Monday, June 9, 2008

PSYOP And Two Theories of Terrorism

The Sunday NY Times featured an article “A Not Very Private Feud Over Terrorism” ( The article postulated that there are two competing theories about the state of terrorism. Position 1, championed by Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown is that Al Qaeda is alive and well and more dangerous than ever. The contra view is espoused by Marc Sageman author of “Leadlerless Jihad” who argues that the main terrorist threat is from unorganized small groups and highly self-motivated individuals.

The question for today’s post is: Does it matter?

I believe the answer is likely to be ‘no’. Under either scenario the target audience with the biggest upside payoff is not necessarily the radical bent on destruction of the West or a successful IED or murder (let's not dignify it as a suicide) bombing. Rather the target audience is the support structure and those in a position to help thwart these potential attacks through their behavior. Mao had it right when he characterized guerrilla warfare (now more popularly referred to as Irregular Warfare) as fish swimming in the sea.

Our PSYOP messaging seeks to either dry up the sea around enemy fish or make the waters hostile enough so that the enemy fish cannot thrive. PSYOP campaigns will not necessarily be aimed at individual targets but at audiences that can be influenced. Successes in defeating terrorists will likely be local rather than international. They will come once the surrounding citizenry feels that it is in their best interests to make life difficult for the terrorist.
Terrorism, like elections is won at the local precinct. Our messaging objectives should focus on the neighborhood and withering the climate of support.

Having said this, we need to adopt a broader perspective in our counter propaganda and IO analysis. Analysts should continue to look at the big picture of Al Qaeda as it communicates and recruits. Particular attention needs to be paid to the Internet.

The Internet is an evolving medium. No one can doubt its importance, but few will admit they don’t understand it. Senator Obama can credit the Internet as being a force in his success. He employed the Internet with great success to collect donations and to recruit and communicate with those new voters who were most at home there. He is also reportedly beefing up his team to track down rumors and erroneous statements on the Internet. (

This sort of defensive marketing (PSYOP) requires not only a big picture view, but global perspective and local language competency.

In short – we don’t have to support a theory of terrorist organization – we need to support a bi-furcated PSYOP strategy employing local efforts in the context of strategic understanding.

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