I’ve come across a number of interesting stories lately about how new information technologies are impacting national security affairs. Here is a quick roundup:
In the realm of Internet technology, specifically social networking technology, we have reports that the “battle for hearts and minds” in the current war has found its way onto YouTube. A group of Muslim fundamentalist users of the popular video sharing service have organized themselves into a group that polices YouTube, flagging any videos that they find objectionable as inappropriate hate speech in an attempt to get the videos removed and the users that posted them banned from YouTube.
AL QAEDA AND its allies now have their own 24-hour television station.
Based at a secret studio in Syria, its signal is broadcast to the
entire Arab world from a satellite owned by the Egyptian government.
This development highlights al Qaeda’s increasingly sophisticated
Al-Zawraa hit the airwaves on November 14. According to Middle
East-based media monitor Marwan Soliman and military analyst Bill
Roggio, it was set up by the Islamic Army of Iraq, an insurgent group
comprised of former Baathists who were loyal to Saddam Hussein and now
profess their conversion to a bin Laden-like ideology.
Al Qaeda’s previous attempts at setting up propaganda outlets have
been limited to satellite radio and the Internet. Al-Zawraa, however,
appears to be well financed and may find a much broader audience. The
channel is broadcast on Nilesat, a powerful satellite administered by
the Egyptian government. Through Nilesat, Al-Zawraa’s signal blankets
the Middle East and North Africa, thus ensuring that the insurgents’
message reaches every corner of the Arab world.
Al-Zawraa’s content is heavy with insurgent propaganda, including
audio messages from Islamic Army of Iraq spokesman Dr. Ali al-Na’ami
and footage of the group’s operations. The station calls for violence
against both Shia Iraqis and the Iraqi government.
MilBlogger/Analyst Bill Roggio has more on the origins of al-Zawraa TV. He reports,
In Iraq, the al-Zawraa satellite television network is broadcasting insurgent propaganda 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
television was set up by Mishan al-Jabouri, a former member of the
Iraqi parliament and leader of the Sunni Arab Front for Reconciliation
and Liberation. Al-Jabouri fled to Syria after being charged with
corruption for embezzling government funds and purportedly for
While the Weekly Standard was critical of the U.S. “failure” to shut down al-Zawraa, Roggio paints a different picture.
While the Iraqi soldiers and interpreters want al-Zawraa shut down,
members of the U.S. intelligence community disagree. According to a
military intelligence officer serving in Iraq, U.S. intelligence
doesn’t want to shut al-Zawraa down as it provides intelligence on the
insurgents activities. When I asked senior American military and
intelligence sources about shutting down pro-jihadi websites in the
past, they expressed the same sentiment.
This is major dilemma in the modern age of information warfare. On
one hand, programs like al-Zawraa provide ready and effective
propaganda and recruiting material for the insurgency and al-Qaeda,
while demoralizing both Western and Middle Eastern allies. On the
other, the intelligence gleaned from these operations is deemed too
valuable to turn off the tap.
Of course, Roggio is exactly right. These kinds of situations are fraught with both promise and peril. I think that, in general, it might be better to let al-Zawraa TV (or other outlets like it) continue. Just shutting them down is a crude, obvious act on our part. Terrorists and insurgents are not stupid, nor are their sympathizers. They will immediately know that it was the U.S. that took the station off the air, took the website down, jammed the radio station, etc., which will only serve to increase those outlets’ legitimacy among viewers/listeners/readers. That does not mean that we cannot or should not do anything. Instead, it may be better to allow the terrorist or insurgent outlet to continue broadcasting, all the while exploiting it for both our own intelligence, as well as “perception management” and deception, purposes.
Al-Zawraa is also an indication of the complex interweaving of elements promoting civil strife in Iraq, al-Qa’ida, and regional powers. The fight for Iraq is at once a local, regional, and global affair. It is not possible to neatly separate these issues and actors.
Finally, the CBC has reported on a U.S. DoD report which claims that U.S. defense contractors have been the target of espionage by means of Canadian coins embedded with radio transmitters.
Canadian coins containing tiny transmitters have mysteriously turned up
in the pockets of at least three American contractors who visited
Canada, says a branch of the U.S. Department of Defence.
The service’s report, Technology Collection Trends in the U.S. Defence
Industry, says foreign-hosted conventions, seminars and exhibits are
popular venues for pilfering secrets.
“On at least three separate occasions between October 2005 and January
2006, cleared defence contractors’ employees travelling through Canada
have discovered radio frequency transmitters embedded in Canadian coins
placed on their persons,” the report says.
…the type of transmitter in play ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Â and its ultimate purpose ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Â remain a mystery.
Though we do not know whether the transmitters involved in these incidents were RFID tags, the CBC articles goes on to speculate that they might have been, summarizing many of the advantages, disadvantages, obstacles and opportunities for conducting espionage with RFID-type technologies.
In general, these stories are exemplary of a number of trends in the relationships among national security, military affairs, and technology. Information and public perception are increasingly important, what is commonly called the “battle for hearts and minds” or sometimes “noopolitik”. We see that trend in both the YouTube story and the al-Zawraa TV story. At the same time, however, both stories also point to another trend: There are lower “barriers to entry” which allow non-state actors, like global terrorist organizations or even ad hoc groups, to join the battle, either in space (satellite TV) or cyberspace (YouTube). Finally, the story of bugged coins point to the potential promise and peril of miniaturization, including the attendant concerns over both personal privacy and national security.
Technorati Tags: YouTube, hearts and minds, GWOT, war on terror, Iraq war, national security, infowar, information warfare, perception management, hearts and minds, OSINT, open source intelligence, social networking, al-Zawraa, al-qaeda, al-qa’ida, RFID