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Talk to some in the national and homeland security environment, and they will tell you — perhaps a bit defensively but usually with a false sense of authority — that they cannot leverage the powerful tools of New Media because to do so might threaten their internal security. Others simply give you a puzzled look, as if you are asking them whether they go online and share pictures of their families with anonymous college kids. Meanwhile, the world of communications and intelligence — not to mention history’s most deadly generation of terrorists — is passing them by.
Al Qaeda’s propaganda and recruiting capability has obtained an almost mythical status. The group communicates worldwide via the Internet with a miniscule budget and deprived of the complex IT infrastructure available to the United States. There is no question that its brazen acts of violence and its new brand of terrorism that seeks not to negotiate but simply to kill has placed al Qaeda at the top of the list of terrorist threats. But while the national security apparatus in the United States has acknowledged the new operational tactics put into play by al Qaeda, there is a disconcerting lack of recognition of the group’s unprecedented use of intelligence, communications and propaganda. This is a critical failure given that the real power of any terrorist act is not the act itself but the capability to transform that act into a powerful message to advance an agenda.
The latest gruesome example of New Media’s darker role in changing global communications emerged, immediately and with powerful effect, last month in Mumbai when a handful of terrorists armed with automatic weapons and Blackberries held the world hostage. The men who stormed the Taj hotel knew they could not outgun Indian security forces. However, they capitalized on the element of surprise, their position of strength inside the hotel, and, most importantly, their intent to die while killing as many innocents as possible.
They had something else, though, that simply cannot be ignored. The terrorists also had better preparation, better coordination, better communication and more effective, albeit lower budget, technology. Foreign to the city of Mumbai, the terrorists navigated through the city and coordinated their actions with one another , as if they had trained there for years. How? By using technology available to anybody with even a meager budget. They could map out their routes via satellite imagery available on Google Maps, and a host of other such mapping sites. They could communicate via satellite and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) to avoid giving away their locations. They could text message on their Blackberries, allowing for real-time coordination. And who knows what other applications were installed on the Blackberries that would allow them to monitor the deluge of information pouring forth on the Internet via sites like Twitter, Flickr and online media.
There is a tendency to both overhype and underhype the role of technology in the Mumbai attacks, at least from an operational perspective. The men who slaughtered nearly 200 people in India did not do so with Blackberries. Even their automatic rifles were not their most powerful weapon. It was their chilling commitment to kill, grounded in a twisted belief that God ordained their murder.
On the other hand, those who continue to dismiss the power of New Media sources to enhance planning and coordination – not to mention its most powerful capability, which is to magnify public attention to their cause – are either delusional or compensating for their own failure to stay ahead of the curve.
Some of the first communications out of Mumbai, came via sources like Twitter, an online social networking site that allows people to share short bursts of information about what they are doing. These one to two line “tweets” of information alerted the world that that the terrorists were singling out Americans and Britons. This information was shared in real time, even as the terrorists were seeking passports to confirm a hostage’s nationality. Any American in Mumbai with a Blackberry, I-Phone or even cell phone who had downloaded Twitter could have been made aware of this potentially life-saving information.
Some of the first photographs of what was going down, also in real time, were posted to the online photo-sharing site Flickr, where a Mumbai resident began snapping pictures only moments after the terror began. The amber-tinged and blurred photographs, no doubt caused by poor lightening and a shaky hand, speak to the terror of the moment in a way that nothing else can: pooled blood near an overturned motorbike, shattered glass littering the streets and crowds of fearful residents and tourists standing in the street looking off in the distance, towards unseen sounds of brutality. “Taken late night Nov 26 at Colaba,” writes the amateur photographer, Vinu. “Arranged in the order I took the snaps as I visited this place – 15 mins after I heard the sound. 2 mins walking distance from my house.”
The first images of the terrorists themselves, by now seared into the conscious of the public worldwide, were snapped by a brave (or foolhardy) professional photojournalist whose office, the Mumbai Mirror, was just opposite one of the attack sites. As critical as any form of traditional intelligence, these images were immediately spread around the globe via social networking sites and blogs, along with broadcasts on traditional media like cable news television.
Some will question the value of such “intelligence.” CNN, for example, reports that soon after the attacks launched in Mumbai, Twitter was flooded with messaging – more than 80 tweets every five seconds from individuals texting from their phones and computers all over the world. Some were reports from the ground in Mumbai, others were coordinating emergency response, providing information on which hospitals needed blood donors. However, CNN noted that a great deal of the messaging was inaccurate and unsubstantiated rumor, ultimately concluding that while “Twitter remains a useful tool for mobilizing efforts and gaining eyewitness accounts during a disaster, the sourcing of most of the news cannot be trusted.”
One need only refer back to the initial coverage of “traditional” news sources such as CNN to breaking crisis situations to find the irony of such a statement. Anybody remember the conflicting and simply false reports broadcast by cable news stations in the initial chaos of Hurricane Katrina?
More importantly, CNN’s dismissal of New Media as a credible source of information misses one of the fundamental elements of all intelligence gathering: most single-sourced intelligence cannot be trusted. One of the unfortunate by-products of Hollywood and the mainstream media is the Bauerization of the intelligence community – the spread of the perception that intelligence agents can, like Jack Bauer, click a few buttons on a keypad and, poof, find the immediate whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, complete with his past aliases, maps, historical biographies of his lieutenants and favorite beverages of choice (non-alcoholic no doubt).
The reality of intelligence is messier than many of us would care to know. Like frustrated reporters combing through Twitter and blog reports, not knowing what to believe and what to pursue, intelligence analysts must make sense of a sea of diverse and unrelated shards of information, fragments of raw data, much of it inaccurate and even more of it irrelevant, looking for trends and patterns. It is like trying to put together a puzzle in which many of the pieces are missing and others are from a different puzzle altogether.
How Will New Media Be Used in the National Security Environment?
The real value New Media offers in the homeland and national security environment, however, will lie less in the reporting and eye-witness accounts that overwhelm the Internet in the short-term chaos of a crisis such as Mumbai. (It should be noted that Mumbai was unusual in the very duration of the attack, which lasted days rather than the momentary and intense destruction of a car bomb.) Its real value will fall into three broad categories: emergency response, open-source intelligence gathering, and the ideological struggle for hearts and minds.