During the fighting in Iraq, terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS) proved itself a master of information operations, convincing Iraqi government troops that they could not be defeated.
But they could be defeated, and despite being thought of as being ‘ethics-free, MAJGEN Roger Noble – deputy chief of the ADF’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) – told the University of NSW Defence Research Institute defence leaders breakfast on August 30 that it was possible to use information operations against them to great effect.
MAJGEN Noble served in Iraq, effectively as second-in-command of Coalition forces supporting the Iraqi Army in the fight against ISIS, and said fighting with ISIS were both foreign fighters and Iraqis.
“The biggest difference was at that fault line,” he explained. “When we drilled in in great detail we found that conditions of service for foreign fighters were a lot better than for the Iraqi fighters. The pay was different, and the death benefits were different. If you played that back using all available means into the ISIS network, what do you think the result would be?”
MAJGEN Noble said they had to turn around and contest the ISIS narrative. “It’s [more than] clearing cities, destroying targets, dropping bombs, the western focus on kinetic fighting,” he said. “It’s to defeat the idea.”
Presenting the main speech, Professor Mervyn Frost from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, warned against falling into the ethical traps laid by mini-actors such as ISIS. Such groups should have no effect at all on great powers which, on face value appear to hold all the aces, with vast resources and effective military forces.
“However, this has proved not to be the case,” Professor Frost said. “We have seen how a mini-power like Al Qaeda has managed to exert sufficient power to get the US and its allies to modify their policies. In Israel, the mini power Hamas (and also Hezbollah in Lebanon) continues to engage with a vastly superior military power, (and) it has sufficient power to stay in the struggle.”
But it only achieves this through what’s called ethical trapping, ie committing an act so outrageous that the target state will respond disproportionately. Examples include the 9/11 terror attack on the US, Hamas’ rocketing of Israeli civilians, and numerous ISIS atrocities.
“The trapping effect is achieved when the target state, ethically outraged, launches large-scale counter-attacks that themselves violate fundamental ethical norms espoused by the target state itself and the international community,” he said. “The calculation here is simple: Do something unethical in order to provoke a much bigger unethical response.”
The end result was a diminution of the legitimacy of the great power. That only worked because the small actor had available to it the technology for massive, instant and global dissemination through social media.
Professor Frost, a visiting fellow at the UNSW Canberra, said video clips were the means most often used for this. “Without access to such cheap and instant communication channels such traps could not be sprung,” he said.
He said a second strategy by weaker parties in asymmetrical struggles was to disrupt normal democratic politics in the target state. Examples include the hackers who disrupted and sought to steer the American presidential election.
“In the disruptive manoeuvre the goal is not – as in ethical trapping – to provoke a drastic response in the target state, but to undermine its stability, erode the democratic processes, pit extremist factions within the society against the establishment, and generally provoke discord,” he said. “What matters here is that democratic states are fundamentally threatened by this kind of cognitive warfare. I am not saying that they feel threatened, but that they are threatened.”
Professor Frost said in the face attempts at cognitive war involving elaborate strategic communications, our overriding aim must be to avoid ethical traps.
“Our defence must not be to use the same methods used by our adversaries – that is, we must not introduce underhand communication strategies that, once exposed, can be used to undermine our ethical standing,” he said.
“Instead the focus at every point should be on exposing and explaining what is being done to us by our adversaries. Counter-cheating will simply make us vulnerable to ethical trapping.”
MAJGEN Noble said that inside Defence there was serious thought about the definitions of war, competition, peace, the use of force and the definition of force. “So what is an armed attack – that is probably one of the big questions – where is the threshold?” he said.
“Our approach is under construction, but is critically important.”