Monday, 19 December 2011

Al-Shabaab, Twitter and propaganda in the new information age

Last week I read a report that Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group in Kenya, has launched its very own Twitter account. It is the latest in the long line of terrorist organisations with links to Al-Qaeda, that understands how new communications technologies are essential to fight the war of ideas. It posts in English, suggesting that its intended audience is global and that its objective is international propaganda (one tweet asked, 'How can one lay down his arms when his enemies are grinding their swords to terminate him? No to negotiations undr [sic] invasion'). The tweets also provide a detailed account of its military operations and regularly uses photos to reinforce the narrative. The Kenyan military has responded with its own Twitter feed, and so the propaganda war in Africa enters a new phase of claim and counter claim.

Reading these reports reminded me of what I have said in a chapter in a forthcoming book, edited by Rachel Utley, reflecting on international relations ten years after 9/11. Asked to comment on the information landscape, I noted that the power of information in the asymmetrical war of ideas has not been overlooked by political elites at the highest levels in Washington, and that there are a number of distrubing admissions: In 2007 US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, noted ‘It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications’. In one of the most famous quotations of the war on terror Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ Four years later, Washington’s political elite were still pondering the US’s incapacity to compete in the communications landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘We are in an information war and we are losing that war.’

The coalition has spent ten years playing catch-up. The initial communications response to the terrorist information networks after 9/11 was the creation of the Al-Hurrah (‘The Free One’) Arabic language television channel at a cost of $60 million per year (it is now officially the least watched station in the Middle East). The US also created Radio Free Afghanistan, Radio Farda for Iran and Radio Sawa (‘Together’), the latter broadcasting a diet of popular music and some news in a deliberate effort to target younger audiences. Yet, these stations, clearly created by Americans, had little or no credibility and could compete with neither the media the terrorists were using (the internet) nor the message (which identified themes which resonate with disaffected Muslim audiences). One former director of the Voice of America, Robert Reilly, was particularly scathing about such programming on US-created stations: ‘We do not teach civics to American teenagers by asking them to listen to pop music so why should we expect Arabs and Persians to learn about America or democracy this way? The condescension implicit in this nearly all-music format is not lost on the audience that we should wish to influence most – those who think.’ Similarly Al-Hurrah has been criticised by US diplomat William Rugh (2005) for ‘looking much more like the old-style TV channels that were totally controlled by authoritarian governments and that served primarily as propaganda arms of those governments’. Whenever possible, Arab audiences will turn to Arab media, like Al-Jazeera, providing news and information by Arabs and for Arabs.

In the age of new media, understanding and distinguishing fact from fiction, propaganda from information, verified from unconfirmed news is more difficult than ever before. Moreover, in the age of the internet, where does ‘domestic’ end and ‘international’ begin? Is a government sufficiently appreciative of the fact that it can now speak to multiple constituencies across the world simultaneously, amplifying the need to make sure that all its voices speak with consistency? In Iraq, we are told, insurgents ‘often had a cameraman at the site of a car-bombing, and within minutes of the explosion, the images appeared on the internet without having to be vetted in any approval process and with little regard for the distinction between news and propaganda. Countering this type of instant “news” … was almost impossible’ (Wright & Reese, 2010: 288).

I would suggest that part of the problem of the US's failure is a refusal to appreciate how today’s communications environment in so fundamentally different from that of yesterday. In some ways the recognition that it is useful to combine both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media is encouraging, as when Hillary Clinton told the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2011, ‘… while we’re being active in online new media, we have to be active in the old media as well’ (quoted in Pincus, 2011). In parts of Afghanistan where illiteracy levels still reach almost 95% and where there is low internet penetration, it is appropriate to develop information strategies centred on television and radio broadcasting.

However, this demonstrates that, ten years after 9/11, we are still persuaded to label communications technologies as ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, when rather the reality is that platforms have converged. It is now possible to watch TV, listen to the radio and read newspapers anywhere in the world and from anywhere in the world, on a computer; just as TV news encourages its viewers to engage with them via Facebook and Twitter, and send them photos of news stories happening in their locale. Moreover, the ‘new’ media are ‘new’ only for a generation born before the end of the 1980s; the principal targets of information, public diplomacy and propaganda in the War on Terror have grown up in a world of Google and Youtube and have no recollections of a time before email and the pressure to be ‘online’ dominated our daily lives. Until this is recognised and the supposed dichotomy between old and new media disappears, progress in communication will be limited. The situation is certainly not helped by stories that a Crown Court judge in the UK who, presiding over a trial of three young Muslims accused of distributing propaganda over the internet in support of Al-Qaeda, confessed during the proceedings: ‘The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a website is.’

New communications technologies blur the traditional boundaries between source, producer and consumer, and this is the frontier of a new information space in which governments and militaries must work and combat their enemies. The information sphere is a battleground that militaries ignore today at their peril. Official communications must compete with an ever proliferating range of new voices, and to succeed, they will only do so by being credible; image and reality must be consistent. Moreover, believing that how you are perceived is more important than what you do is the biggest mistake of all. The issue is not about presentation. It is about policy. Perhaps any measured reflection on information operations ten years after 9/11 would do well to begin with this admission.


Pincus, W. (2011), ‘New and old information operations in Afghanistan: What works?’, The Washington Post, 28 March.

Rugh, W. (2005), ‘Broadcasting and American Public Diplomacy,’ Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal 14 (Spring).

Wright, D.P. & T.R. Reese (2010), On Point II. Transition to the New Campaign: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003-January 2005 (Milton Keynes: Books Express).

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