Combating Cyber-Jihad

Cyber Terror

Was 11 September 2001 a terrorist attack targeted specifically against the US, and the West more generally, or did it in fact represent something more? Conventional wisdom stipulates that although the 9/11 attacks killed many Americans and scarred the US psyche, the trade off for Al-Qa’ida was not good. Sharp US retaliation dismantled the Al-Qa’ida network through its campaign to target and kill strategic leaders and forced the loss of Afghan-based Al-Qa’ida training facilities through the removal of the fundamentalist Islamic government. Five years on, 9/11, however, could be viewed as having been masterminded as part of a much larger plan.[1] This is because Bin Laden’s aims are political – that is, he wants the withdrawal of infidel forces from the Middle East and the restoration of the Islamic caliphate. 11 September 2001 resulted from Al-Qa’ida estimations that to achieve the said political goals, they would have to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world.

Therefore, 9/11 as a one-off, simple terrorist incident would not suffice. It would have to act as a catalyst within a much broader campaign. Al-Qa’ida’s strategy has successfully included the use of a co-ordinated media campaign that was within easy reach and manipulation of its leaders. Since Al-Qa’ida’s success against the Anglo-American coalition in Iraq has been more contingent on its superior tactics on the virtual battlefield, than the actual one on the ground, it could be argued that Al-Qa’ida, as an organization, is not so much concerned with the conventional jihad in as much the ‘cyber-jihad’.

The Information Revolution and the Virtual Battlefield

While the ‘virtual battlefield’ is more important and relevant today than ever before, it does not represent an entirely new dimension of warfare. The rise of the virtual battlefield began in Vietnam. Although the media has always been able to comment on wars, the Vietnam War represented a watershed as it was the first conflict to be widely televised in real-time – thereby affording it the capability of shaping perceptions in a way never before encountered. It became apparent during Vietnam that tactical victories were not tantamount to strategic success.

Although the US was winning the war on the ground, US domestic support continued to plummet as the violence was brought home by the media. As a result of this exposure, the US developed the infamous ‘body bag’ syndrome – that is, the US public became intolerant of causalities in ‘unnecessary’ wars, which ultimately led to the collapse of domestic policy support. This syndrome has gone on to plague Washington foreign policymakers for over 30 years. For any policy to succeed, the support of the public is paramount. Therefore, since Vietnam, Western governments have endeavoured to limit and control press access to the battlefield in an effort to mitigate any adverse effects the media may have on public support for military action.

During the 1990s, the world saw the rise of the CNN-effect – the ability for 24 hour news broadcasts to shape world politics. However, this brief monopoly is now over. Not only is CNN challenged by non-Western broadcasters such as al- Jazeera, but practically anyone can enter and affect the information world. In an era of email, blogs, cell phones, blackberrys, digital cameras, internet chat rooms, cell phones, palm-sized video recorders, talk radio and 24 hours news, as well as satellites to network all of these various components in real time, it is now impossible to even attempt to control the flow of information or disinformation. As Nik Gowing has written, ‘The new matrix of real-time recording and uplink technology means that even the most remote, hostile and (in theory) operationally secure locations are transparent.’2 This point has not eluded policy-makers. Recently, Donald Rumsfeld, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the US Government still functions ‘as a five and dime store in an eBay world’.3 Al-Qa’ida, on the other hand, has effectively exploited the information revolution to wage the world’s first ‘cyber-jihad’.


Terrorist Media Strategies

Al-Qa’ida’s jihad against the West is being fought both on the ground and in a virtual space. Al-Qa’ida does not engage in propaganda per se, rather it links events on the ground to their advantage to mobilise empathy and antipathy via global communications outlets. And its campaigns on the ground are geared towards supporting the virtual campaign on the net and in the news. The terrorists know that they cannot win in a conventional fight against western forces. Even asymmetric military strategies cannot defeat coalition forces militarily. Guerrilla strategies are designed to wear down the resolve of one’s opponent and are essentially aimed at a political victory rather than a military one. Such strategies, currently being used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, are designed to place Western forces in decidedly difficult security environments that complicate the task of securing peace and create further destruction. These acts on the ground are then further utilized by Al-Qa’ida in their information campaign as images are relayed to the wider world via networked media. This has the dual effect of animating disaffected Muslims to act against the Anglo-American coalition as well as undermining domestic support in the US and UK for the military operations.

The virtual war is after all a two-front war. No matter how many new jihadis are recruited, if popular support for the military campaigns in the West remains high, there will be no forced withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is therefore critical for insurgent groups to affect and reach Western populations as well. Former Secretary of State for Defence, Dr. John Reid noted this saying, ‘Al- Qa’ida’s view is that the western media is a virtual battleground where the swaying of public opinion away from support for our campaigns could lead to a swift victory and a quick way of undermining our public morale.’4 The insurgents have time on their hands and they will use this time against the West. Since the members of the coalition are democracies, they are all ultimately answerable to the people they govern and as such Al-Qa’ida is targeting this level, rather than the policy level, where resolve is higher. This is a wise strategy: some three years on, US President George W.Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair continue to insist that the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq were the right things to do and that they must stay on course. Public support for the war in the US meanwhile has dropped from eighty-six per cent in 2003 to twenty-eight per cent in May 2006. Furthermore, in Britain, fifty-five per cent of the population think that troops should leave the country within the next twelve months.5

So, while Bush and Blair face ever failing support at home, the insurgents are enjoying increasing support from discontented Muslims around the world. To continue to wear down the public support in coalition countries though, the terrorists need a ready supply of willing jihadis. Their media strategy is intended not only to demoralize the West, but the mobilize Muslims around the world. In particular, they target disenfranchised and discontented youth who have access to some form of global media. The images of British troops abusing Iraqis, of Americans burning bodies in Afghanistan and of Islamic radicals avenging Muslim deaths by beheading Americans all serve to perpetuate a skewed view of the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan in favour of the jihadi cause. This is, according to Oxford academic Audrey Kurth Cronin, the new Levée en Masse.6 Islamic radicals use the internet and other media outlets as a form of cybermobilization.

They create a virtual environment where those far removed from the conflict can feel a part of it. This enables recruitment of new fighters into the actual theatre of war to wage an insurgency which thereby perpetuates new material for their media campaign. It is a renewable cycle of terror that cannot be defeated by armed forces. Terrorists also use this cycle to inspire direct attacks in the West. The London bombings of July 2007 are the best evidence yet of how media can be used to foment terror both at home and abroad.

Defeating the Cyber-Jihad

The asymmetrical tactics deployed by Al-Qa’ida both on the web and on the ground present a number of challenges to policy-makers and soldiers alike. Change is needed at both levels. The interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq depend on securing legitimacy and credibility. Although the legality of the war in Iraq is debatable, the UN Security Council has since authorized the rebuilding of Iraq. This should add credibility to the allies’ presence. The problem is though that the insurgents target exactly this currency. ‘In its crudest and most vivid form,’ writes Nick Gowing, ‘the video images from a terrorist or insurgent website taken on a camera worth a few hundred dollars, and up linked via a website costing a few dollars a week, have arguably more power and influence on credibility and public perceptions than statements from a US President’.7 Coalition troops are now being exposed to a level of scrutiny never before seen. The operational environment is opaque and confused.

The difference between a potential suicide bomber and a person going to market is not always obvious in situations of heightened tension. Firefights that erupt in public areas make it difficult to avoid civilian casualties. This means that the ‘strategic corporal’ is more important than ever before – the tactical decisions of the soldiers may have unforeseen strategic implications that are magnified in the global media. While it is positive that allied troops must think before they shoot, they must also have range to act. If troops are too ‘image conscious’, they will devote too much time to worrying about the possible outcomes of their actions, rather than effectively combating attackers. A balance needs to be struck between a culture of restraint and a culture of action. The challenge though is that the insurgents are not subject to the same level of scrutiny.

However, just complaining about it will not solve the problem. To win the war for hearts and minds, governments need to think proactively. Currently, the US, UK and its allies suffer from a perception problem. They need to shape perceptions, rather than react to them. And by doing so, they must make the news, rather than be the news. For the military, this means adapting at the doctrinal level and change must be fundamentally viewed as necessary. Although this has officially been recognized as important, strategies have changed little in the region.


Instead, the US has tried strategies such as buying ‘good press’ in Iraq, which has only backfired, since it was caught red handed. Effective strategic communications are not based on propaganda. Nor are they based on ‘spin’. For these will ultimately be seen for exactly what they are. Rather, a serious overhaul of US and UK doctrine to address this new environment is required. The creation of the US Media Engagement Team is a step in the right direction. But given the nature and dimensions of this particular problem, reforms must be carried out not only within the DoD and the MoD, but also in unison with the US State Department and the UK Foreign Office. It is time for military planners in the Pentagon and Whitehall and their foreign affairs counterparts to go back to the drawing board and come up with some real, workable solutions. These reforms alone will not ‘win’ the war on terror, but they will improve the West’s ability to ‘win hearts and minds’ contributing in the long run to the defeat of Al-Qa’ida’s ideology, which is the principle threat.

Michael Williams
Head, Transatlantic Programme, International Security Studies Department, RUSI  NOTES

1 John Tierney, ‘Osama’s Spin Lessons’ The New York Times, 12 September 2006.

2 Nik Gowing, ‘Real Time Crises: New Real Time Information Tensions’ in Transformation of Military Operations on the Cusps, Mark Joyce (ed) (London: RUSI, 2006).

3 Donald H. Rumsfeld, ‘New Realities in the Media Age: A Conversation with Donald Rumsfeld’ (17 February 2006)

4 Speech by John Reid MP, Secretary of State for Defence, to Kings College, London 20 February 2006.

5 Poll: Most Still Think Iraq War a Mistake, CNN International. oll/index.html

6 Audrey Kurth Cronin., ‘Cyber-Mobilization: The New Levée en Masse’ Parameters 36 (2) Summer 2006.

7 Gowing (2006).


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