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.
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.
Which leads to the second reason why this leaflet will fail to achieve effectiveness. While it reinforces the view of ISIS as some sort of death machine, it fails to address the fact that NATO is likely seen as the same from the target audience’s point of view. ISIS propaganda is quite apt at showing how NATO bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya caused thousands of civilian deaths, all of them Sunni Muslims, which makes the target audience choose between one of two evils.
Since it’s culturally closer to them, ISIS still remains a seductive option to fight oppression. Since leaflet drops seem to be the only PSYOPS asset currently deployed, nothing else complements the message with other themes. An effective PSYOPS leaflet would likely require additional means of conveying several messages that complement each other—radio broadcast and face-to-face communication using local allied key influencers, for instance. Leaflets can’t work as a sole PSYOPS product.
A Neglected Asset
Face-to-face communication is the most effective way to conduct PSYOPS operations. However, this may be impractical in a theater like Syria since there are no troops on the ground. PSYOPS are only deployed in support of combat operations, not independently. But several other options remain to complement a leaflet drop: Radio-In-A-Box (RIAB), a portable broadcasting device that uses local airwaves, comes to mind.
Effective counter-propaganda analysis conducted with cultural specialists would certainly help create more coherent, relevant products. Again, PSYOPS works just like an ad agency: It can be a powerful operational asset, but only if taken seriously.