Part one of this series looked at the historical manipulation of Islamists by Russian security services. Jihadists were armed and trained to fight by the FSB and GRU in places like Georgia and Nargono-Karabakh. Domestically, jihadists were infiltrated by the FSB into nationalist separatist movements in Dagestan and Chechnya, effectively painting those movements as religious radicals rather than freedom fighters battling an oppressive regime in Moscow.
Part two looked at a few specific examples of Chechen and Georgian jihadists who are probably witting or unwitting FSB assets, and how they have become power players within ISIS. The reasons for this are twofold and represent a re-creation of the same strategy used in Chechnya. Chechen jihadists helped to re-contextualize the Syrian rebels, Islamizing them in the world’s eyes. By doing this, they also acted as a spoiler force, preventing the CIA from being able to train and arm many Syrian rebels because of the presence of so many jihadi groups, a draw for many of the moderates in the region.
This article will take a look at ISIS propaganda, or what the world’s intelligence services would call information operations or psychological operations, and ask the question as to whether there is a hidden hand behind these propaganda videos.
The allure that ISIS holds for young jihadis and the fear they inspire in the rest of the world stems not from the actual combat prowess of the organization, but from its image. That image is carefully crafted, and much has been written about the high production values of the propaganda ISIS puts out. Their videos display dehumanized Islamic warriors in black masks, fully devoted to the cause of creating an Islamic caliphate. They never sleep, they never tire, they will conquer the entire world, bathing it in the blood of infidels and installing some kind of Muslim mojo hocus pocus 7th-century sharia law, or so we are told.
ISIS represents the darkest nightmares the Western world has about the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims. The Islamic State represents a temporally displaced land of barbarians that has no place in the modern world. These nightmares are carefully cultivated by ISIS in slick propaganda films that show a deep awareness of liberal Western cultural values; the images and actions in these films are often specifically targeting Western audiences. ISIS’s reputation in the Middle East, much of it gained by way of their propaganda, is so profound, this author has been told that when an ISIS convoy rolls up to a village, all they need to do is blink their headlights and the locals will completely abandon their homes without a fight.
Their propaganda is good. Maybe too good.
ISIS propaganda targets Western liberal sensitivities in a very deliberate manner. There are many ways they do this, but four stand out quite clearly.
1. Mass executions, especially of Christians.
ISIS thrives on the blood bath of mass executions. No one is spared. Shia Muslims, children, ordinary civilians, so-called infidels and apostates, suspected traitors, Kurds, it hardly matters to ISIS. They are also known to carry out summary beheadings when they arrive in a village of the first person they can get their hands on just to prove that they are now in charge. However, it is the deliberate mass murder of Christians in Syria, Iraq, and Libya that is clearly designed to antagonize Western populations.
2. Sexual slavery
Openly flaunting sexual slavery is another propaganda point for ISIS, one that intentionally provokes Western values, but arguably human values across the world. Murder is one thing, but holding slave auctions in Mosul and selling off 13-year-old Yezidi girls or handing them out as gifts to ISIS fighters is particularly vile. ISIS is quite proud of this and brags about it in videos and public statements; their brand of sharia law also openly endorses it. This savage behavior deliberately provokes Westerners sensitive to gender issues.
3. Destruction of antiquities
The truth is that many Americans could care less about what happens in the Middle East. Arabs have been killing each other for hundreds of years and will continue to do so unabated. But even some of the most jaded people in the West get outraged at the destruction of antiquities. Following in the footsteps of the Taliban, who destroyed ancient Buddha statues, ISIS knows that their destruction of ancient Roman and Assyrian artifacts and structure will invite the ire of the world.
4. Targeting homosexuals
ISIS beheads and murders people at whim, but full-page spreads of professionally done photographs capturing ISIS tossing homosexual men from rooftops is something else entirely. Gay rights is an important issue in the West, and ISIS not only murders gays but makes sure that the entire world knows about it by recording these executions.
It is important to remember that none of these propaganda videos or pictures are released without permission from ISIS. We see what ISIS wants us to see. I am not cherry-picking the worst behavior of ISIS to present to our readers, I’m simply pointing out the images they want foremost in our minds. ISIS is baiting the Western world. Their end goal is also stated in the open: They want a coalition of Western nations to attack them.
Reflexive control is a theory of psychological warfare designed to control enemy perceptions and has been studied and developed by Russian intelligence services for over 40 years. “Reflexive control is defined as a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action,” writes Timothy Thomas. Reflexive control involves studying the opposition’s decision-making process, then introducing socially, strategically, or politically loaded information into that process in order to influence it in a direction favorable to your objectives.
Russian defense analysts perceive America’s 1980s “Star Wars” or SDI program as a perfect example of reflexive control. According to the Russians, America knew that the USSR would respond to match horizontal and vertical proliferation of weapons, as well as the countermeasures to stop them. Therefore, America instituted the Star Wars program to trick the Soviet Union into investing in novel new weapons programs it could not afford, which then led to the crash of the Soviet economy. By doing this, we “compelled the enemy to act according to a plan favorable to the U.S.” (Thomas, 239).
By definition, reflexive control occurs when the controlling organ conveys (to the objective system) motives and reasons that cause it to reach the desired decision, the nature of which is maintained in strict secrecy. The decision itself must be made independently. A “reflex” itself involves the specific process of imitating the enemy’s reasoning or imitating the enemy’s possible behavior and causes him to make a decision unfavorable to himself (Thomas, 241).
In other words, once you understand how the enemy thinks, you then feed him information you know will cause him to reach an independent decision favoring your own strategy. In essence, you are using deception to trick the enemy, hoping that they will blunder into something that they wouldn’t attempt if they knew that they were being presented with loaded, and potentially false, information. While we are focused on Russian stratagems here, it may also be useful to reflect back of the deception tactics used by China as well, many of them derived from the period of the Warring States.
ISIS feeds the West loaded information
There is no proof that Russian intelligence has a hand in ISIS information/propaganda operations. However, considering what we have discussed thus far, this scenario should be taken seriously. ISIS is actively gaming the psychological makeup of Western audiences in order to provoke the United States and allied nations into a full-blown military confrontation with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. If the hypothesis about Russian influence agents in ISIS is correct, and if they are participating in ISIS propaganda efforts, then we should ask why Russia would be interested in doing this to begin with.
The answer is fairly straightforward. Keeping America bogged down and preoccupied in the Middle East is of massive benefit to the Russian Federation. By goading America into another war in the Middle East, Russia has more opportunity to engage in military aggression in Ukraine, Dagestan, Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, Akbazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and on and on throughout Russia’s near abroad. For sure, there would also be some more specific tactical and strategic goals, but in the general sense, the Gulf War III would help keep America off Russia’s back.
ISIS, and perhaps Russian intelligence, understands America’s future rationalizations for war very well. In the past we could justify war as being battles against communism or fascism for the preservation of the American way of life. Before that, more jingoistic narratives about manifest destiny were brought into play. But these justifications for war, racial or nationalistic, will have no place in future liberal Western nations. Instead wars will be justified as fights for gay rights, women’s rights, and other equality issues. One hypothetical example: Americans will be told that we have to invade Iran because gays are stoned to death or beheaded by the Iranian regime.
The Islamic State knows that there is no better way to terrify and incite Americans than to use mass executions, the murder of Christians, the use of sex slaves, the destruction of ancient relics, and the killing of homosexuals. ISIS is at war with Western consciousness, and it is a very deliberate effort.
Basically, we see Daesh, we see the Islamic State — especially in the West — we see it from the surface, which is the mix of their propaganda; their version of what they really do. You see the pictures of actual killings, slaughtering, beheadings, blowing up things, mixed with their propaganda, or mixed with the things which are not true. They are controlling whatever comes out of their area. For example, if you take the pictures and the images we have of the Islamic State, 99% are approved by their PR department. They give us pictures of all these lined-up Humvees, guys with guns, perfect afternoon light set in the desert. They have accepted the presence of a few photographers who are in the area, from AFP, Reuters, AP; the big agencies, no matter if they would be considered Zionists, masons, imperialists, infidel agencies — they are in their area and they had to swear allegiance and in most cases the office is directly controlling all the images before they are permitted to submit them or it’s made clear to them. They sort of tell them, ‘if you do something wrong which harms our reputation, you know what will happen to you. We know you; we will find you.’ So the images that are transferred through the agencies, all the big agencies, are images that have been approved by Daesh. And Daesh invites the photographers to their events.—Christoph Reuters
None of this proves that this effort is being led, sponsored by, or covertly influenced by Russian intelligence assets. ISIS seems quite capable of hiring contractors with technical expertise, from oil industry engineers to computer hackers. Also, it is not as hard to make professional-looking films as it was 10 or 20 years ago. A kid with a decent digital camera and a laptop with film-editing software can do a pretty good job at filmmaking. Perhaps ISIS has developed all of this methodology on their own, but I am far from the first person to be surprised by ISIS’s slick Madison Avenue-worthy propaganda.
There are far more questions than answers here. For example, what about the Baath party leadership cells that actually run ISIS? These old dogs are not suicidal by any means and are actually quite cunning. A coalition of Western states spearheading a third Gulf War seems like it would be counterproductive to their goals. Yet, it would be impossible to believe that a few influence agents within ISIS have completely hijacked their propaganda efforts away from the Baathists. Maybe they are getting something in return? One can only speculate. While the first two parts of this article give some solid evidence for the reader to ponder, part three is an extrapolation on the first two articles. We don’t know if Russian intelligence has a hand in ISIS propaganda.
But we should start to wonder.
(Featured image courtesy of independent.co.uk)