In warfare, commanders are trained to capture their theatre’s “ground of tactical importance", or GTI. The textbook definition of GTI is that piece of land, the loss of which renders the defender incapable of fighting the battle. In conventional warfare, GTI is usually a dominating height such as Tiger Hill in Kargil or beachheads in Normandy. Failure to control this “centre of gravity" is a deal-breaker, resulting in certain defeat for the side which loses it.

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Though it took some time for conventional forces to recognize this changing paradigm, the doctrine of “winning hearts and mind" evolved as a necessary weapon to counter insurgency. The change was not easy as most senior commanders were from the old school whose focus was on use of force, intelligence and tools of law enforcement. Leveraging non-kinetic operations such as information warfare or projection of soft power was scoffed upon as “unsoldier-like".

However, this aspect exacerbated in the context of terrorism because here the centre of gravity is perception of key public audiences who are not limited to any geographical location. The metric that has most meaning for terrorists is not the number of people killed or the value of property destroyed. Instead, it is the amount of attention they draw to their attack—and consequently to their identity and ideology. Or in other words, the effectiveness with which terrorists communicate their ideology and strategy to capture public perception, which in the media age means rapid information dissemination.

Until recently, governments could afford to ignore this because they controlled the media which was surrogate of influencing, if not outright controlling, perception. But three tools of the digital revolution changed that dramatically. These were the digital camera, easy-to-use editing software and the new tools of Internet. Unsurprisingly, terrorists groups were quick to recognize the potential of this novel instrument of war. As counterinsurgency expert Thomas Hammes points out—insurgent strategy shifted from military campaigns supported by information operations—to strategic communication campaigns supported by terrorist operations. There are several reasons why communication campaigns have become the centre of gravity with terrorist acts supporting them, rather than the other way round.

The first is fundamental to all conflicts—propagation of an alternative ideology. An ideology does not have to be based on truth to be believed. It just has to be communicated effectively and persuasively in a favourable cultural, socio-economic and political environment. Persecution of minorities, ethnic cleansing, communal and religious conflicts, etc., all leverage this essential principle. The tools of Web 2.0 such as social networking platforms, YouTube and blogs allow powerful and unfettered advocacy of ideology. As early as 2005, key Al Qaeda leaders instructed their cohorts to capture the hearts and minds of the masses and commended the “mujahideen of the information front line" recognizing that their efforts—sound, video and text—were more lethal than rockets and missiles. In July 2007, The Economist noted that the handheld video camera had become as important a tool for insurgency as the AK-47. The terrorist communication process has now evolved to a point where they control the entire production and distribution and can target multiple audiences with precise messaging in multiple languages.

The second reason is that terrorists can use the Web 2.0 with complete impunity and safety. In September 2004, a terrorist group in Iraq beheaded three Western hostages and posted the video on websites and blogs. In a chilling sequel in January 2007, a similar plot to kidnap and behead a hostage live on a webcast was disrupted in the UK. As Aidan Winn of Kings College points out, the nature of this plot was very different from previous attacks causing mass casualties. It is believed that as improved security measures and better intelligence thwart large-scale attacks, terrorists will resort to macabre acts such as beheadings and leverage their publicity as the new weapon of terror.

Terrorist organizations have elevated their communication strategy beyond one-way information. In 2008 Ayman al-Zawahiri responded to several hundred questions posted by the public in a video. The Web allowed a terrorist leader on the run—to interact with millions of his target audience.

Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message" is reinforced in the current scenario where the centre of gravity is rapidly shifting from physical space into the minds of stakeholders. The response of nation states trying to ban dissemination of such content is ineffectual and counterproductive. Democracies have particular challenges in developing counterterrorist strategies without seeming draconian themselves. However, as James Forest, former faculty at the US Military Academy advocates, an approach could be to develop strategies that highlight the inherent contradictions, hypocrisies and internal divisions of terrorist groups and help terrorists defeat themselves rather than trying to defeat them. But to do that, we must stop trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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