Within hours of the Peshawar school massacre, Tehreek-e-Taliban released photos of the nine-member suicide squad that conducted the attack. This so-called last picture, which is a sort of ritual among suicide terrorists, showed beaming young men proudly posing with their weapons. Between the five visible in the picture, each carried a different assault weapon. One had an Austrian Aug Steyr, another the German MP5, a third with a Russian PKM, fourth an RPG and the fifth held the ubiquitous AK-47.

But it turns out that during the attack, this team had used the
AK-47 as their main assault rifle. Combat teams as a rule do not use multiple brands of weapons as it doesn’t make sense to train various members of the team with different weapons. Also, having the same weapon makes the supply chain of ammunition and spares standardized.

More practically, the AK-47 is a preferred weapon because of its ease of use, ruggedness and low cost. Why then did the terrorists pose with an assortment of sophisticated weapons before the attack?

The social media and parts of the hidden Net—known as the dark Web—are awash with videos of brainwashed children talking excitedly about becoming martyrs and avenging the deaths of their cadres. One of them, for instance, shows a cute boy about seven years old talking to a lady about his goal of becoming a martyr to free Kashmir. That conversation, too, would have been cute if it was not a seven-year-old talking about killing himself and others, and his trainer beaming with pride.

Lately, thousands of pictures depicting religious deities in viciously demeaning light have been floating around on the Net. These aren’t just pictures. They are meticulously crafted bombs meant to aggravate, provoke and cause mayhem.

Welcome to Terrorism Web 2.0.

The cover picture of the Peshawar butchers was most probably taken in a propaganda studio where suicide jihadists are given the choice of sophisticated weapons to pose with. After the attack, a propaganda cell disseminates the pictures with its write-up. From boy next door, the murderers are escalated to a martyr’s status with eulogies about their daredevilry and legends built around their heroism. This serves to amplify brisance of the incident and recruit wannabe heroes to the cause.

The video about the child jihadists, live executions, stoning, etc., are shot professionally, often from different camera angles and translated into various languages before being released. The crafted pictures are made leveraging contemporary themes and burning issues. They exploit current angst and anger among polarized communities, and serve as strategically placed and perfectly timed detonators to explode existing fault lines of fear, religion, caste and other seditious issues.

We are in the midst of a full-blown information war, a key characteristic of which is its insidious and undetectable nature. Propaganda as a weapon has always been recognized and leveraged as a force multiplier, especially in wars whose rallying call has centred around religious fervour. Ironically, even the etymological root of the word originates from the Roman Catholic movement of propagating—what ought to be spread. Warring sides have used propaganda to project themselves far beyond their capability and to undermine their adversaries’ will to fight. Mutilation of captured prisoners, leaflets airdropped over enemy territory urging soldiers to surrender, radio broadcasts announcing major victories, spreading falsehood or repugnant information to demoralize the target audience are forms of information warfare that have been in vogue for decades.

But now, with the proliferation of desktop media tools and social media broadcasting capability in the hands of terrorists—information warfare has gone retail. And for most part, unwitting citizens are caught in its crossfire, little realizing that they are being manipulated against each other, or as in the case of the Peshawar bombers, lay a lacquer of heroism over cowardly acts. Unfortunately, this strategy is working because of three reasons.

Humans have always been fascinated by the macabre. Gore, violence and gruesome bloodletting has an inexplicable pull, especially for the younger and more impressionable minds. Sans censoring, which protects exposure in conventional media, social media has become an unrestricted and a dangerous playfield for radicalization and indoctrination. And any move to regulate the Internet comes with its own perils.

Secondly, while the Internet gives ample information, there is little to discern fact from fiction. To paraphrase Mark Twain—lies travel halfway across the world, while the establishment is getting the draft of the truth approved for official release. In that context, Photoshop in the wrong hands is more dangerous than an AK-47.

And lastly, the nimbleness and unfettered rules of engagement of terrorists enable them to run circles around the restrained and rigid mindsets of the establishment. In the age of rapidly evolving technology, this outclasses the latter’s arsenal hopelessly. Let alone being able to procure bleeding edge technology in time frames that keeps them relevant, most government processes do not even allow leveraging skills of young and skilled professionals in any meaningful numbers.

We are fighting future wars with cold-war doctrines, the absurdity of which is exemplified in signboards banning taking pictures of airports—in an era of Google Earth. It’s not that the establishment doesn’t understand this dichotomy; they are simply unable to do anything about it. Until we change these doctrinal building blocks designed for symmetric conflict, the asymmetric combatants will continue to win.

The author is president (Risk, Security and New Ventures) at Reliance Industries Ltd and may be contacted at Captraman@yahoo.com. Views expressed are personal.