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.
1. Emergency Response
New Media’s operational contribution is most obvious in crisis preparation and response, whether coordinating the needs for potable water and warm blankets in the midst of a flood or posting blood donation sites in the critical hours after attacks like Mumbai, Oklahoma City and 9/11. While federal and state governments are still inexcusably behind the curve in this arena, citizen groups have already begun to make remarkable progress in coordinating global support and recovery aid to disasters anywhere in the world. The same technologies that allowed the attackers of Mumbai to meticulously and accurately map out their operations – online satellite technology, online mapping tools and vast databases of information detailing down to the local Starbucks on the corner of K and 16th streets in Washington, DC – is available for relief efforts. In fact numerous sites coordinating aid to the victims and families in Mumbai popped up almost immediately, before the standoff was even complete.
Private industry is also making use of such tools. Fearing that another Hurricane Katrina could disrupt the supply of critical medicines to patients, the health care and pharmaceutical communities teamed up to create RxResponse, an online social networking tool for coordinating the flow of medicine – from supply and transportation to delivery and temporary Red Cross stations – during a crisis.
2. Open Source Intelligence
Whatever insights may be gleaned from New Media sources in the midst of a terrorist attack or other crisis, their real intelligence value lies in “open source” information. This means gathering intelligence from public sources available to anybody the information that is hidden in plain sight. The government has made some progress in this realm. For example, during Cyber Storm, a cybersecurity simulation hosted last year by the Department of Homeland Security, a faux terrorist group established a presence on an online social networking site akin to My Space or Facebook. It’s good to see the government recognizing and adapting to such tactics, but because online activity is conducted … well, online, it is still too often segregated to the realm of cybersecurity. Cybersecurity, however, involves the act of infiltrating, disrupting or otherwise manipulating computer networks and IT infrastructures. And while this is an important line of national security, it is something entirely different from radicals using social networking sites and the blogosphere to spread their message, coordinate plans and recruit converts.
There is a treasure trove of information in the blogosphere and on the social networking sites that not only provide insights into the specific activities of radical groups but can also enlighten American security decision makers as well as policymakers about the general mood of the international Muslim community at large. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the hostility toward America is spreading beyond the radical base – and it is naïve to blame these setbacks in the American image abroad on the actions of the Bush Administration only. By understanding the mood abroad and the perceptions of America, and how such perceptions are being manipulated by radical propagandists, we will be better prepared to craft a strategy to respond.
For example, al Qaeda regularly issues its public messages crafted in the dark caves of Afghanistan and western Pakistan via the Internet. Within the last month, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, has issued several propaganda videos and statements online. One has a recruiting bent in which he praises a 2002 Islamist attack on a nightclub in Bali as the perfect example of committed jihadists who “did not compromise an inch in their ideology and in their determination to perform jihad on behalf of Allah and to drive the enemies of Islam away from the lands of Islam. They knew the price, and they paid it willingly and did not spare anything in paying it.” In another, bizarre effort at manipulating international public opinion, al-Zawahiri insults America’s new president-elect, Barack Obama, as a “house negro” not fit to fill the shoes of Malcolm X. You can rest assured that our intelligence community is aware of these posts. You can rest less easily that policymakers on Capitol Hill are familiar with them. And you may not want to rest at all when it comes to going beyond intelligence efforts to find specific actionable intelligence.
Additionally, terrorist organizations are brazenly setting up shop on social networking sites – not for secretive coordination efforts to plan a cyber attack but for the purposes of public relations – to establish legitimacy, spread propaganda, enhance fundraising and improve recruitment. For example, the Jamaat ud Daawa, an alleged charitable organization that has been in the news of much lately in association with the Mumbai attacks and which is listed as a terrorist front group by the U.S. Department of State, has established a public presence on Facebook.
3. The Struggle for Hearts and Minds
Perhaps more than in any other realm, the U.S. government’s failure to engage the tools of New Media is most damaging in the ideological battle against the propagandists of Islamist extremism. During the course of a similar battle of minds against Communism during the Cold War, the United States invested vast sums of money to communicate the value of democracy and liberty to those weighted down under the tyranny and totalitarianism of proletariat dictatorships dominating the East. The tools of the day were used. If the state-run television stations were inaccessible, then radio was employed in the form of Radio Free Europe, Radio Free China, etc.
Today, the Internet is the dominant medium of international public communications, accessible in homes and public cafés around the globe in a way that would have made the State Department’s public diplomacy specialists drool in the 1960s. Blogs uncontrolled by governments pop up in every language in every country in the world. For every one shut down by authoritarian governments, five new ones emerge. The governments in the regions with which we are most concerned – in the Middle East and East Asia – have no desire to shut down these voices, though, because the hostility is directed toward America rather than local governments. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s approach to combat such radical Islamist propaganda directed against the “Far Enemy” – which is making more and more inroads into the general mindset of even moderate Muslims – is to mimic the inept tactics of authoritarian governments. Rather than battle ideas with ideas and voices with voices, the United States seeks to disrupt the networks of extremist organizations and censor radical messaging.
This is a hopeless strategy. Even Communist China cannot control the growing range of voices calling for change in Asia. Meanwhile America, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, struggles to make use of this “newfangled” medium that is the very manifestation of “letting a thousand voices bloom.” The Department of Defense, which created the Internet, ought to understand better than anybody that the Internet is a hydra-headed creature. Shutting down one site or network is like dumping Miracle Grow on shrubs. Such operations do nothing to counter the equally dangerous but perfectly legal messaging of the thousands of Islamist propagandists that heap blame for the Middle East’s troubles at the door of the United States. Even if the government had the legal and technical capabilities to silence these voices, it would do nothing to present a better argument to the young radicals being recruited to extremism every day. America must make better use of “soft power” in the post-9/11 environment, and many of these battles will take place on the Internet.
A New Kind of Thinking
Read the analysis of American counter-terrorism operatives during the late 1990s and you will see a rising acknowledgement of a “new kind of terrorism” – especially after the unprecedented nature of coordinated, simultaneous attacks on two separate U.S. embassies in Africa and the sophisticated explosive techniques used in the attack on the Cole in Yemen. After September 11, President Bush spoke in terms of a “new kind of war.” Old tactics and strategies would have to be replaced, the old playbook burned and rewritten.
Yet despite the realization that terrorists have been able to manipulate seemingly innocuous household items into deadly explosive devices, there seems little recognition that these same enemies are manipulating those “newfangled Internet toys” being into powerful tools to collaborate online. Mumbai shows the multifaceted and dangerous role that New Media can play in the post-9/11 world. More powerful than their use as collaborative tools, New Media will undoubtedly play a decisive factor in the long-term struggle to stamp out violent radical ideologies taking root around the world.
Despite its use to exploit vulnerabilities in American security, New Media has the potential to be an even more powerful tool of homeland security and international counterterrorism. The sheer size of the federal government, reinforced by an inherently bureaucratic culture and turf battles, makes it a difficult environment for innovation. But the Internet is no longer an innovation, and we can no longer afford to debate whether the influence of the blogosphere is limited to the notorious “guys in their pajamas.”
The men who went on a killing spree in Mumbai weren’t wearing pajamas. The residents of Mumbai who posted pictures of the killers weren’t in their basements. The sympathizers around the world who helped coordinate relief for the victims and their families in Mumbai weren’t college kids.
As tragic as it was, Mumbai may finally serve as a catalyst to overcome the government’s inertia and skepticism regarding the role of New Media as a valuable tool to be used, rather than feared. In any case, continuing to ignore its use by our enemies will undoubtedly result in more tragedy.