I’ve been writing much over the past few months about how modern psychological operations (PSYOPS) have been underestimated since their very inception, and how such ignorance about their potential has undermined military strategy on modern battlefields like Afghanistan and Iraq. Lessons should have been learned and applied, but a multinational coalition is currently bombing ISIS with a crucial asset still being neglected.

Even when PSYOPS assets get deployed, they manage to screw it up because of an obvious lack of seriousness when planning and conducting operations. Case in point, the recent leaflet drop over Raqqa, Syria, ISIS’ ‘capital city.’

This is the leaflet in question (shown below). Its relative simplicity doesn’t require any further explanation.

The intended message is quite clear: ISIS is a death machine. The expected effect of this message is to scare the hell out of the civilian population in order to undermine support to ISIS as well as the latter’s recruitment efforts.

While it’s commendable that the United States military deployed PSYOPS assets (unlike the Canadian Armed Forces’ stubborn refusal to do so), this leaflet, like so many that were dropped in Afghanistan in Iraq over the past decade, will likely fail to achieve its intended effect for two main reasons.

Image courtesy of Business Insider

Cultural Sensibility, Complementary Means

The first one is quite obvious; it’s sinfully cartoonish. This leaflet seems lifted from the rejected pages of a bad Alan Moore comic. PSYOPS work pretty much like advertising: They send a carefully crafted message using predefined themes targeted at a precise audience and that resonate within said target audience. This leaflet’s target audience seems to revolve around the ever-used, yet almost mythical ‘fighting-age males,’ but I don’t see any cultural theme pertaining to the target audience’s culture in this PSYOPS product.

The other factor that differentiates good from bad advertising is subtlety. The same principle applies to PSYOPS. The most effective products—leaflets, radio/loudspeaker broadcasts, and face-to-face communication—carry the message with subtlety and don’t take the target audience for idiots. Anyone living within Raqqa knows that ISIS are a violent armed group that consider suicidal martyrdom the ultimate way to paradise.

While it reinforces this view, it doesn’t counter ISIS’ seductive propaganda about martyrdom. Let’s not forget that, like all of ISIS’ leadership and fighters, Syrians living in Raqqa are Sunni Muslims and subjected to religious lectures by local imams. This PSYOPS leaflet only makes death a certainty in a gory-yet-comical way.