A few days ago, American PSYOP publicly announced its involvement in the fight against Daesh in a spectacular way: the rarely-used leaflet bomb. The leaflet dissemination was first reported in USA Today by Tom Vanden Brook, who is known within the community for his often highly critical, but usually salient, reporting on American influence operations. In this case, Mr. Vanden Brook seemed to reserve judgement, although some analysis of the potential efficacy of this product is certainly warranted.
PSYOP is about much more than leaflets and comic books. It is, at its most fundamental, about shaping behaviors. Leaflets can be used in pursuit of this goal, sometimes to great effect, often times not. The surrender leaflets used during Desert Storm are the pinnacle of success for that delivery platform. As anyone comparing those leaflets to today’s can tell, the PSYOP Regiment has come a long way in its visual production capabilities:
The design team on this leaflet did an amazing job. The story it tells is immediate, visually stunning, and compelling. Generally, this leaflet speaks to a fear of death, informing potential male recruits that they will be fed into a meat grinder by nefarious Daesh executioners. There are some more subtle allusions and possible messages at work here, such as undermining the likelihood of glory in combat. Unfortunately, without access to the concept designs or the pre-test data, it is difficult to be certain of any of the more obscure possibilities.
The problem is with the story itself. Before this leaflet reached the design stage, ideally a team of PSYOP personnel invested an untold amount of time in research and analysis, crafting the message so that it would be clear and cogent. But, was it the right story to tell? The concern is that, while a fear of death is a powerful motivator to Western audiences, it carries less weight with the leaflet’s intended audience, who earnestly believe in the afterlife and that the physical realm is just a doorway to paradise.
Every PSYOP product should have an intended behavioral effect associated with it. In this case, the apparent intended effect is a decrease in Daesh recruitment. Assuming this goal, there are likely several other more effective ways to leverage the audience’s beliefs to degrade recruitment.
Are U.S. sources credible to the pool of men Daesh recruits from? If not, should the message come from the mouth of a U.S. fighter jet? How is the audience’s larger community communicating to them? Religious clerics, or ulema, across the Islamic world have spoken out against Daesh, disavowing them, and more specifically accusing them of blasphemy and apostasy. For the Daesh recruit willing to martyr himself to secure eternal bliss, the fear of blasphemy and damnation might prove more frightening than mere death itself. Having that message delivered by a Jordanian or Saudi Arabian fighter would undoubtedly improve the issue of source credibility.
PSYOP troops are too often forced into developing products and actions that meet the demands and expectations of battle-space owners and commanders. This results in a shift in focus away from “What will cause X audience to express Y behavior?” to “What will please my customer?” In adopting this language of business and advertising, we create confusion in our outcomes, having invested in customer-centric approaches instead of target-centric design and development. As long as we continue to improve and maintain a target-centric model, our future efforts against Daesh should prove both effective and measurable.
Salil Puri is a senior consultant with the Culper Group and a charter member of the Psychological Operations Regimental Association. A combat veteran of Afghanistan, Mr. Puri earned a Bachelor’s in history, psychology, Middle-Eastern studies, and government, and a Master’s in security policy. These opinions are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense. Mr. Puri can be reached at [email protected]