In episode one of the Covert Contact podcast (Subscribe via iTunes) I am looking at the notion of intelligence failures and why they’re often more complicated than they seem – or not failures at all. I’m also taking a look at the new biography of Murad Storm, the towering red-haired Danish agent who infiltrated al Qaeda. Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a fascinating read that raises many questions about our ability to infiltrate radical Islamic groups. And then a discussion about the darker side of eDiplomacy. Do we really want world leaders trolling each other on Twitter? I close out the show, as will be the norm, with “Five to Follow” – a short roundup of the national security, intelligence, diplomacy, and tech experts that make Twitter so interesting.
Clint Arizmendi is a researcher in the Emerging Threats and Opportunities section of the Directorate of Future Land Warfare. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government. John Little comments on national security issues at Blogs of War and beyond.
In the first half of 2014, a number of articles and blog posts identified the emerging threat that Australians fighting in Syria’s and Iraq’s civil wars represent for domestic security. The concern is that these battle-hardened local jihadis have received training and indoctrination to carry out politically motivated violence in Australia, perhaps at high profile political events such as the G20 in Brisbane this November. While there is potential for direct physical threat, the real danger to Australian security that this handful of returned ‘veterans’ pose is through the strength of the narrative they can disseminate. They represent a new combat veteran typology – someone far removed from sanctioned service and slouch hats, yet experienced in a foreign theatre of conflict who is willing and able to share stories of their time on ‘the frontline’ with an impressionable audience.
This newfound street cred will act as a force multiplier for their message. Individuals such as the Syrian Alumni now have the ability to exert greater influence upon public perception, to facilitate sympathy for their political causes – potentially under the guise of humanitarian endeavours – and to recruit aspiring jihadists. Though the reality may be that the individual’s combat experience is more Walter Mitty than Andy McNabb, the credibility that their overseas experience brings to their narrative is a threat that must be analysed, understood and ultimately neutralised.
Returning fighters and jihadist preachers challenge the state’s ability to educate people about the risks of travelling overseas to fight in civil conflicts. They can directly encourage individuals to emulate their experience. A prime example is Zeky Mallah, the first Australian charged and acquitted under anti-terrorism law and one of the first to spend time with the Free Syrian Army. His Facebook page provided instruction on how to contribute to a conflict without becoming a combatant. Regardless of how he contributed to the conflict, or the accuracy of his information, his subscribers, followers and fans grew, spreading his ideas to a domestic audience.
As safe havens for jihadists expand, and as Australian nationals continue to migrate to battle zones, organizations such as ISIL will have an increasing ability to craft communications very specifically tuned for an Australian audience. Leveraging social media and other online channels will remove the risk of return, as Australians recruit their fellow citizens directly from a battlefield that they may have no intention of ever leaving.
This ability to plug Australian recruits into information operations on a large scale, coupled with the massive reach of social media, stands to significantly increase the potential effectiveness of jihadist communications. The relative clumsiness of messaging aimed at potential Western recruits seen in the previous decade will quickly fade as individual Australian recruits organically, and jihadist movements strategically, reach back to foreign fighters’ homelands in a style that is effortlessly culturally attuned. The matrix of permanently “deployed” Australian nationals tied to jihadist leadership on the battlefield and returning “veterans” who can serve as discrete facilitators for terrorist operations and/or recruiting efforts will prove to be a potent combination.
In order to counter the emerging threat of such narratives, the continuation of Whole-of-Government collaboration – and specifically the coordination of joint information actions – will be increasingly important. Legislation and formal Commonwealth agreements clearly delineate the powers of defence, intelligence and security agencies in Australia and overseas. However, as threat groups and individuals move between countries and their narratives transcend geographic boundaries, definitions of domestic and overseas security may no longer be adequate. This necessitates a more collaborative approach to establishing and sustaining the dominant narrative, and re-examining combined joint inter-agency coordination in the field of information activities.
The Ambassador was kind enough to take some additional questions. I originally submitted these questions to him the day before there were widespread reports of, if not a coup, at least a difficult political transition in Baghdad. That situation has since stabilized somewhat but the environment remains challenging.
John Little: How would you describe the security situation in and around Baghdad at his time? Has the Iraqi government made progress in its preparations for a possible ISIL assault?
Ambassador Faily: The situation in Baghdad itself is stable, however there are pockets in the outskirts of the city where ISIL has launched attacks. These attacks have been pushed back by the Iraqi security forces as we’ve stepped up our defenses to protect the capital against potential attacks.
John Little: Has your government’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government changed in any significant way since the start of the ISIL offensive?
Ambassador Faily: The central government and the Kurdistan regional government have been cooperating on military, humanitarian and political matters to confront the serious threat of ISIL. Joint operations centers have been established to coordinate these efforts. As an example, the Iraqi Air Force has been supporting Kurdish peshmerga forces in the Sinjar area as part of our joint efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Yazidi community who have been trapped on Mount Sinjar.
John Little: At the start of this crisis U.S. support for Iraq seemed uncertain. There has obviously been some progress but, from the outside looking in, it seems that there is still a fair amount of uncertainty. Do you feel like your government has reasonable assurances of support from the Obama administration? What immediate action would you like to see?
Ambassador Faily: We are in constant talks with the US Administration regarding military and humanitarian cooperation.We appreciate President Obama’s courageous decision to conduct airstrikes in response to ISIL’s attempt to commit genocide against minorities in Iraq. This is a brutal terrorist organization that has even been denounced by Al-Qaeda. Many of its members hold Western passports, and it is clear that their ambitions extend far beyond the Middle East. Therefore, drastic and immediate actions are required to counter this imminent threat from ISIL. Given the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Iraq, broader and more intensive airstrikes and additional humanitarian assistance would help mitigate against further atrocities.
John Little: The United States and others can blunt the ISIL threat and buy the Iraqi government some time but ultimately it has to be responsible for its own security and stability. Many are worried that the Iraqi government is countering extremism with extremism through its reliance on government-aligned militias. Is a truly inclusive Iraqi government and society possible?
Ambassador Faily: Yes. We have seen significant progress over the past 6 weeks as Iraq’s political leaders have come together to elect the Speaker and President. Recently, a prime minister designate was named. All three positions were chosen through broad agreement among Iraq’s political leaders, who stand united against the common threat of ISIL, and we are likely to see the formation of an inclusive government within a month that will lead the charge against these brutal terrorists.
Social media can be used to circulate true information in the face of censorship. It can also cause false information to go viral. It has powered revolutions, but it is also used to expand the reach of violent extremists. What is the role of social media in modern warfare? How has this changed as the medium evolves? What responsibility do sites such as Facebook and Twitter have to regulate (or restrict) users’ promotion of military actions
Join the conversation in a Twitter chat 1-2 p.m. EDT, Thursday, July 31. John Little, who blogs about international relations and national security on his website Blogs of War, will participate through his Twitter handle @BlogsofWar. PBS NewsHour foreign affairs producer @PJTobia will also contribute. Follow along and weigh in using #NewsHourChats.
You can find the full transcript of the chat here.
If you’d like some background on how social media is being used in both warfare and intelligence this list is a good starting point:
- Social Media and Warfare
- Audio: How ISIS is using social media to spread its message
- ISIS/ISIL: Jihadists Go for the Lulz
- The CIA (Finally) Joins Twitter
- 65 Diplomats, Journalists, Spies, and Professors Who Will Help You Make Sense of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
- The Former CIA Officers, Analysts, and Intelligence Professionals Who You Should Be Following on Twitter
- Talking Tech, Social, and Security with White Canvas Group Founders Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry
- Is War in the Sixth Domain the End of Clausewitz?
- Former Mossad Combatant Michael Ross Looks Back – and Forward
I also recommend following the excellent J.M. Berger @intelwire. His comments on extremism and social media are always insightful.