories relevant? Because rumors and, more generally, low intensity propaganda are killing Americans on the cheap. The most recent round of violence in Iraq is reported to have been inspired by “leaflets” and “rumored warnings” which called for a “day of resistance” beginning last Saturday, November 1. The leaflet which spawned the rumors was “attributed to the ousted Baathists,” according to the Associated Press.
Therefore, what the United States needs is a strategic department (a L.I.P. Service perhaps?) that can identify, counter, pre-empt, and overwhelm a designated audience with alternatives to the vitriolic disinformation, misinformation, myths, rumors, and superstitions that dominate Iraq and the Middle East generally. The United States has made great strides in the area of low intensity conflict (L.I.C.), but it must come to understand equally the concept of low intensity propaganda; the “soft” side, if you will, of L.I.C.
L.I.P., including the abovementioned use of leaflets or rumors in Iraq, needs to be countered tactically in cases that arise spontaneously, but understood strategically so that malignant leaflets and rumors can be neutralized preemptively. In the case of Iraq, the present situation calls for a sustained, well thought out strategic rumorfare (rumor warfare) campaign – coupled closely with more traditional, long term, and overt information dissemination efforts – throughout Iraq. Tactical reactions directed at Iraq’s hot spots are insufficient in the long-term.
In addition to a concerted rumorfare campaign, designed to counter the spread of rumors and the like, publishing houses should be set up immediately to sponsor inexpensive books ($0.25- $1.00) with alternative, truthful views on the situation in Iraq; alternative banners and leaflets in every Iraqi city should far outnumber hateful messages; the airwaves and televisions should be filled with news that not only support Iraqi, American and allied aims, but also drown out the more insidious rumor mills; and truthful U.S. messages should be repackaged and re-crafted to reflect the realities of the Iraqi mind in a post-Hussein milieu.
The bottom line is simple: without a comprehensive counter-fabrication capability of this sort, focusing on the different elements of low intensity propaganda (rumors, superstitions, myths, and all things bizarre), there is little hope -- against such an irrational backdrop -- that the war of ideas will be won anytime soon.