Also published on Atlantic-community.org
The Taliban and al-Qaeda are achieving their goal of asserting a false sense of their strength, and are increasingly finding wider-outlets to disseminate their message. Furthermore, the US intelligence apparatus is failing to handle the situation. A strong local media campaign to counter that of the terrorists is urgently needed.
The attack on the CIA Station in the Khost Province of Afghanistan last week, in which seven agents were killed, is the worst in the agency’s history since the Beirut Attacks. American intelligence officials have confirmed that the suicide bomber was a double agent. The 36-year old Jordanian doctor, Humam Balawi was recruited as an informant who claimed to provide information about top Al-Qaeda leadership. Soon after the incident, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. In a media statement, they claimed the bomber was a “loyal” officer of the Afghan Army.
The bloody attack, besides proving the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, also shows how militants use strategic communication as part of their psychological war-tactic. Identifying the bomber as an Afghan Army soldier was a strategic move. Before it was confirmed the bomber was a Jordanian, media outlets quickly leaped to the conclusion that henceforth the Afghan Army and foreign troops would become more hesitant to cooperate, particularly in the field of intelligence sharing. This was exactly what the Taliban was hoping for: by identifying the bomber as an Afghan soldier the terrorists wanted to create an atmosphere of doubt between the Afghan Forces and the foreign troops. The Taliban’s false claim was also aimed at terrifying the locals by showing how strong they are.
Terrorists have been effectively using the media as part of their strategic communication. In addition, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have also been using other means of communication to propagate their message among their target-audience, categorized as Muslims and the western world. Following the 9/11 attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorist groups have increasingly used online publication, with video footage of attacks now being common place. Top Al-Qaeda leaders have been emphasizing that the media war is no less important than the military war against the “infidels.” In a letter to former Iraqi Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, second in command after Bin Ladin, wrote: “We are in a battle and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media…we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our people.”
A couple of months ago, the Taliban released their first video message in Urdu, with English subtitles, which indicates they are now trying to reach an even wider audience. The same is happening in Afghanistan where militants release their statements in different national languages. They also often present their messages in the pretext of Qura’ani verses and jurisprudence, to capture the hearts and minds of the illiterate mass population by portraying their terrorist activities as legitimate.
Initially, Al-Jazeera was the only channel that aired militant messages and footages of terrorist attacks; but the competitive nature of the media spectrum, both print and electronic, has made it easy for terrorists to find outlets for their messages. Media organizations are now even competing to get hold of such videos or messages that are guaranteed to attract a large viewership. But terrorists are also perfectly able to release their videos and online magazines themselves, and often possess knowledge of the latest technologies.
Sometimes terrorists intentionally claim responsibility for an attack they have not carried out. A couple of months ago, Baitullah Mehsood — the Pakistani Taliban leader who was killed in a US drone attack — claimed his men were behind the attack in an immigration center in New York. Security officials rejected the claim saying a Vietnamese man had carried out the attack. Such fake claims aim to, and are often successful at terrorizing the local people.
Today Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership are almost continuously on the run. The Al-Qaeda leadership is now devoting more of its time to escape attacks, than to releasing new video message on the internet or Al-Jazeera. In fact, the so called success of the insurgency in Afghanistan is often exaggerated largely due to the militants’ flourishing media war.
To counter the strategic communication of militants, a mass media campaign among a common audience in Afghanistan and Pakistan is needed. In order to win hearts and minds, awareness has to be created about the atrocities the Taliban is committing, including the countless civilians that have died in their suicide-attacks.
The attack on the CIA station shows the lack of intelligence proficiency of the US and NATO in Afghanistan and the success of terrorists’ psychological warfare. How could a former Al-Qaeda agent, who was even jailed in Jordan, go without screening before becoming an informant for the CIA? In a recent report, Major General Michael Flynn, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence in Afghanistan for the US forces, said “The US intelligence community [in Afghanistan] is ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers.”
The lack of active intelligence gathering on the ground has been one of the major reasons behind the failure to capture Al-Qaeda kingpins who are still roaming around the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. How could the CIA and MI6, with their extensive involvement in Afghanistan during the “Jihad Era” against the Soviet Union, be so inefficient in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era?